Act III for former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Friday, March 18, 2011; 8:42 PM

JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE, the former president of Haiti who staged a dramatic return to Port-au-Prince on Friday from seven years' exile in Africa, is a man for whom defiance is a stock in trade. Early in his career, as a priest ministering to Haiti's slum-dwelling poor, he defied the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church by preaching liberation theology. Twice elected president in landslides driven by the country's downtrodden, he defied the country's minuscule but powerful elite, which despises him. And in staging his dramatic homecoming Friday, injecting further stress at a volatile moment two days before a runoff presidential election, he defied Western governments and the Obama administration, which explicitly sought to prevent his return.

It would be a terrible mistake - though hardly his first - if Mr. Aristide sought to destabilize Haiti's shaky political situation by capitalizing on what remains of his once-formidable popular appeal. Still physically devastated by the January 2010 earthquake, the country has been cursed by ineffectual leadership, unacceptably slow flows of foreign aid, the ravages of a deadly cholera outbreak and, for the past several months, a confused, contentious and convoluted attempt to elect a new president. It hardly needs more instability.

Unfortunately, that's what Mr. Aristide's arrival may portend. A gifted orator whose sweeping democratic elections, in 1990 and 2000, represented a stunning break from decades of violently repressive autocracy, he was twice overthrown - once by military coup, once by armed revolt - and sent into exile. In a nation severely polarized by class, he played on the resentments of the poor, who represent the vast majority of Haitians, while doing little to lift them from poverty. Nor did he attempt to capitalize on his democratic legitimacy by building a broader social consensus for reforms.

Things got worse in Mr. Aristide's second term. He used thugs to intimidate and attack political opponents, the media and human rights groups. Amid allegations that Mr. Aristide and his immediate inner circle of presidential guards and high-ranking police were turning the country into a narco-state, there was a spike in transshipments of cocaine and other illegal drugs through Haiti to the United States. An investigation by a federal grand jury in Miami led to convictions of smugglers, former police officers and other figures, some of whom said Mr. Aristide received large payoffs from traffickers in return for allowing the drug trade to thrive. While Mr. Aristide was not indicted, he may have delayed his return to Haiti partly for fear of being charged and facing extradition to the United States.

As for why he has chosen this moment to come home, that remains a mystery. Having served two terms in office (though both were cut short), he is not eligible to run again. He has not taken sides in Sunday's runoff election, which pits a former carnival singer notorious for taking down his pants on stage against a 70-year-old former first lady. His political intentions remain unclear.

What is clear is that Mr. Aristide retains at least something of his ability to inspire enthusiasm among his supporters, throngs of whom greeted him with cheers Friday, as well as fear and distrust among his opponents and critics - including both presidential candidates. This is, in a sense, the third act for Mr. Aristide. Given the fragility of Haitian politics and society, he would be wise to move more carefully and exercise greater restraint in his public statements then he did in his first two acts in public life.

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