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Other Opinion: Baby Doc’s unwelcome return

When Haitian “President for Life” Jean-Claude Duvalier fled into exile in 1986, his legacy stained by brutality, greed, incompetence and a staggering indifference toward his own country’s travails, rapturous Haitians celebrated his departure in the streets. Toppled by popular revolt, his departing motorcade jeered by his countrymen, Mr. Duvalier, the bloody-minded son of an even bloodier tyrant, left Haiti a wreck. His sudden, unlikely reappearance in Port-au-Prince, after a quarter-century’s exile in France, can do Haiti no good; conceivably, it could do quite a bit of harm.

It is a matter of debate whether Mr. Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc,” stole hundreds or merely tens of millions of dollars in public funds when he flew away in an American military transport plane. Whatever the sum — the assets have been contested, frozen and unfrozen in European courts for years - it seems clear that Mr. Duvalier, with his profligate ex-wife Michele’s copious assistance, squandered most of it by the early 1990s. Since then, his salad days as a playboy fond of yachts, sports cars and women well past him, he has spoken longingly of his desire to return to Haiti.

Until recently, it seemed laughable. Now, bearing an apparently expired diplomatic passport, Mr. Duvalier has returned, implausibly playing the part of the grave-faced elder statesman concerned for his shattered country’s welfare. In fact, his arrival, in the aftermath of badly flawed and inconclusive national elections last fall, may inject destabilizing tremors into an already exceedingly fragile political situation that may devolve into a power vacuum. That’s not what Haiti needs as it struggles to rebuild from one of history’s most devastating earthquakes.

Haitian authorities brought Mr. Duvalier into court for questioning without announcing any formal charges against him. He was released, but his lawyer says he faces corruption and embezzlement charges. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen next or what his fate might be if he remains in the country. Just four years ago, President Rene Preval said that Mr. Duvalier was free to return but that if he did, he would be brought to justice. Haitian and international human rights groups have called on the authorities to prosecute him for well-documented instances of arbitrary arrest, torture and murder, allegedly committed at Mr. Duvalier’s behest during his autocratic 15 years in power. 

Although many Haitians might be too young to remember Mr. Duvalier’s autocracy, plenty of others are haunted by memories of his cruel suppression of dissent, and of the Tonton Macoutes, the thuggish secret police he deployed to intimidate and eliminate potential rivals.

It’s nice to imagine that Mr. Duvalier could be tried for his misdeeds in office and made to face justice at the hands of his own country’s judicial system. But as the recent elections illustrated so dishearteningly, Haiti’s institutions, weak even before the earthquake a year ago, are feeble. The temblor, in addition to destroying untold quantities of records, also killed thousands of civil servants, including judges and justice officials. Chances are slim that that Haitian courts are capable of conducting a fair and effective trial of Mr. Duvalier.