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Aristide Says His Return is Fulfillment of Haitians' Dreams for Democracy

A Haitian woman uses her mobile phone next to a poster of Haiti's presidential candidates Mirlande Manigat in Port-au-Prince, March 18, 2011

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to his homeland on Friday after seven years in exile, saying his return was the fulfillment of Haitians' dreams for democracy.

His return comes two days before the country votes in a delayed presidential runoff election.

On the way back from his exile in South Africa, Aristide told the independent news program Democracy Now! that Haitians are "very happy" that he is returning and that he shared their happiness. The former leader, twice democratically elected before fleeing the country in an armed rebellion in 2004, remains popular among Haiti's impoverished masses. He said he would work in education to improve their lives.

Reaction in Haiti

Upon hearing that Aristide was returning, some supporters joined in a loud, horn-blaring celebration.

U.S. President Barack Obama sought to delay his return until after Sunday's election and called South African President Jacob Zuma this week to voice concerns that Aristide's homecoming could destabilize the voting. But Pretoria said he had a Haitian passport and that it "cannot hold him hostage."

Aristide expressed a desire to go back to Haiti after former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return in January. The former president is accompanied by his wife and two daughters.

UNICEF Ambassador and actor Danny Glover laughs during an event in Lima October 20, 2010 (file photo)
UNICEF Ambassador and actor Danny Glover laughs during an event in Lima October 20, 2010 (file photo)

Hollywood actor Danny Glover also joined Aristide on his return home. The actor, who starred in the "Lethal Weapon" movies and is now chairman of the U.S.-based human rights group TransAfrica Forum, became the latest celebrity to push for Aristide to return to his homeland.

Glover flew to Johannesburg, writing on the TransAfrica Forum website that he wanted to show solidarity with the people of Haiti and help return a leader they twice elected with "overwhelming support."

No mention of politics

Aristide and his representatives have said the former leader has no intention of becoming involved in politics and Sunday's runoff election, which pits former first lady Mirlande Manigat against popular entertainer Michel Martelly.

Martelly was initially excluded from the runoff until international observers reviewed the first-round results and recommended he advance to the second round instead of the ruling party candidate, Jude Celestin. The observers cited fraud and irregularities in the first round of balloting, which took place in November.

Celestin was later dropped from the runoff. The person who wins the election will succeed outgoing President Rene Preval.

The United States strongly supports the current electoral process as critical to Haiti's stability, following years of political turmoil and the disastrous January 2010 earthquake.