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March 13, 2011

US Urges Haiti’s Aristide to Delay Return

The United States, citing concern for Haiti’s stability, has urged former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide not to return to his homeland until after the country’s March 20 presidential election. The controversial Haitian figure has lived in exile in South Africa since his ouster in 2004.

Officials here are not challenging Mr. Aristide’s right to return home, which they say is assured by the country’s constitution.

But they say his immediate return, in the run-up to the country’s March 20 presidential run-off election, can only be seen as an effort to influence the voting.

The former Haitian president has lived in South Africa since shortly after being driven from office more than seven years ago by a popular uprising.

He expressed a desire to return home after former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return in January. Both South African officials and aides to Mr. Aristide say his return is imminent.

The United States has strongly supported the current electoral process as critical to Haiti’s stability, after years of political turmoil and the disastrous January 2010 earthquake.

State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner questioned the timing of the former leader’s apparent decision.

"To return this week can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections. We would urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded, to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere. A return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing for the political process," he said.

Toner said the United States encourages the South African government, as what he termed a "committed partner to Haiti’s stability," to also urge Mr. Aristide to delay his return.

Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, led a popular revolt that ended Haiti’s three-decade Duvalier dictatorship and was elected president in 1990.  

He was ousted by the military the following year, but returned to office amid U.S. military pressure in 1994.

He was forced to leave the country again a decade later amid protests of what was seen as autocratic rule. Mr. Aristide has said that if he returns home again, he will remain a private citizen and educator.

The March 20 presidential runoff in Haiti pits former first lady Mirlande Manigat against pop singer Michel Martelly.

The electoral process to choose a successor to outgoing President Rene Preval has been controversial, with an initial round of voting in November criticized by international observers as fraud-ridden.