PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is eligible for a passport but has not applied for one, Haitian officials said Monday.
That followed a letter from the ousted leader's U.S. lawyer, Ira Kurzban, telling officials at Haiti's foreign affairs and interior ministries that he understood they had agreed to issue Aristide a diplomatic passport.
"I kindly request that his diplomatic passport be issued immediately and that plans for his return commence immediately," he said. The letter was forwarded to reporters.
But Interior Minister Paul-Antoine Bien-Aime said in an official letter, sent later Monday, that no passport had been requested. "It appears that to date, neither ministry had received a request for issuance or renewal of passports from the former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide," he wrote.
Aristide is a former priest and liberation theologist who rose to become Haiti's first democratically elected president. He was overthrown in a coup, restored to power, then ousted again in 2004. His return was forced by the threat of a U.S. military invasion; debate has raged for years over what role the U.S. played in his departures.
His lack of a valid passport has long been given as a principal technical reason impeding his return. Haitian officials say that he would not need a passport to re-enter Haiti, but could need one to pass through other countries on his way back from his exile in South Africa.
Bien-Aime's letter was sent to media in two versions, one French and the other Haitian Creole. The French version says: "The Government of the Republic gives its assurance that as soon as it is made, such a request will be honored promptly."
The Creole differs slightly: "The government gives a guarantee that if President Aristide requests a passport, it will respond to him quickly."
Fritz Longchamp, Preval's chief of staff, said: "The French version is more accurate than the Creole."
He said government ministers decided last Tuesday to announce that Aristide could get a passport if he applied. Longchamp said this has been a long-standing position of the government, reiterated to "lay to rest all the speculation" that the Haitian government was preventing his return.
Speculation that Aristide might come back to Haiti soared after ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier stepped off an Air France jet in January in a shocking return from nearly 25 years of exile.
If Aristide followed, he would arrive in the midst of a potentially destabilizing political crisis in which President Rene Preval's chosen candidate is deadlocked with a rival for the remaining spot in a delayed electoral runoff.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Haiti on Sunday to meet with Preval and the candidates. Final results from the Nov. 28 first round are expected Wednesday with the vote rescheduled for March 20.
Preval, who was once Aristide's close ally but now regarded as a traitor by his partisans, faces the constitutional end of his term on Feb. 7, though a law passed last year could allow him to stay longer.
Aristide could not participate in the election as a candidate, and has said he does not want to.
But his return would be a bombshell that could change the course of the race by setting off unrest or reawakening dormant political allegiances. He remains popular in many circles but his Fanmi Lavalas party was not permitted to participate in this or other recent elections.
Last week a full-page ad ran in the Miami Herald calling for a new passport and for Aristide's immediate return. It carried 190 signatures including social organizations, political figures such as Jesse Jackson and deputy U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Paul Farmer, entertainers Harry Belafonte and actor Danny Glover, and names associated with controversy such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and imprisoned radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley posted on Twitter last week: "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."
Clinton told Radio Metropole on Sunday: "I don't know what, if any, plans President Aristide has."
Over the weekend, Internet rumors spread citing a Venezuelan news report that Aristide had traveled to the nearby island of Cuba. Kurzban said the rumors are untrue and the ex-president was in South Africa on Monday.