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.
But he has many critics who say he led a corrupt government, orchestrated violent attacks on foes and was as hungry for power as the leaders he denounced. He was last ousted in 2004 in a violent rebellion that swept the country.
On Friday, Aristide was mobbed by allies and journalists outside the private plane before being hustled into an airport VIP lounge as several thousand supporters rallied in the streets outside the terminal.
"It's one of the most beautiful moments for the Haitian people," actor Danny Glover, who accompanied Aristide from South Africa, told The Associated Press as he left the VIP lounge before the ex-leader. "It's a historic moment for the Haitian people."
In the street outside the airport, people listened joyfully to remarks from Aristide on car radios.
"This man is our father. Without him we haven't lived," said 31-year-old Sainvil Petit-Frere, one of about 3,000 cheering and chanting supporters in a quickly growing crowd in the capital, Port-au-Prince. "This is the doctor who will heal the country."
Aristide compared his return to the Haitian revolution that ended slavery in 1804 in what was then a French colony.
"Today, may the Haitian people mark the end of exile and coups d'etat while peacefully moving from social exclusion to inclusion," he said with his wife, Mildred, and daughters by his side.
The multilingual Aristide spoke in Haitian Creole, English, Zulu and Spanish in his typically effusive style. "Sisters, brothers, for seven years we communicated at a distance," he said. "Today we are home together to bring peace, every day, together."
Later, thousands of people gathered outside his home in the Tabarre section of the capital, crowding around the SUV that took him from the airport and hoping he would speak. But he made no further remarks as police and security guards hustled him through hordes of supporters struggling to touch him.
Despite his supporters' insistence that Aristide will not get involved in politics, some fear his presence will bring further disarray to a country struggling to emerge from a political crisis, a cholera epidemic and the devastation of the January 2010 earthquake. It's not clear what impact he may have on Sunday's runoff between two candidates who in the pastopposed Aristide.
"Nothing should be done to create instability or to intensify the existing problems of Haiti," said Organization of American States Assistant Secretary-General Albert Ramdin, who will be monitoring the elections. "And that is the responsibility of all — not just the candidates, but former politicians."
Many Aristide supporters, however, appeared eager for direction from him.
"We're going to stay wherever he is until he tells us what to do," said Tony Forest, 44, a minibus driver. "We will vote for the candidate he picks."
Aristide's aides have said he feared that if he waited to come back, the winner of Sunday's vote might have blocked his return. But the candidates, former first lady Mirlande Manigat and popular singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, now stress their support for his right to return as a citizen under the constitution. Both candidates would like to attract Lavalas votes.
Aristide supporter Mackeny Jean, one of the thousands who came to cheer his arrival, said an endorsement was unlikely since both candidates were critics in the past. "I can't say that he'll support either of them because they were both so against him," said the 18-year-old.
Aristide himself cannot serve again for president under the constitution, but some say he should be allowed to run since he never fully served out either of his two terms.
Aristide, a former slum priest who became Haiti's first democratically elected president, was ousted the first time in a coup, then restored in a U.S. military intervention in 1994. He was elected again in 2001, only to flee a rebellion in 2004 aboard a U.S. plane. Aristide claimed he was kidnapped. U.S. officials deny that.
He was reclusive in exile, doing academic research and earning a doctorate from the University of South Africa for a comparative study of Zulu and Haitian Creole.
President Barack Obama was concerned enough about Aristide's possibly destabilizing influence to call South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday and discuss the matter, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Associated Press.
The initial Nov. 28 vote was so troubled by fraud, disorganization, instances of violence and voter intimidation that 12 of the 19 candidates, including the front-runners, initially called for it to be tossed out. A team of OAS experts eventually determined the results were flawed, and the government-backed was dropped from the runoff.
Associated Press writer Jacob Kushner contributed to this report.