Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned home from exile on Friday to boisterous throngs despite international pressure to keep him away before today’s elections. The Los Angeles Times reports (see excerpts with a link to the full article below):
Aristide arrived on a flight from South Africa, where he had lived in exile since soon after being flown out of Haiti on a U.S.-supplied plane amid turmoil in 2004. [. . .] The former leader struck a philosophical tone — in five languages — as he addressed reporters before exiting to a tumultuous welcome by thousands of his supporters. “Today may the Haitian people mark the end of exile and coup d’etat, while peacefully we must move from social exclusion to social inclusion,” Aristide said, drawing parallels with the 1804 revolution ending slavery.
The populist former priest remains a deeply polarizing figure in Haiti, where he is revered by many as the only reliable defender of the downtrodden but detested by wealthy elites and others who say he employed violence against enemies and ran a government ridden with graft.
His return adds a combustible ingredient as voters head to the polls for a presidential runoff between Michel Martelly, a popular singer, and Mirlande Manigat, a university vice rector who was once Haiti’s first lady. Speculation over Aristide’s return had gripped the country since the Haitian government issued him a passport in February, just weeks after former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return. On his arrival, Aristide spoke of an enduring love for Haiti and criticized the fact that his once-dominant party, Fanmi Lavalas, had been barred from the ongoing election campaign, saying it represented the “exclusion of the majority.”
Ebullient supporters in “Welcome Back” T-shirts flooded the airport road, blowing horns and holding photographs of Aristide as they trekked two miles to his home, whose surrounding walls had been newly painted a soft rose pink.
[. . .] U.S. officials sought to keep Aristide from making the trip home, arguing that his presence could prove a destabilizing factor during the closing phase of the presidential runoff. But South African officials said they had no legal grounds to prevent him from returning. [. . .] Aristide’s allies in Haiti denied that his return was timed to the election. And many Haitians say that Aristide had the same right to return as Duvalier. Martelly and Manigat, conservatives locked in a competitive race, were Aristide detractors in the past, but have said they support his right to return as a Haitian citizen. In an overture to Aristide’s political supporters, Manigat has suggested that she would turn to him for help on educational issues if she is elected president. Manigat campaign signs declaring her Haiti’s “mother” allude to Aristide as its “father.”