Baby Doc, in de­nial

Why Haiti’s for­mer dic­ta­tor de­cided to re­turn.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Mar­jorie Val­brun is a jour­nal­ist in Washington. mval63@ya­hoo.com

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Du­va­lier al­ways knew he would re­turn to Haiti one day.

That’s what he told me, over and over, in 2003, when I spent two weeks in­ter­view­ing him in Paris. “I didn’t come to France to live in­def­i­nitely,” he said then, sound­ing as if he were merely a vol­un­tary trans­plant and not a state­less for­mer dic­ta­tor. Good luck with that, I thought. I should have known bet­ter. Two weeks ago, the one­time “pres­i­dent for life” stunned the Haitian pop­u­la­tion and caught the govern­ment com­pletely of­f­guard when he showed up and ca­su­ally an­nounced that he had come back “ to help.” The man who in­her­ited the pres­i­dency at age 19 when his fa­ther died, and who was forced from power in 1986, was fin­ished with life in ex­ile.

When he ar­rived in Haiti, four peo­ple who say they were vic­tim­ized by his regime promptly filed le­gal com­plaints charg­ing him with crimes against hu­man­ity. He was taken into cus­tody by Haitian au­thor­i­ties, charged with cor­rup­tion and em­bez­zle­ment, and then re­leased and or­dered not to leave the coun­try. He was orig­i­nally holed up in an up­scale ho­tel but has since moved to a pri­vate guest house, where he has re­ceived old friends, po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers and sup­port­ers as if he were a vis­it­ing dig­ni­tary.

Du­va­lier’s pres­ence has con­founded just about ev­ery­one and has ig­nited a de­bate among Haitians abroad and those on the is­land about how their coun­try should han­dle the re­turn of one of its most po­lar­iz­ing fig­ures.

It’s no mi­nor dilemma. Al­though re­cent events — a ma­jor earth­quake, killer cholera, flawed elec­tions — forced our at­ten­tion to more press­ing mat­ters, the Du­va­lier era has never been too far from our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness.

Hu­man rights groups say 40,000 to 60,000 po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents were killed or dis­ap­peared dur­ing the time that Du­va­lier and his fa­ther, Fran­cois “Papa Doc” Du­va­lier, ruled the coun­try, from 1957 un­til the son’s ex­ile. Haitian and U.S. govern­ment of­fi­cials say Baby Doc and his relatives em­bez­zled at least $500 mil­lion. Yet we’ve had no pub­lic reck­on­ing, no tri­als or jury judg­ments, and no truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mis­sion. What we’ve had in­stead is a chronic Du­va­lier prob­lem, a long-fes­ter­ing wound that we may fi­nally be­gin treat­ing with Baby Doc’s re­turn.

The Du­va­lier prob­lem is what I wanted to con­front di­rectly when I fi­nally got my in­ter­view with the reclu­sive Baby Doc in 2003. By the time we met, he was no longer the big spender about town. He was di­vorced from his glam­orous and con­trol­ling wife. He no longer trav­eled with an ador­ing en­tourage. By all ac­counts, in­clud­ing his own, he was flat broke.

Al­though I was just 6 years old when I left Haiti for the United States in 1969, my fa­ther, a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller, kept the Du­va­liers alive in my mind and helped me un­der­stand why they had such a hold on the Haitian imag­i­na­tion. When I be­came a re­porter, I wanted to learn how they had kept that grip on the pop­u­la­tion’s psy­che and used it to dom­i­nate po­lit­i­cal life, de­cide who would live and die, and prompt hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple to leave Haiti.

Over the course of our meet­ings in Paris, in fancy ho­tels and in mod­est Haitian restau­rants, and dur­ing sub­se­quent tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions and email ex­changes, I got to know Du­va­lier as a man who is by turn in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­hon­est, ma­nip­u­la­tive, even down­right clue­less. In rare but telling mo­ments, he also seemed deeply sad.

“ There has not been one day since I left that I have not thought about Haiti,” he said in an un­guarded moment. “ The whole time I’ve been here, my heart and my spirit has been in Haiti.”

More than any­thing else he said to me, I be­lieve this re­mark was Du­va­lier at his most can­did, though I was never sure if he missed the Haitian peo­ple or his place rul­ing the coun­try. His com­ment may par­tially ex­plain why he risked ar­rest, wide­spread ridicule and pos­si­ble attacks on his life to re­turn.

Many Haitians be­lieve that Du­va­lier, an un­elected pres­i­dent to be­gin with, for­feited his right to come back to a nation that he abused and dis­graced. It is hard to rec­on­cile how some­one who claims to love his coun­try could give it such a bad name, steal from its cof­fers, abuse its in­sti­tu­tions, per­vert its con­sti­tu­tion and un­der­mine its quest for democ­racy. He may love Haiti in his own way, but his past ac­tions be­trayed no love for his peo­ple.

“A lot of blah, blah, blah,” is how he de­scribed al­le­ga­tions of past theft to me. “I never had the fi­nan­cial means that the me­dia said I had. I laugh when I hear the amounts, $400 mil­lion, $800 mil­lion. Where do they get this imag­i­na­tion?”

He de­nied any past wrong­do­ing. He re­jected ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion dur­ing his pres­i­dency. He dis­missed al­le­ga­tions of of­fi­cially sanc­tioned mur­ders and ar­rests of po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents as fic­tional cre­ations of a bi­ased news me­dia. He never ut­tered a word of re­morse and ceded only one ma­jor mis­take: “Per­haps I was too tol­er­ant.”

Du­va­lier was clearly un­in­ter­ested in look­ing back. His state of de­nial made me won­der if he’d man­aged to con­vince him­self that the abuses never ac­tu­ally oc­curred. Per­haps he had to in or­der to live with him­self. Still, I sensed a lonely weari­ness about him, an emo­tional bur­den weigh­ing on him. I be­lieve it was un­spo­ken re­gret, but un­til his some­what limited apol­ogy last week di­rected to vic­tims of his govern­ment, I never thought he’d ad­mit it.

“I want to take this op­por­tu­nity to ex­press, one more time, my deep sad­ness to those coun­try­men who feel, rightly, that they were vic­tims of my govern­ment,” he said in Port-au-Prince.

This mildly apolo­getic Du­va­lier has come a long way since our meet­ing nearly eight years ago, when any kind of pub­lic re­morse seemed im­pos­si­ble. In Paris, he told me I was too young to un­der­stand Haiti’s com­pli­cated po­lit­i­cal his­tory and too ac­cept­ing of ver­sions told by dis­grun­tled ex­pa­tri­ates. Now, he is at least ac­knowl­edg­ing that there were vic­tims.

Back then, af­ter 17 years in ex­ile, he was tired of con­stantly hav­ing to re­fute al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, theft and hu­man rights abuses. He be­lieved he could be pres­i­dent again and said that this time he would ac­tu­ally run for the of­fice. That may ex­plain why he still had a dig­ni­fied, pres­i­den­tial air about him. He al­ways wore a jacket and tie. He held for­mal meet­ings with po­lit­i­cal sup­port­ers, lo­cal Haitian im­mi­grants or vis­i­tors from Haiti and Mon­treal, in a quiet back room in the build­ing where he lived with his long­time com­pan­ion, Veronique Roy.

Du­va­lier was a beefy 34-year-old when he ar­rived in France, but when Imet him he was much thin­ner and looked older than his 51 years. His round, pudgy face had slack­ened and be­come jowly. He walked with a limp that he at­trib­uted to an old mo­tor­cy­cle in­jury and a bit of rheuma­toid arthri­tis. He’s 59 now, and re­cent news re­ports have spec­u­lated that he is ill and pos­si­bly dy­ing, but nei­ther he nor close friends have con­firmed the re­ports.

I was sur­prised at how soft-spo­ken and in­tro­verted he was. Even when hav­ing din­ner with friends, he seemed with­drawn and of­ten sat qui­etly chainsmok­ing as oth­ers chat­tered nosily around him. At those mo­ments it was hard to pic­ture him as the brute force who once ter­ror­ized his own peo­ple.

Du­va­lier and I of­ten talked pol­i­tics into the wee hours as he smoked one Dun­hill cig­a­rette af­ter an­other. He would be­come very an­i­mated as he gave me long tu­to­ri­als on Haitian po­lit­i­cal his­tory, but when I asked what ma­jor po­lit­i­cal mis­takes he made as pres­i­dent, he was hard-pressed to come up with ex­am­ples.

“We were not per­fect,” he al­lowed, “ but we were mak­ing good progress.”

He said he should have made bet­ter use of the me­dia to present a more pos­i­tive im­age at home and abroad. He didn’t con­sider him­self a dic­ta­tor and thought he should not have been viewed as one.

On our way to din­ner one night, I asked why he never sought to re­ha­bil­i­tate his rep­u­ta­tion while in ex­ile. Why didn’t he get a job, or write a book, or go on the lec­ture cir­cuit, or do some­thing, any­thing, to earn money?

“All I know is pol­i­tics,” he said. “Re­ally, pol­i­tics takes up most of my time; it’s non­stop.” I asked him what he did for fun. “I like to take walks. . . . Some­times I go to mu­se­ums, es­pe­cially when there are Haitian art ex­hibits. You know, I had a col­lec­tion of 400 works of art in Haiti,” he said wist­fully. “I left them all be­hind.”

Then I asked if he had ever con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity that he might never re­turn to Haiti.

“No. I never let that thought en­ter my mind,” he said, a bit ir­ri­tated. “Haiti ismy coun­try be­fore and above all.”

MAR­JORIE VAL­BRUN

The author with Jean-Claude Du­va­lier in Paris, where she spent two weeks in­ter­view­ing him. The for­mer “pres­i­dent for life” is now back in Haiti.

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