Aristide, Haiti’s exiled ex-president, offers to return and help rebuild


JOHANNESBURG — Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, deposed and exiled in a 2004 coup, offered Friday to return to Haiti,
saying he could not wait to go home to help rebuild his country after Tuesday’s
devastating earthquake.

In a rare public statement, he said he felt a profound need
to try to save the lives of victims awaiting rescue. He refused to take
questions on whether he planned to fly to Haitiwithout an official

Aristide said supporters around the world had promised a
plane to fly him in, with emergency relief. Yet he offered no details on how he
planned to return. His choice of venue, a hotel at Johannesburg’s international
airport, was symbolic of his will to return, Aristide said.

“As far as we are concerned, we are ready to leave
today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti, to share in
their suffering, help rebuild the economy, moving from misery to poverty with
dignity,” Aristide said, reading a statement in an almost inaudible
whisper. His wife, Mildred, was at his side, her eyes downcast throughout the
brief news conference.

Aristide, 56, was Haiti’s first democratically
elected leader in 1990 but was ousted in a military coup led by the army a year
later. He regained power in 1994 and was reelected as president in 2000, before
being toppled again in a violent 2004 coup.

He was flown in a U.S. plane in an evacuation organized by
the U.S., France and Canada to the Central African
Republic in what he later described as a “kidnapping.”

Aristide, who still faces legal charges if he returned to Haiti,
took asylum in South Africa, where he lives in the capital, Pretoria,
in a house provided by the South African state. He rarely appears or speaks in

Aristide, a former priest, was visibly emotional, wiping
away tears as he left the room after reading the statement.

Supporters in Haiti have continued to call for his
return over the years, and he remains popular with many Haitians.

In 2006, Aristide said Haitians wanted his return:
“It’s a love story. They love me and I love them,” he told the BBC,
hinting he was interested in teaching, not politics.

The earthquake has only deepened his wish to return.

“While we cannot wait to be with our sisters and
brothers in Haiti, we share the anguish of all Haitians in the diaspora
who are desperate to reach family and loved ones,” he said.

Aristide spoke today of his love for his country and anguish
at the thought of the quake victims still buried in the rubble.

“As we all know, many people remain buried under tons
of rubble waiting to be rescued. When we think of their suffering, we feel
deeply and profoundly that we should be there, inHaiti, with them, trying our
best to prevent death.

“To symbolize this readiness we have decided to meet
not just anywhere, but in the shadow of Oliver Tambo International
Airport,” he said. “Today this spirit of solidarity must and will
empower all of us to rebuild Haiti.”

Aristide was accompanied by a South African foreign affairs
official, Saul Kgomotso Molobi, who said few could imagine how emotional
Aristide was when he contacted the former president to convey news media
requests for interviews after the earthquake.

Aristide thanked South Africa and other “true
friends of Haiti” who sent aid and rescue teams.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles

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