Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his family were flown on March 18, 2011 by the South African government back to their home in Haiti after seven years in exile in South Africa. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman was the only reporter to join them on the journey. Here is the complete transcript of our global broadcast exclusive conversation with Aristide as he flew over the Atlantic Ocean approaching Haiti.
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 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: You were in exile in South Africa when the earthquake struck Haiti. Talk about your feelings.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: If we are human beings, we feel concern wherever someone is in trouble, and the earthquake killed so many people. We had 300,000 victims, and so many others are still living in the streets. We are all victims with the victims wherever we were, being Haitians. Physically I wasn’t there, but it’s like I was there, as well, because that suffering is a collective suffering.
We have to continue working together in solidarity with all the victims to improve the quality of their life. As far as I am concerned, in the field of education, if I can bring some contribution, that will be my way to share their views, suffering, dreams, because 56 percent of Haitians can go to school. Only 56 percent. And 27 of them can finish the primary school. What about the others? That means wherever we can bring some contribution through education, it will make a difference for those who are victims and their daughters and their sons and others.
AMY GOODMAN: We went to Haiti right after the earthquake, and then we headed back, Democracy Now! headed back, six months later. We could hardly tell the difference. The rubble still in the streets, the tens of thousdands of people in Champs de Mars alone. What do you think needs to be done?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I do believe that when we, as educated people, see others, we must see human being to be respected. And when we respect people, we don’t lie to them. When we respect people, we don’t use them. We serve them. When we respect people, we don’t trick them that we can do everything for them, when we will not do that, while the best way to move is to include them, respecting them. With dignity, once we are all involved, then things become easier.
This challenge is a huge challenge, and to change the dramatic consequences of this earthquake, we have to offer the opportunity for each Haitian to feel that he is respected, his voice or her voice is heard, he is consulted, then the participation will become a way to move faster forward. I think that education, for instance, can help moving faster, but surer, because it will include every single one — not exclusion, but inclusion. Once we use inclusion, then we are moving faster for them.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, on top of the earthquake, the cholera.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: That’s something which continues to take our heart from our body, because it’s so sad, so sad. I think that the Cuban doctors did a fantastic, when they accompanied the Haitian people fighting against the cholera. I imagine that in addition to the Cubans doing such a tremendous, we would have many others join hands in solidarity with the Haitian people to do more that could reduce the number of victims and prevent death. And if we wait, it may become worse. We are all concerned. Whenever and wherever someone is suffering, we are concerned. We are concerned.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts — 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 a 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what’s going to happen today? Once you land, what are your plans?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Well, as I said it before, I say it now, and I will say it again: all my life is for the Haitian people, serving as a simple citizen in the field of education. If, today, arriving there, they propose that we start debating or discussing the faculty of medicine, when it can be open, I am ready. I am not tired to say no, tomorrow, no, today. Wherever people want to get together and focus, for instance, on this faculty of medicine, to open it again, that would be one of the best way to conclude the day.
AMY GOODMAN: This was the school of medicine that was closed when you were ousted, and the Marines used it as their base, their barracks.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly. Hopefully it will be reopened with the good will of good friends.
AMY GOODMAN: What will it feel like to go back to Tabarre, to your home?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I beg your pardon? Could you repeat it again, the question?
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about going back home to Tabarre, your home?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: A, I’m happy. B, I think about so many others who lost their house during the earthquake. C, I think about so many others who never had a house. And all these people are in my heart. So I cannot feel happy to go home without thinking about them, because they also have the right to live in a house.
AMY GOODMAN: Your country was the first black republic in the world, Haiti. It was born of a slave uprising. The U.S. has had a troubled relationship for decades after the republic of Haiti was established, because they were afraid it would inspire slaves in the United States. They didn’t want to recognize Haiti. Can you talk about that relationship and Haiti’s history?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: The U.S. waited for 58 years before recognizing our independence. It’s a long time. But I also realize that many Americans understood what was going on, and Americans who understood are good friends of Haiti. They may not have power to change what is bad to make it good, but at least they disagree with what is bad.
The only thing that Haiti is asking for is to have a relationship with whoever you are, whatever the country, rooted in mutual respect. That’s Haiti, a country where the people respect others and want to be respected. Once we have that relationship rooted in mutual respect, many things will be different. That’s what we are looking for; that’s what we always wanted. We don’t want the others to respect us, and just that. No, we are committed to respect them while we want them to respect us — mutual respect, that’s all. If the relationship between the U.S. and Haiti can be rooted in mutual respect, Americans will benefit, Haitians will benefit, the future generation on both sides will have a better environment. That’s all.
AMY GOODMAN: Haiti was the first black republic in the world. In the United States, the first African American president was elected, President Barack Obama. Do you have anything you’d like to say to him?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I think in the future we will see what can be said. For the moment, we say what is linked to my return.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think this day would come in these seven years?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I always knew that it would come. You never can destroy the collective will of the Haitian people. You can crush them for a while, but not forever. Look at what happened. Seven years ago, look what happened. But the Haitian people never give up. Peacefully, they continue to ask for the return of their collective dignity. Democratic principles must be respected. That’s the will of the people. They never give up. Without weapons, without economic power, with the good will, good faith convictions, democratic principles, they continue to work for that day. This is hope. This is collective hope. This is collective dignity.
AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on Jean-Claude Duvalier being allowed back into the country?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: As I said, I will address such an issue further, but today what is negativity, I prefer to put it aside and focus on what is positive.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s remarkable is really the whole movement, that grows like a wave, that swept you into the office of the president, Lavalas, with more than 90 percent of the people voting, was very much in response to what — to the Duvalier years, from Papa Doc to Baby Doc Duvalier, the repression, the brutality, the corruption. And so, to have him return and now to have you return is a very, to say the least, unusual circumstance.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I understand that when you believe in what you are doing, when what you are doing is rooted in conviction, and when these convictions are rooted in equality, values, human values such as freedom, freedom for all, you are strong, and even stronger than people would think. That’s the Haitian people.
Let’s just remember that Haitians have a country which cannot produce food enough for 10 million people, actually. Agriculture represented 27 percent of our GDP. When — even before I was born in 1953, at that time, 1950, they said eight percent of the Haitian people were living in the cities. Now we have 35 percent of all living in the cities. So, instead of having agriculture in the countryside, where people producing could feed themselves and protect their dignity, we have the opposite: people living in cities, where they don’t find work with dignity, and misery is becoming more and more worse.
My point is, this economic disaster didn’t destroy the human values of the Haitian people, neither their dreams — not foolish dream, but dream of freedom for all, justice for all, food for all, education for all, health for all. Those are like a model, driving the Haitian people, moving forward despite of catastrophes, political catastrophes. But fortunately, the people know what is good for them. Earlier, I said you only need to include them and not exclude them. Once the people are included in the collective process, their voice will be heard, and dramatic good changes will happen. That’s why I believe today we need to encourage people to focus on that positivity, on that positivity.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think President Préval decided to give you a diplomatic passport now, at the very end of his presidency?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Well, first of all, it’s a right. Every citizen has a right to have his passport. So, it’s not a favor; it’s a right. And it happened late, but it happened.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re moving on to Haiti right now. What does this mean for your daughters, who half their lives have been spent in South Africa in exile?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: That means a lot for them. They should be in a better place to answer for themselves. But if I understand what they went through, I can say it means a lot for them. Seven years in exile when you are 12 years old, that means you’ve spent a lot of time outside of your land of your country. Fourteen years old, when you’ve spent seven years in exile, that means you’ve spent half of your life out of your country. I do believe they will be reconnected to their roots, where they were born, and that will strengthen their identity and helping them to be more prepared as Haitians to serve Haiti one day as educator or whatever what they will want to choose to be.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you return now to Haiti, not as president, but as a resident —
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: — of Haiti.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: A simple citizen. Happy to be simple citizen, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet, for decades, for more than 20 years, you have been a leading political figure, a leader in the country. So, what do you say to the people in Haiti who are looking to your leadership in that way?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Before being a president, years ago, I was serving the people as the priest. Becoming a president, I always said, I have to continue serving. There is no dichotomy between serving a people as a priest or serving the people as a president. Now, as a simple citizen, I will continue to serve, putting myself at their service. That’s what I always wanted, and it’s happening. So I enjoy, I enjoy.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I was born in Port-Salut, in the south of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And your mother and your father, who were they?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: My dad passed away when I was only three months old. And my mom is actually 89, ready to go back to Haiti, because she’s living in Florida with her daughter, who is my sister. So, I guess she’s excited, because she will be able to see me before she dies. That’s what she often said: "I want to see you before I die." Now, she will see me. But she should not die now.
AMY GOODMAN: And your safety in Haiti and the safety of your family, how do you — what do you need to feel safe there?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: People may not understand me when I say I feel bad to address the issue of my security without addressing the issue of the security of the Haitian people. But those who understand what I mean, by seeing the conditions of living in Haiti, they will understand. That means, yes, I care about my security, I care about the security of my children, so we have to be careful to not expose ourselves when it’s not necessary, to not take the risk when we should protect the children, when they are children. But at the same time, if I have full security and I enjoy it and I feel comfortable, while people don’t have food, I will be disturbed, and I have to be disturbed, because the majority of the Haitian people are living with one — less than one dollar a day. That means every day they are facing a kind of life where we cannot see any kind of safety. Living with less than one dollar a day, that means — it’s terrible.
Sometimes some people may hear about being hungry, but they don’t understand that, because they always have food. Once you understand what does that mean for a father of the family or a mother, who have children and who cannot put the bread on the table — they leave the house, go out to look for bread, and they came back — or come back without a piece of bread, it’s a tragedy. And that tragedy, it’s not far away from us. It’s on a daily basis among us, within millions of people. So, safety for me, it’s important, I know it, but at the same time, I link it to the safety of the Haitian people.
AMY GOODMAN: And forgive me for referring to the United States over and over, but as an American reporter, seeing the relationship with Haiti, I think it’s very important to understand a Haitian perspective on the United States. In 1991, you were ousted in a U.S.-backed coup. In 2004, the same. Yet, in both cases, you have now returned. The first time, you returned as president after three years. Now you’re returning after seven, but not without the United States putting up a mighty fight. The former State Department spokesperson sent out a tweet that said, "Haiti must look forward, not back," because he didn’t want you to return. And President Obama called President Zuma to not have you come back, to not fly you back into Haiti. Yet, in every case, you have prevailed.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I never saw my return the first time and the second time as a kind of victory of someone. But I think truth is always fighting against lying. Light is always fighting against darkness. When you embrace truth and you want to avoid lies, you are moving the right way, and you feel that you are happy because you are on the good side, the side of the truth, the side of light. We don’t have a problem if someone one day doesn’t see light or truth. The problem is, if you decide to stay in darkness, lying, then that makes a huge difference. This, too, could happen. It means darkness. It means lying.
The return is happening. Twice, it means truth, light. Those who knew that a people couldn’t vote for a president and then crush, denying their rights, those who fought for the return based on these democratic principles are the people who can help others who embrace lies or darkness, not as a way to say, "We are good, you are bad." No, "You didn’t see the light. You can see it. That’s fine. Let’s embrace light. Let’s embrace truth. And together, let’s move to make the world a better place," because once the world is rooted in truth, in light, millions and millions of people will see good things happening in their own life, because we have too many people lying, too many people embracing darkness.
AMY GOODMAN: Some newspapers in the United States have said two despots returning: Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: This is lying. This is darkness. That’s what I was saying. And some people, when they lie, they are paid to lie. You cannot prevent them to lie, because they want to lie, and they are paid to lie. Unfortunately, many others who enjoy embracing the truth, they know the difference between light and darkness.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about being brought up on charges in Haiti when you return, being prosecuted?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: This is darkness. This is lying. I focus on truth. I focus on light.
AMY GOODMAN: When you first became president, you called for an increase in the minimum wage.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Many wondered if that was part of why you were ousted for three years by —
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: It was part of it. It was part of it, if you allow me to say. It was part of it, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Because some people want to impose neocolonialism. And by neocolonialism, they want Haitians to work for nothing or pennies. And when the people elect a president, a government, to accompany them in a democratic way, to make changes in their life, then they oppose that. And it’s not only in Haiti where we have people opposing the rights of workers. And I do believe we did it because it was right. We should not have modern slavery. We should replace democracy by neocolonialism. So, I am happy that we tried to do what we were supposed to do, rooted in principle, democratic principle.
AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton apologized to Haiti, saying the U.S. had followed the wrong route when it came to dumping rice, for example, wiping out the farmers of Haiti and imposing U.S. rice on the country.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Well, it was wrong, that policy. Now, if there is an apology, we must see the opposite of what was done.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see that happening, the opposite?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: I will be watching closer to make an assessment.
AMY GOODMAN: Your final comment, as I see we’re coming ever closer to Port-au-Prince, as I see we’re coming ever closer to your country, Haiti?
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Love for the people. Love for Haiti. This is the way out, through love.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much, Mr. President.
JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: Thank you. And thank you for making it twice.