Aristide and allegations of corruption
The possibility that an arrest warrant might be issued for former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has led his supporters to take to the streets to protest against what they see as an ongoing witch hunt and an attempt to discredit the former priest and liberation theologian.
Accusations of corruption against Aristide and many of his inner circle are long-standing. The interim government of Boniface Alexandre established the Financial Inquiry Central Unit (known by its French acronym UCREF) to investigate financial wrongdoing within the Aristide government during the three years from February 2001 until February 2004.
UCREF ending up accusing Aristide and a number of other functionaries and cabinet members, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, of embezzling or misusing $76 million.
UCREF allege that funds were channelled through various shell companies before ending up in the bank accounts of organisations such as the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, the Lafanmi Selva orphanage and the Aristide University. Money also allegedly ended up in the private accounts of members of Aristide’s cabinet.
The case has been picked up again by investigating judge, Lamarre Bélizaire, who issued a court order in August which, according to a Telesur report, accused the former president of ‘illicit drug trafficking, embezzlement of public funds, forfeiture and concussion, and money laundering’. After Aristide did not appear in court, Bélizaire issued a warrant for his arrest. He has also forbidden Aristide and a number of his inner circle including Neptune, Mirlande Liberus, Jean Nesty Lucien and Gustave Faubert to leave the country.
Aristide’s Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph has claimed that he did not receive the summons from Bélizaire in ‘good and due form’. Telesur report that the summons was left outside of Aristide’s home in Tabarre the day before he was required to attend court. According to the Associated Press, Joseph apparently went to the court to try and find out more about the summons but Bélizaire himself did not show.
For Aristide’s supporters, the allegations are politically motivated and are part of a long standing and ongoing smear campaign against him.
A piece in the Jamaica Observer cited Lavalas (Aristide’s party) spokesman Ansyto Felix’s claim that the efforts to bring Aristide to trail were ‘part of a plan by the Michel Martelly administration to persecute political opponents on the eve of crucial elections and in the face of popular discontent’
A piece on the Canada Haiti Action Network website notes that this is ‘not the first time that ‘news’ of charges against Aristide have appeared in the press’ and that ‘phantom charges and grave allegations of corruption have long been central to a politicized effort to publicly demonize the former president’.
The piece points to leaked State Department cables (made available by Wikileaks) from the former head of MINUSTAH, Edmond Mulet, arguing that indicting Aristide on criminal charges would be an effective way of stymieing any attempt that he might make at a comeback.
Aristide’s team have requested that Bélizaire be removed from the case, alleging that he is biased.
Aristide’s supporters have intervened to prevent his arrest. The BBC reported that a crowd of demonstrators numbering approximately 150 gathered to block the route to his home with rocks and burning tires. After a car carrying UN personnel was stoned, troops from MINUSTAH – the UN’s Stabilization Mission – deployed to disperse the crowd and rescue the UN staff.
Haiti Libre acknowledges that ‘the situation round the residence of the former President is very tense and the risk of social explosion is real’.
Aristide: A Controversial Figure
Aristide was elected President in 1991. Aristide was the central figure in the Lavalas movement which brought together church groups, political and peasant groups, and trade unions, and which drew much of its support from poorer marginalised sections of Haitian society, particularly in urban areas.
Aristide came to power promising to redistribute wealth as well as to stamp out the corruption of the predatory state. He was seen as somebody who was ready, willing and able to champion the needs of the poor
The rise of the Lavalas movement and the election of Aristide was supposed to signify a break with the legacy of Duvalierism. Alex Dupuy wrote in his 1997 book Haiti in the New World Order that Aristide emerged ‘as the single most important symbol of resistance to the ignominious, larcenous and barbaric neo-Duvalierist dictatorships’ that had followed the regime of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.
Aristide’s government was seen as a break with the narrative of greed and exploitation that has historically characterised Haitian politics. This narrative has seen presidents, politicians and senior members of the military amass significant personal fortunes by ‘leaching’ off the state.
Aristide’s programme brought him into conflict with variously the army (who he disbanded in 1995), the Catholic Church (who did not approve of Liberation Theology and who saw in Aristide’s speeches implied criticism that they had been complicit in keeping the poor oppressed because of a willingness to compromise with a succession of oppressive dictatorships), the United States (who were uncomfortable with Aristide’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and supposedly socialist leanings), and the Haitian political and business elite.
These conflicts saw Aristide ousted in September 1991, seven months after his inauguration, and his replacement by a military junta led by Raoul Cédras. Aristide was able to return to Haiti in 1994 to serve out the remainder of his term as president after the United Nations and the US government of Bill Clinton brokered a deal. Aristide was re-elected president in 2000 (in an election boycotted by opposition parties) only then to be forced out of office again in 2004 by an insurgency carried out by former members of the army.
Aristide had returned to Haiti in 2011 after spending seven years in exile in South Africa. Since then he has kept a relatively low profile, though it is clear that he retains considerable support among the poor. For them, as BBC journalist Andy Gallacher has noted, he remains ‘a potent symbol of democracy’.
The presence on Haitian soil of both Aristide and Baby Doc certainly complicates Haiti’s political scene.
Though Aristide has claimed that he is not looking for a political role, it is clear that he is still a very significant figure, one that could pose a serious challenge to the current government.
If Bélizaire does succeed in having Aristide arrested and bringing him to trial, the potential for unrest among Aristide’s considerable support base will only increase.