Activist and writer, Laura Flynn is on the board of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy. She traveled to Haiti to welcome back President and Mrs Aristide after seven years in exile. Here she writes of her experience of the homecoming.
Two weeks ago, on the morning of March 18, I was in Haiti to witness the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice democratically elected, former president, who was coming home after seven years in exile in South Africa. I waited in the courtyard of his home in Tabarre, along with friends and supporters mostly Haitian, a few foreigners like myself who had come to celebrate. When word came that the plane had landed, a hush fell among us.
Twenty minutes or so later, Aristide’s voice came over the radio; the country fell silent. I leaned into the open window of friend’s car to listen. In Les Cayes, and Cap Haitian, in Gonaives, and Petit Goaves, in Jeremie people who’d gathered in the streets to celebrate the return stopped and held up their radios. Tout moun Fremi, said my friend Jorge later, shaking with emotion as they heard Aristide’s voice come over the radio from Haitian soil for the first time in seven years. Haitian TV later showed scenes of young people, market women, people in tent camps, crying as they listened.
“My sisters and brothers,” Aristide said, “you would have to put your hand on my heart to feel how fast and strongly it is beating right now.”
In fact, the emotion was clear in his voice, the relief, the joy, the warmth, as he sent greetings out to his people. The country breathed a collective sigh of relief; the weight of a seven-year stone lifted. The plane had landed safely, Aristide was on Haitian soil, and he had not changed. “When you hear Aristide’s voice on the radio,” someone once told me, “it is like he’s pouring honey in your ear.”
After the earthquake, after the cholera, after the November 28th elections, which made a mockery of democracy, after the unimaginable suffering the Haitian people have endured this last most terrible year of Haitian history, a little honey in the ear was desperately needed.
“Since the earthquake,” Aristide said, “Since the goudougoudou (an onomatopoeic Creole term for the earthquake), I’ve felt that if I could, I would transform the chambers of my heart into the chambers of a house, where each victim would find a home and no longer have to sleep in the streets, in the mud, under these torn and tattered, scraps of plastic, sheets, or cardboard of humiliation.”
When the speech ended, the car carrying President Aristide and his family left the airport amid a crush of gathering crowds who filled the roads, mobbed the car, slowed the motorcade to a crawl. At a construction site in Port-au-Prince workers were filmed throwing down their tools and running in the direction of the airport to see with their own eyes.
No one got hurt, and no one broke into the house itself, though certainly they could have. An American friend of mine lost his wallet in the crowd, and hours later, someone he knew came running after him to say he had it, someone had given it to someone who had given it to someone else until they found him. The money was gone, but everything else was still there. A Haitian friend lost his cell phone in the melee. Later he got a call from someone who’d found it, taken it home and charged it, then called him to say come get it.
Eventually, when they’d had their sit on the roof and eaten their mangos, and peered in the windows, when it became clear Titid would not speak, the crowd slowly and peacefully dispersed.
A rather disheveled press core remained, sitting on the thoroughly trampled grass in in front of the house, still fixated on the idea that Aristide would make a statement about the elections, call for a boycott or endorse a candidate, or otherwise “destabilize” the country as the Americans had insisted he would. They begged to know when he would appear in public, where would he vote, when they could get a photo op. Photo op? How about the moment he stepped from the plane, both hands in the air? Or the crowds dancing on the road? Or the house covered with people? Alas, joy in Haiti is not newsworthy. Aristide’s triumphant return garnered almost no news coverage in the mainstream media in the US.
Which does not alter one bit what Haitians experienced on March 18. As someone said to me late that day: The New York Times does not make Haitian history.
Aristide’s return to Haiti changes nothing. Aristide’s return changes everything.
A million or so Haitians are still without homes. The latest study now predicts over 800,000 Haitians will be infected with cholera before the disease runs its course. And eleven thousand more will die. Haiti is still occupied by a UN force, which brought cholera to the country, which consumes half a billion dollars a year, yet has not built a single school or hospital, and which is not even able to contribute adequately for the care of those it has infected. The international community, headed by the US government, has now carried out a “selection” as Haitians call the recent elections. Voter turnout for the first round was 22%, the second round turnout appeared to be even lower. A perilously weak government will emerge, one disconnected from its people, unable to mobilize or even communicate with them.
And yet, for those who were asking just two months ago if they could possibly go on struggling for change, Aristide’s return is, at last, a taste of justice. For those sweltering in tents in the hot sun, this is a breath of hope. Yes, I know, people cannot eat hope. But they also cannot rebuild a country without it. And for everyone in Haiti and abroad, who worked for this return, it is proof that the US government does not control every last inch of this earth. A plane can take off from South Africa and land in Haiti without their consent. A person can scale a thirteen-foot wall and land on their feet on the other side.