01/24/2011 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Return of Baby Doc

Growing up the son of an iron-fisted dictator would be tough for anyone -- especially when your father was Haiti's fearsome "Papa Doc."

I met Haiti's "President for Life," Dr. Francois Duvalier -- better known as "Papa Doc" -- at his white-domed palace in Port-au-Prince during the 1960's. He was one of the most sinister men I've ever encountered.

At his side was a shy, pudgy boy who was obviously petrified by his father, just like everyone else in spooky, nightmarish Haiti.

"Papa Doc" ruled over the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. In 1800, when Haiti was a French slave colony, its soil was so fecund that four crops of tobacco, spices, sugar cane, and indigo grew yearly. The monetary value Haiti's exports amounted to more than all of Spain's gold and silver-producing Latin American colonies combined. The great wealth of the important French city of Bordeaux was built on West Indian slavery, not wine.

Soon after 1801, Haiti's slaves revolted against their brutal French masters. After a bitter guerrilla war, Haiti's blacks defeated the French occupying army and declared independence in 1804.

Political and economic chaos ensued. After massive deforestation, the island's amazingly rich topsoil was washed away, leaving barren, arid mountains and dead soil to feed the growing population.

Dr. Francois Duvalier had started off in the 1940's as a crusading country doctor fighting diseases, but after being elected president, power soon drove him off the deep end. "Papa Doc" ruled through terror enforced by his sinister blue-denim-clad militia, the "Tonton Macoutes," meaning bogeymen in Haitian Creole.

The Ton-Ton killed, beat and tortured at random, imposed "street taxes," and extorting business. I was lucky to survive a number of run-ins with them.

A Ton-Ton commander who tried to overthrow Duvalier supposedly transformed himself through voodoo into a black dog. "Papa Doc" ordered all black dogs on the island killed. He kept heads of his victims in the palace and used to lecture the bodies of executed enemies propped up in chairs in the city's main park. Weekly executions, broadcast over the radio, were held at the sinister, yellow-painted Fort Dimanche.

The key to Duvalier's power lay in voodoo. He was the island's chief "hongan," or high priest of the slave cult from West Africa. Haitians believed Duvalier could kill by curses, hear or see everything, even raise the dead. Perhaps he could.

At night, the mountains throbbed with the beat of drums and cries of voodoo worshippers. "Papa Doc" was said to fly through the darkness and make himself invisible.

The British author Graham Greene wrote a fascinating book about Haiti, The Comedians, which was also made into an entertaining film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I met many of the colorful real-life Haitian characters used by the author in his book.

After Duvalier Senior died in 1971, his 19-year-old playboy son took power, and was immediately christened "Baby Doc." In fact, the son was a figurehead for Haiti's tiny ruling oligarchy of wealthy, light-skinned mulattos who sat atop the nation's ethnic pyramid.

Revolution seethed in Haiti as full-blooded blacks sought to overthrow the hated mulatto oligarchy. The mulatto-led army battled insurrection, killing tens of thousands and torturing many.

In 1986, "Baby Doc" and his beautiful mulatta wife, Michelle were forced into exile, but not before absconding with some $300 million of public money to France.

The lovely but tarantula-hearted Michelle soon burned through most of "Baby Doc's money in a legendary shopping spree that left Paris' Avenue Matignon awestruck. After cleaning out Duvalier, Michelle divorced him.

"You can't divorce me," exclaimed the shocked Duvalier, "I am the president of Haiti!"

"No," she sweetly replied. "I married the president of Haiti. You are now a nobody! Adieu!"

"Baby Doc" has lived modestly in Paris ever since. The French allowed him to stay as an option in case they ever want to take a more active role in their former colony. Swiss bankers kept $6 million of Duvalier's looted money, but froze it after he was charged with crimes against humanity.

This month, "Baby Doc" surprised everyone by suddenly flying to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, proclaiming, to general amusement and disgust, that he had come to help his battered country. In his entourage was a former US Congressman fishing in troubled waters.

"Baby Doc" was promptly arrested and charged with crimes against humanity, then released. Haiti has no functioning government or justice system -- something on which Duvalier was counting.

Never very bright, "Baby Doc" was hoping Haiti's political and economic chaos might allow him to get back into power. He still commands a large following among devotees of voodoo and some mulattos. Duvalier clearly hoped the visit might somehow help unblock his frozen funds in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Haiti remains in a total mess after a discredited election and last year's earthquake that killed 200,000. More violence and suffering are inevitable.

Some Haitians believe their island has been cursed by the evil, top-hated voodoo deity, Baron Samedi. There appears no real hope for poor Haiti.

Haiti will likely remain a ward of the United States, Canada, and the UN. In fact, the last time Haiti was reasonably well run was during its occupation from 1915-1934 by the US Marine Corps. Washington had sent in the Marines under the absurd belief that Imperial Germany was about to seize the island.

"Baby Doc" will be lucky to escape jail or lynching. But nothing is for sure in Haiti. His luck may yet change. Up in the mountains the drums beat, and the whisper goes around, "the son of our Great Hongan is returned."

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011