Aristide surprises by staying on Haiti's sidelines

May 12, 2011 - 1:45 PM

Haiti Absent Aristide

FILE - This March 18, 2011 file photo, shows Haiti's former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, center, gestures as he is surrounded by security, supporters and journalists upon his arrival to his home after a seven-year exile abroad in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Since his return and in a surprise to supporters and opponents alike, Aristide has disappeared from the public eye, vanishing behind the high walls of his compound. Aristide has been invited to attend the inauguration of President-elect Michel Martelly Saturday, May 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, file)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned in March to a movie star's welcome, arriving by private jet to a crowd of adoring fans and fevered speculation about what the twice-ousted leader would do back home.

The mystery has only deepened since then.

In a surprise to supporters and opponents alike, Aristide has disappeared from the public eye, vanishing behind the high walls of his compound.

He has made no speeches and granted no interviews. He hasn't taken a tour of the devastation from last year's earthquake, at least not that anyone has seen.

Nor has he been spotted at any restaurants as has Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the ousted former dictator who also made an abrupt return to Haiti this winter.

Aides rebuff questions and security guards at the compound have turned away journalists.

"It's rare that the president steps out of the house and says hello," said Jean-Max Maxime, a mason helping to increase the height of the towering concrete walls that surround the house near the Port-au-Prince airport. "He's always inside."

Such a low profile is hardly what anyone expected of Aristide, one of the most charismatic leaders in Haitian history. The former priest, who led opposition to the Duvalier regime and became the first democratically elected president, is a polarizing figure: beloved by many of the country's poor, loathed by the wealthy elite and distrusted by foreign governments, particularly France and the U.S.

Many Haitians expected Aristide would quickly return to politics, doubting the claims by aides that he only wanted to rebuild the university and foundation that withered after he was driven from power in a violent rebellion in 2004. The U.S. warned he could be a disruptive force and he seemed to signal his intentions upon his return by immediately denouncing the exclusion of his party, Lavalas, from the presidential election.

The day of his arrival, thousands of Haitians waited and rallied in the shade of mango trees outside his home. He waved to supporters before vanishing into a cocoon of security from which he has yet to emerge.

"He seems to have disappeared off the radar screen," said Robert Maguire, a longtime Haiti scholar who teaches at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. "I'm surprised we haven't heard from him. I don't know what to make of it."

Longtime supporters and aides provide few clues. The former president has been invited to attend Saturday's inauguration of President-elect Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a popular musician who publicly sided with the right-wing elite who ousted Aristide in 2004.

Michelle Karshan, Aristide's foreign press liaison, said she didn't know if he would attend the swearing-in ceremony on the grounds of the collapsed National Palace and she declined a request to ask the former president. Maryse Narcisse, a Lavalas leader who frequently spoke for Aristide while he was in exile, now passes on questions to a secretary to the former president, who refers journalists to Karshan.

On most days, a stream of SUVs passes through the gates of the Aristide compound, but it's unclear with whom he meets. U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten hasn't spoken to the former president, nor has former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti and co-chairman of the reconstruction effort. A spokesman for outgoing President Rene Preval, a former Aristide protege who reportedly became estranged from him in recent years, declined comment.

Aristide's U.S. lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said the former president is meeting with old friends, deciding his course of action.

"I think he's trying to listen to people and find out what's going on in education and in the country in general," Kurzban said. "I think it would be odd if he came back and started making statements, instead of listening to the people of Haiti about what's happened the past seven years."

Aristide made few public statement during his exile in South Africa, though he repeatedly said he wanted to come back to work as an educator through his foundation. After "Baby Doc" showed up in January, Aristide made his desire known again and he was issued a diplomatic passport that enabled his return.

So far, university students and foundation staff say he has not come by the complex, a short drive from the compound.

The school reopened in 2008. Its 200 enrolled students take computer courses and Spanish taught by Cuban instructors. On a recent afternoon, several students in their 20s hung out under a shade tree, seemingly unconcerned by Aristide's silence.

"He's home and doing personal things," said Butheler Elie, 24.

If Aristide, whom many know by his Creole diminutive "Titid," did emerge from his seclusion, Patrick Elie, a friend and former minister in his government, said he would do so quietly.

"He would have to be very discreet," Elie said. "The minute people spot him they're going to scream 'Titid,' and you're going to have a bona fide demonstration."