MONTREAL — Canada’s Haitian community reacted in disbelief to the news that an old tyrant returned to their homeland, with many of them muttering the same question: Why now?
The sudden return, after a quarter-century, of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier sent tremors of concern rippling through a community comprising so many people who escaped his regime.
The Canadian government condemned the return in a terse statement Monday that referred to Duvalier as a dictator.
“Our government is concerned that Haiti’s former dictator has returned at a critical time in Haiti’s democratic process,” said Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
“We urge all parties to respect Haiti’s constitution, and the democracy, human rights and rule of law it represents.”
Canada arguably has more influence in Haiti than it does anywhere else, with its considerable aid contributions and its large expat community.
Numerous members of that Haitian-Canadian community escaped the torture chambers and death squads that marked the Duvalier reign.
Among those expressing shock Monday was Canada’s former governor general. Michaelle Jean has in the past spoken about being traumatized by images of blood-soaked walls, during a childhood visit to a police station where her father was tortured.
Jean happened to be flying into France for a Haiti conference Sunday at the very moment that Duvalier was flying out. He had been exiled there since 1986.
Jean said she was “astounded” by the news and suggested Duvalier deserved to face justice for his crimes.
“Will a quarter-century of comfortable exile in impunity be enough to make Haitians forget the horrors, the suffering, the injustice as well as the human and economic cost of decades of Duvalierist dictatorship?” said Jean, now a UNESCO envoy to Haiti.
“How can he come back to Haiti without warning, like a citizen, without reproach?”
Jean’s family fled Haiti for Canada in 1968 during the reign of Duvalier’s iron-fisted father, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. The younger Duvalier ruled the country from age 19, after his father’s death in 1971, until he was ousted in a popular uprising in 1986.
Haitian President Rene Preval indicated four years ago that Duvalier could return so long as he was prepared to face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars.
But Duvalier seemed to enter unimpeded after landing in Port-au-Prince on a commercial Air France flight.
A Montreal city councillor who was born in Haiti and grew up under Baby Doc succinctly summed up the community’s sentiments: “It’s like someone is playing a bad joke on us,” said Frantz Benjamin, a Montreal councillor.
Duvalier’s return comes as the country struggles with three concurrent crises: the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic and a political standoff following an indecisive election.
Many Haitian expats are now worried Duvalier will only further destabilize the country, and they want to know why he was let back in.
Some wondered why the former dictator would have been granted a Haitian diplomatic passport several years ago, and there was also some anger directed toward France.
“It’s negligence on their part (French authorities) to permit the arrival of president, and dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti,” said Franz Voltaire, director of a Montreal research centre on Haiti.
“All these questions will create major confusion in Haiti.”
Voltaire was imprisoned by Baby Doc and then expelled from the country in 1979. He predicted further social strife as supporters of another exiled leader — Jean-Betrand Aristide — call for his return as well.
“We will surely have demonstrations, we will surely have protests organized by supporters of former president Aristide, who will say: ’If you permit the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier, why not Mr. Aristide?”’ Voltaire said.
The Duvaliers presided over one of the darkest chapters in Haiti’s history, yet the homecoming was greeted by several hundred cheering supporters as he landed at the airport Sunday.
For all the resentment that exists toward the Duvaliers, their supporters will eagerly argue that the country enjoyed greater economic prosperity and stability under their reign.
Duvalier said Sunday that he came to assist in reconstruction. An aide said he would stay for only three days. He is expected to give a news conference by Tuesday.
President Preval had no immediate comment on Duvalier’s arrival, but Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive shrugged it off.
“He is a Haitian and, as such, is free to return home,” Bellerive said.