PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haitians adjusting to the sudden return of one exiled ex-president could soon have another on their hands.
As former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier held court with allies at an upscale hotel on Wednesday, ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sent out a letter saying he is ready to come back from six years of South African exile "today, tomorrow, at any time."
"As far as I am concerned, I am ready," he wrote in an e-mail distributed by supporters and posted online. "The purpose is very clear: To contribute to serving my Haitian sisters and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education."
Aristide was ousted in 2004, leaving Haiti aboard a U.S. plane as a small group of rebels neared the capital. His return has been a principal demand of his Fanmi Lavalas party, which has lost influence as electoral officials blocked it from participating in elections including the disputed Nov. 28 vote now under challenge — though Aristide himself has remained a widely popular figure.
He is two years younger than Duvalier, the now 59-year-old ex-dictator he spoke against as a Roman Catholic priest in the La Saline slum. Together the men represent the two main oppositional forces in Haitian politics over the last half century: stable, often brutal authoritarianism in favor of elites against charismatic populism that opponents said bordered on demagoguery.
According to Duvalier's confidants the two men have never met. Their mutual presence in Haiti could cause long-simmering tensions to erupt.
Aristide did not endorse a candidate in the current race and has said he would not seek office if he came back.
Instead he said in the letter, whose authenticity was confirmed by Lavalas spokeswoman Maryse Narcisse, his return is necessary to help his countrymen and for his medical needs following six eye surgeries in his six years of exile.
"The unbearable pain experienced in the winter must be avoided in order to reduce any risk of further complications and blindness," he said. South African winter begins in June.
"Let us hope that the Haitian and South African governments will enter into communication in order to make that happen in the next coming days," he said.
Narcisse said supporters were eagerly awaiting his arrival, pending the delivery of a new Haitian passport.
Brian Concannon, a lawyer who has represented Aristide, says the ousted leader has applied but has never heard back from his homeland's government.
The U.S. State Department reacted to the letter in a series of posts by spokesman P.J. Crowley on Twitter.
"This is an important period for Haiti. What it needs is calm, not divisive actions that distract from the task of forming a new government," said one.
The other: "We do not doubt President Aristide's desire to help the people of Haiti. But today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past."
Duvalier also applied for a new passport Wednesday and intends to leave the country when he gets it, a spokesman said, insisting that the once-reviled strongman can neither be forced to leave his homeland or compelled to stay and face a potential criminal trial on allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses.
He had been scheduled to leave Thursday but can't because his passport has expired, said spokesman Yves Germain Joseph. He stunned the country Sunday with his sudden and mysterious return nearly 25 years after he was forced into exile by a popular uprising against a regime widely viewed as brutal and corrupt.
The spokesman said he did not know how long it would take to get a new passport but that the former dictator known as "Baby Doc" was in no rush to leave Haiti.
"He is home here. He is a Haitian," Joseph said. "Nobody can ask Mr. Duvalier or any Haitian to leave his country at any time."
Duvalier assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his notorious father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The two leaders presided over one of the darkest chapters in modern Haitian history, a period when a secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed opponents. The private militia of sunglass-wearing thugs enforced the dynasty's absolute power and lived off extortion.
He fell in 1986, followed by years of repressive rule by military officers who continued his style of rule.
Aristide rose to prominence as a critic of those regimes' abuses and was elected in a 1990 landslide, then quickly ousted in a military coup. He was returned to power through U.S. military force in 1994 but especially after being re-elected in 2000 was also accused of corruption and abuses.
His former protegee, Rene Preval, was elected two years after his ouster, in 2006, largely thanks to the votes of Aristide's supporters. But they now consider him a traitor for having failed to return their leader from exile.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Port-au-Prince and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.