A picture of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide hangs for sale at a street shop in downtown in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The church where Jean-Bertrand Aristide once preached and military thugs tried to assassinate him is a ruin now, destroyed by the earthquake that left much of Haiti's capital in ruins, but the allure of the priest-turned-president remains strong among the jobless men who congregate nearby.
To them, Aristide is the only political leader who has ever spoken for the country's poor majority, and his reportedly imminent return to Haiti after seven years of exile in South Africa would be nothing short of rapturous.
"It's like Jesus coming back," said 50-year-old Lucien Jean, who lives near Aristide's old church, St. Jean Bosco.
Rumors of Aristide's return have circulated in Haiti for weeks, causing ripples of excitement, and dread among some. Many wonder about the intentions of Haiti's first democratically elected president and what effect, if any, the presence of the twice-ousted leader would have on Sunday's presidential election.
Thousands of supporters are expected to greet Aristide at the airport. But how many thousands? The demonstrations calling for his return have grown smaller by the year since he was ousted in a rebellion in 2004.
"I don't see a popular groundswell calling for him to return," said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti expert and sociology professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
Marius Fransman, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Pretoria on Tuesday that Aristide could return to Haiti in the next few days, or a week. He said the South African government is helping the former president return home and the U.S. State Department, which has urged Aristide to delay his return until after Haiti's election, should raise any concerns with the Haitian government.
Sunday's election, featuring two former critics of the ousted leader, is crucial to the stability and development of Haiti, which is still struggling to emerge from a devastating January 2010 earthquake, a deadly cholera outbreak and the aftermath of a disputed first round of the vote. The race is close and a word from Aristide in support of a candidate or questioning the legitimacy of the election could have a powerful effect.
"If he proposes somebody to us (as a candidate), that's who we will follow," said Supreme Wilson, a 34-year-old in La Saline, the dusty neighborhood around the church.
Aristide built a following among the country's poverty-stricken population in the 1980s as a priest-turned-politician against the despotic rule of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. He became Haiti's first democratically elected leader in 1990, but was toppled a few months later by a military junta. Reinstated with the help of the United States, he was ousted a second time in a 2004 rebellion and flown into exile in South Africa, by the U.S.
Officials say that since he has served two terms, Aristide is barred from running again for the presidency, but supporters argue the law does not apply because he was never allowed to complete his terms.
In his quiet exile, Aristide has repeatedly said he wants to come home, not to get involved in politics but to work as an educator through his foundation. When "Baby Doc" made a surprise return to Haiti in January, Aristide made his desire known once again. His diplomatic passport was delivered last month.
Many supporters still carry photos of him in their wallets and his portrait is sold along with those of Che Guevara in downtown Port-au-Prince. But it's unclear how much support he still has.
Scholars note that Aristide will return to a country very different from the one he fled. The political party over which he presided is no longer dominant. Sunday's presidential election is the second since the rebellion and Haiti is relatively stable due in part to the presence of nearly 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers who have been in the country since his ouster in 2004.
"The political landscape has changed significantly since then," Dupuy said. "I see him coming back to a playing field where neither he nor his Lavalas party are the principal actors."
Duvalier is living in a private villa and enjoying jazz performances at night. The paramilitary leader who helped oust Aristide in 2004, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, pads around a hillside hotel in Crocs and shops in nearby grocery stores. And two outspoken Aristide critics, singer Michel Martelly and law professor Mirlande Manigat, are heading to a run-off on Sunday.
Haiti's electoral council barred Aristide's party, the Lavalas Family, from the presidential election for technical reasons that supporters said were bogus. Its members are boycotting Sunday's vote, which it considers a "selection" not an election, said Maryse Narcisse, a party leader. Narcisse said Aristide's return has nothing to do with politics.
"I'm not saying he will come before the election because we are not having an election. But he will come before March 20," Narcisse told The Associated Press.
In exile, Aristide has kept a low profile, and boosted his already considerable academic credentials. He has been a professor at the University of South Africa. His wife, Mildred, worked at the university's Centre for African Renaissance Studies. Neither were paid but South African taxpayers covered their living expenses including a mansion, chauffeur-driven limousines and bodyguards, and a private school for their two daughters.
Aristide studied South Africa's Zulu and wrote a study comparing Haitian Creole and Zulu in a work called Umoya Wamagama, or The Spirit of the Word, that won him a doctorate. At the 2006 ceremony academics praised him as a brilliant mind. But leading African linguists soon questioned his research, found spelling mistakes in some Zulu words, and said his work made a mockery of African languages.
The professor who once hailed Aristide's thesis later corrected it.
While Aristide supporters await his return, others advise him to stay away until after the election. On Monday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged Aristide's right to go back to Haiti, but said returning this week "can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti's elections."
Lavalas supporters were accused of violent attacks against opponents in Aristide's second term, and some critics say he could face criminal prosecution just as Duvalier did when he came back in January. But Reed Brody, a counsel for Human Rights Watch, said it would be difficult to link the former president directly to alleged crimes by his followers.
It would also be wrong to equate Aristide to the Duvalier years, when repression was much more widespread, Brody said. Next to recent years under outgoing President Rene Preval, "the Aristide periods were probably the periods of least violence in Haiti's history," he said.
Still, Aristide has plenty of enemies.
Many former soldiers resent him for disbanding the Army in 1995 following years of repression and abuses, including the 1988 attempt to kill him in his church before rapt parishioners. Many of Haiti's wealthy elite also revile his populist agenda.
His followers, however, plan a hero's welcome.
"We're waiting," said Supreme Wilson. "We're waiting for our president."