PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti has issued a diplomatic passport for ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his American attorney will soon receive it, a government official said Tuesday.
Alice Blanchet, a special adviser to Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, told The Associated Press that Aristide recently submitted a valid passport application and it was approved.
"(The) passport is ready and Ira Kurzban, (Aristide's) lawyer, is on his way to pick it up," Blanchet said in an e-mail.
Kurzban did not immediately respond to requests for comment. His office in Miami said he was traveling but would not say where.
Aristide, a former priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, was ousted in a violent rebellion in 2004 and left the country aboard a U.S. plane. He lives in exile in South Africa but remains popular among many back home as a champion of the poor.
Haitian officials have long said the lack of a valid passport is the main obstacle to Aristide's return. Officials say he would not need a passport to re-enter the country, but might need one to pass through other nations on the way.
Last month, Aristide, in one of the rare statements that he has been allowed to issue during his nearly seven-year exile, said he was ready to return "today, tomorrow, at any time."
Kurzban, Aristide's lawyer, recently said he asked Haiti to establish a security plan for the ousted leader's return in accordance with a law requiring the government to provide security for former presidents.
Aristide's return has been a principal demand of his Fanmi Lavalas party, which electoral officials have barred from participating in recent elections — including last November's presidential vote.
The head of Lavalas' executive council, Maryse Narcisse, welcomed the news that his diplomatic passport was ready.
"For us it is important. For the people of Haiti, it is a symbol of the democratic fight. The people want him to return to provide assistance in the field of education," Narcisse said.
She declined to speculate on when Aristide might return.
"He himself said he is ready and is willing to return today, tomorrow, whenever," Narcisse said. "I can only say that we would like him to be here soon."
The decision by President Rene Preval's government to grant the passport is a substantial reversal. Washington has repeatedly warned that any return by Aristide would destabilize Haiti.
Preval has said Haitian law allows Aristide to return, but stopped short of saying whether he would welcome back his former political mentor.
Following a dispute over the results of the presidential vote, Haiti recently scheduled a delayed runoff for March 20 to pick a successor to Preval.
His chief of staff announced Monday that he will leave office May 14.