- Associated Press - Monday, February 14, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | The rumor spread through Lucien Tham’s crowded encampment: Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had returned!

So he joined scores of other Haitians rushing to the airport with his family, spending precious savings on a collective taxi to ride across town after sundown.

It was a false alarm, one of many that have rippled across the Haitian capital in recent days as Mr. Aristide requested and received a new passport after his nearly seven-year exile in South Africa.

Yet the eagerness for Mr. Aristide’s return shows that the former slum priest remains a powerful symbol of hope for millions, even if others dread the return of instability that Haiti suffered under his rule.

“President Aristide didn’t hurt anybody; he only helped out the poor,” said Mr. Tham, a 45-year-old unemployed laborer in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil. “His presence is necessary here.”

Mr. Aristide, at a Jan. 15 press conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, said he was ready to return to his quake-devastated country, but he did not say when or how. The former Haitian president currently lives in exile in South Africa. (Associated Press)
Mr. Aristide, at a Jan. 15 press conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, ... more >

Many think he could arrive any day, heightening anxiety as well as anticipation as Haiti emerges from a political crisis a year after a devastating earthquake.

The slightly built Mr. Aristide emerged as a leading voice for Haiti’s poor and became the troubled country’s first democratically elected president, despite opposition from the army, Haiti’s elite and the United States after the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

But Mr. Aristide was toppled twice from power, his second term ending in 2004 amid a violent rebellion. He left the country aboard a U.S. plane. Mr. Aristide and his supporters insist he was kidnapped. U.S. officials said Mr. Aristide departed at his own request.

Through the years, Mr. Aristide’s faithful have organized protests demanding his return, and his name is often seen scrawled across U.N. peacekeeping fortresses and other buildings.

Critics accuse the polarizing ex-president of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents with armed gangs.

U.S. officials are among those worried that Mr. Aristide’s return could further destabilize a country preparing for a March 20 presidential runoff that was delayed by a political crisis and street disturbances over allegations of vote fraud.

“We would be concerned if former President Aristide returns to Haiti before the election,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington last week. “It would prove to be an unfortunate distraction to the people of Haiti.”

Speculation that he might come back soared after notorious ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return in January after nearly 25 years of exile in France. The focus quickly turned to Mr. Aristide, who said last month he was ready to return “today, tomorrow, at any time.”

Mr. Aristide’s American attorney, Ira Kurzban, traveled to Port-au-Prince last week and picked up a diplomatic passport for Mr. Aristide that was suddenly issued by the government of outgoing President Rene Preval.

Mr. Kurzban said he is confident that his client will be back before the runoff vote.

Story Continues →