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Haiti

Aristide's return eclipses election

Text by: NEWS WIRES
4 min

The US is urging Haiti's exiled former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to delay his arrival in Haiti until the run-off election between singer Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, and former first lady Mirlande Manigat on Sunday next.

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AFP- Jean-Bertrand Aristide looms large over Haiti's crucial run-off election amid fears the return of the charismatic and divisive former leader could upset the delicate political status quo.

The United States has repeatedly urged Aristide to delay the move until after Sunday's presidential poll, which pits a popular singer against a former first lady in a tight contest to succeed President Rene Preval.

But in South Africa, where Aristide has lived in exile since being forced out in murky circumstances by a 2004 rebellion, a senior official told AFP he intended to fly back on Thursday afternoon.

The United States views Aristide, an ex-priest who rose to power as a champion of the poor but was ousted from office twice during a tumultuous 13-year period, as an unfortunate and potentially harmful distraction.

"Former president Aristide has chosen to remain outside of Haiti for seven years," US embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said in Pretoria. "To return this week can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti's electoral process."

On Sunday, popular singer Michel Martelly will face off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in a bid to replace Preval, in the final round of an election marred by violence and allegations of fraud.

The winner will face the challenge of rebuilding the western hemisphere's poorest country following a January 2010 earthquake that flattened the capital, killing more than 220,000 people.

Manigat, 70, was the top vote-getter in a corruption-plagued first round in which only 20 percent of the 4.7 million eligible Haitians cast ballots.

Martelly, who holds a slight lead over Manigat in the polls, enjoys broad support among Haiti's many young voters, but the former carnival singer, known for bawdy stage performances as "Sweet Micky," is an unlikely front-runner.

Aristide supporters feel angry they were disenfranchised -- the former president's Fanmi Lavalas party was barred from competing in the polls -- and many Haitians decry the slow pace of post-quake reconstruction.

"It's perfect volatile tinder in which to toss the match of Mr. Aristide’s return," wrote Haiti expert Amy Wilentz in an op-ed piece published in The New York Times on Wednesday.

Aristide, 57, was a shantytown priest and champion of the poor who rose to power opposing the dictatorial Duvalier clan to become Haiti's first democratically-elected president in 1991.

After challenging the tiny but powerful elite, Aristide was ousted by a military coup seven months later but reinstalled in 1994 with the help of former president Bill Clinton and 20,000 US Marines.

He did not compete in the 1996 election but supported his ally Preval, who won in a landslide. Aristide won a second term in 2001 only to lose favor with the international community and be forced out again by a 2004 rebellion.

Many poor Haitians, whose post-quake misery has been compounded by a cholera epidemic that has claimed almost 5,000 lives since November, still remember Aristide fondly, but he is anathema to the powerful elite.

"He is a very controversial figure and he clearly generates now either sheer admiration or very strong feelings of antagonism," said Robert Fatton, a politics professor and Haiti expert at the University of Virginia.

"It is very clear that the elite doesn't want to see him back in the country and that the international community doesn't want to see him back in the country," Fatton told Public Radio International recently.

But shortly after former strongman Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier made a surprise return in January, Aristide said he too was "ready" to move back to contribute to the recovery of his homeland, particularly through education.

Like Duvalier, Aristide insists he will stay out of politics -- a statement viewed with suspicion both by the United States and the Haitian elite.

Some observers accuse Washington of being behind both of Aristide's ousters and feel very strongly that he is being miscast.

"He is still a symbol of Haiti's sovereignty, and respect for the poor, for millions of Haitians. For Washington, that is inherently dangerous," Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote last month.

"Now that Aristide is returning, we can expect to see a massive smear campaign again against him in the major media, with allegations of human rights abuses and 'moral equivalence' comparisons with the Duvalier dictatorships."

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