PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti— Jean-Claude Duvalier, the self-proclaimed “president for life” of Haiti whose corrupt and brutal regime sparked a popular uprising that sent him into a 25-year exile, died Saturday of a heart attack, his attorney said.
Reynold George said the 63-year-old ex-leader died at his home.
Mr. Duvalier, looking somewhat frail, made a surprise return to Haiti in 2011, allowing victims of his regime to pursue legal claims against him and prompting some old allies to rally around him. Neither side gained much support, and the once-feared dictator known as “Baby Doc” spent his late years in relative obscurity in the leafy hills above the Haitian capital.
Mr. Duvalier was the son of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a medical doctor-turned-dictator who promoted “Noirisme,” a movement that sought to highlight Haiti’s African roots over its European ones while uniting the black majority against a mulatto elite in a country divided by class and color.
The regimes of both leaders tortured and killed political opponents and relied on a dreaded civilian militia known as the Tonton Macoutes.
In 1971, François Duvalier suddenly died of an illness. He had named his son to succeed him. At 19, Jean-Claude Duvalier became the world’s youngest president.
The son was regarded as a lackluster student at a prestigious private Catholic school in the capital but his teachers gave him passing grades anyway to avoid fury from the National Palace, according to “Written in Blood” a history of the country by Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl.
Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled for 15 years, his administration seen as less violent and repressive than his father’s. Echoes of press freedom and personal criticism, never tolerated under his father, emerged—sporadically—because of international pressure. Still, human rights groups documented abuses and political persecution. A trio of prisons known as the “Triangle of Death,” which included the much-feared Fort Dimanche for long-term inmates, symbolized the brutality of his regime.
As president, he married Michèle Bennett, the daughter of a wealthy coffee merchant, in 1980. The engagement caused a scandal among old Duvalierists, for she was a mulatto and the arrangement ran counter to the Noirisme movement Duvalier’s father espoused. The wedding was a lavish affair, complete with imported champagne, flowers and fireworks. The ceremony, reported to have cost $5 million, was carried live on television to the impoverished nation. After they exchanged vows, Michèle ordered her tubby husband to go on a diet.
Under Mr. Duvalier’s rule, Haiti saw widespread demographic changes. Peasants moved to the capital in search of work as factories popped up to meet the growing demand for cheap labor. Thousands of professionals fled a climate of repression for cities such as New York, Miami and Montreal.
And aid began to flow from the U.S. and agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The tourists followed, some in search of a form of tropical hedonism that included booze, prostitution and Voodoo ceremonies for which the country became legendary. Tourism collapsed in the early 1980s after Florida doctors noted that an unusual number of AIDS cases were coming from Haitian émigrés, even though the disease was believed to have been brought from the U.S.
But it was corruption and human rights abuses that defined Mr. Duvalier’s rule.
The National Palace became known for opulent parties as the first lady took overseas shopping sprees to decorate and collect fur coats. Mr. Duvalier relished taking his presidential yacht out for a spin and racing about in sports cars.
Under mounting pressure from the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Duvalier made pretenses of improving the country’s human rights record by releasing political prisoners. Still, journalists and activists were jailed or exiled. Haitians without visas or money left by boarding flimsy boats in a desperate effort to reach Florida shores.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that up to 30,000 Haitians were killed, many by execution, under the regime of the two Duvaliers.
As Haiti’s living conditions deteriorated, Pope John-Paul II made a visit in 1983 and famously declared: “Things must change.”
Three years later, they did. A popular uprising swept across Haiti, and Mr. Duvalier and his wife boarded a U.S.-government C-141 for France.
The couple divorced in 1993. Mr. Duvalier later became involved with Veronique Roy, who accompanied him on his 2011 return to Haiti.
While in exile in France, Mr. Duvalier was never known to hold a job. He occasionally made public statements about his eagerness to return to Haiti. Supporters periodically marched on his behalf in the Haitian capital.
On Jan. 16, 2011, Mr. Duvalier made his surprise return. He said he wanted to help in the reconstruction of Haiti, whose capital and outlying cities were heavily damaged in a magnitude-7.0 earthquake the year before. But many suspected he came back in an effort to reclaim money he had allegedly stashed. Others said he merely wanted to die in his homeland.
More than 20 victims of his rule stepped forward to file charges that ranged from false imprisonment to torture. Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that Mr. Duvalier may not have directly participated in the torture and killings under his regime, but that there was enough evidence to prosecute him.
Despite the occasional stay in the hospital, Mr. Duvalier seemed to enjoy his new life back home and was free to roam the capital. He was spotted attending government ceremonies, dining with friends in several high-end restaurants and avoided jail time. In 2013 he began renovating an old house that Ms. Roy said had been destroyed in the wake of his 1986 ouster.
The efforts to prosecute him stumbled along. Mr. Duvalier stunned human rights observers and alleged victims of his regime in 2013 when he testified about his rule before an investigating judge. A year later, a judge overturned an earlier court decision and ruled that Mr. Duvalier could face crimes against humanity charges.
But in the end, the case stalled because officials did little to move it along.