By TRENTON DANIEL
Longtime Haiti observers were downright bewildered Sunday night after deposed Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to his country after almost 25 years of exile.
Speculation over the motives for the return of the 59-year-old Duvalier — who had been living in France — ran rampant. But many observers agreed on this: They weren’t sure what to make of Duvalier coming back.
“It’s such a critically important moment for Haiti and this guy to drop in from nowhere is very strange,” said Robert Maguire, associate professor of International Affairs at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. “What does he bring to Haiti, aside from a lot of confusion. Does he come back with political pretensions? We just don’t know.”
Duvalier, the playboy son of a medical doctor, landed at the Port-au-Prince international airport Sunday evening. He was tapped by his ill father in 1971 to fill an imminent political vacuum — even though he was only 19 at the time — and ran the country in a less violent fashion than his dictator father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
As unrest engulfed the country in the mid-1980s, Duvalier and his wife, Michèle Bennett, left Haiti, boarding a France-bound U.S. military aircraft on Feb. 7, 1986. Duvalier’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, took over.
Some observers speculated Sunday that deals must have been negotiated in order to guarantee a safe arrival for Duvalier. Whatever arrangement may have happened, it occurred without rumor in a place where rumors abound.
“For him to return to Haiti at this time, can only mean that there was some kind of deal going down with the Haitian government,” said Alex Dupuy, a longtime Haiti scholar at Wesleyan University
Dupuy and others noted that the timing of Duvalier’s return was particularly noteworthy — something President René Préval could have engineered as his term comes to an end. After the disputed Nov. 28 presidential elections, the Organization of American States issued a report that showed that government-backed candidate Jude Célestin did not get enough votes to be included in a runoff.
“It could be a very great way to divert from the crisis that’s going on, with the OAS report showing Célestin is out,” Dupuy said. “What game Préval is playing, who knows.”
Two of the current presidential candidates have ties to the Duvalier regime. Célestin’s uncle is Rony Gilot, a former information minister under Jean-Claude and the author of two books sympathetic to the Duvalier era. One is titled The Misunderstood.
The other presidential hopeful, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a pop star who placed third according to preliminary results but is now in second according to the OAS, ran with the paramilitary in the early 1990s after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an outspoken Duvalier critic, was ousted.
In the past 10 years, a sense of nostalgia for the Duvalier-era of cleaner streets and better government services has emerged — even though the bulk of the population is too young to remember Duvalier’s bloody rule.
Last July, Haiti observer Jocelyn McCalla recounted how he saw banners in the countryside and capital bestowing a happy birthday for the ousted despot.
“It was a low-level campaign to make him acceptable again to a growing segment of the population,” said McCalla, a political strategist. “The young people have just witnessed coups d’etat and dire poverty. How they should react to his presence should be quite interesting.”
Duvalier’s return brought mixed feelings among South Florida Haitians at a time when the homeland is fraught with uncertainty.
“Now that Haiti is in such a terrible situation, some people might see him as some sort of liberator — he embodies an era of relative peace and quiet, though things were not perfect,” said Martine Theodore, of Haitian Women of Miami.
Miami Herald staff writer Nadege Charles contributed to this report.