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Former First Lady Mildred Aristide on Her Historic Return to Haiti: “Aristide is Ever Present in the Haitian Psyche and History”

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“We’re about to step on ground made hallow by the Haitian revolution and all the progressive movements by the Haitian people,” says former Haitian First Lady Mildred Aristide, minutes from landing in Haiti after seven years in exile in South Africa. In a Democracy Now! exclusive interview, she says, “As a priest, as an educator, when he was president, and now as he will return to education, [Aristide will] continue to be a person that always, always, always withstands.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Haiti’s former First Lady Mildred Aristide. She met President Aristide when she was an attorney in New York helping the President after the first U.S.-backed coup against him in 1991. We spoke just about an hour out of Haiti on that historic flight on Friday that took the Aristides from South Africa to their home in Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: Mildred Aristide, welcome to Democracy Now! What an historic day! Seven years after you left Haiti in 2004, you’re returning from exile in South Africa to your country. We’re about a half an hour away. What are your feelings right now?

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Well, first I’m remembering that seven years ago, the day before the coup, we spoke. I don’t know if you remember.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: We spoke from the palace. So, here we are, seven years. It’s a lot of emotions. It’s a lot of emotions. You know, Haiti has been with us for seven years, despite the distance. So, it’s very emotional. It’s very emotional. Everything that the country’s been through, especially after the earthquake, you know, the idea and the thought of what is going on there truly pains us, truly pains us.

But, you know, as much as seven years is a long time, it really seems like yesterday, and so there just seems to be a continuity despite the major disruption, if that makes sense. I mean, it was such a yanking away of Haiti — from Haiti, and yet I really feel that we can just kind of step back into the country, into the relationship with the people, into the work of the foundation, and that things will continue, in a new phase, in a new way. But, you know, I truly feel like it’s — I don’t know. I don’t have the words, you know, so I’ll sound a little incoherent, because I really don’t have the words to say how I feel, other than immense sense of anxiety and anticipation — not an anxiety, but anticipation of going back and the great sense of appreciation for what we’ve just experienced, notwithstanding, you know, the trauma and the disruption to the lives.

But it’s just been such a powerful experience also being in South Africa. And the people have been so great, and the government and what we’ve learned, and the opening up to Africa and learning the connections. The greater connections between Haiti and Africa have been amazing to really see, so — and to experience. And having to tell people about Haiti has been just — has renewed my own sense of Haiti. You know, a lot of people in South Africa don’t know where is Haiti, what is Haiti. And so, that whole process of explaining has been just such a reaffirmation of the Haiti story, not just the history, but the current. And to see the appreciation and the sense that people get when, “Wow, this is the story of Haiti!” it just has been very empowering, and it gives me a deeper appreciation than ever of the Haitian people.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about history, I think of the U.S. State Department sending out that tweet recently that said — against you returning and against President Aristide returning, saying, “Don’t look to the past, look to the future.”

MILDRED ARISTIDE: You know, when we were in Central Africa, someone gave us a book on Barthélemy Boganda, who was the founder of Central Africa, the precursor of their independence, because he ultimately — he died before Central Africa gained its independence from France. And there was a line in the book that made me freeze. When they were criticizing Boganda for being critical still of the relations between colonial France and Central Africa, and they kept telling him, “You’re talking about the past,” and that it was a new set of relations between the colonizer and the colony, and Boganda said, “I would stop talking about the past, if it weren’t so present.”

And when, then, I heard statements about — and coming from the United States about Aristide being — I just — that phrase just struck me: “I’d stop talking about the past, if it weren’t so present.” And so, you know, this notion of time, this notion that seven years ago could be the past, more — unspeakable past, you know, that it’s dead and buried, there’s no sense — there’s no — that doesn’t exist in life, you know. And the notion that Aristide, who is ever present in the Haitian psyche and the Haitian history — and that’s just a fact, it’s not me saying it because he’s my husband or because I’m a member of Lavalas, it’s just a fact. And so, I think that that’s a misread of the situation and of the reality in Haiti.

And I think that what I’ve learned from Africa is how much Africans carry the past with them, and the past being lessons from their ancestors, the lessons of their culture, all of which happens in time, in a time space. So it’s not that you live in the past, but you carry with you the lessons and the good and the experiences of the past.

And so, this notion that you’re looking to the past, when what you’re looking back to is to — in the case of the Haitians, when they talk about Aristide, it’s not looking to — it’s looking at what was done and the kind of relationship that he had with his population as president. And so, now — and they’re the first ones to say he comes back — he comes back just to share in this part of Haiti’s journey. And everyone knows that it is a horrific situation that the country is living in now, and with the earthquake. And so, when they say they want Aristide present, to me, I see that as to be to accompany them in this process, as he accompanied them as a priest when he was a priest, as an educator when he was teaching, as president when he was president, and now as a citizen, as a former president, and as someone who will continue and will work on expanding the work of the foundation in that capacity. And, you know, to say that it’s the past is just really a crazy notion.

AMY GOODMAN: So, two U.S-backed coups, 1991 and 2004, and now the U.S. — well, President Obama calling President Zuma to say, “Do not fly the Aristides home to Haiti.”

MILDRED ARISTIDE: I think — again, I think it’s — it’s an inability, maybe, by the American political process to understand the kind of relation that Titide has with the Haitian people, and it doesn’t fit within the kind of policy frameworks that perhaps they have of —- and so, it’s an unwillingness to see beyond that. I’ll attribute it to that. And, you know, in the meanwhile -—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain a little more what you mean.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Well, I think that — I think that the United States and a lot of those western European countries see politics a certain way, and I think that they have no right to impose that on other peoples. And, you know, if I’m rattling, I’ll rattle, I’ll continue.

But I attended, just the week before we left South Africa, at UNISA — there is a very, very important African lawyer, economist and really a profound thinker from Uganda, Professor Dani Nabudere. And he — and I had met him when I first came to South Africa, and he spoke at UNISA just the week before we left. And he was talking about what was happening now in Egypt and what happened in Tunisia and talking about the people’s revolutions, he said. And one of things that he said, and it really struck me, and I wrote a note in my notebook, he said that, for him, in his perception, is that the people — and I think it was in response to a question. They were saying, you know, “What’s the next step in terms of organizing this resistance that has been happening in Tunisia and in Egypt, for example?” And he said, for him, what was evolving — and he described it as an evolution in what the people are demanding and are requesting of the state — it’s beyond “We want a democratically elected government.” It’s beyond “We want a transparent government. We want elections every four years.” It’s a demand for a new kind of relationship with the state, a human relationship with the state. And it’s a humification — and I think he even used that — or rendering the state as a human being and saying, “We want a state that understands us, that feels us, that has a heart.” And he used terms that one would use between two people. And he said, “That’s what the people are demanding.” So it goes beyond electoral democracy. It goes beyond notions of transparency, which are on paper. And that’s what the people are demanding.

And I thought — I said, “You know, that’s what Haitians have been asserting for a long time. It’s a changed notion of state.” And so, I think that that’s one of the elements that led to, you know, the repeated elections of Lavalas. So, it’s not — and that falls outside the rubric or the framework of what the U.S. sees as what is electoral democracy and what qualifies as electoral democracy. So I found a lot of resonance in his explanation of this new kind of human relationship with the state.

And I would — and taking that further, and what Haitians have been saying, especially since the earthquake, in terms of what — you know, this tragic situation that they face and what they were demanding — and I think acknowledging that, you know, the rebuilding — or the building, I should say — could not happen, will not happen, in, as we’ve seen, six months or a year, but it’s a sense of seeing across from you a human face that is understanding, that has a heart, that is empathetic in the most profound sense with what is being experienced, notwithstanding an inability to provide immediate services. And I think that that’s — we’re approaching our destination. And I think that that’s something that Titide has always offered in all of the roles that he’s played — as a priest, as an educator, when he was president, and now as he will return to education and continue to be a person that always [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think we could see an uprising like this in Haiti?

MILDRED ARISTIDE: I don’t think — I think we will always — I think we will see, and we are seeing, even if it’s not reported, the same sentiment of a demand for a state — yeah, yeah, I mean, certainly, I mean, this is what it’s been since 1986, since the overthrow and the revolution, you know, the people’s revolution in 1986 in Haiti and the overthrow of Duvalier — I think we will have a constant, constant demanding of that. Now, how far it can go, given the specific set of circumstances of Haiti — U.N. occupying force or U.N. force of 7,000-plus — I say 7,000, I don’t remember the number — so, how it will evolve, but the same demands that I think we see in the Northern African countries are demands that Haitians have been making for a long time, not just now.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you planning to do?

MILDRED ARISTIDE: I have no idea yet. I know that I took lots of material from the Center for African Renaissance Studies, where I was editing a journal, an academic journal, and I know that there’s a lot of information there that I intend to share with Haitians, that can be very empowering for Haitians. So, there are a lot of things that we can do and a lot of — there’s a lot, a lot of ideas. The first thing is to get home.

AMY GOODMAN: Your daughters return as teenagers.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Pre, yeah, 14, yes, yes, absolutely. So, yeah. And, you know, Haiti has been present in their lives, notwithstanding the distance, for seven years, so… But still, you know, they’ve been out of the country for half their lives, so it will be a big adjustment for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mildred Aristide, the pilot has just said we will be landing in a few minutes. That means we will be landing in Haiti.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: That’s right, that’s right, that’s right. We’ll be landing in Haiti. So I’m — you know, Selma James — one last thing — the widow of C.L.R. James, who wrote The Black Jacobins, who we’ve been in communication with in the last month or so, and she will be in Haiti. And she wrote to me, and she said, “We’re about to step on ground made hallowed by the Haitian revolution and all the progressive movements by the Haitian people.”

AMY GOODMAN: Former Haitian First Lady Mildred Aristide, just before landing in Haiti on that historic flight that ended the Aristides’ seven years in exile. Special thanks to K.K. Kean, Nicole Salazar, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Hany Massoud and John Hamilton. To see Democracy Now!’s tohaiti”>exclusive coverage of the Aristides’ epic return to Haiti, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.

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