In the News: What’s driving ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s return from exile?

by Sonia Verma
Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

Jean-Claude Duvalier spent his first full day in his homeland holed up in the Karibe, a luxury hotel with a swim-up bar, day spa and room service. He met with supporters before cancelling a news conference, leaving long-time Haiti observers absolutely bewildered as to the motives behind the deposed despot’s return after nearly 25 years spent in exile.

Speculation over 59-year-old “Baby Doc’s” return ran the gamut from a secret plot by Haitian President René Préval to divert attention away from a fraud-filled election to an international conspiracy to destabilize Mr. Préval himself. Virtually the only thing analysts seem to agree on is that Mr. Duvalier’s apparent reasons for returning are false: “I’m not here for politics,” he told Radio Caraibes. “I’m here for the reconstruction of Haiti.”

His companion, Veronique Roy, told reporters that they planned to stay for only three days. Asked why Mr. Duvalier had chosen this moment to stage his return, she replied, “Why not?” The answer to the question, intended to be rhetorical, was obvious.

Mr. Duvalier’s return on Sunday occurred on the same day Haiti was supposed to return to the polls for a runoff election to select a new president. Disputes over the results of the first poll, however, have thrown the second ballot into doubt.

The timing of Mr. Duvalier’s return is not a coincidence, observers say. “There is obviously something behind all of this,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia.

“The return of Duvalier, which people have talked about for several years, is puzzling. When you’re in the middle of a political crisis, everyone knows very well that his return will be of real political consequence.”

One hypothesis suggests that Mr. Préval orchestrated Mr. Duvalier’s return, either to shift the spotlight away from the presidential election stalemate or to assert his power. That theory is bolstered by the fact that Haitian authorities cleared Mr. Duvalier through Immigration and received him with the fanfare of a police escort. It also appears the exiled former president, who stands accused of looting, torture and murder, has ducked the threat of prosecution for his crimes.

“Those who prepared his trip had to be in contact with the police. They knew that he was going to come,” emphasized Chalmers Larose, a professor of political science at Université du Québec à Montréal.

“I think it’s a way [Mr. Préval is] showing that his government is still in charge and they can decide who enters the country, not the international community. It’s a way of saying we can do what we want with the election, as well,” he said.

Another theory links Mr. Duvalier’s return to the political fortunes of Michel Martelly, a presidential candidate who has laid claim to a place on the runoff ballot and whose entourage includes some Duvalier supporters. Mr. Duvalier’s decision to check into the Hotel Karibe, where Mr. Martelly’s camp based themselves during the Nov. 28 election, was perhaps not a coincidence.

“There is a connection between Martelly and Duvalier. There’s no doubt about that,” Prof. Fatton confirmed.

Prof. Fatton also raised the scenario that the international community, led by France and the United States, colluded to bring about Mr. Duvalier’s return. “How in the heck did the French allow him to take the plane from Paris?” Prof. Fatton wondered.

Mr. Préval is said to be “enraged” by overtures from the French and American embassies urging the President to respect the findings of a report by the Organization of American States, leaks of which call for his chosen successor, Jude Célestin, to withdraw from a second ballot, leaving Mr. Martelly and former first lady Mirlande Manigat to contest the presidency.

The prevailing sense of political uncertainty, others suggest, provides Mr. Duvalier the perfect cover under which to return to Haiti unscathed. “The fact that you’ve got a president whose term is up in a few weeks and there’s no designated successor creates a lot of unrest that makes it a little bit easier for Duvalier to come back,” said Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

“The truth is everybody’s got their hands filled with so many things, there are fewer people able to pursue him,” he said.