PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti has issued a diplomatic passport to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, clearing the way for the return from exile of the ousted ex-leader, officials said on Tuesday.
But it remained unclear exactly when Aristide, a leftist, charismatic ex-Roman Catholic priest who became Haiti's first freely elected leader in 1990, might make the trip home from his exile in South Africa.
Aristide, ousted from Haiti by an armed revolt in 2004, said in January he was ready to return "today, tomorrow, at any time" to his poor Caribbean homeland, which is struggling to recover from a crippling 2010 earthquake.
A spokeswoman for Aristide, Maryse Narcisse, said, "We will not have to wait too long" for his return. "The food is cooking," she said, citing a Haitian Creole proverb.
Major Western donors like the United States are wary that the return of the firebrand populist former president, who still has a passionate following in Haiti, could be disruptive at a time when the country is preparing to hold a decisive presidential election run-off on March 20.
Aristide's lawyer, Kurzban, confirmed in an e-mail to Reuters he had the passport.
"We now are looking to the government of South Africa that has been such a gracious host to former President Aristide these past seven years to work with the government of Haiti to ensure the President's smooth transition back to his country," Kurzban wrote.
Outgoing President Rene Preval's government last month agreed to Aristide's request for a passport to return, saying he had the right as a Haitian national to visit his country.
This followed the shock homecoming in January of another exile, former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who now faces charges of corruption and "crimes against humanity" after 25 years of life in France.
Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party, the country's biggest, has been barred from taking part in elections, which has led many to question the credibility of the United Nations-backed presidential and legislative vote held on November 28.
After weeks of fraud allegations and street protests, Haiti's electoral authorities announced on Thursday that the March 20 presidential runoff would be contested between former first lady Mirlande Manigat, 70, and popular singer and entertainer Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, 49.