Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his family were flown on Friday by the South African government back to their home in Haiti after seven years in exile. Just before their journey, President Obama called South African President Jacob Zuma to try to prevent the trip ahead of the presidential run-off election taking place Sunday. But the South African government said it would not bow to pressure, so the Aristides boarded the flight in Johannesburg on Thursday night.
Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman was the only reporter to join them on the journey from South Africa to Haiti. During the flight, she was able to interview Aristide hours before he was to arrive in Port-au-Prince.
This is an excerpt of the exclusive interview:
AMY GOODMAN: President Aristide, it's an historic day for you, as we are about to land in Port-au-Prince. You are ending seven days of exile -- seven years of exile in South Africa. What are your thoughts as we come closer to your country?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I'm sure that the Haitian people are celebrating an historic day, an historic day for themselves, which includes myself. They always said, "Dignity, dignity, dignity." This day brings dignity to them, to the country. When we remember the conditions of our forefathers when they were brought from Africa to Haiti, which was slavery, so no freedom, and they fought to have freedom. Today, the celebration of dignity [inaudible] is also a reflection of freedom, freedom in the mind and the heart, before we have freedom all over the world.
AMY GOODMAN: The significance of the bridging of these two countries, Haiti and South Africa? You met with President Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, while you were there?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: We met several times. And the first time we met was when he came out of prison, before the elections took place in 1994 [inaudible]. We met in the U.S., and then I went to South Africa for his inauguration. From that day to today, he remains a great man, not only for South Africa, for Africa and African descendants, but for everybody--a man of dignity who fought for freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! was in Haiti the last year, and I was also there in 1995, when you returned to Haiti after the first coup, and remember hearing the news that you were going to dissolve the military. There's discussion now of restoring the military. What are your thoughts about that?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Well, I can, as I said, from my position as a simple citizen, investing in education, continue to talk about human rights. If you are a police, you respect the rights of the people, and the people respect your rights, as well, because you are a human being. With a police force, respecting the rights of the Haitian people, ones who are moving, slowly but surely, from misery to dignity--to poverty with dignity--that was a very slow move, from misery to poverty with dignity. But if we decide to go back, when we had an army of 7,000 soldiers controlling 40 percent of the national budget, that would mean we are headed back to misery instead of doing something to move from that misery to poverty with dignity. When we remember how many people were killed by the then-army, do we want to go back to have the same, moving from the same to worse, when we know that the victims are still suffering--the fathers, mothers, friends [inaudible] who were killed--and they still don't have justice? When we teach, when we educate, we focus on human rights, the rights of every single citizen, and we also avoid structures which can violate human rights instead of protecting human rights. The future of Haiti must be linked to the respect of the rights of every single citizen.
AMY GOODMAN: You're coming back after seven years of exile that came out of a coup in 2004. I was on the plane with you when the delegation came to the Central African Republic to return you back to the Western hemisphere. At the time, you described it as a U.S.-backed coup, that you were kidnapped. Can you talk about what happened then, what led to your being ousted and in exile from your country?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I think the past seven years gave an opportunity to everyone to see the truth, and it became obvious what happened, and everyone who wants to know can see the truth. Those who refuse to see it, I cannot oblige them to see it. When you make a mistake, it's a mistake. If you decide to continue making the same mistake, then it's worse. A mistake was made, that was that coup. People who want to make it better must understand that illiterate people are not dumb, the Haitian people are not dumb. The majority of us can be illiterate, but they are bright people. They understand. And we have so many people around the world who also understood what happened. They may not have power to change it, but they know.
And what we need now is to put hands together--Haitians, true friends of Haitians all over the world--to help Haiti moving from where we are, because where we are seven years after the coup is much more worse than what we had before the coup. So, time is telling us that it was a mistake. We must recognize it, and we must transcend to put hands together and to change life. That's must.
AMY GOODMAN: You said everyone knew what happened. Tell us what happened.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Maybe one day I will talk about it, but if you don't mind, if you allow me, today I would prefer to concentrate and to focus on the positive. The positive is your presence, the presence of the members of the delegations, like Ira Kurzban, who started fighting for the Haitian people years ago; Danny Glover and others. Those who cannot make it, like Representative Maxine Waters, like Randall Robinson and so many others, they want to keep moving forward with the Haitian people. And that positivity can be reflected through their commitment to help Haitians. And Haitians are the first saying, "We are not begging for cents. We are just trying to do our best with dignity and welcoming friends who want to accompany us." So, today, it's a great day, because this is a day of hope, where we know we should not let people kill our collective hope. And we know that with dignity, peace, solidarity, we will move from this great day to a better one.
Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous was on the ground in Haiti when Aristide's plan landed and attended his press conference. The Democracy Now! team then traveled with the Aristide family from the airport to their home amid the massive celebration as people ran alongside the vehicles and climbed over the walls at him home in Tabarre. They filed this video report:
Aristide returned two days before a delayed presidential runoff election was held on Sunday between pop star Michel Martelly and the former First Lady Mirlande Manigat. Final results are expected April 16th. Democracy Now! interviewed Aristide in his home in Tabarre, and asked him his thoughts about the revolution in Egypt and what would his priorities in Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: President Aristide spent the afternoon upstairs greeting old friends and welcoming new visitors. Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous and I went up to say goodbye. Sharif had just come from Egypt. We asked Aristide about the Egyptian revolution.
When we saw the people today, the thousands--was it tens of thousands?--of people from the airport to here, do you think we're seeing something like that? Or was that equivalent, when you were first elected in 1990 and '91, like Tahrir? Was that the Egypt uprising before the Egypt uprising?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: In fact, what I saw today reminded me of what we had in 1990 when we were campaigning and after the elections. That's exactly the same love expressed by the people. And someone earlier said that she saw a tsunami of love today. And I borrow this image to express what I saw, better having love than the opposite. And we will continue swimming in the love of the people, sharing love with the people, loving them. And as they are so bright, if you are faking, pretending that you love them and using beautiful words, they will smell it, they will get it. But if it's sincere, they will also get it. And that's the sincerity of love which we saw today.
What is happening in Egypt or what started in Tunisia, Egypt and in the Arab world, we saw it here in 1986, when the people realized that they had to stand up and make a difference in changing their lives. And it happened in 1986. And I was very delighted to see it in the Arab world, where democracy prevailed, and must prevail, for some countries. And for all the countries, it's not yet that, but it's a must for all those who are dreaming of a better life.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised to see the response today?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: No, no, no. No, I wasn't surprised. It was amazing to see the way they continue to express their love, but it wasn't a surprise.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it was something to see you burst through the door, from the embrace of I don't know how many thousands of people.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: And I understood them, because they suffer so much and for so long. Seeing that moment becoming a reality, it wasn't only me getting through the door of the house; it was millions of people getting through someone. That's why it couldn't be easy. And I understood it. Powerful, powerful, as an experience, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So, where do you go from here?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I will continue to pay attention, to observe, to learn from them, and serve them by learning from them.