Baby Doc's return to Haiti prompts fury, cheers

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier's stunning return to his homeland has drawn a mixed reaction from angry opponents and cheering supporters, as many question his motives in returning after 25 years in exile.

Montreal's Haitian community 'shocked'

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier's stunning return to his homeland has drawn a mixed reaction from angry opponents and cheering supporters Monday, as many question his motives in returning after 25 years in exile.

Duvalier insisted Monday his return was "not political."

"I'm here for the reconstruction of Haiti," Duvalier told Radio Télévision Caraibes, a Port-au-Prince-based radio station.

Duvalier's spokesman, Henry Robert Sterling, portrayed the 59-year-old former "president for life" as merely a concerned elder statesmen who wanted to see the effects of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake on his homeland.

"He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," Sterling said, adding Duvalier would provide his reasons at a Tuesday news conference. He did not say how long Duvalier would remain in the country.

Motives questioned

Duvalier's surprise arrival in the capital on Sunday has raised many questions about his motives. 

As news of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier's return to Haiti spread, jubilant crowds gathered outside the Port-au-Prince airport to greet the former dictator. ((Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press))

Some fear Duvalier — who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier — or his mere presence will bring back the extreme polarization, and political violence, of the past.

Amnesty International has called on Haiti to arrest Duvalier immediately for crimes against humanity, including extra-judicial executions, disappearances, and systematic torture.

And former governor general Michaëlle Jean, now a special envoy to Haiti for the United Nations, said she was "astounded" by Duvalier's sudden return.

Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier waves from a hotel balcony in Petionville, Haiti, on Sunday night. ((Lee Celano/Reuters))

"Will a quarter-century of comfortable exile in impunity be enough to make Haitians forget the horrors, the suffering, the injustice as well as the human and economic cost of decades of Duvalierist dictatorship?" Jean wrote in a statement.

"How can he come back to Haiti without warning, like a citizen, without reproach?"

But for some in a tent city in Port-au-Prince Monday, Duvalier's return was cause to celebrate. Revellers drank alcohol and danced as the old hit song Duvalier for Life played over loudspeakers.

For them, the past is remembered not with fear, but fondness.

"It was a time when everyone respected each other," said Placide Alred, a former member of the Tonton Macoute, a feared secret police force that targeted the government's perceived enemies during the Duvalier reign.

"I have no idea why he's come back," Alred said. "But people have been asking for him to return for a long time."

'An emotional return'

Duvalier returned to Port-au-Prince from Paris aboard an Air France flight at about 5:50 p.m. local time.

Jean-Claude Duvalier succeeded his father, François Duvalier, as Haiti's 'president-for-life' in April 1971, at age 19. ((Reuters))

Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, he was greeted at the airport with hugs from supporters. He was taken into an immigration office before customs.

"It's been a very emotional return," Duvalier's wife, Véronique Roy, told reporters. "My husband got on his knees and kissed the ground."

Crowds outside the capital's Toussaint Louverture International Airport chanted as Duvalier was being processed by immigration officials.

"The Haitian people have been suffering for a long time," said a jubilant James Cuky. "Today is an important day because we found someone who can relieve some of our suffering."

"We were hoping Duvalier would come back to Haiti," he said in Creole.

Exile in 1986

Duvalier and his then wife Michèle Bennett fled into exile during a 1986 popular rebellion. Duvalier and his father tortured and killed their political opponents, ruling in an atmosphere of fear and repression ensured by the bloody Tonton Macoute secret police.

President for life

The title "President for Life" was coined in Haiti by former president François (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

Duvalier, a country doctor, was elected to serve a single six-year term in 1957.

In 1963, he defied the country's constitution by refusing to leave office. He threatened to plunge the country into chaos if anyone tried to keep him from staying put.

Before his death in 1971, Duvalier transferred the title of "president for life" to his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, then 19.

The end of his reign was followed by a period known as the dechoukaj, or uprooting, in which Haitians carried out reprisals against the Tonton Macoutes and regime loyalists, tearing their houses to the ground.

In the fall of 2007, President René Préval told reporters that Duvalier could return to Haiti but would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars.

The Caribbean nation is still struggling to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election.

In Montreal, where thousands of Haitians resettled after fleeing Duvalier's regime, news of the dictator's return was greeted with shock and skepticism.

"Since he still has supporters in Port-au-Prince, he might think that the confusion is such that 'If I'm back — especially in the context that 12 presidential candidates are reclaiming the cancellation of the election — it might be a good context for me to be seen as a messiah,'" said Jean Fils-Aimé, a host at CPAM, Montreal's Haitian radio station.

CPAM news director Pierre Emmanuel said he was angry and indignant about Duvalier's return. That it came during an extremely fragile and volatile context was "curious," he said.

With files from the CBC's Connie Watson and The Associated Press