Politics

Aristide buggers off and tells everyone else (Obama in particular) to do the same

By Phillip De Wet 18 March 2011

The US did everything except stamp its foot and declare it forbidden, but nothing was going to stop Jean-Bertrand Aristide from leaving Johannesburg on Thursday night. Not the prospect of his mere presence throwing his country into chaos, and certainly not the South African government. By PHILLIP DE WET.

You have to give the man points for style. With intense interest in his every word, most notably in Haiti and the US Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Thursday night walked into Lanseria Airport, made a short, meaningless (and sometimes downright nonsensical) speech, got on his chartered private jet, and left. He said not one word in English, answered not a single question and didn’t even turn to wave at the cameras as he walked onto the tarmac. Then, just like that, he was gone.

He left behind furious speculation. What had convinced a man who had been in exile for seven years to leave for Haiti just days before the final act in an epic, chaotic presidential election there? Does he really not believe his presence could destabilise the country at a crucial time? Couldn’t he just slip into the country on Monday, after the election, but before a new government could prevent his return? Does the South African government really feel no obligation to intervene when its guests make such questionable decisions? And just why did American actor Danny Glover feel he needed to be on the same plane?

Watch: International relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane wishes Jean-Bertrand Aristide bon voyage (The Daily Maverick)

But with very little actual information or comment to work on, the speculation stayed just that. Aristide saw fit only to thank South Africa for hosting him for nearly a decade – and to do so in Zulu. International relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who put in a somewhat unexpected personal appearance at the farewell, seemed to suggest Aristide would be welcome back in Johannesburg any time he felt like popping round, whether by choice or not. Glover could be goaded only into saying he felt the need to support an old friend.

Photo: Danny Glover.

Nor is it clear just how Aristide will be received if he makes it to Port-au-Prince. Though he undoubtedly has many supporters in Haiti, some quite vocal, it is hard to tell just how big that group is, and what they expect from Aristide.

In fact, the only party in the whole affair who has made no bones about its feelings (if not, necessarily its intentions) is the US government. Through public statements, personal calls and back-channel pressure, officials from Barack Obama down had a single message: Letting Aristide back into Haiti can only cause trouble. Which, of course, only served to further convince his most fervent supporters that Aristide had been the victim of a US conspiracy to remove him from power in the first place, as he has claimed.

Photo: Aristide leaves. Who paid for the plane, by the way?

Sunday’s presidential runoff is between former first lady Mirlande Manigat and singer Michel Martelly, but only because government-backed candidate Jude Celestin was bumped down the rankings after an investigation into election fraud. Throw Aristide into that mix and any number of things could happen. Elements of his party, Fanmi Lavalas (which was barred from fielding a representative) could decide it’s high time for another coup. The impromptu welcome-home parade that is sure to greet Aristide could turn into a convenient vehicle for those disaffected by the pace of reconstruction on the island to show their anger. Aristide’s traditional constituency, which has mostly lined up behind Martelly, could decide to abstain from the vote, making the result less credible. Celestin could claim that the change in voter sentiment invalidates the earlier rounds, regardless of whether there was vote rigging.

If Aristide had a message on his departure, though, it was this: Bugger the complexity, I’m going home. It will probably be some time before history will be able to judge whether or not that was a good call. DM


Photos: The Daily Maverick.

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