JOHANNESBURG – Winging his way toward Haiti after almost seven years in exile in South Africa, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said Friday his return fulfills a "dream" of the Haitian people, who are expected to greet him by the thousands.
U.S. President Barack Obama phoned his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma this week to try to delay Aristide's return until after Sunday's runoff presidential election in Haiti, which Aristide's party was barred from participating in by Haiti's electoral council. Obama relayed U.S. concerns that Aristide's return could be destabilizing, said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
Interviewed by Democracy Now!, a U.S.-based independent news program, during a refueling stopover, Aristide reiterated that he wants to work in education in his impoverished and earthquake-wrecked Caribbean homeland. His comments reflected that he is well aware that he remains wildly popular among Haiti's majority poor. As word spread across Haiti that he was heading back home, some joined in a raucous, horn-blaring victory procession.
Haiti's first democratically elected president, Aristide never completed either of his two terms, having been ousted the first time in a coup and restored to power in a U.S. military intervention in 1994. After completing that term in 1996, he was elected again in 2001, only to flee a rebellion in 2004.
"I think that the Haitian people are very happy," Aristide said in the stopover in Dakar, Senegal. "Happy to know that we are on our way heading to Haiti. Happy to know that finally their dream will be fulfilled by things on the ground because they fought hard for democracy. They always wanted the return to happen and now it is happening."
Aristide could sway the outcome of Haiti's election with an endorsement of either candidate.
"We're going to stay wherever he is until he tells us what to do," said Tony Forest, 44, a minibus driver in Haiti's capital. "We will vote for the candidate he picks."
The charter plane carrying Aristide, his wife and two daughters, American actor Danny Glover, a Democracy Now! journalist and a few other passengers is expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince in the midmorning or at midday, local time.