On Saturday, March 12, one week and one day before the Haitian Presidential run-off election between Leslie Manigat and Michel Martelli, there was an article on page two of the Austin American Statesman announcing that Jean Bertrand Aristide’s return to Haiti from exile in South Africa was “imminent.” The article went on to note that President Barack Obama was sufficiently concerned about the potentially destabilizing effect of such an occurrence that he had telephoned President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and President Rene Preval of Haiti to personally ask them to do what they could to prevent it. For me, the destabilization was immediate, forcing a reconsideration of my decision not to return to Haiti for the run-off.
That decision was based on evidence that with the two most popular candidates from the first round of voting in the run-off, and Jude Celestin, the hand-picked candidate of President Preval, out of the picture, the final round would be an orderly affair. However, if Aristide, who remains hugely popular among Haiti’s poor, returned at some point in the week leading up to the election with mischief in mind, all bets were off.
I had little doubt that I should go if Aristide went back. But, despite the declaration in the article that his return was imminent, there was no guarantee that it would actually happen prior to the run-off. It occurred to me that Aristide might be trying to influence the election simply by saying he was going back. Then, there was the question of whether the government of South Africa, or of Haiti, would yield to President Obama’s blandishments and somehow prevent Aristide’s return.
So, given the uncertainty of the situation, I decided to take a wait and see attitude. Rather than going and hoping Aristide would show up, I waited and hoped that if he did, I would have enough notice to get to Haiti ahead of him. It almost worked out.
Throughout the week, I diligently scanned the news online several times a day, but there was nothing. By early Thursday afternoon, I had pretty much decided that the announcement of Aristide’s return had been a feint. Then, at about three, as I was getting ready to go to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the Dog and Duck Pub, I decided to do one more check before I left, and there it was. The AP story stated that Aristide was on his way to the airport in Johannesburg and was expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince Friday around noon.
After discussing the situation with Sharla and weighing in my own mind the odds of Aristide’s return actually being disruptive, I decided that I should assume the worst regarding his motives and get to Haiti as soon as I could. Sharla, though considerably less than enthusiastic, particularly regarding the price of a flight leaving the next morning, consented to indulge me.
I booked an American Airlines flight leaving Austin at 6:50 a.m. and arriving in Port-au-Prince at 3 p.m. and hoped that Aristide would be somehow delayed. Unfortunately for me, he was on a charter flight and actually arrived earlier than expected, at about 9:15 a.m., while I was still in mid-journey. By the time I got to town at about 4:30, my flight from Miami being late departing, Aristide was already ensconced in his villa in the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, the initial flush of excitement at his return already fading.
When Brillant’s next door neighbor Jean drove us by on the way to the Palm Inn Hotel, there were just two Haitian policemen standing in front of the locked gate and a small crowd of curious onlookers mingling across the street. Nevertheless, the possibility of auxiliary excitement, perhaps in the form of a demonstration in front of Aristide’s home the next day, remained. Consequently, at about nine the next morning, Brillant and I set out by tap-tap for Tabarre.
Even as we were climbing down, Brillant said “There is something happening” and pointed up the street. I didn’t see it, but unhesitatingly followed along, matching Brillant’s brisk pace. Within a half block or so of turning the corner, we could see, and hear, the tail end of the march, which consisted of some sort of a band, a block and a half or two blocks ahead. Increasing our gait to a jog, we overtook the march a block or so later.
It was a small, probably no more than 150 people, but enthusiastic pro-Aristide organization called Asosyasyon Baz Solide an Aksyon Tet Ansanm (roughly, Association Based in Solidarity of Action to Move Forward), abbreviated to ABA Satan, which gave me the false impression that it was a religious group. As the march proceeded, the band, La Kove Rara, consisting of a dozen or so musicians playing what looked like oversized vuvuzuelas, a variety of drums and cymbals, beat out a lively rhythm. I had hoped that the march was going to Aristide’s place, but as it turned out it was heading to the group’s headquarters. This was simply a large tent under which about 50 chairs were set up in four or five rows.
In a brief interview, Etienne Getro, the group’s leader, said that ABA Satan, banned during Aristide’s exile, (and, technically, probably still so) is a political and social organization dedicated to fighting for education, health and economic progress for the Haitian people. He added that its activities include operating training programs for young people who want to become plumbers and electricians. Now that Aristide has returned, he said the group’s primary objectives are to welcome him back, organize meetings and rebuild its base. “People said we were crazy to think that President Aristide would come back, but now the dream has come true.”