US urges Aristide to delay Haiti return

The United States (US) has urged Haiti’s former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to postpone his planned return to the quake-hit country until after Sunday’s vital presidential run-off.

“We would urge former president Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded, to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere,” said US official Mark Toner.

“To return prior to the election may potentially be destabilising to the political process,” the State Department spokesperson added.

November’s first-round election was marred by violence and fraud and the shattered country is still struggling to rebuild itself after a devastating earthquake 14 months ago that killed about 250 000 people.

Aides say Aristide is poised to leave South Africa, where he has lived in exile since 2004, and that his return to Haiti is “imminent”.

Haitian authorities issued him with a new passport at the beginning of February and the path now appears clear for the three-time former president to return.

‘Genuinely concerned’
Aristide’s lawyer hit out on Monday at the interference from the US and suggested the former Haitian leader only wanted to return so that he could “carry on his educational work”.

“However, he is genuinely concerned that a change in the Haitian government may result in his remaining in South Africa,” the lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said in a statement sent to Agence France-Presse.

Kurzban was dismissive of Washington’s repeated warnings that Aristide’s return would be an unwelcome distraction as the Caribbean nation goes to the polls on March 20 to choose a successor to President René Préval.

“They should leave that decision to the democratically elected government instead of seeking to dictate the terms under which a Haitian citizen may return to his country,” Kurzban said.

The charismatic shantytown priest burst onto the scene in 1985 to oppose Haiti’s authoritarian rule, riding his reputation as a champion of the poor Catholic majority to become the first democratically elected president.

Aristide served as president on three occasions and was ousted from office twice, eventually fleeing a 2004 popular uprising aboard a US plane, in turn accused of massive corruption and violence.

Surprise return
He remains a popular figure in certain quarters in Haiti, especially in the capital’s teeming slums, and in the tent cities that have sprung up since the January 2010 earthquake where many decry the slow pace of progress.

The second round pits popular singer Michel Martelly over former first lady Mirlande Manigat.

Martelly (50) known as Sweet Micky, was initially excluded from the run-off, until international observers reviewed the first-round results and found vote-rigging in favour of Preval’s favoured candidate, Jude Celestin.

Celestin was later dropped from the run-off and Martelly took his place.

Martelly said on Monday that he saw no problem with the presence of Aristide or Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who made a surprise return to Haiti in January.

“Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as president Duvalier, has a right to return to his country tomorrow,” Martelly told journalists.

But he also added that “if I had the authority I would ask him to wait until [next] Monday or Tuesday, for the stability of the electoral period”.

Haitian prosecutors have charged 59-year-old Duvalier with corruption, embezzlement of public funds and criminal association during his 15-year rule, which ended when he was toppled by an uprising in 1986. — Sapa-AFP

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