PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has the constitutional right to return to Haiti whenever he chooses but might want to keep in mind that charges have been filed against him, President-elect Rene Preval said yesterday.
In his first major public statement since being declared the winner last week of a Feb. 7 election marred by tabulation delays and fraud allegations, Preval was pressed 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 told journalists gathered on the lawn of his sister's villa. "The response isn't with me. It's with the constitution."
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 Aristide's return.
Leaders of the armed rebellion that drove out Aristide in February 2004 remain at large and 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 election.
U.S. and other Western diplomats have cautioned Preval against encouraging or facilitating the return of Aristide, a fiery liberation theologian whose two terms as president -- the first truncated by a military coup, the second by the rebellion -- deepened racial and class divides and left the country in chaos.
Preval is said by confidantes to have little interest in having Aristide back in the country.