Deconstructing Baby Doc’s odd re-emergence: Power, money, motivate Duvalier

DON BOHNING of the Miami Herald spoke to well-known author Bernard Diederich for this report.

When Bernard Diederich proposed a book about the rule of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, potential publishers weren’t exactly salivating. “They all said who cares about a Caribbean has-been,” Diederich said. All of a sudden, a lot of people care about Duvalier, in light of his startling return from French exile last Sunday.

Diederich’s take on Duvalier’s reemergence: good for book sales perhaps, but bad for Haiti.

The French-language book — L’Heritier, or The Heir — is expected out in Haiti by the end of the month.

Duvalier, and his father before him, ran Haiti with blood-stained hands from 1957 to 1986. Diederich, retired correspondent for Time and the author of various books on Latin and Caribbean rulers, has a unique perspective on the Duvalier dynasty. In 1963, he was tossed in jail by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and then shipped out of the country the next day. His transgression: writing about the killing of army officers by Duvalier’s henchmen during what he calls the dynasty’s “bloodiest day.”

Papa Doc’s death in ’71 allowed Jean-Claude to assume the mantle of “president for life” at age 19. Diederich, who continued to write about Haiti but from other locales, didn’t return until 1977, when he accompanied Andrew Young on a one-day visit. Meantime, the “for life” part of Baby Doc’s title turned out to be exaggerated. The younger Duvalier and his glamorous wife, Michele Bennett, fled to France amid a popular revolt.

More recently, as Baby Doc was biding his time in exile, Diederich sought him out for a series of interviews. The younger Duvalier was “always a gentleman” although it seemed to Diederich that Baby Doc’s strings were being pulled by Veronicque Roy. She’s the woman constantly at his side since his return to Haiti.

According to Diederich, Jean-Claude has always been “managed” by others — his mother when he assumed the presidency as a teen, then his (now-ex) wife, and more recently, Veronicque Roy. Duvalier, however, insisted he was “always in command” — a statement he might regret if ever called to account for the abuses of power during his presidency. Those abuses, Diederich says, include the torture of political opponents in the presidential palace.

So why is Duvalier back now and what does he want?

To the former, Diederich says Veronicque “has long been laying the groundwork for a possible return,” including opening a foundation in Port-au-Prince that has been building support among Haiti’s youth. The young are an important constituency, Diederich says, because young Haitians don’t know what it was like to live under a dictatorial regime. “All they hear from their grandparents is that the price of rice and enforced stability was better in those days,” he says.

The younger generation, he adds, “already are pawns without any idea of how a dictatorship rules their lives — and while they suffer in misery, the dictator lives in total luxury squandering the people’s money.”

But the stalemated presidential election — and next month’s scheduled end of the presidency of Rene Préval — created the vacuum that gave him his opening. The government, he says, clearly could have refused to allow Duvalier’s plane to land, or put him right back on the plane and sent him packing had it been so inclined. Apparently it wasn’t, he says, even though President René Préval had pledged to hold Duvalier accountable if he ever did return.

There are, he points out, connections between the Duvalierists and Préval’s supporters.

Among them: Préval’s favored candidate in the presidential race, Jude Celestin, has an uncle who has published two books widely seen as “an effort to lay the groundwork for rehabilitation of the Duvalier dictatorship.”

“I think she got a wink” he says of Veronicque Roy — meaning, a signal from the powers-that-be that now was the time.

Then there is the money. Baby Doc has been prevented from accessing in excess of $5 million worth of assets under a Swiss law created especially to deal with the loot he is believed to have absconded with at the time of his flight to exile.

The law gives the Swiss Federal Cabinet power to block disputed assets, to confiscate those funds — and, potentially, return them to Haiti. Should they be returned, they must be used exclusively to improve the population’s quality of life, combat crime and improve the legal system. The fact that the law becomes enforceable Feb. 1 could have some bearing on current events.

As for what Duvalier wants, Diederich says that is clear: to be president again.

“With Veronicque in there,” he says “they are looking to go all the way.”

For the original report go to

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