'Baby Doc' returns to Haiti after 25 years

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 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, who an AFP reporter saw at immigration in a blue suit and tie, only added to the intrigue in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, as efforts to find a successor to President Rene Preval have fallen into disarray.

A family gathers outside their temporary tent home in the impoverished neighbourhood of Petionville, Haiti.
A family gathers outside their temporary tent home in the impoverished neighbourhood of Petionville, Haiti.

Duvalier's partner Veronique Roy, who was accompanying him, 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.

"That was the trigger," she told AFP. "It's so emotional. We were not expecting this welcome."

A delegation of Duvalier's former cabinet ministers greeted him at the airport along with hundreds of supporters outside cheering as he left in a police-escorted motorcade.

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 a bunch of 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 for him.

"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.

"He should never have been president, he was 18 and they put him there, he couldn't even handle himself. The crimes were not his, they were those of his father's people."

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

He sought to similarly 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.

France accepted Duvalier after he was ousted.

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.

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.

He 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.

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

Violent protests flared in the Caribbean nation when December's first round presidential results revealed popular singer Michel Martelly had failed to advance, falling slightly behind ruling party candidate Jude Celestin.

International monitors have called for Celestin, the hand-picked candidate of Preval, to step aside ahead of a second round run-off with front-runner Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady.

Other news