Warm welcome greets Aristide on return to Haiti

The Associated Press
Friday, March 18, 2011; 6:30 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned home Friday from a seven-year exile to the warm embrace of jubilant supporters despite criticism from the U.S. and domestic opponents who said his presence could disrupt the weekend's already delayed presidential election.

Aristide emerged from a chartered flight from South Africa with his wife and daughters, waved and blew kisses at a crowd. Speaking to supporters and journalists, he criticized the decision to bar his political party, Lavalas Family, from the election, saying it had disenfranchised a majority of Haitians in the sharply divided nation.

"Excluding Lavalas, you cut the branches that link the people," he said. "The solution is inclusion of all Haitians as human beings."

His remarks seemed to contradict earlier statements by Aristide and his supporters that he was coming home only to work in education, not to engage in politics. Washington and others in the international community have worried that his presence could affect Sunday's presidential runoff.

U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten said later Friday via Twitter that the U.S. believes Aristide has the right to return, "but it's up to him if he wants to play a positive role in the future of Haiti."

Haiti's electoral council barred Lavalas from the election for technical reasons that its supporters say were bogus, though several people who were affiliated with the party in the past ran in the first round of the presidential ballot. Many members are boycotting Sunday's runoff, and it's unclear if Aristide will seek to influence the outcome.

Twice elected president and twice deposed, Aristide is a popular but also polarizing figure. The former priest is an advocate of the poor, who make up the vast majority of Haiti's 10 million people, and he was a leader of the movement that shook off a hated dictatorship.

But he has many critics who say he led a corrupt government, orchestrated violent attacks on foes and was as hungry for power as the leaders he denounced. He was last ousted in 2004 in a violent rebellion that swept the country.

On Friday, Aristide was mobbed by allies and journalists outside the private plane before being hustled into an airport VIP lounge as several thousand supporters rallied in the streets outside the terminal.

"It's one of the most beautiful moments for the Haitian people," actor Danny Glover, who accompanied Aristide from South Africa, told The Associated Press as he left the VIP lounge before the ex-leader. "It's a historic moment for the Haitian people."

In the street outside the airport, people listened joyfully to remarks from Aristide on car radios.

"This man is our father. Without him we haven't lived," said 31-year-old Sainvil Petit-Frere, one of about 3,000 cheering and chanting supporters in a quickly growing crowd in the capital, Port-au-Prince. "This is the doctor who will heal the country."

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© 2011 The Associated Press