Haiti: Duvalier is back —but why?

On Jan. 21 former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier (1971-1986) gave his first press conference since arriving unexpectedly in Port-au-Prince the evening of Jan. 16 after 25 years of exile in France. Speaking at a private residence in Montagne Noire, on the eastern edge of the capital, Duvalier expressed his “profound sorrow” on behalf of his “compatriots who legitimately claim that they were victims” of his regime, along with his “sympathy” for his “millions of supporters,” especially the “thousands” who were “cravenly assassinated… roasted… their houses, their goods pillaged, uprooted.”

Duvalier said his “departure” from Haiti in a US plane on Feb. 7, 1986, was “voluntary” and that he had wanted “to avoid a bloodbath and to facilitate a conclusion to the political crisis.” His return this year was to express his “solidarity” with the victims of a devastating January 2010 earthquake, he said. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Jan. 22)

Duvalier didn’t return “to support the Haitians or to take part in politics,” National Disarmament Commission director Alix Fils-Aimé said on Jan. 18 as he filed a legal complaint against Duvalier for his imprisonment in the notorious Fort Dimanche prison in April 1976. The former dictator came “to demonstrate to the Swiss bankers that he doesn’t have any pending business with the justice system, and so to get the $8 million dollars unfrozen from his accounts,” Fils-Aimé said.

Others share Fils-Aimé’s opinion, although they give $6 million rather than $8 million as the amount of money currently frozen in Duvalier’s Swiss bank accounts because of claims by the Haitian government that he had embezzled it. A new Swiss law will take effect on Feb. 1 that would allow Swiss authorities to transfer the funds to the Haitian government, and Duvalier had to move quickly if he hoped to get the money. According to New York Times reporter Ginger Thompson, Duvalier suffers from lupus and may have pancreatic cancer. “[S]o what did he have to lose?” an unnamed official said to Thompson.

“This was probably a calculation on Duvalier’s part, that the state was so weak that he could return to Haiti and leave without being charged with anything,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Reed Brody told the Times. “Then he could go back to Swiss authorities and argue that he should get his money because Haiti’s not after him anymore.” If so, the ploy backfired. Haitian authorities opened a case against Duvalier for embezzlement on Jan. 18 and told him not to leave the country. (NYT, Jan. 21; La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 22)

Duvalier’s return has increased pressure for the return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991-1996 and 2001-2004). Despite factional disputes within his Lavalas Family (FL) party, several FL leaders were united on Jan. 19 in calling for the Haitian government to renew Aristide’s diplomatic passport so that he could leave South Africa, where he has lived in exile since 2004. Aristide himself issued a statement that day saying he wanted to return to Haiti “[t]o contribute to serving my Haitian sisters and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education.” He also cited “medical reasons.” “It is strongly recommended that I not spend the coming winter in South Africa because in six years I have undergone six eye surgeries.” (Agence Haïtienne de Presse, Haiti, Jan. 19; Haïti Libre, Jan. 19)

Haitian president René Préval was asked about Aristide’s possible return at a joint press conference that he held with Dominican president Leonel Fernández on Jan. 22 during a brief visit to Santo Domingo. Préval said that the 1987 Haitian Constitution did not allow for exile and insisted that Aristide was therefore free to return. (Radio Kiskeya, Jan. 22)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 23.

See our last post on Haiti.