Haitian poor embrace call for return of exiled Aristide
By Jonathan M. Katz
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti’s president has lowered rice prices and the Senate has sacked the prime minister. But hungry Haitians who rioted over food prices still want more.
"Aristide or death! Aristide or death!" young men in sunglasses and low-slung ballcaps chant outside parliament.
That’s right, Jean-Bertrand Aristide — the slum priest-turned-president who needed a U.S. intervention to restore him to power in 1994, and who accuses Washington of kidnapping him into exile a decade later as the country descended into political chaos.
The clamor for Aristide’s return was deafening during last week’s unrest over skyrocketing food prices that left at least seven people dead, hundreds injured and Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis out of a job. Some protesters vowed to press on until they unseat President Rene Preval, a former Aristide ally.
Experts say it is unlikely that Aristide engineered the protests from exile in South Africa. But people living in Port-au-Prince slums say workers for a prominent Aristide loyalist went door-to-door drumming up support for the peaceful protests, some of which spiraled into violence as criminal gangs seized the opportunity to loot stores.
Either way, Aristide’s return has become a key demand on the streets after entire slums rallied for the former president and protesters carried tree branches they said signified their support for his Famni Lavalas party.
"If there were an election in Haiti, Aristide would win," said Mario Jeanty, a Haitian who lives in New York. "There’s no one who can beat him."
Aristide’s smiling, bespectacled face is everywhere in the poor areas of Port-au-Prince, from paintings sold on roadsides to photographs pasted onto cell phones. Blocks from the presidential palace, graffiti declares: "King Aristide will return" and "Down with Preval, long live Aristide."
"Whether or not one likes Aristide, he remains a force in this country because the masses remain very attached to him," said Patrick Elie, who has served as an adviser to both Aristide and now Preval.
In speeches from South Africa, Aristide has hinted at returning, but said he merely wants to be a teacher. He has said his possibilities depend on Preval, who served as his prime minister.
Preval won the 2006 elections with the support of voters who believed he would bring Aristide home. But he has not called publicly for Aristide’s return, and the men’s current relationship is unclear.
Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in Miami, said the fact that Aristide hasn’t made a statement on the food crisis could be a tacit indication of support for Preval.
"Once, Aristide called Preval his twin brother," Lafortune said. "We don’t know if that sentiment has changed."
Aristide generally keeps a low profile, living with his wife Mildred and their two daughters in a government villa in Pretoria, a garden city of government headquarters and embassy residences.
South African officials say he spends his time researching Caribbean history and studying Zulu, a local language. He penned a comparative linguistic study of Zulu and Haitian Creole, as well as a paper on the theology of love.
A miraculous Aristide comeback would not be unprecedented. Aristide became popular as a priest in the slum of La Saline, and was elected president in 1990. Ousted in a military coup the following year, U.S. troops restored him to the presidential palace in 1994.
After stepping down, he was re-elected in 2000 but was ousted again in a bloody 2004 rebellion amid charges that he broke promises to help the poor, allowed drug-fueled corruption and masterminded assaults on opponents.
Some of Aristide’s current support can be attributed to nostalgia for a past in which life, while difficult in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, was easier than today.
"When Aristide was around we found food, we had jobs," said Manouchak Louis, who is 21 and unemployed. "If he comes back the country will change."