An earthquake, hurricanes, cholera, political crises — 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.”
Later Haitian police escorted Duvalier from his Port-au-Prince hotel to court to face possible criminal charges related to looting state coffers during his brutal dictatorship.
Dozens of officers, including some in riot gear, whisked him past a jeering and cheering crowd and into a 4×4 with tinted windows — a scene his regime’s victims had long dreamed of. He had been due to give a press conference to explain his return from 25 years in exile.
“Mr Duvalier is under the control of the judicial system. He’s not free, he’s going to my office,” Aristidas Auguste, the chief prosecutor, said. Crowds immediately thronged the courthouse in expectation of a historic hearing.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, have urged the authorities to prosecute the former dictator for jailing, torturing and murdering thousands of people during his 15-year rule. But a senior government official, who wanted to remain anonymous, said Duvalier would face questions about embezzlement of state funds instead. His long-time companion, Veronique Roy, when asked whether Duvalier was being arrested, laughed and said nothing.
The scene evoked memories of February 7 1986 when crowds danced in the streets after widespread revolts and international pressure led to his departure.
His Swiss-banked fortune long used up in divorce and tax disputes, Duvalier returned to Haiti without warning on Sunday on a flight from Paris, saying he wanted to help. “I’m not here for politics. I’m here for the reconstruction of Haiti.”
By mid-morning on Tuesday it became clear he would need help himself. Police staked out the Karibe hotel while Auguste and a judge, Gabriel Amboisse, questioned him in private. By the time he emerged there was a crowd, split, like much of Haiti, over a man who terrorised with the Tonton Macoute militia but also symbolised a time when the economy at least partly functioned.
Some jeered, others shouted “Free Duvalier!” and chased the 4×4 which evaded an attempt to block it with burning tyres. A spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights said it should be easier to prosecute Duvalier in Haiti, because that was where atrocities took place, but that the judicial system was fragile.
It is a measure of the country’s desperation that some Haitians welcomed Duvalier’s return. Hundreds of cheering supporters greeted him at the airport and, as news spread among the population, 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). Younger Haitians have no direct experience of Duvalier’s despotism and living standards for most Haitians have worsened since his departure, producing a dangerous nostalgia.
Why Duvalier has returned, and for how long, is unclear. Roy told reporters they planned to stay just three days. Asked why he had returned now, she replied: “Why not?”
“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.
Authorities cleared him through immigration, prompting speculation that Haiti’s president, René Préval, had orchestrated a distraction from a row over whether his favoured successor, Jude Celestin, will 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. Duvalier’s reappearance also fuelled speculation that Jean-Baptise Aristide, the former president exiled in South Africa, who retains strong support, may soon follow.
Duvalier inherited power in 1971 aged just 19. He was one of the world’s youngest heads of state and was a corrupt and marginally less brutal successor to his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from 1957. When the militia could no longer contain unrest, he fled to France. — Guardian News & Media 2011