A confidential 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Haiti, subsequently made public by Wikileaks, said that the United States viewed the possible return of either of the two exiled Haitian ex-presidents, Jean-Bertrand Aristide or Jean-Claude Duvalier, as “unhelpful,” But one of them, former president-for-life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, is already back in Haiti, probably with Washington’s approval.
Baby Doc took over the dictatorship from his dying father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, at the age of 19 in 1971, and ruled with same brutality and greed as his father until he was driven from power and into exile in 1986. What can have made him think it was a good idea to come back now?
If you believe the headlines, he has made a dreadful mistake. On Jan. 18, only two days after his return, Baby Doc was brought before a court in Port-au-Prince and charged with official corruption, embezzlement of funds, money laundering and assassination. But things are not always what they seem.
First, there is the fact that both the United States and France, where Duvalier was living in exile, would have been keeping track of him, and must have known of his intention to return. Indeed, they probably put him up to it: he was travelling on a long-expired diplomatic passport, and would never have been allowed to board the plane to Haiti if Washington and Paris had not quietly blessed his trip.
Secondly, he may never see the inside of a jail. He was set free after the court hearing without even having to post bail, and the chief magistrate has 90 days to decide whether there is enough evidence to bring him to trial. A lot can happen in 90 days.
Thirdly, Baby Doc has some support in Haiti, as witness the crowds chanting support for him outside the court. It’s 25 years since he left power, and most of the 10 million Haitians are under 25. They don’t remember the kidnappings, torture and murder of opponents of the Duvaliers, father and son, by the regime’s militia, the Tonton Macoute.
They do remember their parents saying that Haitians lived better under the Duvaliers, and unfortunately, it is true.
Since then they have seen some intervals of democracy, punctuated by military coups and foreign interventions, but living standards had declined steeply even before the huge earthquake last year that killed three per cent of the population.
So Baby Doc is not just a deluded no-hoper, although he is unlikely ever to be president again. His presence in Haiti will frighten the outgoing president, Rene Preval, and his chosen successor, Jude Celestin — as it was doubtless intended to do.
Haiti has been in a protracted political crisis since the presidential election last November, with accusations of fraud flying in all directions. The outside powers that have effectively run the country since 2004, the United States, Canada and France, didn’t want Preval’s candidate to win, and they are making sure he doesn’t.
Preval was a little too independent-minded for their taste, although nobody would accuse him of being a raving leftist. They must have feared that Celestin would also have a mind of his own, because they altered the outcome of the recent election to make sure that he wasn’t in the runoff.
It was not very subtly done. Celestin came second in the election, and since no candidate had won 50 per cent of the vote, he should have been a candidate in the runoff second round. But then the “expert verification mission” — six of whose seven “experts” come from the United States, Canada or France — changed the results.
They disqualified a lot of pro-Celestin votes, pushing him down to third place, but they didn’t actually do a recount. They just arbitrarily threw out 234 tally sheets, mostly from areas that were pro-Celestin. They didn’t even examine more than 90 per cent of the ballot sheets.
The man now facing front-runner Mirlande Manigat in the runoff, according to those “experts,” is Haiti’s best-known pop musician, Michel Martelly, who is as reliably pro-Washington as she is. If that decision stands, Celestin falls. But Rene Preval’s government is still resisting that decision, so it was time to frighten him into submission.
Enter Baby Doc.
Or at least, that’s probably what’s happening, although it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why not? Because what happens in Haiti doesn’t really matter in the least to the United States, Canada or France.
Haitian politics are convoluted and turbulent because the major players have no loyalty beyond their own self-interest, but so long as the other exiled ex-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, doesn’t come back, the game is of no importance to the outside powers. Aristide, living in South Africa, could play a role in the Caribbean similar to that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela if he regained power, but that is not currently on the cards.
What is going on in Haiti at the moment is actually just Brownian motion. The outside powers have nothing important at stake, but the music goes on playing so they feel that they have to dance. Foolish and futile, but perfectly normal.
Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist living in London. His new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published recently in Canada by Random House.