There's a certain irony to the fact that as a bloody, corrupt Tunisian dictator headed off to ignominious exile in Saudi Arabia, thousands of miles away, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, another corrupt and bloody former dictator, who had fled his country ignominiously almost 25 years ago, returned to Haiti -- to the jeers, but also the cheers, of a mob of supporters.
Another irony: despite his brutal reign, France had welcomed Baby Doc when he originally escaped his homeland, but France refused entry to Tunisia's equally repugnant Ben-Ali . Yet just three days before the Tunisian dictator was forced to leave his homeland, as his police were shooting down scores of protesters in the streets, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Michele Alliot-Marie, had proposed a new French security agreement with the Tunisian police. (Of course, the current centrist-right Sarkozy government was able to defend itself by pointing to the times that previous French socialist officials had welcomed Ben-Ali with high praise and open arms.)
There are many, of course, who are demanding that Duvalier be put on trial for the brutal acts and flagrant corruption of his regime. But it's highly unlikely he would have risked a return without having first worked out a deal with what passes for a government in Port au Prince -- at the cost perhaps of a few of the hundreds of millions of dollars he is said to have stolen from his woebegone people.
Ironic also how the image of brutal dictators can be transformed over the years. When Baby Doc fled a quarter century ago, Haiti's economy was in ruins, his people the poorest in the hemisphere. With his panicked departure, the ecstatic crowds in the streets cheered on a new era: things were going to radically change. New untried leaders -- many returning from exile -- promised an end to corruption and poverty, a glorious future for all -- the same refrains we're hearing from Tunisia these days.
Unfortunately, in Haiti, thanks to the acts of man and nature, those hopes were never borne out. So for a large number of Haitians, Duvalier may, incredibly enough, remain a political option -- or at least a possible ally in the current scramble for power.
Under the ruthless Duvalier regimes there was at least a semblance of order. The woefully impoverished people in Haiti today have not even that. The torture, imprisonments and killings under the Duvaliers, the lurid tales of corruption, may be forgiven or forgotten or rationalized: Yes, he robbed, but... yes, he had to clamp down on his opponents, but they were irresponsible, bickering and inept. What else could he have done? Once again we need a strongman to bring order.
(Europeans need not look down their noses at such sentiments. After all, it's disgust with the political options in Italy that's partially behind the Italians' continuing willingness to put up with Silvio Berlusconi, no matter the charges of corruption nor the tender age of the prostitutes he's said to consort with.)
Hopefully, Tunisia will emerge from the darkness of dictatorial rule and its leaders will somehow make their way through the looming political turmoil. Of course, their history and culture are totally different from Haiti's as is their natural wealth and level of education. On the other hand, there are too many radical political groupings bubbling to the surface in Tunisia, too many foreign powers ready to interfere, and probably at least a few Tunisian generals ready to heed the call to save their nation.
Above all, there are few examples around anywhere of countries that have managed to make a smooth transition from iron-fisted dictatorship to something resembling democracy. The odds are not with them.