PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier ensconced himself Monday in a high-end hotel following his surprise return to a country deep in crisis, leaving many to wonder if the once-feared strongman will prompt renewed conflict in the midst of a political stalemate.
Duvalier met with allies inside the hotel in the hills above downtown Port-au-Prince and spoke publicly only through emissaries, who gave vague explanations for his sudden and mysterious appearance – nearly 25 years after he was forced into exile by a popular uprising against his brutal regime.
Henry Robert Sterlin, a former ambassador who said he was speaking on behalf of Duvalier, 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.
Duvalier – who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier – still has some support in Haiti and millions are too young to remember life under his dictatorship. But his abrupt return Sunday still sent shock waves through the country, with some fearing that his presence will bring back the extreme polarization, and political violence, of the past.
“Part of what he does by getting back into Haiti is bring back the old battle lines,” said Jocelyn McCalla, a political analyst and former director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. “People are going to start talking about being pro- or anti-Duvalier … It intensifies the instability.”
Duvalier’s return comes as Haiti struggles to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election, as well as a cholera epidemic and a troubled recovery from an earthquake.
Three candidates want to go on to a second round meant for two. The Organization of American States sent in a team of experts to resolve the deadlock, recommending that President Rene Preval’s candidate be excluded – and the arrival of Duvalier has at least briefly overshadowed speculation about how the government might respond. Preval, a former anti-Duvalier activist, made no immediate public statements on the former dictator’s re-emergence, though he told reporters in 2007 that Duvalier would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars if he returned.
Human rights groups urged Haiti to prosecute Duvalier for widespread abuses.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said he is aware of the accusations but that an arrest is unlikely anytime soon. “We want to be a government that respects the law and to arrest somebody you have to a judiciary process,” he said.