In defiance of the Obama administration, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is headed back to Haiti today for the first time since being ousted in a 2004 U.S.-backed coup. Hours ago, Aristide, his family, and a delegation of supporters boarded a plane in South Africa bound for Port-au-Prince. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman is with the Aristides to document their journey home. She filed this report. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In defiance of the Obama administration, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is headed back to Haiti today for the first time since being ousted in a 2004 U.S.-backed coup. On Thursday, Aristide boarded a plane in South Africa bound for Port-au-Prince. Joining him on the flight is his wife, Mildred Aristide, attorney Ira Kurzban and actor Danny Glover. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman is also on board. Before leaving, she filed this report from Johannesburg.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s been a long day in Johannesburg, South Africa, touch and go at the beginning. Would the Aristides be returning home to Haiti, ending their seven-year exile here in South Africa? President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former First Lady Mildred Aristide and their two daughters are making their way back to Port-au-Prince, back to their home, back to where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was president twice, and in both cases he was thrown out in a U.S.-backed coup, the first time in 1991, for three years, and then again in 2004.
As the word came down that it looked like this would be the day, everyone scrambled to get their equipment and their suitcases from the hotel, the delegation. And as we walked outside, I asked Danny Glover about his thoughts.
DANNY GLOVER: I always feel that everything we do in life prepares us for the moment that we’re in. And certainly, if I think back to all of us who had positioned theirselves in the struggle against apartheid and all those who have positioned themselves to working on behalf of Haitian refugees, to working on behalf of the restoration of democracy in Haiti and the return of Aristide the first time, and all of those who wish so much for the Haitian people, his return means so much to them. And I think that’s what I’m feeling.
I remember sitting in my car on February 29th, 2004, and hearing about the news of what had happened with his — the coup that took him from his country, and crying at the moment, sitting in my car outside of my office and crying. And I’ll never forget that moment, as I will never forget the moment that he is also returned to his beloved country.
AMY GOODMAN: The delegation then piled into a car and made their way across Johannesburg to an undisclosed location, where we were told there would be a private meeting with the Aristides. When we got there, President and Mildred Aristide and then their two children — Michaelle, 12, and Christine, 14 — came into the room and greeted everyone.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Hello, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Hello.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: How are you?
AMY GOODMAN: President Aristide was not making any formal statements at the time. He didn’t want us to have our video camera running, except when he sat down with Danny Glover and remembered the last time he was on a plane with the actor.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: One day I was in a plane, a long time ago. It was in the U.S. And suddenly, someone emerged: a tall man, a great actor. And when I realized it was Danny, you can imagine the joy, the happiness. So, we embraced each other. And then he changed his plane. Together, we went to a meeting with the Haitian community.
AMY GOODMAN: President Aristide has been in exile for seven years. They clearly were extremely excited, somewhat nervous. President Aristide was reserved, quiet, thinking about what he is going to say, when he lands tomorrow in Haiti, to the Haitian people.
We pulled into Lanseria Airport on Thursday evening around 7:00, 8:00. A scrum of reporters were waiting. Once inside, I asked Ira Kurzban, the attorney for the Aristides, about the pressure that’s been brought to bear on the South African government not to return the Aristides back to Haiti.
We’ve heard a lot about the pressure brought to bear on South African President Zuma. What do you know?
IRA KURZBAN: Well, we know that the State Department has issued several statements, of course, asking the South African government not to allow President Aristide to come back before the election. We know that President Obama directly called President Zuma, asking him again not to allow President Aristide out of the country. And we know that there’s been a sustained campaign over seven years to keep President Aristide here. Through documents that were leaked through WikiLeaks, we know that the United States government has really, in a very systematic way, tried to keep Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as they originally said, halfway around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: after a few hours of waiting at the airport, the press statements were read from the South African government and from the former president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
SOUTH AFRICAN SPOKESPERSON: We’ve just had a very brief — a goodbye interaction between President Aristide, his family and President Zuma, who, on behalf of the government, with people of South Africa, had wished President Aristide a bon voyage and safe landing.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: [translated] One part feels very sad to leave our beloved friends, but on the other hand, our soul is resting because we are going back home after a period of seven years. Also, there in Haiti, they are very happy, and they are waiting for us. They wanted us to return home much faster. This has been their dream and wish, and this will soon come true.
AMY GOODMAN: The Aristides are about to get on the plane, but I’m supposed to go first. This promises to be a long night’s journey into a new day.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Amy Goodman reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa.