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Ex-Haitian leaders push for return

Baby Doc made a puzzling return. Now a former president wants to come back too.

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier
Supporters of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier demonstrate outside Hotel Karibe, Jan. 19, 2011, in Port-au-Prince. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The return of ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile has prompted another exiled leader to push to come back.

Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was flown out of the country in 2004, reminded his supporters — and Haitian and foreign officials — that he’s prepared to come back to Haiti, a country from which he was forced into exile nearly seven years ago.

“As far as I am concerned, I am ready,” he wrote in a statement that was distributed to the press Wednesday. “Once again, I express my readiness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time.” Aristide, who has applied for but not received a passport to travel, was still in South Africa, despite rumors of his imminent return, supporters said.

Aristide’s statement has added another layer of complexity to an already bizarre week that began with Duvalier’s return. The timing of the controversy could not be worse for the country, observers said, because it has taken attention away from the lingering electoral crisis.

Duvalier, who is accused of pilfering the treasury of hundreds of millions and using secret police to torture and murder opponents from 1971 to 1986, returned to Haiti on Sunday.

Prosecutors filed charges of corruption and embezzlement on Tuesday. And victims came forward Wednesday to add human rights violations to those charges. An investigating judge is now weighing the case against him.

Spokesmen for Duvalier said the former dictator came back to help his country. Indeed, a crowd of supporters welcomed him back and gathered in front of the posh hotel in the Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince where Duvalier had been staying until Thursday.

“I think some people think of him and say ‘life was easier when he was here,’” said Yves Destin, who was left unemployed after last year’s earthquake. Destin added that many Haitians are too young to remember the Duvaliers. “People tell stories about how everything worked then and it was cleaner. They don’t know that there were also a lot of problems.”

Duvalier and aides canceled press conferences scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. And his public statements have been few, leaving many to wonder why he would return after nearly a quarter-century away.

Rumors about his health and presidential aspirations have been denied. But there is speculation that his return was a last-ditch attempt to make a claim for roughly $5.8 million he allegedly robbed that’s still frozen in a Swiss bank account.

Duvalier amassed a fortune before fleeing to France, but “he burned through a lot of the money,” said Elizabeth Abbott, who wrote a 1991 book about Duvalier and his father, Francoise “Papa Doc.” “It was incredible how lavishly he lived.”

It was a lifestyle that included apartments in Paris, a residence in southern France, sports cars and pricey meals, according to reports. He then lost millions in his 1993 divorce.