The return of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to Haiti can mean only one thing: He blew through all the money he stole during his presidency, and he was hoping for another big score.
After nearly 25 years in luxurious exile — bankrolled by the people he betrayed — the deadbeat son of one of the hemisphere’s most brutal dictators shocked his homeland and the international community when he stepped off an Air France jet in Port-au-Prince.
“I came to put myself at the service of my country,” said Baby Doc, apparently auditioning to be a standup comedian.
Haiti needs more of Duvalier like it needs another earthquake.
As this column is being written, Jean-Claude is staying at a swank hotel in Petionville. He was released from police custody after being charged with corruption and embezzlement dating back to his time in power.
There’s no telling whether he’ll be prosecuted, deported or repatriated. One thing is true: If he’s still alive when this is published, he’s fortunate.
For almost three decades his family barbarously ruled Haiti, plundering the national treasury while further pauperizing a population that was already one of the world’s poorest.
The bleak and bloody era began with Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, whose fondness for torturing and murdering his political opponents became legendary. Upon his death in 1971, his son took over and was decreed president-for-life.
Jean-Claude was 19 years old, clueless and spoiled rotten.
He kept intact the vicious Tonton Macoutes, a force of armed “volunteers” that his father had deployed to terrorize Haitian civilians and stomp out all dissent. He also preserved the tradition of corruption, many millions of dollars in foreign aid vanishing while the country’s feeble infrastructure continued to disintegrate.
As conditions worsened, thousands of Haitian began leaving on rickety boats for Florida, a migration that continues to this day in spurts.
While raw sewage ran in the streets, Duvalier and his glamorous, free-spending wife, Michele, lived and traveled like royalty. The kindest thing to be said about Baby Doc was that he wasn’t quite as horrible as his old man, although he still endorsed the imprisonment, mutilation and even murder of his critics.
Protests under Baby Doc were put down violently, but eventually the unrest became so widespread that it couldn’t be suppressed. In January 1986, Duvalier declared a state of siege and shut down the schools and universities, but by then it was too late.
Early on the morning of Feb. 7, Baby Doc fled — in style.
He drove Michele to the airport in a BMW sedan stuffed with soft-sided luggage from Gucci and Louis Vuitton. At 3:46 a.m., they gathered family members and boarded a C-141 Starlifter provided by the U.S. government.
And off they flew to France, the ignominy of their forced exit made bearable by the fortune they’d emptied from government banks before their departure.
No one knows exactly how much Baby Doc stole, but the country was left broke. In 1988, a federal court in Florida ruled that he was liable for more than $500 million that he misappropriated for personal use, money that will never be seen again.
Now divorced, Duvalier has in recent years been battling to get his paws on more than $5 million stashed in a Swiss bank account. Except for a few political broadcasts from Paris, little was heard from him during his exile, and his voice wasn’t missed.
His surprise return seems calculated to capitalize on a new low point in Haiti’s desperation and despair. Cities remain devastated a year after the terrible earthquake, a cholera epidemic has taken more than 3,500 lives and a hotly disputed presidential election has basically paralyzed an already-anemic government.
The timing of Duvalier’s reappearance, at age 59, isn’t so mysterious. Billions of outside dollars have been pledged to help Haiti’s long recovery from the quake, a potential deluge of money that a congenital thief such as Baby Doc can hardly resist.
A return to power — even a lowly Cabinet minister’s post — could put him back on the gravy train of graft.
The cheers that have greeted the ex-dictator during his visit might appear baffling in the light of his larcenous and murderous legacy. However, younger generations of Haitians weren’t around during the Duvaliers’ reign, and for them it’s probably hard to imagine that their lives could be worse.
It’s hard, too, for many Americans to recall when Haiti had promise. Papa Doc came to power in 1957 and commenced looting the place on an obscene scale, an endeavor made easier by a chronically indifferent U.S. government.
Over six American presidencies, the Duvaliers grew wealthy while the people got poorer and sicker. Ronald Reagan thought a Cuban airstrip in tiny Grenada was more alarming than six million suffering Haitians, some of whom were being shot dead as they fought for democracy.
It was Reagan who provided the military aircraft that flew the Duvaliers to France after the family’s luck ran out. If Jean-Claude isn’t already gone by the time this is printed, somebody in Washington ought to send another plane to fetch him.
Nothing fancy. Put him in the cargo hold with an iPod and a bottle of Barbancourt.
Haitians don’t deserve another dose of Baby Doc, and God knows they can’t afford it.