PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier returned Sunday to Haiti nearly 25 years after a popular uprising against his brutal dictatorship forced him into exile, a surprising move that comes as his country struggles with a political crisis and the stalled effort to recover from last year's earthquake.
Duvalier, part of a father-and-son dynasty that presided over one of the darkest chapters in Haitian history, arrived on an Air France jet in a jacket and tie to hugs from supporters at the Port-au-Prince airport. Haitian television and radio stations reported that Duvalier, 59, told reporters that he had simply come to help Haiti, moved by images of the first anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the country. He did not elaborate on his plans.
He waved to a crowd of about 200 supporters as he got into an SUV and left the airport.
"He is happy to be back in this country, back in his home," said Mona Beruaveau, a candidate for Senate in a Duvalierist party who spoke to the former dictator inside the immigration office. "He is tired after a long trip."
Beruaveau said Duvalier would hold a news conference today.
Later, Duvalier appeared on a balcony of a hotel and waved to supporters and journalists. His long-time companion, Veronique Roy, spoke briefly to reporters at the hotel and said he will stay in the country for three days. Asked why now, she said: '"Why not"?
In the fall of 2007, President René Préval told reporters that Duvalier could return to Haiti but would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars. Still, Duvalier has long flirted with returning, saying over the years he would like to go home.
Very few people were aware that he had come back to Haiti, where more than 1 million people are living in crowded, squalid tent encampments after their homes were destroyed by the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.
At one of those camps, there was some enthusiasm for Duvalier's return.
"I don't know much about Jean-Claude Duvalier but I've heard he did good things for the country," said Joel Pierre, 34. "I hope he will do good things again."
Nearby, Marline Joseph, 42, who is living in the camp with her three kids, was also somewhat hopeful. "He's here, that's good. Now, what is he going to do for the country?"
Haitians danced in the streets to celebrate the overthrow of Duvalier back in 1986, heckling the tubby, boyish tyrant as he was drove to the airport in a black limousine and flew into exile in France. Most Haitians hoped the strongman had left for good, closing a dark chapter of terror and repression that began under his late father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, in 1957.
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.
"We want him to be president because we don't trust anyone in this (presidential) election," said Haiti Belizaire, 47, a Duvalier supporter in the crowd outside the airport. "He did bad things but since he left we have not had stability. We have more people without jobs, without homes."
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that if Duvalier is involved in any political activities he is not aware of them.
"He is a Haitian and, as such, is free to return home," the prime minister said in an e-mail to the Associated Press. Asked if Duvalier's presence could destablize the country, he said: "Until now, there's no reason to believe that."
The Duvaliers tortured and killed their political opponents, ruling in an atmosphere of fear and repression ensured by the bloody Tonton Macoute, their feared secret police force.
The end of Jean-Claude Duvalier's reign was followed by a period known as deshoukaj, or "uprooting," in which Haitians carried out reprisals against Macoutes and regime loyalists, tearing down their houses.
Duvalier has been accused of pilfering millions of dollars from public funds and spiriting them out of the country to Swiss banks, though he denies stealing from Haiti.
Duvalier's return comes as the country struggles to work through a political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election. Three candidates want to go to a second round. The Organization of American States sent in a team of experts to resolve the deadlock, recommending that Préval's candidate be excluded. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza was scheduled to be in Port-au-Prince to meet with Préval today.
The news of Duvalier's return floored Haiti experts and has thrown the country's political situation into question. Speculation began about what other exiled leaders might return next.
"I was shocked when I heard the news and I am still wondering what is the next step, what Préval will say and obviously what (exiled former President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide will be doing," said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born history professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Roots of Haitian Despotism.
"If Jean-Claude is back in the country I assume Aristide will be trying to get back as quickly as possible." Aristide was forced into exile in Africa in 2004.
Fatton wondered what role the French government played in Duvalier's return, saying they would have had to have been aware that he was boarding an Air France jet to go home.
In France, the deputy spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry said she had seen news of Duvalier's arrival in Haiti, but had "no information" about the matter.
Author Amy Wilentz, whose book The Rainy Season is a definitive account of the aftermath of Duvalier's exile and Aristide's rise, said: "This is not the right moment for such upheaval."
"Let's not forget what Duvalierism was: prison camps, torture, arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, persecution of the opposition," she wrote in an e-mail to the AP.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.