Duvalier return to Haiti brings calls for arrest
Sudden arrival complicates island’s woes
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc’’ Duvalier met with allies yesterday after his surprise return to a country deep in crisis, leaving many to wonder if the once-feared dictator will prompt renewed conflict in the midst of a political stalemate.
Duvalier remained inside his hotel in the hills above Port-au-Prince and spoke publicly only through emissaries, who gave vague explanations for his sudden and mysterious appearance — nearly 25 years after he was forced into exile by a popular uprising against his brutal regime.
Henry Robert Sterlin, a former ambassador who said he was speaking on behalf of Duvalier, portrayed the 59-year-old former “president for life’’ as merely a concerned elder statesman who wanted to see the effects of the devastating 2010 earthquake on his homeland.
“He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake,’’ Sterlin said. “He wanted to come back to see how is the actual Haitian situation of the people and the country.’’
President Rene Preval, a former anti-Duvalier activist, made no immediate public statements on the former dictator’s reemergence, though he told reporters in 2007 that Duvalier would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars if he returned.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said an arrest is unlikely any time soon. “We want to be a government that respects the law and to arrest somebody you have to a judiciary process,’’ he said.
At the moment, there are no pending charges against the former dictator. In fact, National Police for a time guarded him at the upscale Hotel Karibe before withdrawing, leaving security to hotel guards and a few UN peacekeepers stationed outside.
Duvalier, who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 after the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc’’ Duvalier, still has some support in Haiti and millions are too young to remember life under his dictatorship. But his abrupt return Sunday still sent shock waves through the country, with some fearing that his presence will bring back the extreme polarization, and political violence, of the past.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States was surprised by the timing of Duvalier’s visit. “It adds unpredictability at an uncertain time in Haiti’s election process.’’
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued statements urging Haiti to hold Duvalier accountable for the torture and killing of civilians during his 15-year rule.
“The Haitian authorities must break the cycle of impunity that prevailed for decades in Haiti,’’ said Javier Zuniga, a special adviser at Amnesty International. “Failing to bring to justice those responsible will only lead to further human rights abuses.’’
Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said Duvalier’s return has the potential to further disrupt the country.
“It will energize his supporters, many of whom have histories of substantial political violence. The failure to arrest him will be even more disruptive, as it will send a signal of impunity for political violence,’’ said Concannon, a former lawyer for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in 2004 in a violent rebellion.
When Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, most Haitians hoped he had left for good, closing a dark chapter of terror and repression that began under his late father in 1957. During their rule, a secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute stifled any dissent, torturing and killing opponents.
But a handful of loyalists have been campaigning to bring Duvalier home from exile in France, launching a foundation to improve the dictatorship’s image and reviving Baby Doc’s political party in the hopes that one day he can return to power democratically.
Haiti is struggling to work through a political crisis after the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election. Three candidates want to go on to a second round meant for two.