"Baby Doc" Duvalier returns to Haiti

Almost 25 years ago, the downtrodden people of Haiti managed to finally put an end to the Duvalier dynasty, which ruled one of the world’s poorest nations for thirty years through terror and theft on the grandest of scales.  They gave Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier the heave-ho in 1986, sending him off to France to live in luxury on the Haitian wealth accumulated by Duvalier and his father François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, where the former dictator has stayed ever since … or at least until yesterday.  Duvalier entered Haiti last night on a “diplomatic” passport, apparently allowed to travel there by France:

And what’s perhaps even harder to imagine is how the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy could have allowed Duvalier, who arrived from Paris, to board an Air France flight bound for Haiti under the current circumstances. “For the French to have even permitted [Duvalier] to leave their territory amidst an electoral and cholera crisis here shows they have not much interest in the welfare of the Haitian people,” says a high-ranking Haitian government official.

French officials, who technically had no power to stop Duvalier, weren’t responding to that question on Sunday night. But Port-au-Prince media were rife with conflicting conspiracy theories — all of them focused on last week’s election report by the Organization of American States (OAS). It concluded that Jude Célestin, the candidate of Haitian President René Préval’s party, actually finished third, not second, in the first-round balloting on Nov. 28, and that Célestin should therefore not be eligible for a runoff vote — which, ironically, was originally supposed to have been held Sunday but has been postponed.

The less-than-credible Nov. 28 results, which many if not most Haitians believe the government fixed to eke out a runoff spot for Célestin, were met by violent street protests last month. Even before last week’s OAS report, the aloof and unpopular Préval was under ample international pressure, including from the U.S., to recognize the official third-place finisher, Michel Martelly, as the actual runner-up. (He would then face first-place candidate Mirlande Manigat in the runoff.) Last week, France’s ambassador to Haiti, Didier Le Bret, was frequently on Haitian radio calling on Préval to respect the OAS recommendation. Préval in turn angrily charged France and the international community with imperialist-style strong-arming.

The question now is, Who if anyone in this standoff benefits from the sudden presence of Duvalier? Some Haitian pundits on Sunday said it might be meant to compel Préval to acquiesce to international demands to sacrifice Célestin. But it’s hard to believe, even under Sarkozy, that France and the international community would stoop so low diplomatically as to encourage Duvalier to return to Haiti for that purpose. Others suggested that Duvalier’s return instead gives Préval leverage by showing the international powers how much more turbulent things can get if they keep messing with the Haitian President. But again, could even Préval be cynical enough to open the door to one of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators for that kind of political gain?

Duvalier, 19 years old when he officially took power and tossed out at age 34, wouldn’t leave his cushy exile in France merely to act on behalf of the OAS, or even to counter the OAS.  It’s difficult to imagine any reason for Duvalier to be in Haiti except to seize power once again.  It’s about the most propitious time for a power grab; we have a disputed and almost certainly corrupt election, starvation, epidemics, and the ravages of natural disasters still plaguing the nation.  That kind of chaos breeds dictators more often than not, and the return of a ready-made dictator might make it even easier to seize control.

Haiti threatened to try Duvalier for his crimes as dictator if he ever returned to the country, a threat that kept Duvalier in France after he first suggested he might run for President in 2006.  With the nation’s political structure crumbling and people starving, the police may well believe they have better things to do now than to arrest a man who might well end up back in power.  His “diplomatic passport” would prevent an arrest, if that is indeed how he entered the country, in any event.

Duvalier says he returned to help his country in its time of need.  A better bet is that Duvalier decided to help himself to more of Haiti, and that the situation there is about to get even worse than it was before his arrival.

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