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 and perplexing 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. He was calm as he was led into the immigration office. He left the airport without making a statement to journalists, waving to a crowd of more than 200 supporters as he got into an SUV.
"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 he would give a news conference on Monday.
Later, Duvalier appeared on a balcony of the Karibe Hotel and waved to supporters and journalists outside. All he said was "tomorrow, tomorrow," apparently in reference to the news conference.
Veronique Roy, his longtime companion, 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 Rene Preval 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.
It was not immediately clear why the 59-year-old former dictator — who took power in 1971 at the age of 19 — chose this tumultuous moment to return to Haiti.
There were no immediate protests in reaction to his return and very few people were even aware that the former dictator had come back to Haiti, where more than 1 million people are living in crowded, squalid tent encampments after their homes were destroyed from the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. Half the people in the country are younger than 21, and weren't alive during Duvalier's rule.
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 34-year-old Joel Pierre. "I hope he will do good things again."
Nearby, 42-year-old Marline Joseph, 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 drove to the airport and was flown into exile in France. Most Haitians hoped the rapacious 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 and reviving Baby Doc's political party in the hopes that one day he can return to power democratically.
"We want him to be president because we don't trust anyone in this election. He did bad things but since he left we have not had stability. We have more people without jobs, without homes," said Haiti Belizaire, a 47-year-old Duvalier supporter in the crowd outside the airport.
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 his reign was followed by a period known as deshoukaj or "uprooting" in which Haitians carried out reprisals against Macoutes and regime loyalists, tearing their houses to the ground.
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.
Dictators have long favored hiding their cash in the European nation due to its banking secrecy rules, but last year, lawmakers there approved a bill making it easier to seize ill-gotten funds.
Duvalier's return Sunday comes as the country struggles to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election.
Three candidates want to go onto a second round. The Organization of American States sent in a team of experts to resolve the deadlock, recommending that Preval's candidate be excluded. Preval was reportedly not pleased with the report. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza was scheduled to be in Port-au-Prince to meet with Preval on Monday.
The news floored Haiti experts and has thrown the country's entire political situation into question. Immediately 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 Preval 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."
Fatton wondered what role the French government played in Duvalier's return, saying they would have had to have been aware that the ex-despot 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 and could not confirm that he'd left France. The spokeswoman did not give her name, in accordance with ministry policy.
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 AP. And, she added, "If Haitian authorities allow Duvalier to return, can they thwart exiled President Aristide's desire to come back to the country?"
"Haitians need a steady hand to guide them through the earthquake recovery, not the ministrations of a scion of dictatorship."
Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz in Brooklyn, New York, Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.