Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Returns: A Look Back At the Ruthless, Lavish, Former Leader

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Duvalier greeting the crowd prior to his arrest. (Reuters)

On Jan. 16, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s long-time dictator, returned to his former country. Two days later, he was taken to a courthouse by police, marking a bizarre and shocking homecoming for a largely reviled man who’s been out of the spotlight for more than two decades. A look back at Baby Doc…

His story begins with his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. A middle-class physician, “Papa Doc” became the leading opposition figure in Haiti in the 1950s and was elected president in 1957, later declaring himself president for life.

During his rule, an estimated 30,000 people were killed by the Tonton Macoutes, which is Creole for bogeymen, essentially a group of henchmen formed by “Papa Doc” to quell political dissent. In 1971, he transferred power to his son.

(More at NewsFeed: Scenes from Haiti — one year after the quake)

At age 19, “Baby Doc” became the youngest president in the world after he won an election in a dubious landslide: 2,391,916 to zero (TIME magazine covered Baby Doc’s rise to power in this 1971 article). While making minor political reforms, the new leader largely followed in his father’s ruthless footsteps. In the 1980s, Duvalier and his wife, Michele, began losing what support they had as the country’s desperately poor became poorer while the Duvaliers spent lavishly. Accusations that he stole millions from the treasury led to police taking him to the courthouse on Tuesday.

In November 1985, “Baby Doc’s” security forces opened fired on student demonstrators, killing three. That set in motion waves of protests that led to “Baby Doc’s” exile in France in February 1986 (TIME covered his downfall in this 1986 feature). Hours before leaving, “Baby Doc” took to the nation’s airwaves: “I wish to go down in history with my head held high and with a clean conscience. Therefore, I have decided to trust the destiny of the nation to the power of the armed forces of Haiti.”

(More at NewsFeed: Remarkable photos of Haiti’s cholera outbreak)

Many Haitians were ecstatic after almost thirty years of father-son Duvalierism. As the once-named president-for-life left the country, they then quickly turned on Duvalier’s men. Dozens of members of the nation’s secret police were killed that week.

Since then, “Baby Doc” has been living a rather solitary existence in France. Memories of his regime pop up now and again, as when Haitians buried victims of last year’s earthquake in the same town where mass graves were dug for political opponents in the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s.

Now, “Baby Doc” appears to think that his ailing country’s destiny should include him once again. The people’s reaction has been mixed, and it’s unclear what the former dictator’s objectives really are.

(Read TIME’s story about the mass graves in Titanyen.)