Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a rare public appearance on the streets of Haiti Monday, hailing streets merchants, greeting hotel workers and calling on Haitians to help him bring dignity back to the country.
Thousands of supporters followed Aristide, sitting inside a heavily guarded gray SUV with his longtime spokeswoman and pick for the Haitian presidency, Maryse Narcisse. As they made their way to Pétionville, a tony suburb, supporters beat drums and sang in Creole, “We all need to become one, our blood is Aristide’s blood, that’s what Aristide asked for.”
It was Aristide’s fifth public outing since returning to Haiti from South Africa in 2011, where he spent seven years in his second political exile.
“It’s not money, it’s dignity,” said Aristide, sitting alongside Narcisse, who is running under his Fanmi Lavalas political party banner. “The rendezvous with dignity is Feb.7, 2017.”
That’s the date a newly elected Haitian president is supposed to take office if all goes well with the country’s scheduled Oct. 9 presidential rerun. The balloting is taking place almost a year after allegations of fraud and street protests plunged a poverty-stricken Haiti into a messy transitional period run by a caretaker government.
Most in the international community, including the United States, opposed the rerun and wanted the runoff to take place between Jovenel Moïse and Jude Célestin, who were named the top two finishers in a field of 54 candidates by Haiti’s elections body. But Célestin, an engineer and opposition leader, refused to participate in a runoff until the fraud allegations were addressed and measures were put in place to ensure the integrity of a second round.
Earlier this year, after a second evaluation of the votes, the elections body agreed to annul the results and rerun the first round. Last week, it officially opened the 45-day campaigning period.
For weeks, there had been rumors that Aristide, who rarely leaves his Tabarre home since returning to Haiti five years ago, would take to the campaign trail in support of Narcisse.
During a short press conference Monday, Aristide didn’t take any questions, and Narcisse avoided the question of whether Aristide would be joining her as she criss-crosses the country in search of voter support.
Her campaign manager and Aristide’s former minister for Haitians Living Abroad, Leslie Voltaire, however, said Monday’s outing the was first of many in the coming weeks.
“While Jovenel Moïse is campaigning with Guy Philippe in the Grand Anse, Aristide will be campaigning with Maryse,” Voltaire said.
Philippe is a former top Haitian National Police official who is in a runoff for the Senate. He’s also wanted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for drug trafficking and has been accused of attacking a police station in the city of Les Cayes earlier this year.
On Sunday, Moïse visited with Philippe in the Grand Anse and the two walked the campaign trail together.
Voltaire said he hopes that former president Michel Martelly, who picked Moïse, joins the campaign as well as former President René Préval.
“We would like for Préval to choose a candidate, and also campaign for that candidate,” Voltaire said. “This is the first time you have three ex-presidents in the country; no one is in exile. Democracy has started to take root. We’ve started to be tolerant in the country.”
Both Narcisse and Aristide said the country, however, remains troubled.
“The country is sick; the ailments are grave, socially, politically,” Narcisse said. “I am here to assemble everybody in the country, so that together we can help the country advance.”
Aristide said: “Hand in hand, we will walk for a general mobilization. Hand in hand, we will walk to save the [country’s] dignity.”
Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, said Aristide’s decision to campaign nationally for Narcisse “will test whether he still has the massive popularity he once enjoyed and whether that popularity will translate into votes for Narcisse.”
“This is a gamble that may well transform the current electoral calculus,” he said. “If Aristide is successful, the election would offer a clear choice between his Lavalas movement and anti-Lavalas bloc.”