Haiti's political twist: Former dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier shows up

Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, whose brutal rule ended when he fled in 1986, returned unexpectedly on Sunday. His arrival complicates the political landscape, in which a runoff election for president has been delayed.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (c.) waves to supporters from a hotel balcony after his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday. Duvalier returned to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile, a surprising and perplexing move that comes as his country struggles with a political crisis and the stalled effort to recover from last year's devastating earthquake.

Former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, known for his ruthless rule in the 1970s and early '80s, returned to Haiti from exile on Sunday, providing an unexpected twist to an already protracted political situation in the earthquake-tattered country.

Mr. Duvalier took power after the death of his notorious father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1971 and ruled Haiti until 1986, when he was overthrown in a popular uprising. During their three decades in power, the Duvaliers ruled the Caribbean country with brutality, employing a secret police called the "Tonton Macoutes" to torture and kill opponents and suppress political movements. “Baby Doc” Duvalier also looted national coffers of millions of dollars before he fled to France in 1986.

His return came as a surprise to the international community and many Haitians. Officials on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe, where the flight had a stopover, notified Haitian authorities that Duvalier would be arriving.

Upon his arrival at Port-au-Prince’s international airport Sunday evening, a crowd of supporters and security agents whisked him away, Haitian media reported. Duvalier said he would address reporters today in a press conference.

In 2007, Haitian President René Préval told reporters that if Duvalier returned to Haiti, he would face justice for the deaths and embezzlement. But on Sunday, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the Associated press that Duvalier “is a Haitian and, as such, is free to return home.”

Questioning Baby Doc's return

For some Haitians, "Baby Doc" represented little more than a name from a bygone era.

“I know people say he was a dictator, but a lot of us are too young to remember much about him,” says Jermaine Antoine, who was left homeless by the January earthquake that killed at least 230,000 people. “People are wondering why he’s here, why he came back.”

Duvalier reportedly has a round-trip ticket that would take him back to France on Jan. 20. But his presence, even if only for a few days, complicates an election that has been beset by claims of fraud, delay, and uncertainty.

Under the original electoral schedule, the country was to go to the polls in a runoff election for a president on Sunday. The vote has been delayed because the electoral commission has still not declared which two candidates will compete.

“The question now becomes, if Baby Doc is back, why shouldn’t [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide be allowed to come back,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University who tracks Haitian politics.

Mr. Aristide, a priest and another former president of Haiti, went into exile in Africa in 2004 after he was ousted in what he described as a coup d’état orchestrated by the US.

The Fanmi Lavalas political party he founded remains a powerful, if somewhat fractured, movement in Haiti. The party was barred from running a candidate in the presidential elections, causing many supporters to stay home during the first round of elections on Nov. 28.

“Duvalier may be old and nobody is certain of what he intends to do, but nothing brings together the Lavalas party like the presence of Baby Doc,” Professor Gamarra says.

Such a resurgence among the Lavalas party could alter the outcome of the presidential election when a vote – not yet scheduled – does take place.

Where the vote stands

President Préval is weighing a report from the Organization of American States (OAS) that says that former first lady Mirlande Manigat and musician Michel Martelly placed first and second, respectively, in the November vote.

That report recommends putting Préval’s hand-chosen candidate, Jude Celestin, in third place, which would eliminate him from a runoff vote.

Initial vote tallies showed Mr. Celestin had placed second in the balloting. However, the OAS team found numerous problems with those results.

The OAS report has been in Préval’s hands since Jan. 13, but he has yet to comment on its findings.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.