Jean-Claude Duvalier, a former president of Haiti known as Baby Doc who ruled the country with a bloody brutality and then shocked the country anew with a sudden return from a 25-year exile in 2011, died on Saturday.
Mr. Duvalier, 63, died of a heart attack at his home, his lawyer told The Associated Press. President Michel J. Martelly announced the death on Twitter.
Mr. Duvalier continued to defend what human rights workers called one of the most oppressive governments in the Western Hemisphere, following in the footsteps of his father, François, known as Papa Doc, who also died suddenly, in 1971. The son was 19 when he assumed the post “president for life,” as he and his father called it, becoming the youngest head of state at the time.
He never apologized for atrocities, including brutal crackdowns on opponents at the hands of the feared Tonton Macoutes, a civilian militia that left a thousand people, if not more, dead, disappeared or illegally detained in harsh prisons.
Indeed, he defended himself as victims of his government pursued cases in Haitian courts on charges of corruption and human rights abuses. Mr. Duvalier had appeared in court and calmly denied any wrongdoing and even asserted the country was better off when he ruled.
“Were there deaths and summary executions under your government?” a judge asked him at a hearing in March 2013.
“Deaths exist in all countries,” Mr. Duvalier replied almost inaudibly. “I didn’t intervene in the activities of the police.”
He regularly dined in restaurants in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, and attended events at the invitation of Mr. Martelly, whose administration has included relatives and allies of people associated with Mr. Duvalier.
This year, his old political party announced that it would field candidates in elections and opened an office, though analysts were not sure if it was a serious move or a thumb in the eye of the rival he loathed and who succeeded him, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, another formerly exiled president who also returned and still is a political force.
Mr. Duvalier fled the country in 1986, as political repression and worsening economic conditions set off violent unrest in what was then and still is the hemisphere’s poorest country. He asked France for asylum and the United States for the plane that would take him there, an American official said at the time.
His departure set the stage for democratic, though tumultuous, elections. Human rights groups have said that he looted Haiti’s treasury of millions of dollars and has largely lived off ill-gotten gains ever since.
His presence in the country, and the fact that he will now escape trial, appalled victims and human rights workers.
“On Duvalier’s death I’m thinking of the look in my mother’s eyes when she talks about her brother Joel who was disappeared by that dictator,” Patrick Gaspard, a Haitian-American who is the American ambassador to South Africa, said on Twitter. “News of the passing of Duvalier makes me honor my father and generations of Haitians who resisted that vicious dictatorship.”
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Mr. Duvalier was born July 3, 1951, in Port-au-Prince. Biographical sketches published at the time he became president describe him as an introvert who liked fast cars and jazz and was a martial arts enthusiast. He spoke English, Spanish and French and attended classes at the University of Haiti, though diplomats whispered that he was unprepared for office and speculated that his father’s ministers would be the power behind the throne.
But Mr. Duvalier took obvious cues from his father and quickly squashed whatever dissent emerged.
He curried favor with the United States and exploited its Cold War aims to ensure that Haiti did not fall under Cuba’s sway.
Investment increased and he pushed an urbanization program. He welcomed nongovernment organizations to fill in what his government could not or would not do, leading to a heavy presence that still exists today.
“The years of Jean-Claude Duvalier were also the time of a ramping up of the current highly fragmented landscape of aid delivery in Haiti,” said Laurent Dubois, an expert on modern Haitian history at Duke University.
“Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited a carefully constructed state apparatus for political repression from his father, and he largely maintained it during his regime,” Mr. Dubois said. “But he also cultivated new connections with the U.S., seeking new types of investment in the country. The model of using small manufacturing to expand the economy — some talked of Haiti becoming the ‘Taiwan of the Caribbean’ — was a key part of his economic policy, though even he later admitted that its ultimate success in alleviating poverty was quite limited.”
As political oppression mounted, so did stories of his extravagances. When he fled Haiti, American officials said he held $200 million to $500 million in foreign bank accounts and had a reputation for million-dollar vacations at luxury resorts, as millions of Haitians lived in squalor and scrounged for food.
While in exile, he kept a low profile but he suddenly returned to Haiti in Jan. 16, 2011, saying that the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital broke his heart and that he wanted to help rebuild the country. But others wondered if he was making a bid to secure money still stashed away; he had admitted he spent a fortune on jewelry, trips and an expensive divorce from his first wife, Michele Bennett, scion of a coffee-producing family.
He looked frail and far thinner than the 250 pounds he once carried on his six-foot frame, and with occasional trips to the hospital, Haitian media speculated that he had returned home to die.
He is survived by his wife, Veronique Roy, and a son and daughter from his first marriage, François Nicolas and Anya.