The motives of the notorious playboy and dictator, who was exiled in 1986, remain unclear
Earthquake, hurricanes, cholera, political crisis: it seemed Haiti’s woes could not get worse. Then an Air France flight landed in Port-au-Prince and out stepped Baby Doc.
Wearing a blue suit and tie, he was older, frailer, but still recognisable all these years later as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, once the Caribbean’s most notorious playboy, dictator and kleptocrat.
“I was waiting for this moment for a long time,” the 59-year-old said after arriving on Sunday night. “When I first set foot on the ground, I felt great joy.”
Haiti needs lots of things, but the unexpected return of a leader who tortured, murdered and looted before fleeing in 1986 may not be one of them. The fact that his luxury Paris exile had turned to near penury put an additional question mark over the homecoming.
But it is a measure of the country’s desperation that some Haitians welcomed it. Hundreds of cheering supporters greeted Duvalier at the airport and as news spread among the general population today, reaction ranged from delight and ambivalence, to concern.
“A lot of young people heard from their parents that he used to be a good president, that things weren’t so expensive back then, so they’re hoping he can show the politicians what to do,” said Jean Daniel Delon, 27.
Exactly why Duvalier has returned, and for how long, remains unclear. “I’m not here for politics,” he told Radio Caraibes. “I’m here for the reconstruction of Haiti.” His longtime companion, Veronique Roy, told reporters that they planned to stay just three days. Asked why he had returned now, she replied: “Why not?”
A press conference scheduled for today was postponed until tomorrow.
“There is something going on behind this, but we don’t know what it is yet,” said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born history professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Roots of Haitian Despotism.
The authorities cleared Duvalier through immigration, prompting speculation that President René Préval had orchestrated a distraction to a row over whether his favoured successor, Jude Celestin, would progress to a delayed run-off election.
Another theory linked the ex-dictator to another presidential candidate, Michel Martelly, who is also seeking a run-off spot and has senior Duvalier supporters among his entourage.
“Whatever is going on, this return isn’t going to help anything,” said Fatton. Younger Haitians have no direct experience of Duvalier’s despotism, and living standards for most Haitians have worsened since his departure, producing dangerous nostalgia. “Everybody is fed up with the existing situation and wants change. But what type of change?”
Duvalier’s reappearance also fuelled speculation that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an exiled former president who retains strong support, may soon follow.
A 2006 US embassy cable passed to WikiLeaks said Washington and the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti, opposed the return of either man as “provocative” and “unhelpful”, a view that is unlikely to have changed.
Duvalier inherited power in 1971 aged just 19. He was one of the world’s youngest heads of state and ruled as a corrupt and marginally less brutal successor to his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from 1957.
When the vicious Tonton Macoute militia could no longer contain unrest, Baby Doc fled to France in 1986 – prompting dancing in the streets. Euphoria faded as the economy collapsed and political convulsions toppled one government after another, turning Haiti into an impoverished ward of the UN and foreign donors.
Last year’s earthquake, followed by a cholera outbreak and a chaotic, inconclusive November election, has left a humanitarian crisis and political vacuum.
The prospect of Duvalier partly filling it has appalled many. “Duvalier’s return to Haiti should be for one purpose only: to face justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco,Americas director of Human Rights Watch.
“His time to be held accountable is long overdue.” Amnesty International said he should be tried for crimes against humanity.
What passes for Haiti’s government and judicial system – neither has recovered from the earthquake – gave no immediate indication of an intention to prosecute the returned exile.
Duvalier checked into the Karibe hotel in Pétionville, an upmarket district, and said he had returned to help and show solidarity with Haitians’ suffering. “I am well disposed and determined to participate in the rebirth of Haiti,” he said.
It was unclear who would pick up the hotel tab. Duvalier’s years of living in a chateau outside Paris and a luxury Riviera villa ended in costly divorce and tax disputes, leaving him near broke.In recent years journalists tracked him down to a small, sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment in a far from chic arrondissement. The modest rent of a few hundred euros a month was paid by supporters, including Haitian taxi-drivers and waiters living in France who propped up Duvalier morally, physically and financially.
At one point the former president was so desperate he took university classes to improve his “leadership skills” and placed an advertisement seeking work in a local paper in the south of France. However critics said he never seriously sought to earn a living.
Friends described him as lonely and deluded, dreaming of the day he would reclaim power. There are rumours he had a stroke and major surgery in 2009. He now appears convinced his moment has come. “All I know is politics,” he once said.
Philippe Moreau Defarges, co-director of the French Institute for International Relations said Duvalier’s return was probably a mix of nostalgia and a desire for power. “He’s not an old man and he needs to find a role for himself. He is his father’s son and he has gone back home.”