PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haitian President-elect Rene Preval said Wednesday that the constitution permits the return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was forced to flee into exile following a violent rebellion two years ago.
Preval, a former protege of Aristide's who shares the ousted leader's strong support among the poor, said the former president could not be barred from returning to the volatile Caribbean nation.
"My position is simple on President Aristide and any other citizen who wants to come to Haiti," Preval, also a former president, said in his first news conference since he was declared the winner of the Feb. 7 election. "Article 41 of the Haitian Constitution says that no Haitian needs a visa to enter or leave the country."
Aristide said Tuesday that he wants to return from exile in South Africa, but said the timing of his arrival in Haiti would be up to "my president" and other leaders.
The United States and others have warned that the return of Aristide could further destabilize Haiti.
Preval, when asked by to clarify his position, declined to discuss Aristide's potential return in detail.
"Remember, you're talking to a president," he said at the modern, gated home of his sister in the hills east of the capital, Port-au-Prince. "Do you respect the constitution? The response isn't with me. It's with the constitution."
Aristide spokeswoman Maryse Narcisse declined to say whether the ousted leader and Preval had spoken since the election.
"President Aristide will be going back to Haiti soon, consultations are taking place to settle for a date," Narcisse said by phone from New York.
Preval, an agronomist by training who served as president from 1996 to 2001, was declared the winner of the election after electoral authorities divided 85,000 blank votes among the candidates to avoid a runoff.
The move gave Preval 51 percent of the vote needed for an outright victory, drawing complaints from his two closest rivals, neither of whom polled close to Preval's numbers in the Feb. 7 vote.