Baby Doc Charged, but Duvalier Still Has Fans

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Ramon Espinosa / AP

Haiti's ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, center, gestures to supporters as police take him out of his hotel in Port-au-Prince

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier probably had every reason to believe that Haiti wouldn't book him when he made his stunning return to the country on Sunday. Although the exiled former dictator is accused of an orgy of brutality and embezzlement while ruling Haiti from 1971 to 1986, he may well have assumed the government at the moment had enough on its broken plate — earthquake recovery, a cholera epidemic, a presidential election crisis — that it couldn't afford the political turbulence of arresting, charging and prosecuting him as well.

If so, it seems Baby Doc miscalculated. Tuesday morning, a Haitian judge and prosecutor, backed by police and a government helicopter buzzing overhead, walked into the upscale Hotel Karibe in suburban Petionville, took Duvalier, 59, into custody and drove him to a downtown Port-au-Prince courthouse. Veronique Roy, who is variously described as either his wife or companion, laughed at reporters' suggestions that he was being arrested. But hours later, Duvalier was charged with at least the corruption portion of his alleged crimes — theft and misappropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars, which he and his first wife, Michèle Bennett, hauled with them to opulent exile in France after a popular uprising and international pressure booted them out of Haiti 25 years ago.

It's true that the Haitian government — a quarter of whose civil servants were killed in the 2010 earthquake that took more than 250,000 lives — can barely handle the emergencies it's got. But in the end it had little choice, with Duvalier on Haitian soil, but to try to bring him to justice. "It's like if Adolph Hitler were still alive and suddenly appeared at the Berlin airport," says Haitian historian and political analyst Georges Michel. "You have to do something." During the three-decade reign of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Baby Doc, who came to power at age 19, the clan terrorized Haiti — 30,000 opponents were abducted, kidnapped and killed by their Gestapo-like secret police, the Tonton Macoutes — and Baby Doc alone, according to recent Haitian judicial investigations, allegedly stole some $300 million, including, in one case, funds appropriated for a major railroad that was never built. Their dynasty is a key reason why Haiti today is still the western hemisphere's poorest and most dysfunctional country.

Still, analysts like Michel note that Duvalier wouldn't have taken the risk of coming back to Haiti for the first time since 1986 if he hadn't thought he and his tenacious band of supporters — some 2,000 of whom met him at the airport on Sunday and at the courthouse on Tuesday — might be able to exploit the volatility to rebuild his political brand. In fact, while Duvalier's reappearance may have been a surprise, it was actually set in motion six years ago, when a conservative coup exiled leftist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide himself was a wannabe despot. "And so for a lot of old Duvalier hands," says Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian-American adviser to the Haitian government, "Aristide's overthrow was a vindication of the staying power of Duvalierism." Indeed, from 2004 to 2006, interim President Gérard Latortue's government was packed with Duvalierists. That was especially true of Haiti's foreign service — which in 2005, according to Haitian officials this week, issued Duvalier a diplomatic passport, the same one he used to enter Haiti on Sunday (even though it expired last year). During that same period, Duvalier expressed his desire not only to return to Haiti but to run for President.

As a result, prosecuting Duvalier could be an effective way for Haiti's aloof and unpopular President, René Préval, to dampen any rising enthusiasm for Duvalierism now. Many Haitians, especially older ones like Jean Cafatima, 64, see the Duvalier era as a "belle epoque" of order, a stronger currency and 24/7 electricity instead of the harrowing uncertainties they face today. "For the past 25 years, Haiti has suffered at the hands of bad governments," says Cafatima. "Jean-Claude should be in power and straighten out the country." More worrisome is the neo-Duvalierist bent of more prominent Haitians like former bad-boy rapper and presidential candidate Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, known during his campaign last year for dropping his pants onstage — and waxing nostalgic about the Duvaliers and their strongman ways.

Some of the conspiracy theories coursing through the Port-au-Prince media this week posited that either Martelly or Préval, or both, may have actually encouraged Duvalier to fly to Haiti from France this week. That's because the two sides are locked in a bitter dispute over who really finished second in Haiti's fraud-tainted presidential election on Nov. 28 — Martelly or Jude Célestin, the candidate of Préval's party.

The stakes are high because the runner-up will face first-place finisher Mirlande Manigat in a run-off vote. According to official results of the election, which many if not most Haitians believe was rigged, Célestin finished second; but the Organization of American States, backed by the U.S., has concluded that Martelly did. Hence the speculation on Haiti's streets that Martelly lured Duvalier to Haiti to galvanize Duvalierists to his cause; or that the Préval government did so to arrest Duvalier and thereby discredit Martelly. Both camps deny any such actions.

Either way, a throng of Duvalier backers stood outside the courthouse Tuesday chanting, "If you arrest Jean-Claude we will set the country on fire!" As a result, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley lamented that the Duvalier crisis "is one more complication in an already challenging situation for Haiti." But human rights groups in Haiti and abroad are chagrined that Tuesday's charges didn't include the political murders and disappearances during the Duvalier era. A Haitian judge, meanwhile, released Duvalier Tuesday evening pending a trial. Sources close to Duvalier say he'd originally planned to return to France as early as Thursday. But now, if a full-blown prosecution does move forward, he might not leave for quite a long time. And perhaps, if he did come to Haiti to rekindle Duvalierism, that was his plan all along.