'Baby Doc' Duvalier missed Haiti. That's why he came back.

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By Marjorie Valbrun
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:15 PM

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier always knew he would return to Haiti one day.

That's what he told me, over and over, in 2003, when I spent two weeks interviewing him in Paris. "I didn't come to France to live indefinitely," he said then, sounding as if he were merely a voluntary transplant and not a stateless former dictator.

Good luck with that, I thought.

I should have known better. Two weeks ago, the onetime "president for life" stunned the Haitian population and caught the government completely off-guard when he showed up and casually announced that he had come back "to help." The man who inherited the presidency at age 19 when his father died, and who was forced from power in 1986, was finished with life in exile.

When he arrived in Haiti, four people who say they were victimized by his regime promptly filed legal complaints charging him with crimes against humanity. He was taken into custody by Haitian authorities, charged with corruption and embezzlement, and then released and ordered not to leave the country. He was originally holed up in an upscale hotel but has since moved to a private guest house, where he has received old friends, political advisers and supporters as if he were a visiting dignitary.

Duvalier's presence has confounded just about everyone and has ignited a debate among Haitians abroad and those on the island about how their country should handle the return of one of its most polarizing figures.

It's no minor dilemma. Although recent events - a major earthquake, killer cholera, flawed elections - forced our attention to more pressing matters, the Duvalier era has never been too far from our collective consciousness.

Human rights groups say 40,000 to 60,000 political opponents were killed or disappeared during the time that Duvalier and his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, ruled the country, from 1957 until the son's exile. Haitian and U.S. government officials say Baby Doc and his relatives embezzled at least $500 million. Yet we've had no public reckoning, no trials or jury judgments, and no truth and reconciliation commission. What we've had instead is a chronic Duvalier problem, a long-festering wound that we may finally begin treating with Baby Doc's return.

The Duvalier problem is what I wanted to confront directly when I finally got my interview with the reclusive Baby Doc in 2003. By the time we met, he was no longer the big spender about town. He was divorced from his glamorous and controlling wife. He no longer traveled with an adoring entourage. By all accounts, including his own, he was flat broke.

Although I was just 6 years old when I left Haiti for the United States in 1969, my father, a consummate storyteller, kept the Duvaliers alive in my mind and helped me understand why they had such a hold on the Haitian imagination. When I became a reporter, I wanted to learn how they had kept that grip on the population's psyche and used it to dominate political life, decide who would live and die, and prompt hundreds of thousands of people to leave Haiti.

Over the course of our meetings in Paris, in fancy hotels and in modest Haitian restaurants, and during subsequent telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges, I got to know Duvalier as a man who is by turn intellectually dishonest, manipulative, even downright clueless. In rare but telling moments, he also seemed deeply sad.

"There has not been one day since I left that I have not thought about Haiti," he said in an unguarded moment. "The whole time I've been here, my heart and my spirit has been in Haiti."


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