Haiti's beloved and detested former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide intends to return home, a prospect U.S. officials and analysts say could subvert efforts to hoist the western hemisphere's poorest country from the brink of total breakdown.
President-elect Rene Preval, a former Aristide protégé set to be sworn in March 29, has said the Haitian Constitution does not require citizens to have a visa to enter or leave the country. "The response (to letting Aristide return) isn't with me," he recently told reporters, "it's with the constitution."
Aristide, presently exiled in South Africa, said he was preparing to go back to Haiti "as soon as possible" and was working out the details of his homecoming with Preval and the United Nations, which has a 9,500-man peacekeeping mission that earlier this month oversaw the first democratic elections in Haiti since the February 2004 ousting of Aristide in an armed revolt.
"For the past two years, the Haitian people fought peacefully through demonstrations calling for my return... When they went to vote, the voted for my return and said it very clearly," Aristide said last week, according to the BBC. He held that he would recognize Preval's authority and work behind-the-scenes as a teacher -- claims that have aroused groans in Washington.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said in a Feb. 22 news briefing that Aristide's return could only inflame simmering class hostilities and destabilize Haiti. "Aristide is from the past," he said. "We're looking to the future."
U.S. fears of Aristide as a ghost of Haiti's past haunting an uncertain future are rooted in recent experience. After becoming its first elected president in 1990, the ex-slum priest was deposed by a military coup a year later, only to be forcibly restored in 1994 by U.S. troops under the Clinton administration.
He was then elected to a second term in 2001, but widespread allegations of corruption and stirring street violence sparked a rebellion that engulfed the country until the United States whisked him away and installed an interim government. Aristide still insists he was "kidnapped," charging that U.S. foreign policy during his reign sought to undercut his authority.
This claim was boosted last month by a New York Times story that revealed how representatives of a federally-funded agency carried out activities that, according to the U.S. ambassador at the time, systematically damaged his attempts to foster cooperation between Aristide and his domestic opposition.
Although Preval once served as Aristide's prime minister and is the heir to the impoverished masses that swept Aristide to power, analysts say Preval is his own man who has done much to distance himself; this includes breaking away from Aristide's Lavalas party to form his own, Lespwa.
During his first term as president from 1996-2001, U.S. officials are said to have held Preval in high regard for his personal integrity and accessibility. He was also stubborn when it came to implementing reforms -- resistance that has been attributed to pressure from Aristide.
It remains to be seen whether Preval can escape the shadow of his doppelganger.
"Preval is between a rock and a hard place... He seeks to establish himself as an autonomous political actor in Haitian politics, though his (Feb. 7) election victory was in part based on his links with Aristide," said Dan Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue.
Erikson brushed aside suggestions that Aristide could be subject to Haiti's toothless justice system, as Preval has implied, noting that figures such as Guy Philippe, the man who led the 2004 rebel uprising against Aristide and has been accused by U.S. authorities of drug trafficking, was one of the 32 candidates in the latest election.
"(Haiti) is a place where we've seen that every prosecution is a selective prosecution," he said.
Analysts say Preval's biggest test if Aristide returns -- aside from keeping order -- will be rekindling strong ties with the United States.
"When push comes to shove, the U.S. is the bull in Haiti's china closet. Preval would have to have a working relationship with the U.S. administration," said Robert McGuire, a Haiti expert at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. "If this administration would reach out and engage respectfully there could be a nice détente in U.S.-Haiti relations... there are potential favorable indicators for that."
Upon hearing election results, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We're going to work with the Preval government. We want this government to succeed," adding that the administration will look for additional ways to aid Haiti's recovery.
President Bush called Preval last Thursday to congratulate him on his victory and encourage him to build an inclusive government. The pair reportedly discussed bi-lateral cooperation to boost economic development in Haiti, where one percent of the population controls more than 50 percent of the wealth and 80 percent of the population is unemployed.
The leaders also talked about ways to crack down on the trans-American drug trade that has made Haiti a major trafficking entrepot, to the tune of 14 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine.
The U.S. has provided hundred of millions of dollars in aid to Haiti over the years but has drawn criticism since Aristide's departure for taking a less direct role in its neighbor's affairs.
For its part, the U.S. has paid for the lion's share of the $584 million U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti. And last week the Security Council voted to extend the U.N. mandate until August, a move that has new meaning now that Haiti's most polarizing figure has announced his upcoming travel plans.
"Aristide's return would really put a till on relations between the U.S. and the new Haitian government," said Erikson. "It would be a litmus test for Preval's overall intentions."