Haiti's Aristide heads home, despite US pressure
Joshua Howat BergerMarch 18, 2011 - 8:59AM
Aristide flew out of a small executive airport outside Johannesburg aboard a private jet at 11:14 pm (2114 GMT), telling reporters in Zulu that he was returning home in defiance of pressure for him to wait until after Sunday's presidential run-off in Haiti.
"The great day has arrived, the day to say good-bye before returning home," he said.
Aristide's spokeswoman in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince said he was expected to arrive Friday morning, and his Fanmi Lavalas party has called for a rally at the airport to welcome him home.
Obama had personally called his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma on Tuesday, voicing "deep concerns that president Aristide's return to Haiti in the closing days of the election could be destabilising," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in Washington.
South Africa publicly insisted that it had no control over Aristide's departure, with minister for the presidency Colins Chabane telling reporters that Pretoria "can't hold him hostage if he wants to go".
In addition to Aristide's wife and two daughters, actor Danny Glover boarded the plane to escort him home. Glover, who starred in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise and "The Color Purple", heads a charity involved in Haiti.
"We have a long history together. He is my friend and I am in support of his return to help the Haitian people rebuild, to be a part of all the wonderful things that he championed as president," Glover told AFP.
Aristide says he wants to promote educational projects to help Haiti recover from the January 2010 earthquake that flattened the capital and killed more than 220,000 people.
More than 14 months on, hundreds of thousands of Haitians whose homes and livelihoods were obliterated by the 7.0-magnitude quake still live in squalid tent cities, losing hope for the future.
Aristide, a former shantytown priest, burst onto the political scene in 1985 to oppose Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's authoritarian rule, riding his reputation as a champion of the poor Catholic majority to become Haiti's first democratically elected president.
He was ousted from office twice, eventually leaving the country in 2004 -- like Duvalier aboard a US Air Force plane and in turn accused of massive corruption and violence.
He has since lived in South Africa, where the government has provided an official residence for him, his wife and two children. He used his time to obtain a doctorate in comparative languages, studing Zulu and Haitian Creole.
Aristide supporters feel angry they were disenfranchised in the election -- his Fanmi Lavalas party was barred from competing -- and many Haitians decry the slow pace of reconstruction.
Haiti's race for president pits popular singer Michel Martelly against former first lady Mirlande Manigat on Sunday in the final round of presidential and legislative elections marred by deadly violence and fraud.
Manigat, a 70-year-old academic, won the most votes in a corruption-plagued first round in which only 20 percent of the 4.7 million eligible Haitians cast ballots.
Martelly, 50, who now holds a slight lead in the polls, enjoys broad support among young voters who know him best as "Sweet Micky" -- a bawdy carnival singer who laces performances with fierce political satire.