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Sunday Times STLive By MOIPONE MALEFANE, 2011-01-22

I want to go home, says Haiti's Aristide

Ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. File Picture.
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Top-level negotiations involving Cuba and the US are under way to send exiled Haitian leader Jean Bertrand Aristide back home - and save South African taxpayers at least R3-million a year.

Aristide wrote to his supporters in Haiti expressing his desire to return to the poverty-stricken Caribbean island. One of the reasons he gave was that he wanted to avoid the "unbearable pain" he was likely to suffer during a South African winter due to the six eye operations he had had during his African exile.

The government has been negotiating with Haitian authorities, with the help of the Cuban government, since last year for Aristide's departure.

But his return has been delayed by US concerns that the former Catholic priest would destabilise the country.

It is understood that the issue was discussed during President Jacob Zuma's state visit to Cuba in December.

Officials from the Department of International Relations have had several meetings with Aristide to discuss his future, most recently on Friday, after he said he wanted to leave.

The officials are to meet their US counterparts in a bid to convince them that Aristide is no longer a threat.

Director-General Ayanda Ntsaluba confirmed the talks were continuing, but would not say which countries were helping SA's bid to return Aristide to Haiti.

Ntsaluba said the former leader, who was ousted from power in a 2004coup, was no longer interested in running for office.

"He has assured us that he was not seeking any political office ... not going there to contest any elections. He was illegally removed from political office but (he is) not interested in politics any more.

"He wants to play a role in humanitarian aid following the floods and earthquakes in his country," Ntsaluba said.

"We are talking to different countries and some major powers still have reservations. We are saying, let bygones be bygones."

Haiti, which is still struggling with the devastation caused by the earthquake more than a year ago, is embroiled in a fresh political crisis, sparked by the recent presidential election.

As no candidate received an outright majority, a run-off is expected to be held next month.

Furthermore, the return of notorious former dictator Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has added to the tensions. There are fears that the presence of the two former rulers would plunge Haiti into renewed violence.

Ntsaluba said the talks also involved discussions of "the logistical issues" around Aristide's safe return, as his security was still of major concern.

Aristide, who remains popular among Haiti's poor, was ousted amid claims by a street gang that he had ordered the assassination of its leader, Amiot Metayer, whose mutilated body was discovered in September 2003.

The former priest fled to Jamaica in February 2004, and three months later was invited to South Africa by then-president Thabo Mbeki.

Last year the Minister of International Relations, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, revealed that Aristide enjoyed similar benefits to those of cabinet ministers and that his monthly costs included accommodation; security; transport and salaries for his support staff.

At about R3-million a year, Aristide would have cost South Africa a total of R18-million.

This week, in a public letter to his supporters, the former Haitian leader wrote: "The return is indispensable for medical reasons. It is strongly recommended that I not spend the coming winter in South Africa, because in six years I have undergone six eye surgeries. The surgeons are excellent, but the unbearable pain experienced in the winter must be avoided in order to reduce any risk of further complications and blindness."

But a US spokesman, PJ Crowley, tweeted this week that Haiti would be better off without Aristide.

"We do not doubt president Aristide's desire to help the people of Haiti. But today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past," Crowley said.