Former president of Haiti Talks with Filmmaker Nicolas Rossier
From his home-in-exile in the hills of Johannesburg, South Africa, former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide sat down for an exclusive, wide-ranging two-hour interview with filmmaker Nicolas Rossier in Ocober. Aristide has been living in South Africa since he was removed in a US-backed coup d’etat in 2004. He insists he was kidnapped by members of the United States embassy in Port-au-Prince who forced him to resign at gunpoint; embassy officials claimed he resigned of his own free will. Aristide remains the national leader of his political party, Fanmi Lavalas but is not allowed to travel out of South Africa. His passport has expired and a new one will have to be provided by the Haitian government which is yet to do so. In the following interview, Aristide talks about the geo-political logical fallacy that keeps him in a state of limbo and blocks his party from participating in Haiti’s elections. The following excerpt of the interview is published with the kind permission of Nicolas Rossier.
Mr President Aristide, thank you for having me today. My first question is about the earthquake that took place in Haiti in January of 2010. Can you tell me how and when you learned about the tragedy? It was morning here. I was at Witwatersrand University here in Johannesburg to work in the lab of the Faculty of Medicine for Linguistics and Neuroanatomy. I realised that it was a disaster in Haiti. It was not easy to believe what I was watching. We lost about 300,000 people, and in terms of the buildings, they said that about 39% of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, including 50 hospitals and about 1,350 schools.Up until today they have cleared only about 2% of these 25 million cubic meters of rubble and debris. So this was a real disaster. We could not imagine that Haiti, already facing so many problems, would now face such a disaster. Unfortunately this is the reality. I was ready to go back to help my people, just as I am ready to leave right now if they allow me to be there to help. Close to 1.8 million victims are living in the street homeless. So this is a tragedy.Your former colleague, the current President René Préval, was highly criticised after the earthquake for being absent.
Overall, he was judged as not having shown enough leadership. Do you think that’s a fair criticism? I believe that January 12, 2010 was a very bad time for the government and for the Haitian people. To have leadership, yes it was necessary, overall, to be present in a time of disaster like this one. But to criticize when you aren’t doing any better is cynical. Most of those who were criticizing him sent soldiers to protect their own geopolitical interests, not to protect the people. They seized the airport for their own interests, instead of protecting the victims – so for me there should be some balance.
Can you give us your thoughts on the recent cholera epidemic? As for this recent incident of cholera, whether or not it was imported – as the evidence strongly suggests – it’s critical. First, those who organized the coup d’état/kidnapping of 2004, paving the way for the invaders now accused as having caused the recent outbreak of cholera, must also share the blame. Second, the root causes, and what facilitated the deadly spread of the disease are structural, embedded in Haiti’s historical impoverishment, marginalization and economic exploitation. The country’s once thriving rice industry – destroyed by the subsidised US rice industry in the 1980s – was in the Artibonite, the epicenter of the cholera outbreak. The near destruction of our rice industry coupled with the systematic and cruel elimination of the Haitian pigs rendered the region and the country poorer.
Third, in 2003 our government had already paid the fees on an approved loan from the InterAmerican Development Bank to implement a water sanitization project in the Artibonite. As you can remember, that loan and four others were blocked as part of a calculated strategy by the so-called friends of Haiti to weaken our government and justify the coup d’état.Many observers in Haiti and elsewhere keep asking me the same question, which is this: what are you doing here and what prevents you from coming back to your own country? The Haitian constitution does not allow political exile. You have not been convicted of anything, so what prevents you from going back? You are a Haitian citizen and should be allowed to move freely.When I look at it from the South African perspective, I don’t find the real reasons. But if I try to understand it from the Haitian perspective, I think that I see the picture. The picture is that in Haiti, we have the same people who organized the invasion of 2004 after kidnapping me to put me in Africa. They are still there.
That means there is a kind of neo-colonial occupation of 8,900 UN soldiers with 4,400 policemen spending, more or less, fifty-one million US dollars a month in a country where 70% of the population lives with less than a dollar a day. In other words it’s a paradise for the occupiers. First we had the colonization of Haiti and now we have a kind of neo-colonial occupation of Haiti. In my view, they don’t want me back because they still want to occupy Haiti.
You have said that you do not intend to become involved in politics, but rather return as a citizen. Is that your vision? Yes, and I said it because this is what I was doing before being elected in 1990. I was teaching and now I have more to offer based on my research in linguistics and neurolinguistics, which is research on how the brain processes language. I have made a humble contribution in a country where once we had only 34 secondary schools when I was elected in 1990, and before the coup of 2004 we had 138 public secondary schools. Unfortunately the earthquake destroyed most of them.
Why are they so afraid? It’s irrational. Sometimes people who want to understand Haiti from a political perspective may be missing part of the picture. They also need to look at Haiti from a psychological perspective. Most of the elite suffer from psychogenic amnesia. That means it’s not organic amnesia, such as damage caused by brain injury. It’s just a matter of psychology. So this pathology, this fear, has to do with psychology, and as long as we don’t have that national dialogue where fear would disappear, they may continue to show fear where there is no reason to be afraid.
What has to be done for you to be able to return to Haiti? What do you intend to do to make that happen? It’s been six years now. It must be very tough for you not to be able to return with your family. You must feel very homesick. There is a Swahili proverb which says: “Mapenzi ni kikohozi, hayawezi kufichika” – or “love is like cough that you cannot hide.”I love my people and my country, and I cannot hide it, and because of that love, I am ready to leave right now. I cannot hide it. What is preventing me from leaving, as I said earlier, if I look from South Africa, I don’t know.
But when you ask the question to the people responsible here, they say they don’t know. Well (pause) I am grateful to South Africa, and I will always be grateful to South Africa and Africa as our mother continent. But I think something could be done in addition to what has been done in order to move faster towards the return, and that is why, as far as I am concerned, I say, and continue to say that I am ready. I am not even asking for any kind of logistical help because friends could come here and help me reach my country in two days. So I did all that I could.
Are they afraid of your political influence – afraid that you can effect change? Yes, and I will encourage those who want to be logical (laughs), not to fear the people, because when they say they fear me, basically it’s not me. It’s the people, in a sense that they fear the votes of the people. They fear the voice of the people and that fear is psychologically linked to a kind of social pathology. It’s an apartheid society, unfortunately, because racism can be behind these motivations.I can fear you, not for good reasons, but because I hate you and I cannot say that I hate you. You see? So we need a society rooted in equality. We are all equal, rich and poor and we need a society where the people enjoy their rights. But once you speak this way, it becomes a good reason for you to be pushed out of the country or to be kidnapped as I was (laughs). But there is no way out without that dialogue and mutual respect. This is the way out.
In your view, what is the last element missing for you to go back? You said there was one more thing they could do for you do go back. Can you tell us that?
They just need to be reasonable. The minute they decide to be reasonable, the return will happen right away.
So it’s not a political decision in Washington? It’s between the Haitian government and the South African government?
As a matter of fact, I don’t have a passport because it is expired. I have the right to a diplomatic passport. By sending me a normal diplomatic passport there would be a clear signal of their will to respect the constitution.
But it’s the Haitian government that has to do that?
Or they could just renew your Haitian passport?
Looking back at the dramatic events that lead to your overthrow in 2004, is there anything in hindsight that you wished you had not done? Anything tactically or strategically that you wish you had done differently and that could have prevented the coup?
If I could describe the reality from that day in 2004 to today, you would allow me to use the Hebrew phrase again (speaks in Hebrew), which means “from bad to worse”. That is how it has been from 2004 to today. When we look at that coup d’état, which was a kidnapping, I was calling for dialogue and they manipulated a small minority of Haitians to play the game of moving from coup d’état to coup d’état, instead of moving to free and fair democratic elections. The first time Haiti had free and fair democratic elections was 1990, when I was elected. Then we wanted to move from elections to elections. So in 2004, we were moving towards a real democracy and they said no. The minority in Haiti – the political and economic elite – is afraid of free and fair elections, and their foreign allies don’t want an election in Haiti. That is why they excluded Famni Lavalas. As long as they refuse to respect the right of every citizen to participate in free and fair democratic elections, they will not fix the problem.
That is an interesting answer, but I was more thinking of strategic mistakes you made such as asking France to pay reparation in 2003. In doing that, you lost a natural ally that could have stood with you before the coup and within the United Nations Security Council to protect your government. In fact, France stood with the US and did not come to your rescue this time, probably because they were very upset by your demand for restitution.
I don’t think this is the case. The first time I met with French President Jacques Chirac, I was in Mexico. At that time he was with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. I invited them to join us to celebrate freedom as a universal value. So that was an opportunity for France to realize that yes, Haiti and France can stand up together to celebrate freedom as a universal value.
In 1789, when France had their revolution, they declared “liberty, equality, fraternity” for all people, but in the back of their minds slaves were not human beings. To them neither Haitian nor African slaves were human. We fought hard and we got our independence; it was not a gift. It was the blood of our forefathers that was shed to gain our freedom. Despite that, we did not want to celebrate our 200 years of independence with any kind of spirit of vengeance, nor a spirit of glory to remind France of what they had done. It wasn’t that. It was an invitation to celebrate freedom as a universal value. So that would give a wonderful opportunity for France if they wanted to do it together. That would not exclude the truth because the truth is they obliged Haiti to pay 90 million francs, which for us today, is more than 21 billion USD. This is restitution, not reparation.
In 2001, here in Durban South Africa, the UN gave the Haitians and French an opportunity to address this issue of reparation. The French refused, but we respectfully asked them to let us have an opportunity to address this issue in a mutually respectful way. In one word – if today I were the President of Haiti, as I was in 2004, I would ask France to join Haiti to celebrate freedom, but also to address this issue of 21 billion USD. As a matter of fact, a head of state elected by his people must respect the will of the people. When President Sarkozy went to Haiti after the earthquake, Haitians were not begging for cents, they were asking for the 21 billion USD because it is a question of dignity. Either we have dignity or we don’t, and Haitians have dignity. That means we respect your dignity, so you should also respect our dignity. We will not beg for cents. Cents will never solve the problems of Haiti. After 200 years of independence, we are still living in abject poverty. We still have what we had 200 years ago in terms of misery. It is not fair. So if we want to move from misery to poverty with dignity, France must address this issue with Haitians and see what kind of agreement will come out from this important issue..
Now here is a practical question. How do you want to deal with the Lavalas party in Haiti? You are still the national leader of Lavalas. Don’t you think that it would be a better idea to transfer the leadership to someone in Haiti? Would that not be a better long-term strategy, rather than hanging on to the title of party leader? After all, that’s one of the pretexts used to not allow Lavalas to participate in the past elections and the future of Haiti as well?
If we respect the will of the people, then we must pay attention to what they are saying. I am here, but they are making the decisions. If today they decide they have to go that way, then you have to respect their will. That means I am not the one preventing them from moving on with a congress and having another leader and so on. As a matter of fact I am not acting as national leader outside of Haiti, not at all. I don’t pretend to be able to do that and I don’t want to do that. I know it would not be good for the people to do something like that.
They have said that it is a question of principle. First, they want my return, and then they can organize a congress to elect a new leader and move ahead. I respect that. If today they want to change it, I will respect their will. That is democracy.
What is behind the national picture is a logical fallacy. It’s a logical fallacy when, for instance, they pretend they have to exclude Lavalas to solve the problem. To not have Lavalas in an election, because it’s a selection, it’s a logical fallacy.
Before I said ”Post hoc ergo propter hoc” or “after this, therefore because of this” and now I can say “Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc,” – “With this therefore because of this.” It’s a logical fallacy as well. They would not solve the problem without the majority of the people. They have to include them in a free and fair democratic election with my return or before my return or after my return. The inclusion of the people is indispensable to be logical and to move towards a better Haiti. That’s the solution.
So practically, if you were to say today that you would endorse Maryse Narcisse as the national leader they would accept Lavalas candidates?
Last year I received a letter from the Provisional Electoral Council, by the way, a council that was selected by the president, which is why they do what he wants. Excluding Lavalas was the implementation of the will of the government of Haiti.
I received a letter from them inviting me to a meeting and I said to myself, “Oh that is good. I am ready. I will go.” Then they said in the letter, “If you cannot come, will you send someone on your behalf?” So I said okay and I replied in a letter which became public, asking Dr. Maryse Narcisse to represent Lavalas and to present the candidates of Lavalas based on the letter I received from the CEP. But they denied it because the game was to send the letter to me and assume that I would not answer. Then they could tell the Haitian people, “Look he does not want to participate in the election.” So they were using a pretext to pretend that they are intelligent, but in reality to hide the truth.
Did they not claim it was false at some point, or that it was not your signature?
They claimed that the mandate from me should have been validated by the Haitian consulate in South Africa, when they know that there is no representative of the Haitian government in South Africa, you see.
The night of the coup. You spoke about it already and at the time you said to me that you were writing a book about it. Is that still in the works?
The book has been finished since 2004.
Ready to be published?
It was ready to be published and it would be published if I were allowed to do that.
What is known is the letter in Kreyol that you signed and was according to you mistranslated.
Of course it was mistranslated.
Right, but you also you clearly stated that you were forced at gunpoint and that’s public knowledge.
It is, but if I don’t elaborate, it’s not because I want to give an evasive answer. It’s just based on what I said to you before.
Would you be in favor of creating a Haitian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to what South Africa did, that would allow some of the people who have been exiled under Duvalier and Cedras and your two presidencies to come back and be called to appear in that commission – and ask for forgiveness and amnesty if needed?
What I will say now, is not because I am now outside Haiti wanting to go back that I will say it. No, I already said it and I will just repeat it: There is no way to move forward in Haiti without dialogue. Dialogue among Haitians. Once we had an army of 7,000 soldiers controlling 40% of the national budget, but moving from coup d’état to coup d’état. I said no. Let’s disband the army, let’s have a police force to protect the right of every citizen, let’s have dialogue to address our differences. There is no democracy without opposition.
We have to understand one another when we oppose each other. We are not enemies, so we have to address our differences in a democratic way and only then can we move ahead. I have said it so many times already. We still have people calling themselves friends of Haiti coming to exploit the resources. They don’t want national dialogue. They don’t want Haitians to live peacefully with Haitians.
South Africa did it when they had The Commission of Truth and Reconciliation. People came and realized that they had made mistakes. Everybody can make mistakes. You must acknowledge that you made mistakes, and the society will welcome you. If you cannot do that through tribunals because of the numbers, then find a way to address it. We cannot pretend that Haiti will have a better future without that dialogue. We must have it.
In 1994, when I went back to Haiti from exile, we established a Commission for Truth and Justice and Reconciliation. I passed the documents to the next government, and I never heard about it again. Haitians never heard about it because the government wanted to move fast towards privatization of state enterprises instead of that path which was recommended.
Do you hold a grudge today against President René Préval for not being more forceful in trying to facilitate your return to Haiti? He owes his election thanks to the Lavalas base.
If I pay attention to what the people are saying, they describe President Préval as someone who betrayed me and it’s true. They voted for him. I did not vote, I was here, but those who elected him now realize he has failed them. He betrayed them. He is playing in the hands of those who are against the interests of the people – that is what they said.
I remember a famous progressive journalist in Geneva reviewing my film (“Aristide and the Endless Revolution”) and one of the criticisms he had was that I did not speak about voodoo and how it affects Haiti’s politics. What do you think of this tendency among many western journalists who try to explain Voodoo as one main reason for Haiti’s problems?
I enjoy drawing parallels between voodoo and politics. Why? Because in the west when they want to address political issues, they may, as you suggested or indicated, mix it with voodoo as a way to avoid going straight to the truth. The truth could be, for instance, historical.
Fourteen years after Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti, in 1492, they had already killed three million indigenous people. Do they speak about it today? Do they know about it? I don’t know. At that time, one could be 14 years old and would have to pay a quarter of gold to Christopher Columbus or they would cut your arm or feet or ears. Do they talk about it? If you do, it’s like “oh really or maybe.” They have problems exposing the truth, acknowledging what was going on at that time. And if you look at the reality of today, it is almost the same thing.
Last week there was some trouble because of storms and earthquakes and Haiti lost about ten people, some say five some say more than ten. In any case, even if it were one person, it would already mean a lot for us because a human being is a human being. Instead of focusing on what is the reality of misery, abject poverty, occupation, colonization, some prefer to find a scapegoat through voodoo. The UN itself had to expel 114 soldiers for rape and child abuse. So we see people invading a country, pretending to help, while they are actually involved in rape, child abuse and so on. And it is not an issue for people who like to talk about voodoo as if voodoo by itself could cover this reality. The same way they don’t want to face our historical drama linked to colonization.
Is it a racist distraction?
It is, it is. I respect religion and will respect any religion. Africans had their religion here. They went to Haiti and continued their practice and I have to respect that. In addition, the Haitian constitution, respects freedom of religion. So let’s address the drama, misery, poverty, exploitation, occupation, and people without the right to vote or eat. People want to be free. They don’t have self-determination. Let’s focus on people who have no resources and are dying. We had such a wonderful solidarity after January 12 in the world, where citizens worldwide were building solidarity with Haitians. That was great to see Whites and Blacks crossing barriers of colour to express their solidarity with the victims of the deadly earthquake.
And on behalf of the Haitian people, if I may, I will say thank you to all those true friends who did it while others who call themselves true friends of Haiti preferred to send soldiers with weapons to protect their own interests instead of protecting human beings who were really suffering. Amputations – we had them by the thousands without anesthesia. They were cutting hands and feet of victims and it’s not an issue for some people who prefer to talk about voodoo as if voodoo could be the cause of what is going on in Haiti. No, what is going on in Haiti is rooted in colonialism, neo-colonialism in that neoliberal policy applied and imposed upon Haiti, not in religious issues like voodoo. For me, as long as they don’t try to face the reality as it is, they may continue to use issues like voodoo to hide facts, any attempt to replace truth by racist distractions will fail.
Anything that you would like to add that you have at heart and have not been able to tell?
Well … if you ask a Zulu* person the way to reach somewhere while you are on the right path, that person will tell you (in Zulu): “Ugonde ngqo ngalo mgwago” which means go straight on your way.
That is why the Haitian people who are moving from misery to poverty with dignity should continue to move straight towards that goal. If we lose our dignity we lose everything. We are poor – worse than poor because we are living in abject poverty and misery. But based on that collective dignity rooted in our forefathers, I do believe we have to continue fighting in a peaceful way for our self-determination, and if we do that, history will pay tribute to our generation, because we are on the right path.
Mr. President, thank you for your time.
Nicolas Rossier is an award-winning independent filmmaker and reporter who lives in Brooklyn New York. In 2005, he directed and produced the outstanding 85-minute documentary, Aristide and the Endless Revolution.