jean bertrand aristide_web.jpgPORT-AU-PRINCE (AP)—The rumor spread through Lucien Tham's crowded encampment: Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had returned! So he joined scores of other Haitians rushing to the airport with his family, spending precious savings on a collective taxi to ride across town after sundown.

It was a false alarm, one of many that have rippled across the Haitian capital in recent days as Aristide requested and received a new passport after his nearly seven-year exile in South Africa.

Yet the eagerness for Aristide's return shows that the former slum priest remains a powerful symbol of hope for millions, even if others dread the return of instability that Haiti suffered under his rule.

“President Aristide didn't hurt anybody; he only helped out the poor,” said Tham, a 45-year-old unemployed laborer in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil. “His presence is necessary here.”

Many believe he could arrive any day, heightening anxiety as well as anticipation as Haiti emerges from a political crisis a year after a devastating earthquake.

Voice for the poor

The slightly built Aristide emerged as a leading voice for Haiti's poor and became the troubled country's first democratically elected president, despite opposition from the army, Haiti's elite and the United States following the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

But Aristide was toppled twice from power, his second term ending in 2004 amid a violent rebellion. He left the country aboard a U.S. plane. Aristide and his supporters insist he was kidnapped. U.S. officials said Aristide departed at his own request.

Through the years, Aristide's faithful have organized protests demanding his return and his name is often seen scrawled across U.N. peacekeeping fortresses and other buildings.

Critics accuse the polarizing ex-president of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents with armed gangs.

U.S. officials are among those worried that Aristide's return could further destabilize a country preparing for a March 20 presidential runoff that was delayed by a political crisis and street disturbances over allegations of vote fraud.

“We would be concerned if former President Aristide returns to Haiti before the election,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Feb. 9. “It would prove to be an unfortunate distraction to the people of Haiti.”

Ready to return

Speculation that he might come back soared after notorious ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return in January after nearly 25 years of exile in France. The focus quickly turned to Aristide, who said last month he was ready to return “today, tomorrow, at any time.”

Aristide's U.S. lawyer, Ira Kurzban, traveled to Port-au-Prince last week and picked up a diplomatic passport for Aristide that was suddenly issued by the government of outgoing President Rene Preval.

Kurzban said he is confident that his client will be back before the runoff vote.

Meanwhile, calls are mounting for Duvalier to be put on trial.

Just 19 when he assumed power after the death of his infamous father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1971, Baby Doc's 15-year rule was marked by torture, extrajudicial executions and the disappearance of hundreds of people. The strict order was enforced by the feared Tonton Macoute secret police which killed and extorted from countless Haitians.

Duvalier was deposed, put on an American plane and flown in 1986 to France, where he lived in quiet exile ever since — until he stunned the nation by abruptly showing up last month. He claimed he wants to help with reconstruction, though some have speculated that he hoped returning might help him unlock millions of dollars frozen in Swiss bank accounts.

Human rights

Whatever his motivation, the 59-year-old Duvalier now faces an investigation into allegations of corruption and human rights abuses dating to the dictatorship era and a judge has until April to decide whether it will go to trial.

The complex case is part of a global push to hold former dictators accountable for atrocities during their reigns, said Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody, and it could break important new legal ground in Haiti, where the judiciary — like other institutions — is historically weak and ineffective.

“This case provides a real chance to put Haiti's justice system squarely on the side of those who have suffered under his rule,” Brody said. “It will set a precedent and will be a civics lesson on a very dark period in Haiti's history.

“The trees need to be shaken to get people to come forward, even if people are still scared. But I think there's good evidence so far,” Brody added. “And, as far as we can tell, the political will is there. … It's important that it be carried over into the next government”– a reference to the power transition that should take place in the coming months from Preval to his yet-undetermined successor.

Guarded compound

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has offered to assist in the prosecution, saying the alleged crimes have no statute of limitations.

Duvalier has mostly stayed inside his guarded compound since returning and not commented on the accusations other than to offer, in public comments last month, “my profound sadness toward my countrymen who consider themselves, rightly, to have been victims of my government.”

One of his U.S. lawyers, Mike Puglise, said people are beginning to “voice their support” of Duvalier in Haiti. He pointed out that some residents of the seaside town of Leogane enthusiastically greeted Duvalier and his entourage during a visit last week.

“They understand that his return is what he said at the beginning, that he's trying to help his people,” he said last week.

A handful of loyalists campaigned for years to bring Duvalier back, launching a foundation to improve the dictatorship's image and reviving Baby Doc's political party.

Millions are too young to remember life under the dictatorship and at least some Haitians hope that Duvalier could help restore order to the chaos. “Welcome, President Duvalier,” read two separate graffiti scrawls in Port-au-Prince, though pro-Baby Doc demonstrations have been relatively small.

Teeming crowds

On the other hand, teeming crowds of Haitians are sure to throng the capital's streets when they have proof that Aristide has arrived. Less clear is whether militants among his supporters will try to influence the demonstrators with money and guns.

Few analysts believe Aristide's assertion that he only wishes to come home as a teacher.
Pro-Aristide groups “have been pushing for his return and presume he will become politically active. He probably won't try to enter this election but prepare the Lavalas party for the next elections,” said Henry Carey, a Haiti expert and professor at Georgia State University.

Aristide's return has been a principal demand of his Fanmi Lavalas party, which was barred from recent elections, including November's presidential vote, on technical grounds.

The head of Lavalas' executive council, Maryse Narcisse, said Aristide does not wish to re-enter Haitian politics. “He only wishes to help Haiti in the field of education,'' she said, echoing Aristide's statement from South Africa last month.

Carey said that ultimately, Aristide is likely to face a situation much like Duvalier's: living in Haiti with “heavy security and with the threat of lawsuits.”