There’s a certain irony in 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 fled his country ignominiously almost 25 years ago, returned to Haiti — to jeers, yes, but also to the cheers of a mob of supporters.

Another irony: Despite his brutal reign, France had welcomed Baby Doc when he escaped his homeland in 1986, but France last week refused entry to Tunisia’s equally repugnant Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Yet just three days before the Tunisian dictator was forced to flee 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 center-right Sarkozy government tried 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 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, ecstatic crowds in the streets cheered in 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, because of 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 regime, there was at least a semblance of order. The woefully impoverished people in Haiti today do not have even that. The torture, imprisonments and killings under Duvalier, the lurid tales of corruption, may be forgiven or forgotten or rationalized: Yes, he robbed us, 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 is 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 new leaders will somehow make their way through the looming political turmoil. Of course, its history and culture are totally different than Haiti’s, as is its 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.

And sadly, there are few examples around of countries that have managed to make a smooth transition from iron-fisted dictatorship to something resembling democracy. The odds are not with them.

Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is just finishing a novel, “The Shomer Dossier.”

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