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US Wary of Aristide's Return to Haiti

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during a press conference in Johannesburg, South Africa (file photo)
Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during a press conference in Johannesburg, South Africa (file photo)

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday the early return to Haiti of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide would be an "unfortunate distraction" from the country’s run-off presidential election campaign. The former leader, who has lived in South Africa for the last several years, has been granted a Haitian passport.

Officials here are not saying what the United States has told the Haitian and South African governments about Mr. Aristide’s prospective return home.

But the State Department is making clear publicly that it would consider such a move, in the midst of the campaign for Haiti’s March 20 presidential run-off election, a bad idea.

Mr. Aristide has been in South Africa most of the time since fleeing Haiti in 2004 amid a popular rebellion.

The former Roman Catholic priest became Haiti’s first democratically-elected president in 1991 but was quickly ousted by the military.

He was restored to power after U.S. intervention in 1994 but driven from office a decade later amid charges of corruption and autocratic rule.

After former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return from exile last month, Mr. Aristide has said he, too, would like to return home.

But it would come at a sensitive time as Haiti struggles to recover from last year’s devastating earthquake, and a bitterly disputed first-round president vote in late November.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said he is unaware of specific travel plans by Mr. Aristide but that the United States "would hate to see" any action that introduces divisiveness into the election process.

"I think that we would be concerned that if former president Aristide returns to Haiti before the election, it would prove to be an unfortunate distraction," said P.J. Crowley. "The people of Haiti should be evaluating the two candidates that will participate in the runoff, and that I think that should be their focus."

The State Department also criticized former leader Duvalier’s return but later welcomed steps to prosecute him for corruption during his rule.

Spokesman Crowley said any action by any player that distracts from getting Haiti the kind of government it needs to rebuild would be "unwise"

The March 20 run-off, scheduled after a lengthy dispute about the November vote-count, pits a former Haitian first lady and college administrator Mirlande Manigat againsted popular entertainer Michel Martelly.

Mr. Aristide reportedly still has wide popular support but is considered a polarizing figure. He has said he would limit himself to teaching if he returned, and his spokeswoman rejected the notion his return would be ill-timed.