PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier ensconced himself Monday in a high-end hotel after his surprise return to a country deep in crisis, leaving many to wonder if the once-feared strongman will prompt renewed conflict.
Duvalier met with allies inside the hotel in the hills above downtown Port-au-Prince and spoke publicly only through emissaries, who gave vague explanations for his sudden 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 statesmen who wanted to see the effects of last year's devastating earthquake on his homeland. "He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," Sterlin said.
Known as Baby Doc, Duvalier had been expected to speak publicly Monday, but Sterlin said the hotel could not accommodate the crowds and no suitable replacement location could be found.
Sterlin said he didn't know how long Duvalier, who has been living in exile near Paris, planned to stay in Haiti.
Duvalier, who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 after the death of his father, dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, still has some support in Haiti despite being out of the country since 1986.
Though millions are too young to remember life under his dictatorship, 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.
"Part of what he does by getting back into Haiti is bring back the old battle lines," said Jocelyn McCalla, a political analyst and former director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.
"People are going to start talking about being pro- or anti-Duvalier. … It intensifies the instability."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a Twitter post that the United States was surprised by the timing of Duvalier's visit.
The department urged "all political actors and their supporters to remain calm and to work peacefully toward a prosperous future for Haiti."
President René Préval, a former anti-Duvalier activist, made no immediate public statements.
Human rights groups urged Haiti to prosecute Duvalier for widespread abuses, while the government of France said it had no advance notice of the trip.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.