Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide gestures to supporters… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns home from exile in South Africa to boisterous throngs despite international pressure to keep him away before Sunday's elections.
Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose tortuous life saga is sprinkled with comebacks, returned home Friday to boisterous throngs, defying international pressure to keep him away before Sunday's election.
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.
Wearing a navy suit and red and blue striped tie, Aristide clasped his hands as he stepped off the chartered airplane in a VIP area of the airport in Haiti's capital. 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.
"I'm so happy — it's like a hunger," said Nadia Paul, who is 34 and jobless. "I feel in my heart that with Aristide here things will be better."
Outside the gates of the tree-shaded Aristide compound, bouncy carnival music blared from speakers as revelers swigged homemade liquor from plastic bottles.
"It's a new game now!" one man shouted, to no one in particular.
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, twice elected Haitian president and twice ousted, left Johannesburg on Thursday with his wife, Mildred, their two daughters, actor Danny Glover and the former leader's Miami-based lawyer.
The big question now is what role Aristide imagines for himself.
Aristide has said he hoped to return to work in education, not politics. But his profile and the fractured condition of the Haitian left may make it difficult for him to stay out of political life.
His backers have consistently dismissed the runoff as a sham — a "selection," not an election, they say — because Fanmi Lavalas was excluded on a technicality that its members characterize as a pretext.
But Aristide's presence could overshadow Sunday's election, undermining the mandate claimed by its eventual winner. Analysts said the weeks of speculation about whether he would come back proved Aristide remains a force.
"The headlines were not about the elections — they're about Aristide's return," Bernice Robertson, an analyst in Haiti for the International Crisis Group, said a day earlier. "He remains an important figure in Haitian politics, and it's being felt."
Some fear possible violence in an already charged environment.
U.S. officials had urged Aristide to wait until after the election to return. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said this week that the decision to come back now "can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti's elections."
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."
But some Haitians braced for trouble.
"It's not good Aristide is coming back," said Junior Dessier, 27, a taxi driver. "The streets will be hot and there might be violence, and that could destabilize the election."
Some exultant Aristide backers compared the former Haitian leader to Jesus and said they would await a signal from him on how to vote Sunday. But one admirer, 51-year-old Howard Lafalaise, said he would vote for neither candidate.
"No, no, no," he said. "Aristide — that's it."
Special correspondent Allyn Gaestel contributed to this report.