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The Return of “Baby Doc” Duvalier: Haiti’s Denouement

Georgianne Nienaber: Baby Doc's return -- no one can craft the ending of this drama except for the collective will of the Haitian people—if they are given the opportunity to do so.
Baby Doc and wife Veronique Roy (Photo Andre Paultre)

Baby Doc and wife Veronique Roy (Photo Andre Paultre)

The story of the unexpected and shocking return of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc'' Duvalier on Sunday, and the spectacle of his questioning by Haitian authorities on Tuesday, has as many subplots as a Greek drama. Unfortunately for Haiti, there will be no deus ex machina—no god of truth to shed light on the reasons why Duvalier picked this moment, 25 years after he was exiled in disgrace to France, to resurrect his corrupt legacy.

There will be no divine or earthly intervention of a human “god in the machine” to resolve this twisted narrative. Speculation, rumor, the fog of “diplomacy,” and obfuscation on the part of international players are nothing more than contrivances, and no one can craft the ending of this drama except for the collective will of the Haitian people—if they are given the opportunity to do so.

“Baby Doc” Duvalier, now 59, led a brutal dictatorship from 1971 to 1986, when the United States supported his ouster and offered a military escort to exile. Murder, torture, looting, and the strangulation of Haitian free enterprise by the elite are part of his history, which many in Haiti are too young to remember since the median age is just over 20 years, according to 2009 demographics.

Protesters Calling For Duvalier (Photo: Andre Paultre)

Protesters Calling For Duvalier (Photo: Andre Paultre)

The Tonton Macoutes, a paramilitary organization created by Duvalier’s father, President François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, used terror and murder to control societal dissidents. That legacy has been forgotten or relegated to the dustbin of “history,” although some Haitians will tell you the Tonton Macoutes are still in Haiti—now, they are simply called “gangs.”

That is the simplistic background.

The unanswered questions are why now, and who orchestrated Duvalier’s return after 25 years? There are some clues that are worth examining.


One year after the earthquake of January12, 2010 killed up to 250,000 (bodies are still being pulled from the rubble), injured 300,000, and left 1.5 million living in tents, tarps and rubble, the presidential election is in chaos. When it became obvious in December that ballots had been altered and burned, polling places controlled by thugs, and most of the citizenry disenfranchised even though they were on the voting rolls, President Rene Preval agreed to have the Organization of American States (OAS) oversee a certification process. The results removed Jude Celestin, Preval’s handpicked choice, from the runoff in favor of the popular musician and businessman, Michel Martelly.


Did Preval orchestrate the return of Duvalier to distract from the election disaster? Did he do it alone, or were the United States and France complicit? It is hard to believe that Duvalier was not under close surveillance, given the unrest in Haiti and a simmering and lingering desire there for his return on the part of some Haitians. Drive through Port-au-Prince today and graffiti calling for the return of Duvalier covers crumbling stone walls.

How did Duvalier mange to travel on a recently expired Haitian passport? The diplomatic passport was issued by interim President Gerard Latortue shortly before Preval first took office in 2004. Latortue followed ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, and Aristide will also play an important part in this unraveling.

baby doc

Stones Blocking Road (Andre Paultre)

Piecing together the sketchy narrative, Duvalier took a plane from France to the French territory of Guadeloupe. He did not need a passport anymore than a person flying from New York to California would need one. What is puzzling and as of now unanswered, is how Duvalier was allowed to board a plane for Haiti from Guadeloupe with an expired passport? French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero maintains in interviews that no one told the Ministry about the last leg of Duvalier’s journey to Port-au-Prince. Possible? Perhaps.

Then there have been the “read between the lines” denials by the United States that the State Department knew about Duvalier’s exodus.

On Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State, Philip J. Crowley, was peppered by journalists in rapid fire about U.S. reaction to Duvalier’s return, how much State knew, when, and what, if anything, State would do about it. Crowley was rendered almost speechless— before he got testy.

This is lengthy, but worth the read.

QUESTION: Do (inaudible) Haiti?


QUESTION: Do you think Duvalier should be arrested or removed from the country? I mean, what’s your position of him being there? And did you know in advance that he was going?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we were informed about an hour before the point that he landed this weekend. If I look at the list of challenges that Haiti faces today, having a former dictator return to Haiti just adds to Haiti’s ongoing burden. But as to his status in the country and what happens, this is a matter for the Government of Haiti and the people of Haiti.

QUESTION: What’s –

QUESTION: Who informed you an hour before?

MR. CROWLEY: The French Government.

QUESTION: Did you –

MR. CROWLEY: Which, as I understand it, it was when they first learned that he was on his way to Haiti.

QUESTION: So you’re not – as you understand it, the French knew an hour before he landed that he was on his way? Wasn’t he flying on an Air France jet?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, you’re talking about the government. We were given a heads up roughly an hour before he landed.

QUESTION: Do you think that that was an appropriate amount of time, considering the investment that you’ve made in Haiti?

MR. CROWLEY: Again –

QUESTION: And the fact that you were the ones –

MR. CROWLEY: All I can tell you is we were –

QUESTION: -- who took him out of the country in the first place?

MR. CROWLEY: We were surprised and not involved, and what happens at this point is up to the Government of Haiti.

QUESTION: Have you made any effort to get into direct contact with him or his –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that anyone from our post has been in contact with Mr. Duvalier.

QUESTION: What’s your understanding of what he’s doing there?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s a very good question.

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QUESTION: There’s got to be some, I mean, analysts in the State Department who are saying –

MR. CROWLEY: All I can tell you, and just repeat, we were not consulted nor involved in his return to Haiti.

QUESTION: Fine, but you didn’t give any thought to whether he would return at all? I mean, you haven’t been looking at this? In 2006, you made a big effort, which was – there were examples in WikiLeak cables – but I remember at the time that the State Department specifically said that his return would not be productive. And so with all the turmoil –

MR. CROWLEY: And I’m not –

QUESTION: -- that was going on in the election right now, you didn’t think in your wildest dreams that perhaps he would return?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it – you’re asking two different questions. We are obviously looking at this very closely. This is a very –

QUESTION: Well, I mean, you’re looking at it very closely, but I didn’t think there was (inaudible).

MR. CROWLEY: You asked a question. Now, it’s my – you asked a – you want to ask another question?


MR. CROWLEY: All right. I’ll wait.

QUESTION: No, go ahead. Please.

MR. CROWLEY: Okay, fine. You basically asked – we’ve been watching this situation very closely. When you think about the unpredictable aspect of his return, the delicate situation that Haiti faces, the many challenges that Haiti faces in terms of public health, in terms of reconstruction, in terms of the ongoing election process, we were surprised at his return, but we do not necessarily view this as being particularly useful at this time. But –

QUESTION: No, I understand. You just said that, though.


QUESTION: But what I’m asking is: How could you be – I just – I’m surprised that you’re surprised, because you’ve been looking at Aristide’s possible return. You’ve been kind of warning him not to go. There is a precedent for him wanting to return. Like I said, in 2006, he was looking to come back and you made a lot of effort for him not to come back. So I just don’t understand why this would, like, catch you completely off guard that this was not something that you had been looking into, given the volatile political situation in the country and the history for dictators wanting to return to Haiti.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, let me underscore it. What you’re asking is: Did we know in advance he was coming back to –

QUESTION: I didn’t ask if you knew in advance; I asked you why didn’t you look into it before.

MR. CROWLEY: Our focus is on trying to help Haiti work through the current electoral situation, helping Haiti to recover and rebuild; that is our focus. I guess I’m simply saying, did we know in advance that he was coming back? The answer is no.

QUESTION: Given that he’s already there –

QUESTION: Did you have any discussions –

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Hold on.

QUESTION: Given that he’s already there, what’s your counsel to the Government of Haiti now about possibly prosecuting him? I mean, wouldn’t that further inflame the situation? Are you saying that perhaps it should –

MR. CROWLEY: Again, what happens at this point – today, there is a meeting, I believe, ongoing between government officials, legal officials and Mr. Duvalier. What happens at this point forward is a matter for the people of Haiti. This is not – this is their concern, not ours.

Then, there is the interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave to CBS’s Erica Hill on Wednesday. Clinton talked about Duvalier’s abuses and U.S. attempts to create “stability,” while leaving it all “up to the government and people of Haiti.” Crowley suggests it is not “our concern,” but Clinton envisions more in the way of engagement.

QUESTION: Extra, extra delicate, as you point out. I do want to ask you as well about former Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who, of course, has reemerged at this point, coming out of exile. The State Department is saying it was surprised by his return. Will the State Department put – push, rather, for prosecution?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we are very clear going back many years about the abuses of that regime. And certainly, we believe that his record is one of repression of the Haitian people. Ultimately, a decision about what is to be done is left to the government and people of Haiti. But we’re focused on trying to maintain stability, prevent chaos and violence in this very unpredictable period with his return, with cholera still raging, with the challenges of reconstruction, with an election that’s been challenged. It sometimes seems as though the Haitians just never get a break; they just don’t get enough of a period where they can regroup and take the necessary actions that will give them a stronger future.

The night before there was a briefing at the White House and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put a slightly different spin on things with this: “I would mention that any political leader or any former political leader should focus not on him or herself, but on making progress towards a set of important elections and dedicate their time and their energy to the reconstruction of the country.”

Interesting, since Duvalier the following day would express through his lawyer that he intended to stay in Haiti and help with the reconstruction. Was Gibbs referring to Duvalier or Preval with this statement? It would make it so much easier if these spokespersons and diplomats would just say what they mean, so that Haitians and journalists can stop reading tealeaves.

Listen to this interview about the return of Duvalier with Ezili Danto of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network.

Then, let’s not forget that Hillary Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, is head of the Haiti Interim recovery Commission (IHRC)—a duty he shares with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Bellerive stated publicly that since Haiti's constitution bans exile, Duvalier had the right to return to his homeland, even though his passport had expired.

"If there are judicial procedures against him, the justice system will have to do what it has to do," Bellerive said.

Hardly a critical statement.

Making the plot of this saga even more difficult to follow is the fact that Preval has been dead set against former President Aristide's return, and succeeded in barring Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, from the November elections. That would be the same as barring the Democratic or Republican Party from an election in the United States.

Aristide, a priest, was critical of Duvalier and exiled by before returning to win the Presidency in 1991. Rene Preval was his Prime Minister. Eight months into his term he was ousted by a military coup, and returned to complete his term of office in 1994 after Bill Clinton sent US troops to Haiti. In 1996 his term limit was up and Rene Preval won the election. Aristide ran again and won in 2001, finally being exiled to South Africa in 2004 after a coup he maintains was orchestrated by the United States.

Now, Aristide has re-entered the storyline this week with a statement that he also would like to return to Haiti, and he is requesting a passport to do so. Preval had supported Aristide’s return after he (Preval) was elected president again in 2006, but the relationship soured after Aristide criticized Preval from exile. There is a strong thread of betrayal, persecution, competition, and criticism connecting Duvalier, Preval and Aristide, and one could make the case for Clinton, also.

For the moment, Preval is controlling the strings, even as Aristide is requesting help from his old protégé-turned adversary.

georgianne nienaber

Since my forced arrival in the Mother Continent six and a half years ago, the people of Haiti have never stopped calling for my return to Haiti. Despite the enormous challenges that they face in the aftermath of the deadly January 12, 2010 earthquake, their determination to make the return happen has increased. As far as I am concerned, I am ready. Once again I express my readiness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time. The purpose is very clear: To contribute to serving my Haitian sisters and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education.

Should Aristide be given the same opportunity, expressed by White House Press Secretary Gibbs, for former leaders to “dedicate their time and their energy to the reconstruction of the country”—as well as the ability to return home on an expired passport?

Or, would this so complicate the plot as to preclude any resolution, deus ex machina?

Georgianne Nienaber