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Supporters in Haiti make ready for Aristide

Supporters beat drums in the slums while workers spruced up his private villa as Haitians prepared on Tuesday for the possible return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide with feverish anticipation.

“Some people are cleaning the streets, others are getting the residence ready, and we are making preparations for a beautiful party,” Rene Civil, a die-hard follower of Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, told Agence France-Presse.

“There is a real feeling of expectation among the people,” Civil said, desperate to see his beloved “Titid” — or little Aristide — walk once again on Haitian soil.

Haiti has cleared the way for Aristide’s return from exile in South Africa by issuing him with a new passport, despite warnings from the United States (US) that the move would only add to the quake-hit nation’s political turmoil.

The once firebrand man of the cloth, who rode his reputation as a champion of the poor to become president, fled in 2004 aboard a US plane, accused of massive corruption and rights abuses.

In a chequered political career, Aristide served as president on three occasions and was ousted from office twice, once in a 1991 military coup and then in 2004 in a popular uprising.

As masonry workers repaired cracks in the walls of his once splendid villa, some residents dusted off their portraits of the diminutive, bespectacled leader.

Door-to-door canvassing has been organised to recruit the biggest possible turnout whenever Aristide finally makes his return to Port au Prince’s Toussaint Louverture airport.

Ancyto Felix, another tireless Aristide partisan, said there were plans to hold a massive rally in the Haitian capital on Friday.

Haiti, long the poorest country in the region, is in dire circumstances following last year’s earthquake, which killed more than 225 000 people, rendered 1,3-million homeless, and left much of the capital in ruins.

Fervent Aristide supporters, who include many of this impoverished Caribbean nation’s most desperate slum-dwellers, are convinced he is uniquely positioned lead the restoration of their battered country.

“Even if there isn’t an official date, people are getting ready for his return with excitement,” Civil said.

‘Unfortunate distraction’
Shortly after former strongman Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to Haiti last month, the 57-year-old Aristide announced that he too was “ready” to move back and dispatched his Miami attorney to Port-au-Prince to pick up his diplomatic passport.

Like Duvalier, Aristide insists he will stay out of politics — a statement viewed with suspicion both by political opponents in Haiti and by observers abroad.

“As I have not ceased to say since February 29 2004, from exile in Central Africa, Jamaica and now South Africa, I will return to Haiti to the field I know best and love: Education,” he told Britain’s Guardian this month.

The United States has warned Aristide’s return could upset a tenuous political equilibrium ahead of the March 20 second round run-off elections to replace current President Rene Preval.

“If former president Aristide returns to Haiti before the election, it would prove to be an unfortunate distraction,” State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said at a press briefing last week.

Vote rigging and political violence
Aristide has spent his exile as a visiting fellow at a university in Pretoria, where he has lectured and presented research papers, biding his time for his possible comeback.

Aristide first came to prominence as a young priest, using his oratorical skills in powerful sermons to plead the case of Haiti’s poor and downtrodden.

In 1990, the diminutive cleric swept to victory, riding a wave of support from Haiti’s millions of poor, devout Catholics.

Just eight months later he was ousted in a bloody military coup led by General Raoul Cedras.

Aristide returned to office three years later with backing from the United States, but later fell out of favour with Washington, amid claims of vote-rigging in the 2000 elections and political violence.

Four years later, during a 2004 uprising, he was forced out of office for a second time, and was encouraged to leave the country for his own safety. — Sapa-AFP

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