Aristide returns to Haiti as key vote looms

US, France had pressed Jean-Bertrand ristide to step down amid a rebellion.

Updated: Mar 19, 2011, 09:12 AM IST

Port-au-Prince: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti`s first democratically-elected leader who was twice driven into exile, returned to his homeland on Friday to cheers of thousands of supporters who lined the streets for a glimpse.

Aristide, 57, lost no time wading into the political fray just two days before a presidential run-off, denouncing authorities for barring his party from running and declaring that "Haiti`s ills have worsened" since he left seven years ago.

Thousands of supporters gathered outside the airport and throngs lined the streets shouting "vivas" as his car slowly made its way through the city to his residence under a police escort.

Crowds were so thick that police fired teargas to disperse them, but even so, Haitians clambered over the high walls of his residence to get a look at the diminutive former Roman Catholic priest, a champion of the poor who was reviled by the elite.

"Titid` is our king!", shouted Magene Masony, brandishing a yellowing portrait of Aristide, who was driven from power in 2004 and into exile in South Africa.

"Now that I`ve seen him again, I can die in peace," lawyer Gerard Pierre said of Aristide.

"This man is Haiti`s true uniter," he added. "He is the only one capable of bringing unity and dignity to Haiti."

The United States and France, which had pressed Aristide to step down amid a rebellion, had urged him not to return before the election on Sunday, fearing his presence could further unsettle a process already shaken by violent political challenges.

But Aristide ignored the appeals and flew with his wife and two daughters to Port-au-Prince in a private jet.

Smiling and wearing a dark blue suit, he stepped off the plane to a ceremonial welcome by President Rene Preval`s chief of staff, as well as Foreign Ministry officials and bouquet-bearing supporters.

He quickly turned sombre, warning in a televised address that "Haiti`s ills have worsened”.

The country now "bends under the weight of 27 million tons of rubble”, a reference to the cataclysmic January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people and flattened the capital.

Before leaving for Haiti from South Africa, Aristide pledged not to engage in this year`s political campaign, saying he only wanted to promote educational projects to help Haiti recover.

But upon his arrival, he blasted authorities for barring his Fanmi Lavalas party from the election which culminates in Sunday`s run-off.

"The exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas is an exclusion of the majority of Haitians," he said.

The return of Aristide, still hugely popular in Haiti`s swollen slums, has the potential to sway the tight race, particularly if he announces support for one of the two candidates.

Aristide`s car rolled slowly through throngs of wellwishers as he left the airport toward his home in the nearby town of Tabarre. Many sang, chanted slogans, and carried posters of Aristide or Creole placards that read "President Aristide you are a symbol for the Haitian people”.

Hours before his arrival, in an interview with news website Democracy Now which travelled with Aristide, the ousted leader said he expected a warm welcome.

"I think that the Haitian people are very happy, happy to know that we are on our way heading to Haiti, happy to know that finally their dream will be fulfilled by things on the ground because they fought hard for democracy," he said.

Haiti`s race for President pits popular singer Michel Martelly against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the final round of Presidential and Legislative elections marred by deadly violence and fraud.

Manigat, a 70-year-old academic, won the most votes in a corruption-plagued first round in which only 20 percent of the 4.7 million eligible Haitians cast ballots.

Martelly, 50, a bawdy carnival singer who laces performances with fierce political satire, enjoys broad support among young voters and now holds a slight lead in the polls.

Edrice, a Martelly supporter who declined to give his last name, said he was sacked from a telecommunications job in 2004 because of his support for Aristide. He still carries a picture of the former leader in his wallet.

He has been living in a tent nearby since the earthquake, but says: "Now, with Martelly and Aristide, we have hope."

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake crushed the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Haitians who are still living in squalid tent cities.

A former shantytown priest, Aristide burst onto the political scene in 1985 to oppose the authoritarian rule of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Aristide later rode his reputation as a champion of the poor Catholic majority to become Haiti`s first democratically elected president.

He was ousted from office twice, eventually leaving the country in 2004 -- like Duvalier -- aboard a US Air Force plane and accused of corruption and violence.

Duvalier, 59, made a shock return in January from his own 25-year exile.

Haitian prosecutors have charged Duvalier with corruption, embezzlement of public funds and criminal association during his 15-year rule, which ended when he was toppled by an uprising in 1986.

Bureau Report