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Aristide Supporters March for His Return in Haiti

A man holds a calendar depicting Haiti's ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 18, 2011
A man holds a calendar depicting Haiti's ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 18, 2011
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Thousands of Haitians have taken to the streets of Port-au-Prince to rally for the return of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The Aristide supporters massed downtown Friday before ending their rally near the presidential palace, which was ruined in last year's devastating earthquake. The pro-Aristide rally took place days after the government announced it had issued a diplomatic passport for the former priest, who is living in exile in South Africa.

Aristide has said he is ready to return to his homeland, and that he hopes the governments of Haiti and South Africa will make that possible. If is not clear when he might return to the Caribbean nation. A U.S. State Department spokesman has said the last thing Haiti needs is the return of former rulers and the revival of past controversies.

The U.S. also has said the early return to Haiti of the exiled former president would be "an unfortunate distraction" from that nation's runoff presidential campaign.

A runoff election is scheduled for March 20 and follows a lengthy dispute about the initial round, which took place November 28. The second round pits former first lady Mirlande Manigat against popular entertainer Michel Martelly.

Aristide became Haiti's first democratically-elected president in 1991, but was soon ousted in a military coup. He returned to power in 1994 through U.S. military intervention and served until 1996. He was re-elected in 2000. His political party, Fanmi Lavalas, was not allowed to participate in the disputed presidential elections last year.

In January, former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made an unexpected appearance in Haiti after 25 years in exile.

Authorities have since confiscated Duvalier's expired passport. Since his return to Haiti, he has been charged with corruption, embezzlement and other abuses of power from his brutal, 15-year rule that ended in 1986.

Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. The Caribbean nation is still struggling to recover from the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left more than 1 million others homeless. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in tent cities, and many parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, remain in ruins. The country also is struggling with a deadly cholera epidemic.

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