Aristide is 'ready' to end exile and return to Haiti


Sending a fresh ripple through the choppy waters of Haitian politics, the country's deposed former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has declared that he is ready to end six years of exile and return home "today, tomorrow, at any time".

The announcement comes days after Haiti experienced another blast from the past with the sudden return of another ex-president: Mr Aristide's lifelong bête noire, Jean-Claude Duvalier, the notorious former dictator who is more widely known as "Baby Doc".

Mr Aristide, a left-wing former Catholic priest who has been living in South Africa since being ousted in a 2004 coup, announced his ambition to return in a short letter to supporters published on the internet yesterday morning. "Since my forced arrival in the Mother Continent six-and-a-half years ago, the people of Haiti have never stopped calling for my return," the letter said. "As far as I am concerned, I am ready... The purpose is very clear: to contribute to serving my Haitian sisters and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education."

To return, he must first secure a new Haitian passport. He must also get permission. "Let us hope that the Haitian and South African governments will enter into communication in order to make that happen in the next coming days," his message said.

Mr Aristide, 57, was Haiti's first democratically elected leader and a key figure in overthrowing Mr Duvalier, who had succeeded his own father in 1971 and ruled for 15 years with an iron fist and the help of a sunglass-wearing militia known as the Tonton Macoutes.

Mr Aristide remains a polarising figure. He is romanticised by poorer Haitians, who believe that the coups which twice removed him from office, in 1991 and 2004, were orchestrated by the US government in retaliation for efforts to enact economic reforms which might damage American business interests. However, rival political parties accuse Mr Aristide of corruption and human rights abuses. Like most of the country's political leaders, he enjoyed a life of relative luxury when in office and his former villa, set in extended gardens a couple of miles from Port-au-Prince's airport, bears witness to the once-lavish nature of his lifestyle.

While Mr Aristide's newly released message does not suggest he has any desire to return to the political arena, any return home would nonetheless add to the volatile mood on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital city flattened by a devastating earthquake a year ago.

Graffiti supporting Mr Aristide's former party, the Fanmi Lavalas, can be seen throughout the tented encampments where almost one million people are still living after being made homeless by the earthquake, which killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people. The party was banned from taking part in the recent presidential elections, in dubious circumstances, and the presence of Mr Aristide would be likely to add to pressure for it to be allowed to participate in another poll.

Even before this week's events, Haiti was in a state of political turmoil amid allegations that supporters of the outgoing President René Preval are attempting to fraudulently lever his preferred successor Jude Celestin into office. A run-off presidential election scheduled for 14 January that was abruptly called off after the first round of voting – which saw Mr Celestin unexpectedly beat popular musician Michel Martelly – was judged to have been marred by endemic fraud.

With Mr Duvalier now facing criminal complaints from former opponents who were jailed and tortured under his regime, the sudden return of Mr Aristide would only add to the volatile mood. Washington reacted to his announcement with dismay. "Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past," a state department spokesman said.