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Aristide is no Mandela

For two months now, groups describing themselves as Lavalas Party members and partisans of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide have been wreaking havoc in a still fragile country. These ”militants” have been burning houses, killing innocent people, ransacking market stalls and richer businesses. They mostly operate in hit-and-run actions from their base in the slum parts of Haiti’s capital, making the people living in these poor neighbourhoods the real victims of this terror campaign.

Several policemen have been decapitated in macabre imitation of Iraqi terrorists in recent days. It is as yet legally difficult to prove the role the former president is playing in these acts from his haven in South Africa. Nonetheless, it is a fact that money and arms have been fuelling these actions. Just a few weeks ago, a Haitian-Canadian citizen entering Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture airport was apprehended with $800 000 in his luggage. According to the local media, the money was to be channelled to gang leaders, loyal to Aristide, who have publicly been threatening a bloodbath.

In the light of these developments, it is hard to understand why President Thabo Mbeki seems to be willing to go out of his way to revive Aristide’s long lost legitimacy. I hope with this article to help bring the truth about Aristide to South Africans.

For those who know him, the chain of violence that has marred Haiti reflects Aristide’s leadership style and his documented recklessness. During his 13 years in power, Aristide kept his street habit of confrontation and provocation, incongruous as it was for an elected official. As president, he has not been able to accept the role changes that come with the responsibilities of being president of all Haitians. He was a stubborn grassroots activist and stayed so throughout his tenure. Democracy was never on his agenda.

It has been nine months since he was forced out of office. Yes, forced to leave, not kidnapped as he pretended.

He was forced out as a result of:

  • his errors of judgement in making decisions as a chief of state;

  • his blindness in assessing the consistent decline in his popularity;

  • his isolation from the key political sectors and actors that made up the movement that supported his initial quest for power in 1990;

  • his apparent overconfidence in the loyalty and efficacy of his foreign backers and his sabotage of all goodwill initiatives to bring an end to the crisis in a non-violent manner; and

  • his failure to respond to the desperate calls for change in his handling of the country by his people, and his local and international allies.

    The sad truth for the millions of Haitians who had placed their destiny in the hands of Father Aristide in 1990 and again in 1994 is that he left a legacy of lies, intolerance, corruption, nepotism and conspiracy to eliminate his rivals and detractors.

    We have been hearing loud cries of outrage from some of the black ”elite” in the United States, South Africa and the Caribbean about a ”kidnapping”. Let’s be serious!

    If there was a coup, it was a coup against the people of Haiti who, again after 10 long years, were deprived of their long-overdue victory.

    When Aristide was chosen as the compromise candidate, at the height of the democratic battle 14 years ago, everybody thought that as a priest from the Salesian Fathers, he would never conspire for power. But soon the movement was damaged as Aristide presented himself as the sole repository of this vast movement. Imagine Nelson Mandela pretending to be the only victor against apartheid!

    Aristide made it his priority to destroy all democratic institutions in Haiti. Together with his hand-picked seat holder, René Préval, they institutionalised gang control in the slums and used these gang members, known as chimères, to terrorise any dissenting voices.

    Aristide’s followers were placed at the helm of all state enterprises and systematically plundered them on his behalf. Between 2001 and 2003, more than 60% of the national Budget went exclusively to the National Palace.

    The implication of the Aristide regime in the flourishing drug traffic is not to be denied. Several of his closest collaborators have been indicted on drug trafficking charges in Florida. They include Oriel Jean, Aristide’s security chief; Jean Nesly Lucien, his hand-picked police chief; Evantz Brillant, chief of Haiti’s anti-drug squad; Rudy Therassan, chief of investigation; Romaine Lestin, a former Haitian SWAT commander; and Jean-Marie Fourel Celestin, Aristide’s close friend and founding member of his Lavalas Party appointed Senate president after the 2000 elections.

    This seems too many to be another ”Western imperialist conspiracy”.

    In his July 23 article in ANC Today, Mbeki described, with great poetic licence, how slum inhabitants in Haiti marched on the occasion of Aristide’s birthday on July 15, ”singing happy birthday Titid, with empty plates and spoons”. As not all residents of Soweto are alike and defend the same cause, not all Cité Soleil residents are Titid’s supporters. Actually, the majority of them are victims of daily extortion and aggression from gang members who claim to be acting in Aristide’s name.

    Large parts of Cité Soleil, Village de Dieu and Bel Air, the largest slums in Port-au-Prince, are empty today. Residents are leaving in throngs, fleeing the Lavalas terror.

    No, Mbeki’s guest of honour is no Mandela nor a Toussaint Louverture. The conditions of Aristide’s political demise, as open to discussion as they may be, do not make him a hero.

    What Mbeki must realise is that the situation of my country is much too precarious and complex for South Africa to become the centre of a political polemic with Haiti.

    Contrary to what Mbeki is insinuating about those who fought Aristide and his rule, I, like many of my countrymen, don’t think that the present ”occupation” of my country is acceptable. I don’t believe in the resurrection of the former Haitian army, either. I don’t think that the so-called rebels Mbeki denounced in his article are freedom fighters. And I condemn witch-hunts and arbitrary arrests.

    In line with his predecessors, Duvalier, Cedras and René Préval, Aristide is just another painful parenthesis in the long struggle of the Haitian people against those with short memories and inconsiderate ambitions who have tried to take advantage of them. They, and the civil society, are the true inheritors of Toussaint Louverture’s legacy.

    My friends, I urge you not to let disinformation separate you from your Haitian brothers who need you to stand with them for peace, democracy and justice.

    Raoul Peck is the prize-winning writer and director of Lumumba. He served as Haiti’s culture minister from 1996 to 1997. He received the 2001 Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award from Human Rights Watch. He has just completed Sometimes in April, a film on the Rwandan genocide

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