A man holds a picture of Haiti's ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, where his nickname "Titid" is written, during a protest demanding his return in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will return within days to his homeland, ending seven years in exile, a South African official said Friday. The former slum priest remains hugely popular and his return could disrupt an election this month in his earthquake-ravaged country.
In Haiti, an official with Aristide's Lavalas Party confirmed that his "return is imminent," but declined to say how or when he's coming back.
"It's an important event for the people in Haiti because they have waited so long for this," said Maryse Narcisse, the head of Lavalas' executive council. "He will not be traveling incognito. People will know he is coming."
The party has been barred from taking part in the vote, and thousands of his supporters marched last month, threatening to disrupt the election if he is not allowed to return. Many said they would boycott the March 20 runoff to a disputed presidential vote because any election excluding Lavalas is not valid.
The U.S. has said Aristide's presence "would prove to be an unfortunate distraction to the people of Haiti," amid fears it could change the course of the race by causing unrest.
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told The Associated Press "this is a matter for the government of Haiti."
"The U.S. remains focused on helping ensure a peaceful and democratic transition of power in Haiti, and that the second round of elections, scheduled for March 20, accurately reflect the will of the Haitian people," he said.
A South African Foreign Ministry official told the AP that Aristide would return in the coming days, before March 20. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to make the official announcement.
Souh Africa's government had been negotiating with interested countries about Aristide's return, the official said, but would not say if those included the United States or Brazil, which leads the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti.
Prominent Americans have campaigned for Aristide's return from exile in South Africa.
In January, a full-page ad in The Miami Herald calling for his immediate return carried 190 signatures, including those of social organizations, political figures such as Jesse Jackson and deputy U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Paul Farmer, entertainer Harry Belafonte and actor Danny Glover. Jackson, Glover and nine others also wrote a letter to South African President Jacob Zuma urging him to "assist the Aristides in making their transition as soon as possible" since "all the last remaining obstacles to the Aristides' return have been removed."
Aristide's push to come back from exile follows the stunning return of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in January. Duvalier said he wanted to help reconstruct the country shattered in last year's massive quake, but there is speculation he also hoped to unlock millions of dollars frozen in Swiss bank accounts.
Aristide emerged as a leading voice for Haiti's poor and helped lead a popular revolt that forced an end to the Duvalier family's 29-year dictatorship. Aristide became the country's first democratically elected president, despite opposition from the army and Haiti's elite.
During his exile, Aristide has said many times that he wants to return home as a private citizen and work as an educator.
After Duvalier's return, it emerged that Haitian officials had ignored Aristide's request for a passport, preventing his return. That passport, a diplomatic one, was delivered last month in the last days of the administration of President Rene Preval, Aristide's one-time protege.
Duvalier now faces an investigation into allegations of corruption and human rights abuses dating to the dictatorship era.
It is not clear whether charges could be brought against Aristide, whose party was accused of killing opponents and getting rich off drug money in the final year of his government.
It would be the second return from exile for Aristide, who is both loved and reviled. He first was ousted by a military coup in 1991. U.S. President Bill Clinton returned him to power in 1994 following a U.S. military intervention that forced out the military regime. Then tens of thousands of his supporters gathered around the National Palace to watch U.S. Marines fly him in on a helicopter.
Aristide later fled Haiti again on Feb. 29, 2004, leaving before dawn on a U.S. plane as rebels approached the capital. He accused American diplomats of having kidnapped him — charges Washington denied.
In South Africa, Aristide has lived a quiet life with his wife Mildred and two daughters in a government-guarded mansion in the capital, Pretoria. Along with a chauffeured Mercedes Benz limousines, it all was paid for by South African taxpayers.
Aristide was offered a position as researcher at the human sciences faculty while his wife studied at the same university's Center for African Renaissance Studies. Neither drew a salary.
Aristide, who speaks several languages, studied Zulu and wrote a comparative study of Haitian Creole and Zulu called Umoya Wamagama, or The Spirit of the Word.