'Baby Doc' Duvalier returns amid power vacuum

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier made a surprise return to his homeland Sunday for the first time since fleeing 25 years ago amid a continuing power vacuum following a disputed Nov. 28 presidential vote.


AFP - Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has made a surprise return to Haiti in the midst of a political vacuum left by disputed presidential elections.

Returning to his homeland Sunday for the first time after 25 years in the political wilderness, most of them spent in exile in France, Duvalier told reporters at the airport, simply: "I've come to help."

The sudden re-emergence of Duvalier, 59, only added to the intrigue in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, as efforts to find a successor to President Rene Preval have fallen into disarray.

Haiti's political unrest continues

Duvalier's partner Veronique Roy, who was accompanying him, told AFP he would speak to reporters on Monday.

She described how the former dictator bent to his knees and kissed the ground as he set foot on home soil for the first time since his violent ouster in 1986.

"Haiti my country, the country of Dessalines," she quoted him as declaring, in reference to independence hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who drove the French out and made himself emperor.

Roy suggested the couple's return had been prompted by the devastating earthquake almost exactly a year ago that killed nearly a quarter of a million Haitians.

"It's so emotional. We were not expecting this welcome," she said.

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told AFP late Sunday that Duvalier "is a Haitian and as such is free to return home" without commenting on whether the disgraced ex-leader would face possible legal action.

After arriving at the airport Duvalier was whisked in a motorcade to the upscale Karibe Hotel where hundreds of supporters clamored to take his picture with their mobile phones in a carnival-like atmosphere.

"Duvalier has returned, so we will have a real country now. We are glad that he is here to restore the country's image," said Ronald Brevil, 25, who had earlier rushed to the airport to see the leader he never knew.

But many of Haiti's older generation will remember the 28 combined years of Duvalier family rule as a time of repression carried out by a rapacious secret police called the Tonton Macoutes.

In a side-road downtown where older men were playing dominoes and listening to the radio, Daniel Benjamin, who was 19 when "Baby Doc" was ousted, suggested time had mellowed those wounds.

"He doesn't faze me. He has a right to come back to his country. This is where he was born. He still has political leverage because there's a void.

"They say his government killed a lot of people, but a lot of governments after him did the same," he said.

"Baby Doc" came to power in 1971, succeeding his repressive father Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier at his death.

Like his father, he sought to control the poverty-ridden country with an iron fist -- barring opposition, clamping down on dissidents, rubber-stamping his own laws and pocketing government revenue.

He ruled Haiti for 15 years until a popular uprising in 1986, when pro-democracy forces rallied in the streets amid widespread international condemnation.

Like his enemy Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was driven from power in 2004, Duvalier was urged to step down by the United States and left the country on a US Air Force plane. He was later allowed to live in exile in France.

Since then he has been involved in a long legal battle to keep millions of dollars held in Swiss bank accounts, as Haiti has sought to repatriate the funds with help from Swiss authorities.

In February the Swiss government said it would keep Duvalier's assets frozen after its bid to return some 4.6 million dollars of allegedly embezzled funds to Haiti was blocked by the Supreme Court.

Duvalier arrives to find the country in almost as much turmoil as when he left.

One year after a catastrophic earthquake flattened the western hemisphere's poorest country, much of the capital Port-au-Prince remains in ruins and a cholera epidemic has claimed 3,790 lives since mid-October.

Haiti is also wrestling with the results of a November 28 election that sparked deadly riots over allegations of vote-rigging by the ruling party.

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