PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti // Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a once feared and reviled dictator who was ousted in a popular uprising nearly 25 years ago, made a surprise return to Haiti as the country wrestles with a political crisis, cholera outbreak and the stalled reconstruction from last year's devastating earthquake.
Mr Duvalier's stunning arrival at the airport yesterday was as mysterious as it was unexpected. He greeted a crowd of several hundred cheering supporters but did not say why he chose this tumultuous period to suddenly reappear from his exile in France - or what he intended to do while back in Haiti.
His longtime companion, Veronique Roy, told reporters he planned to stay for three days and had a news conference planned for today, but gave no further details.
President Rene Preval - who told reporters in 2007 that Mr Duvalier could return to Haiti but would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars - made no public comment on the former dictator's re-emergence. But Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive shrugged it off.
"He is a Haitian and, as such, is free to return home," said Mr Bellerive.
Asked if Mr Duvalier could destabilise the country, the prime minister said: "Until now, there's no reason to believe that."
Mr Duvalier, 59, who took power at age 19 as 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, waving to a crowd of about 200 as he climbed in an SUV and headed to a hotel with Ms Roy.
"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 at the immigration office inside the airport terminal. "He is tired after a long trip."
Later, Mr 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.
Ms Roy, speaking briefly to reporters, was asked why he had returned now. "Why not?" she replied.
His return comes as the country struggles to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic November 28 first-round presidential election.
Three candidates want proceed to a second round. The Organisation of American States sent in a team of experts to resolve the deadlock, recommending that Mr Preval's candidate be excluded. The OAS secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza, was scheduled to be in Port-au-Prince to meet with Mr Preval on Monday.
The country meanwhile is dealing with a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 3,500 people since October and more than 1 million people are living in crowded, squalid tent encampments after their homes were destroyed by the January 12, 2010, earthquake.
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 Joel Pierre, 34. "I hope he will do good things again."
Nearby, Marline Joseph, 42, 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 Mr 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. To their advantage is the fact that half the people in the country are younger than 21 - and weren't alive during Duvalier's rule.
"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, 47, a Duvalier supporter in the crowd outside the airport.
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.
Mr 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.
The news of Mr Duvalier's return 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."
Prof Fatton wondered what role the French government played in Mr 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.
Author Amy Wilentz, whose book The Rainy Season is a definitive account of the aftermath of Mr Duvalier's exile and Mr 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 email to the 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."