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Tunisia and Haiti: One tyrant returns home, one flees

The tenuous connection? France.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2011

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier talks by phone upon his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday. Duvalier returned Sunday to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile - an exile that began just 11 months before Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to power by means of a putsch. The connection? France.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

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Within days of the people of Tunisia rising up in fury at the corruption of their president and the vicious police state he used against him, Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, whose picture might as well be next to dictionary definition of "police state," returned home to Haiti after 24 years in exile?

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Duvalier went into exile just 11 months before Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to power in a putsch against Tunisia's founding President Habib Bourguiba. Both men had opponents whisked away from their homes in the middle of night and tortured, with Ben Ali's Mukhabarat mirroring Baby Doc's Tonton Macoute (though without the voodoo excesses).

Duvalier, like Ben Ali, was driven out of his country by a public protests and riots fueled by anger at bad economic conditions, the corruption of the first family, and the use of the security services to grind down all dissent and public complaint. Both ruled former French colonial possessions.

And just like Duvalier, Ben Ali made a bee-line for France when he fled the country (though France refused Ben Ali's plane permission to land, and it had to stretch its fuel reserves to make it to Saudi Arabia).

Coincidence? Well, it sure feels like some kind of dictator isostatic adjustment is going on.

Ok. Total coincidence. But still...

France was a major backer and ally of Ben Ali's -- to the extent that Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie suggested France could help him put down the unrest at the start of last week. In the case of Duvalier, relations with France were chillier. In 1986, France had resisted taking in the dictator, with then President Francois Mitterand expressing unease at providing asylum to a man with such an appalling human rights record.

But Duvalier's return home to a Haiti perhaps worse off than the day he left, is a reminder that the joyous removal of a dictator is only a first step.

To be sure, aside from their historical ties to France, the two nations couldn't be more different. Tunisia may be poor, but it's far more affluent than Haiti, has a better educated population, and serviceable infrastructure.

But if the next few months aren't managed carefully, with an eye towards really opening both the political system and an economic system that has stood in the way of poor Tunisians making a better life for themselves, there's no guarantee Tunisia will be better off this time next year -- or 24 years from now.

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