PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti-Just as it seemed Haiti's political crisis couldn't grow thornier, a vicious barb arrived here Sunday night on a French airliner: The country's once-notorious dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier- a.k.a. "Baby Doc"-returned to Haiti after 25 years in French exile. The ousted leader's arrival stunned Haitians already near a boiling point over disputed presidential elections.
Most seemed confounded by Duvalier's return, and many agreed that it portended trouble. Indeed, the brutal dictator who once appealed to poor masses-while living a corruptly lavish lifestyle-arrived at a critical moment when the masses are threatening violence if the political system doesn't change. What role Duvalier hopes to play in that change remains a strange mystery for now.
Duvalier took power in 1971 after the death of his father-François "Papa Doc" Duvalier-a brutal dictator who slaughtered political opponents and drove the nation deeper into grinding poverty.
The Voodoo-obsessed "Papa Doc" (nicknamed for his original profession as a doctor) enlisted some 300,000 Haitians for his infamous Macoutes-a security force that dominated Haitian life with fear and brutality. The ruler declared himself "president for life," and blasphemously altered the Lord's Prayer, which began: "Our Doc who art in the National Palace for life." It ended with this invective for opponents: ". . . deliver them not from any evil."
The younger Duvalier, who came to power at age 19 following his father's death, didn't deliver his opponents from evil either. Nicknamed "Baby Doc" by his countrymen, the round-faced dictator continued his father's oppression and abuse, using the Macoutes. Experts estimate the father-son duo killed some 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians during their combined reign.
But some Haitians express a strange nostalgia for Duvalier's rule. Indeed, during travels around Port-au-Prince as late as last week, Duvalier's name appeared occasionally scrawled on concrete walls-an oddity that now seems prophetic. Some of the pro-Duvalier sentiment flows from memories of a handful of conditions that did improve under his rule: His government rebuilt a major road between Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap Haitien, the tourism industry grew, and the manufacturing sector added jobs.
That leads some Haitian observers to worry that Duvalier could once again appeal to an impoverished majority grasping for any improvement over the miserable conditions that dominate life in Haiti. On Sunday night, throngs of supporters greeted Duvalier at the airport. Some chanted: "This is our president."
But if the masses hope that Duvalier could help deliver such improvements again, they are forgetting the other half of his rule: Not only did the dictator brutalize opponents, he also funneled millions of dollars of foreign aid into his own lavish, drug-induced lifestyle. By the end of his rule, Haitians grew poorer, while Duvalier grew rich. When Haitians finally protested his rule in 1986, he left on a U.S. plane bound for exile in France. But the precedent was set: The dictator remains a crowning example of foreign aid falling into corrupt hands.
With billions of dollars flowing into post-earthquake Haiti, the moment may seem opportune for a return. Also, a political crisis has left the nation like a tinderbox, waiting for President René Préval to announce whether he will accept an Organization of American States report that says his handpicked candidate, Jude Celestin, shouldn't head into a runoff for the presidency. If Préval doesn't accept the report, many fear riots could ensue, crippling the capital.
Many note that Celestin's uncle was an official in Duvalier's administration, creating speculation that the government is involved in Duvalier's return. But if his arrival is part of a government-approved plan, the objective remains unclear.
Meanwhile, Haitians toil under rumors about what may happen next. Nearly every day, some Haitians warn that protests will begin tomorrow. One rumor included a report that the French embassy told its citizens in Haiti to stock up on several weeks' worth of food. A taxi driver at the airport told me that officials in the White House would decide the next president. At least one assessment that most Haitians share seems sure: You never know what a day in Haiti might bring.