Why Aristide Shouldn't Be Allowed Into Haiti

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Former President Aristide

What's remarkable about the statement former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide issued from exile this week is the benign self-image it tries to convey. Aristide, who has been living in South Africa since being forced out of Haiti during his second presidency in 2004, says he wants to come home to "contribute to serving my Haitian sisters and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education." So, he's really just "Father Titid," folks, the kindly former Roman Catholic priest.

It would be humorous if it weren't so disingenuous. It's highly doubtful Aristide could accept being a "simple" anything if he were allowed to return to Haiti. In fact, here's the most likely scenario: After touching down in Port-au-Prince, he'd be met by an adoring throng shouting "Titid!" and paraded through the streets in messianic fashion before declaring his desire to be President of Haiti again, because that's obviously what the people want. In the process, Aristide's presence would be just as disruptive to Haiti's recovery process as that of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the former dictator who somehow showed up in Haiti this week after 25 years in exile himself.

But if Baby Doc can be let back into Haiti, Aristide and his supporters insist, then so should Titid. Wrong. Duvalier shouldn't have been let in, either. In fact, the French government should be read the riot act at the U.N. for even letting Baby Doc travel into the western hemisphere at a time when Haiti is trying to dig out of an earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people last year, stem a cholera epidemic and resolve a presidential election crisis. It turns out Duvalier probably came to Haiti for financial rather than political reasons: having squandered most of the hundreds of millions of dollars that he allegedly robbed from the country during his 1971-1986 dictatorship, he may have hoped to prove the Haitian government wouldn't prosecute him while he was on Haitian soil, and he could as a result collect some $6 million of his remaining assets that Swiss banking authorities had frozen.

But Haitian officials did charge Duvalier with embezzlement this week, foiling his plans. Yet, while that's a good thing, prosecuting Baby Doc — who, like his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971, is also accused of gross brutality and human rights violations — will open still festering wounds that Haitians can barely deal with right now. A return by Aristide would only compound that tension — because Titid left his own dark legacy in the western hemisphere's most impoverished and dysfunctional nation.

It's not that Aristide, a left-wing populist, was a monstrous tyrant like the right-wing Duvaliers. He was a democratically-elected president, in 1990 and again in 2000, and his governments were focused on the poor. His first presidency was interrupted in 1991 by a military coup until U.S. G.I.s restored him to power in 1994. Nonetheless, Aristide was an increasingly erratic demagogue and, many feared, an aspiring despot. His Lavalas Party won the Haitian parliament in a 2000 election marred by fraud. Worse, Aristide started to rely on street enforcers, thugs like the Cannibal Army and the Chimères (Mythical Monsters). They never wreaked the same terror as the Tonton Macoutes, the Duvaliers' secret police, but they performed their share of arson and murder, threatening to turn the skulls of Aristide rivals "into inkwells" or shouting, "Rat pa kaka!" (Not even rats sh-- here without our permission!)

Amidst it all, Aristide played the sanctimonious mystic. When I interviewed him in 2001, he spoke of vague "dialectical movements" and took almost paranoid offense at any question that challenged his self-righteous self-image as a martyr persecuted by Washington and other fascist forces. Granted, the Administration of George W. Bush didn't help things by freezing $500 million in aid for Haiti because of the parliamentary fraud. But by 2004, even many poor Haitians saw Titid, once their hope, as just another corrupt and incompetent autocrat. Facing a conservative uprising against him, the Chimères went on a rampage that killed scores of Haitians before Aristide flew out of the country to Africa as rebel soldiers (many of their leaders Duvalierists) entered the capital.

Aristide, 57, has long since insisted that he was forced out by a U.S.-backed coup. But while the U.S. may have performed less than admirably during his overthrow, Haiti 2004 was hardly Chile 1973 or Guatemala 1954, instances when Washington really did engineer coups in Latin America. Perhaps down the road, when Haiti is back on its physical and political feet, the Haitian government should issue Aristide a passport and let him come home to be a simple citizen. But right now, like Baby Doc, Titid would just be another troublesome piece of rubble the country needs to shovel away before it can rebuild itself.