The pending return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from exile is the latest obstacle in Haiti’s path toward creating a legitimate, credible government through the ballot box. Given Mr. Aristide’s controversial background and the role he played in taking Haiti to the brink of chaos during a term cut short by rebellion seven years ago, allowing his return at this critical juncture represents a huge risk with unforeseeable consequences.
Outgoing President René Preval, once Mr. Aristide’s loyal prime minister and current Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive seem to be going out of their way to make the electoral process more uncertain. First, they allowed exiled despot Jean-Claude Duvalier to suddenly reappear, as if by magic, after 25 years of golden exile in France. No credible explanation has yet been offered for his sudden return, an ominous development for Haitians who recall the Duvalier era as a time of unrelieved misery.
Now Mr. Aristide’s reemergence just before voters pick a new president in the delayed presidential runoff scheduled for March 20 presents Haiti with a more serious threat to its fragile stability.
Mr. Aristide no doubt maintains a loyal following in the country, but he is a polarizing figure who inspires both love and fear. His populist rhetoric creates unfounded hopes for a better Haiti among the poor, but his record is one of divisiveness and undelivered promises. Given his history, it’s hard to put much stock in claims that he does not seek a political role.
Have Messrs. Préval and Bellerive forgotten that Mr. Aristide’s last term in office ended in chaos? That Haiti barely dodged a civil war only because he was removed from the scene in the nick of time? That it took months of perseverance and dangerous work by U.N. troops, generously supported by the largesse of the international community, to rid the streets of thugs and criminals after he fled the palace in February, 2004?
Thanks to those soldiers, still present today, Haiti’s streets and rural areas remain relatively free of crime and lawlessness, but protests that erupted last week offer stark evidence that security remains a problem. Mr. Aristide’s presence wouldn’t help. A U.S. State Department spokesman underlined the fears of the international community, saying Mr. Aristide’s return “would prove to be an unfortunate distraction to the people of Haiti.”
In a Feb. 10 letter to The Miami Herald, Prime Minister Bellerive said there was no legal or constitutional obstacle to the former president’s return if he would only request a passport, which has now been issued. This cavalier disregard for Mr. Aristide’s past and the trouble he caused is an insult to all those who have labored for years to create a new Haiti that can give its people the hope of genuine progress. He represents Haiti’s turbulent past, not its future.
Haitian authorities are either naïve or disingenuous, or both, if they see Mr. Aristide as just another citizen who wants to come back to his native country. Nor does the legal explanation account for the conspicuously bad timing, just weeks before an election that is supposed to create a legitimate government that allows Haiti to move forward. His return, coming on the heels of Mr. Duvalier’s unannounced arrival in the country and following a series of missteps and controversies involving the electoral commission, suggests that there is a deliberate effort under way to sabotage the elections.
Haiti’s leaders should be under no illusions: Any action that leads to a delay or postponement of the March 20 runoff could well lead to second thoughts by foreign donors about the wisdom of investing further in a country whose leaders are too preoccupied with political infighting and protecting their own self interest to look after Haiti’s wellbeing.
Haiti needs the international community, but the country’s leaders need to show a greater level of political maturity or risk losing support from abroad. The best way to offer reassurance is to put an end to the political gamesmanship and concentrate on measures to unite the country and offer a better vision of tomorrow. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is not part of that scenario.