As if Haiti needed another plague, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to the country on Sunday after 25 years of exile, raising alarm about his intentions and complicating efforts to resolve a paralyzing electoral crisis.
The one-time “president for life” is a polarizing figure who governed Haiti during one of its most wretched eras. His return is yet another dose of bad news for a country still crippled by last year’s disastrous earthquake and suffering through a national cholera epidemic.
Duvalier reportedly entered the country on an expired passport, raising questions about the extent to which the Haitian government was complicit in the arrangements. Doubtless, he could not have entered Haiti and made his way to a hotel under a police escort without explicit approval from President Rene Preval’s government. Mr. Preval, whose mandate expires within weeks, owes it to the Haitian people to explain who gave Mr. Duvalier the green light and why.
Already there are efforts to shrug off his return as if Mr. Duvalier is just another Haitian making a nostalgic visit to the old country. “He is a Haitian and, as such, is free to return home,” Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told The AP. At best, the prime minister is being disingenuous. At worst, he’s dangerously clueless.
For the record, Jean-Claude Duvalier was the scion of a brutal dynasty begun by his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 until 1971. When the father died, the 19-year-old son took over, until he was driven from office by a popular uprising in 1986. His departure sparked a huge outpouring of joy and celebration in the streets of Port-au-Prince, such as had never been seen before ― or since.
The multitudes of elated Haitians who were so profoundly happy to be rid of Baby Doc had good reason to rejoice. The Duvaliers systematically plundered Haiti for nearly 30 years, using the dreaded Tonton Macoutes security force to enforce a nightmarish reign of terror.
For nearly 25 years, a variety of interested parties ― including Haitian governments ― have made efforts to find and confiscate looted assets believed to be under Duvalier’s control. Swiss courts have upheld prosecutorial findings that the Duvalier regime constituted a “criminal organization” under the laws of that country and thus had no right to its ill-gotten gains.
Aside from this interminable and ongoing civil litigation, Duvalier also stands accused of a multiplicity of crimes, some of which have no statute of limitation under Haitian law. These include extortion, theft of government funds, unlawful execution, torture, crimes against humanity and so forth. According to Human Rights Watch, the Duvaliers are estimated to have ordered the deaths “of between twenty- and thirty-thousand Haitian civilians.”
Throughout all this, the Haitian government has never managed to obtain the return of a single penny. Now that the exiled dictator has been allowed to return, the Haitian government must hold him accountable lest it be seen as being in league with him.
Mr. Preval told reporters in 2007 that Duvalier would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars if he returned. Now is the time to make good on that promise.
(The Miami Herald, Jan. 18)