Baby Doc's return suspicious

The return of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier to Haiti can mean only one thing: He blew through all the money he stole during his presidency, and he was hoping for another big score.

After nearly 25 years in luxurious exile - bankrolled by the people he betrayed - the deadbeat son of one of the hemisphere's most brutal dictators shocked his homeland and the international community last week when he stepped off an Air France jet in Port-au-Prince.

"I came to put myself at the service of my country," said Baby Doc, apparently auditioning to be a standup comedian.

Haiti needs more of Duvalier like it needs another earthquake.

Jean-Claude was released from police custody after being charged with corruption and embezzlement. There's no telling whether he'll be prosecuted, deported or repatriated. One thing is true: If he's still alive when this is published, he's fortunate.

For almost three decades his family barbarously ruled Haiti, plundering the national treasury while further pauperizing a population that was already one of the world's poorest.

The bleak and bloody era began with Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, whose fondness for torturing and murdering his political opponents became legendary. Upon his death in 1971, his son took over and was decreed president-for-life.

Jean-Claude was 19 years old, clueless and spoiled.

He preserved the tradition of corruption, many millions of dollars in foreign aid vanishing while the country's feeble infrastructure continued to disintegrate.

As conditions worsened, thousands of Haitian began leaving on rickety boats for Florida, a migration that continues to this day in spurts.

While raw sewage ran in the streets, Duvalier and his glamorous, free-spending wife, Michele, lived and traveled like royalty.

The kindest thing to be said about Baby Doc was that he wasn't quite as horrible as his old man.

In January 1986, Duvalier declared a state of siege and shut down the schools and universities, but by then it was too late.

Early on the morning of Feb. 7, Baby Doc fled - in style.

He drove Michele to the airport in a BMW sedan stuffed with soft-sided luggage from Gucci and Louis Vuitton. At 3:46 a.m., they gathered family members and boarded a C-141 Starlifter provided by the U.S. government.

And off they flew to France. No one knows exactly how much Baby Doc stole, but the country was left broke.

In 1988, a federal court in Florida ruled that he was liable for more than $500 million that he misappropriated for personal use.

Now divorced, Duvalier has in recent years been battling to get his paws on more than $5 million stashed in a Swiss bank account.

His surprise return seems calculated to capitalize on a new low point in Haiti's desperation and despair. The timing of Duvalier's reappearance, at age 59, isn't so mysterious. Billions of outside dollars have been pledged to help Haiti's long recovery from the quake, a potential deluge of money that a congenital thief such as Baby Doc can hardly resist.

A return to power - even a lowly Cabinet minister's post - could put him back on the gravy train of graft.

The cheers that have greeted the ex-dictator during his visit might appear baffling in the light of his larcenous and murderous legacy. However, younger generations of Haitians weren't around during the Duvaliers' reign. It's hard, too, for many Americans to recall when Haiti had promise. Papa Doc came to power in 1957 and commenced looting on an obscene scale.

Over six American presidencies, the Duvaliers grew wealthy while the people got poorer and sicker.

Ronald Reagan thought a Cuban airstrip in tiny Grenada was more alarming than 6 million suffering Haitians. It was Reagan who provided the military aircraft that flew the Duvaliers to France. If Jean-Claude isn't already gone by the time this is printed, somebody in Washington ought to send another plane to fetch him.

Haitians don't deserve another dose of Baby Doc, and God knows they can't afford it.

Contact Hiaasen at chiaasen@miamiherald.com.