THE BLOG
02/04/2011 02:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Former President Aristide Back in Haiti -- a Risk of Instability or an Opportunity for Healing?

Days after the arrival of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide wrote an official letter to the South African authorities, asking for permission to return to his homeland.

When asked why they were keeping the former president in a "luxury prison", no answer was given. Of course, this was not the first time Aristide had expressed his desire to return. His intentions have been clear since he was exiled to South Africa in 2004, and most recently, expressed in an interview I conducted with him.

According to a report last weekend in the South African Times, there are now ongoing discussions regarding Aristide's return; involving Cuba, the United States, South Africa, and the Haitian authorities, who are now ready to issue a new passport to the former president.

Duvalier yes, but Aristide no

The US State Department seems to be the only force still in play that refuses to give the green light for Aristide's return. Last Monday, its spokesman P.J. Crowley expressed some surprise at the timing of Duvalier's visit to Haiti. He said "it adds unpredictability at an uncertain time in Haiti's election process". But when asked a few days later about Aristide's possible return, his answer was a much more decisive one; "We do not doubt President Aristide's desire to help the people of Haiti. But today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past." In other words, Duvalier is a reality who must be dealt with and Aristide is simply a distraction.

Of course the US state department knew in advance of Duvalier's return. To think otherwise would be naïve. Duvalier would not have gone home without a green light from the French, the Americans, and most certainly the Haitian government. Crowley's response to Aristide simply means: you are not coming back because we say so.

But the principal reason for refusing Aristide's return is and has always been ideological. The US embassy cables recently released by Wikileaks confirmed how anxious the US was to enlist Brazil to keep the deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of Haiti. Democrats and Republicans have never liked the "priest of liberation theology" who began giving speeches critical of American policies long before he was even elected president. While not without flaws, Aristide's real sin was, and still is, his "perceived populism." As Gen. James Hill, head of U.S. Southern Command put it in front of a congressional committee in 2004, Washington viewed "radical populism" as one of the main threats facing America in the region.

While many were understandably shocked by Duvalier's return(1), the carelessness of the US and France to let him come back at this juncture in Haiti's history might have an unexpected positive result. It has emboldened Aristide's partisans and his party, Fanmi Lavalas, to demand his return. If France and the US think it's appropriate to return a man, who according to mainstream human rights organizations ordered the killing of thousands of its citizens, it should not be a problem to allow Aristide to return as well.

Duvalier has partly admitted to his crimes, which is the first step to true justice. Aristide has never admitted to any crime and has denied accusations of embezzlement. In any case, no matter what these two Haitian leaders(2) are guilty or not guilty of, they should not have been exiled and forced now to beg to come home. Ultimately the people of Haiti should decide their fate. If justice should be served, it will be served, but according to the Haitian constitution and by Haitians only.

If healing can ever happen it must happen now

In fact, the return of these two leaders, who have both defined Haiti's divided political landscape in the last 30 years, could be an amazing opportunity for an authentic reconciliation. Haitians have been traumatized by multiple coups d'état, thousands of people have been jailed, humiliated, raped, tortured, kidnapped and killed. Plots to harm Haitians have been too often concocted far from Haitian soil. Foreign Powers have often pitted Haitians against each other; to divide them was to rule and conquer in Haiti. It could help Haitians to face their demons and offer a sharp departure from the bizarre and unproductive tradition of forcing members of the ruling political class to go into exile under every new government. If that's not acceptable for France or the US, it should not be acceptable for Haiti.

A substantial amount of money could flow in at a much quicker pace if foreign states and organizations saw real efforts by all sectors of Haitian society to come together for once and move beyond the bitter partisanship that has characterized Haiti's politics in Port-au-Prince as much as in Washington and Paris. Of course, this would also have to be accompanied at some point by the organization of free, fair and inclusive elections in which all main parties would be allowed to run, including Aristide's party Fanmi Lavalas - not the type of mockery that we are seeing now.

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Haiti could heal like South Africa

Lead by a popular and credible voice, a reconciliation process could start as soon as possible. Somebody with the stature of Michele Montas, the wife of slain activist Jean Dominique comes to mind. She has the advantage of being known and respected in and outside Haiti.

When I asked President Aristide two months ago whether he thought Haiti could ever heal through some reconciliation process, he said: "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...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".

This was something that should have been done after the first coup d'état in 1994. Instability will always be in Haiti unless it happens. Many would argue that Haiti has many other challenges today but in my view it won't hold place among other promising nations unless it enters into that process first.

A commission would be empowered to grant amnesty to those who committed abuses during the Duvalier reigns and the military regimes that succeeded them. To avoid a victor's justice, no side would be exempt and the politically-motivated crimes under Aristide and Preval, such as the assassination of Jean Dominique, would also be examined.

Defining the goal of a truth and reconciliation process in Haiti

In the case of South Africa, for instance, former president F.W. de Klerk appeared before the commission and reiterated his apology for the suffering caused by apartheid. But he never asked personally for forgiveness and so was not even granted amnesty. Adriaan Vlok was the only cabinet minister of the apartheid government to have admitted committing crimes in front of the commission. He was granted amnesty in 1999. Many black South Africans were angered at amnesty being granted for human rights abuses committed by the apartheid government. But the real mandate of the TRC((3) was to uncover the truth about past abuses, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes. Knowing the truth was the main step to obtain closure and start healing.

In Haiti, the commission could as well look for justice through truth rather than justice through punishment. "Forgive but not forget" would be its primary goal. Its members would decide whether or not to give amnesty to people who choose to appear. One could argue that If the TRC had forced all white officials to appear, the country could have entered into war. The voluntary dimension is an important one. Of course South Africa is different from Haiti but the conflict has similar racial and economic features, and the wounds are as deep. South Africa is still not perfect, and the road to healing is far from complete, but that process needed to take place when it did.

Haiti could take the South African path. It's worth trying, because the sooner it takes it, the sooner it could become the most promising country in the hemisphere and maybe one day it could be called again the "pearl of the Antilles."

Notes:

1) Many were shocked by the timing of the return of Duvalier one year after a devastating magnitude 7 earthquake. A cholera epidemic has already killed more than 3,000 people and about 1 million people are still displaced. Most still live in tents. The country struggles with a flawed and disputed presidential election.

2) Many commentators have lately unfairly compared Aristide to Duvalier. This habit if not dishonest is ignorant at best. Aristide is still the leader of an important party that has a huge following among the poor in Haiti. He was twice deposed after having been twice elected with large majorities (67% in 1990 and more than 90 % in 2000). Both faced charges of embezzlement but Duvalier alone faces charges of crimes against humanity and that could lead him of spending the rest of his life in jail. The Duvaliers ruled Haiti for 28 years, using a sinister praetorian guard known as the Tonton Macoutes which has been accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing up to 30,000 suspected opponents from the 1960s to the mid 80s. More than 100,000 Haitians fled the country under both dictators.

3) TRC stands for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.