What Aristide's Return Means for Haiti's Election

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Alexandre Meneghini / AP

Ousted President Aristide arrives at the airport in Port-au-Prince

Jean-Bertrand Aristide knows how to make an entrance. The petit pretre (or "Little Priest") emerged from seminary to become the focal point of the slum uprisings against the Duvalier dynasty and the military dictatorships that followed it, and he became Haiti's first democratically elected President in February 1991. Deposed by a coup seven months later and sent into exile, he reclaimed the office in 1994 on the shoulders of 20,000 U.S. Marines sent by President Bill Clinton expressly to return him to power. In 2001, he won the presidency again with 92% of the vote — only to reign over mismanagement and chaos until another coup threw him out in 2004. On March 18, after years of exile in South Africa, he touched down in Port-au-Prince's Toussaint L'Ouverture airport, choosing to arrive two days before the most crucial presidential election in the earthquake-shattered nation's history. What is he trying to prove?

For one, that he is still a force to contend with in Haiti. Aristide actually surprised his followers, who were expecting him to arrive in the early afternoon. Only a couple hundred supporters were at the airport when his plane landed in the morning. But as soon as the news was broadcast on the radio, many people seemed to drop everything, suddenly walking toward the airport, carrying branches to welcome him. They wore T-shirts with his portrait and honked the horns of their motorcyles. Using his popular nickname, a banner reading "Welcome Back, Titide" was draped in front of the massive gates of Aristide's home. The outside walls had been freshly painted pastel pink and adorned with miniature Haitian flags along the perimeter, which looked like candles on a birthday cake. Earlier, pedestrians had shuffled by, eyes fixed on the building, as if they expected the exiled leader to pop up at any moment. One supporter, Jean-Exeter Versailles, 33, was ecstatic. "He represents our father. I'm happy to welcome my father back home." By the time the slow motorcade had reached Aristide's home, the crowd had swollen to more than a thousand people.

A combination of firebrand and sweet-talking orator, icon and bully, Aristide has said he is returning to rebuild Haiti's education system and to open a medical school. Addressing his supporters, he stuck to the theme of inclusion — focused on the young and underprivileged who make up a huge proportion of Haiti's population. He compared his exile to that of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the 18th century founding father of Haiti, who was kidnapped by the French and shipped out of the country. Aristide claims he was kidnapped by the U.S. as part of the 2004 coup. Still, he told his supporters, "We condemn any violence," and said he was happy to be home. "Home is where the heart is," he declared. He said he had come back with a mission: "My goal is to live so that Haiti does not die."

The anticipation of Aristide's return had been tremendous on the streets of Port-au-Prince since President René Préval, a onetime disciple, issued Aristide a diplomatic passport in January. The exiled President received his visa just days after Préval's handpicked successor, Jude Celestin, was eliminated from the presidential runoff — and many observers believe the move was a fit of pique on Préval's part over not having his way. U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten told TIME that "Aristide could be a disruption or a distraction" to a democratic process that American taxpayers had put a lot of money into.

It is certainly a complication for the two candidates in the March 20 presidential runoff: Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, 50, a widely popular singer turned politician; and Mirlande Manigat, 70, a former First Lady and constitutional scholar. Neither candidate supported Aristide during his heyday. Martelly, in particular, is known for denouncing the former President in his song lyrics. But, aware of the ex-President's spirited supporters, Martelly's camp (which includes Fugees band member Pras Michel) is putting out word that the candidate plans to walk a fine line so as not to cut himself off from Aristide. Indeed, at the airport, Versailles, who came to welcome Aristide, said, "I support Martelly, but wherever Aristide goes, that's where I'm going."

Martelly's political sentiments may be more akin to those of François "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the former "President-for-life" of Haiti who made a surprise return to Haiti in December after 25 years of exile in Europe. Duvalier's thugs, the vicious Tontons Macoutes, loved to sing Martelly's songs. Baby Doc may have returned because of financial problems abroad, but he almost immediately ran into legal ones in Haiti: he was promptly charged with human-rights abuses and looting the national treasury.

Some observers believe Aristide too may face legal challenges now that he has returned. To his critics, the ex-priest (he is now married with children) is no saint. His political party has been accused of assassinating its enemies and profiting from the illegal drug trade — allegations denied by Aristide. Though he can elicit adulation, Aristide is not always so fondly remembered. Ambroise Bien-Aime, 45, says, "I was scared during the time he was in power. I didn't feel safe. I hope that on election day, the people do not turn to violence and we can vote in the spirit of reconciliation." Still, he doesn't fault Aristide for everything that was bad at that time. And he doesn't object to Aristide's return. "Every Haitian has a right to be in his own country." But he adds, "If he's done anything wrong, we should judge him here."

Reginald Boulos, a businessman and physician, says he has good reason to dislike Aristide. He claims that in 1995 Aristide attempted to assassinate him three times because Titide saw him as a rival in the notorious slum of Cité Soleil. Boulos says that in one attempt he had to escape in the trunk of a top-ranked USAID official's car to avoid being lynched by a pro-Aristide mob. But Boulos says he's not anxious over Aristide's return and has been trying to calm other businessmen who view the return as destabilizing. "I had my problems with him, but it was 15 years ago. We need to move on," says Boulos. "Aristide has the right to be back." Boulos does wish, however, that the former President could at least have waited till after the elections.