Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose tortuous life saga is sprinkled with comebacks, returned home Friday to boisterous throngs despite international pressure to keep him away before Sunday's elections.
Aristide arrived on a flight from South Africa, where he had lived in exile since being flown out of Haiti on a U.S-supplied plane amid turmoil in 2004.
Aristide clasped his hands as he stepped off the chartered airplane in a VIP area of the airport in Haiti's capital. The former leader struck a philosophical tone -- in five languages -- as he addressed reporters before exiting to a tumultuous welcome by thousands of his supporters.
"Today may the Haitian people mark the end of exile and coup d'etat, while peacefully we must move from social exclusion to social inclusion," Aristide said, drawing parallels with the 1804 revolution ending slavery.
The populist former priest remains a deeply polarizing figure in Haiti, where he is revered by many as the only reliable defender of the downtrodden but detested by wealthy elites and others who say he employed violence against enemies and ran a government ridden with graft.
His return adds a combustible ingredient as voters head to the polls for a presidential runoff between Michel Martelly, a popular singer, and Mirlande Manigat, a university vice rector who was once Haiti's first lady. Speculation over Aristide's return gripped the country since the Haitian government issued him a passport in February, just weeks after former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return in January.
On his arrival, Aristide spoke of an enduring love for Haiti and criticized the fact that his once-dominant party, Fanmi Lavalas, was barred from the ongoing election campaign, saying it represented the "exclusion of the majority."
U.S. officials sought to keep Aristide from making the trip home, arguing that his presence could prove a destabilizing factor during the closing phase of the presidential runoff. But South African officials said they had no legal grounds to prevent him from returning.