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Haiti poll may pave way for Aristide's return
That's because the front-runner in the chaotic Caribbean country's presidential race is Rene Preval, a protege of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Bush administration officials accused Aristide of despotism, and many Haiti experts say he was undermined by Washington in the run-up to his ouster in February 2004.
Preval, who served as president from 1996-2001 between Aristide's two terms, is not running as a member of Aristide's Lavalas Family party this time.
But he has said he sees no reason why Aristide should not return from exile in South Africa.
"It would be catastrophic for US policy to work so hard to first marginalise and then eliminate Aristide and then, after doing that, for there to be an electoral road for an Aristide candidate to win office," said Larry Birns, director of the left-leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
As Haiti edges toward its first election since armed rebels toppled Aristide, the administration of US President George Bush has been largely silent about the fate of the poorest country in the Americas.
It has lent little visible support to the 9 000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Haiti and turned down a recent request from the UN electoral team for the loan of helicopters to collect ballots from remote areas.
Cycles of intervention and neglect are common in the "schizophrenic" history of US relations with Haiti, said Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean expert at Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.
But the current US level of engagement with Haiti could be driven by unease over Preval's comfortable lead among the 33 candidates, analysts said.
Preval has won support from many of Aristide loyalists in Haiti's teeming slums, and the same business elite that pressed for Aristide's ouster two years ago opposes him.
Roger Noriega, who served as the State Department's top official on Latin America at the time of Aristide's removal, denied that Washington played any part in toppling him.
But Noriega said the former priest had become a tyrant who relied on gangs to enforce his rule.
"We didn't hold him accountable for anything, and that's how we ended up in a situation where he could run hit squads and murder his political opponents, and then we're supposed to come in and save his bacon... ," Noriega told Reuters.
As a ragtag band of street thugs and former soldiers marched toward the capital Port-au-Prince in February 2004, Aristide asked the United States to send in the Marines.
US officials declined, and instead offered to fly Aristide out of the country to avoid what Noriega said was an imminent bloodbath.
Nothing, however, has improved since Aristide was exiled. And Haiti's poor majority does not appear to have abandoned its support for candidates associated with Aristide.
"While Aristide has been removed, his constituency remains alive and well," said Erikson. As long as the voting public lives on less than $2 a day, populist appeals are going to have resonance in Haiti, he said.
Lawrence Pezzullo, special envoy to Haiti under former US President Bill Clinton, said Preval was viewed as an Aristide crony.
"The fear with Preval is that he's going to invite Aristide back and then all bets are off, my friend. ... If he brings Aristide back, that thing will blow up," he said.
State Department officials declined to comment. But Noriega said that for Preval, Aristide's return "would be the end of his ability to run the country".