PORT-AU-PRINCE – Former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to Haiti on Sunday in the midst of a political vacuum left by disputed presidential elections.
Returning to his homeland after 25 years in the political wilderness, most of them spent in exile in France, Duvalier did not explain the reason for his return, telling 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.
Duvalier’s partner Veronique Roy described to AFP 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 former officials who had served as cabinet ministers under Duvalier awaited his arrival at the airport and a few hundred supporters were gathered outside.
Duvalier was ousted by a popular revolt after his family and supporters were accused of plundering tens of millions of dollars of state funds during his 15-year reign.
He arrives just one year after the catastrophic earthquake flattened the western hemisphere’s poorest country, leaving much of the capital Port-au-Prince in ruins.
Duvalier’s unexpected return also came as the country wrestled with the results of a November 28 election that sparked deadly riots over allegations of vote-rigging by the current ruling party.
The head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, was to arrive in Haiti Monday to discuss his regional group’s report that evaluated the election results, his office said.
A draft of the report leaked last week said the international monitors would suggest that Jude Celestin, the hand-picked candidate of Preval, should step aside ahead of a second round run-off.
Violent protests flared in the Caribbean nation when December’s first round results revealed popular singer Michel Martelly had failed to advance, falling slightly behind Celestin.
Duvalier, who has been living in exile in France for most of the last 25 years, had earlier told a Florida radio station he was not returning as a presidential candidate, saying: “This is not the order of the day.”
In 2007, Duvalier called on Haitians to forgive him for the “mistakes” committed during his reign, but Preval dismissed his remarks at the time.
Haitian authorities have accused Duvalier of diverting more than 100 million dollars out of the desperately poor country under the guise of social work during his reign.
“Baby Doc” came to power in 1971 at the precocious age of 19, 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.
The rapacious dictator 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 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.