Exiled Aristide Mum on New Haitian President

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled Haitian leader who still claims to be the country's real president, has remained silent about the electoral victory of a one-time protege.

Thursday's announcement that Rene Preval has won the first elections since Aristide's ouster in a February 2004 coup has raised speculation about the former leader's future.

Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, fled a rebellion amid allegations of corruption and oppression.

His South African hosts still call him "President Aristide," let him live in a villa in the presidential compound in Pretoria, and say he is welcome to stay as long as he needs but hope "he is not here for life," in the words of Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Aristide's spokeswoman Maryse Narcisse said Friday "President Aristide is still the elected constitutional president of Haiti."

"I think the people of Haiti said 'We are voting to ensure the return of our constitutionally elected president, we want our leader-in-exile to be able to come back," Narcisse said in a telephone interview from her base in New York.

Preval's rallies were punctuated by occasional calls for the return of Aristide, whose tenure as president would officially have ended on Feb. 7.

"Preval would still be president, but it's time for Aristide to come back. He's been gone for too long," said one Preval supporter, 53-year-old Andre Octave Laplante.

Aristide nurtured Preval's political career. When the constitution banned Aristide from seeking a second consecutive term in 1994, Preval ran and won. He was largely seen as keeping the presidential seat warm for Aristide's 1999 bid, but the two fell out.

The cause and extent of that rupture have never been clear.

"This is a huge dilemma and I can't imagine that Mr. Preval would desire to once again have Aristide's presence casting a cloud over his ability to lead," Robert Maguire, director of international affairs at Trinity University in Washington, said by telephone.

Preval, who was silent when the rest of the country was calling for Aristide's return in 2004, has been ambiguous about whether or not he favors his return.

But Leslie Voltaire, a former Aristide Cabinet minister, said Aristide now "has a friend and an ally in power."

"It will be very difficult for Mr. Preval to work for Mr. Aristide's return right now because Mr. Aristide has a lot of powerful enemies," Voltaire said from Haiti's capital, "But I think that in the near future we could prepare the way for his return."

Those enemies include the United States and France, Haiti's former colonizer, which refused Aristide's pleas for help as armed rebels closed in on Port-au-Prince.

Instead, U.S. officials told Aristide to prepare for a bloodbath or leave on a plane that they chartered. Afterward, U.S. officials accused Aristide of profiting massively from cocaine-trafficking. Aristide denied the charges and no proof was ever offered.

U.S. officials look on an Aristide return as potentially destabilizing and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack strongly hinted last week that he should remain in exile.

"We think the Haitian government should be looking forward to their future, not to its past," McCormack said.