Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has the constitutional right to return to Haiti whenever he chooses but may want to keep in mind that charges have been filed against him, President-elect Rene Preval said Wednesday.
In his first major public statement since being declared winner last week of a Feb. 7 election marred by tabulation delays and fraud allegations, Preval was pressed repeatedly by reporters about Aristide's announcement a day earlier that he was ready to come home after two years in African exile.
"Article 41 of the Haitian Constitution says that no Haitian needs a visa to enter or leave the country," Preval said.
Aristide told international news agencies in Pretoria, South Africa, that he was preparing to return to Haiti "as soon as possible" and was working out details with Preval, U.N. officials, Caribbean Community neighbors and his South African hosts, who have said there must be a safe environment for his return.
Leaders of the armed rebellion that drove out Aristide in February 2004 not only remain at large but have acquired considerable financial and political clout over the past two years. Rebel chief Guy Philippe was one of Preval's 32 challengers in the presidential election.
U.S. and other Western diplomats have cautioned Preval against encouraging or facilitating the return of Aristide, a fiery liberation theologian. Preval is said by confidantes to have little interest in having Aristide back in the country, fearing his presence would set off new unrest in the slums ruled by gangs armed and empowered by Aristide.
Haiti's interim government filed charges against Aristide in U.S. District Court in South Florida in November, alleging Aristide "abused his power and deceived and betrayed the Haitian people by directing and participating in ongoing and fraudulent schemes" involving drug-trafficking and misappropriation of public funds.
In a television interview, Preval appeared to be alluding to those charges when he observed that Aristide and others who fled two years ago "have to ask themselves if they really want to come back and they have to find out if there is any legal complaint against them."
As a former prime minister under Aristide and loyal substitute in the National Palace during the 1996-2001 presidential term for which Aristide was constitutionally ineligible, Preval was seen by many poor Haitians as the best candidate to pick up their deposed president's mantle.
The bond between Preval and Aristide weakened during the latter's second term, when Aristide disposed of agrarian reforms and other projects initiated by Preval.