PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned home Friday from a seven-year exile to the warm embrace of jubilant supporters despite criticism from the U.S. and domestic opponents who said his presence could disrupt the weekend's already delayed presidential election.
Aristide emerged from a chartered flight from South Africa with his wife and daughters, waved and blew kisses at a crowd. Speaking to supporters and journalists, he criticized the decision to bar his political party, Lavalas Family, from the election, saying it had disenfranchised a majority of Haitians in the sharply divided nation.
"Excluding Lavalas, you cut the branches that link the people," he said. "The solution is inclusion of all Haitians as human beings."
His remarks seemed to contradict earlier statements by Aristide and his supporters that he was coming home only to work in education, not to engage in politics. Washington and others in the international community have worried that his presence could affect Sunday's presidential runoff.
U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten said later Friday via Twitter that the U.S. believes Aristide has the right to return, "but it's up to him if he wants to play a positive role in the future of Haiti."
Haiti's electoral council barred Lavalas from the election for technical reasons that its supporters say were bogus, though several people who were affiliated with the party in the past ran in the first round of the presidential ballot. Many members are boycotting Sunday's runoff, and it's unclear if Aristide will seek to influence the outcome.
Twice elected president and twice deposed, Aristide is a popular but also polarizing figure. The former priest is an advocate of the poor, who make up the vast majority of Haiti's 10 million people, and he was a leader of the movement that shook off a hated dictatorship.