Enjoying the good life

Indicted former dictators usually keep a low profile. Baby Doc has been sighted at fine restaurants.
Cynthia Reynolds

While the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier to Haiti after 25 years in exile has generated ongoing calls for his prosecution—including a UN proposal earlier this month for a Truth Commission to investigate the human rights crimes he’s accused of overseeing during his brutal 1971-1986 rule—the former dictator known as Baby Doc continues to live in freedom. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, as another round of political crises, deadly disease and scandal involving aid organizations pulls attention away from the 59-year-old, who, by all accounts, has had a pretty good year.

It’s suspected that before fleeing to France in 1986 following popular uprisings against him, Duvalier—who inherited the presidency at age 19 upon the death of his father “Papa Doc”—had looted $300 million in public funds. That made for a first-class exile, until he squandered the money on extravagant shopping sprees, luxury cars and a colossally expensive divorce. Before arriving back in Haiti on Jan. 16, Duvalier, reportedly broke, had been living in a one-bedroom Paris apartment.

Typically, most don’t go to Haiti in search of the good life, but his well-heeled network of supporters has boosted him back into it. He’s been spotted socializing with power players and dining at upscale restaurants. He’s said to frequently entertain visitors—staying in a mansion in the hills far above the wreckage of Port-au-Prince.

Meanwhile, the government has shown little interest in prosecuting Duvalier; it’s summoned him to court just twice for questioning on the embezzlement charges it filed in January. The proceedings aren’t likely to speed up as Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly, is entrenched in a battle just to install a government after parliament conveyed its intention last week to reject his second candidate for prime minister, Bernard Gousse.

For the Haitian people, Duvalier remains a polarizing force. Some express a longing for the days when there was more food, 24/7 electricity and a modicum of economic prospects. “The country was better taken care of back then,” a 27-year-old told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s what my grandmother says.” Others who remember Duvalier’s regime as one of violent repression are outraged by his return. So far, more than 20 lawsuits have been filed against Duvalier for crimes ranging from torture to attempted murder.

It’s that outrage the UN will have to rally if its proposal for a Truth Commission is to gain ground. But it will also need to address the disintegrating reputation of international groups in Haiti, including its own. In May, after months of denials, the UN tentatively admitted its Nepalese troops were likely the carriers of the cholera epidemic that has stricken 370,000, killed more than 5,500, and is surging again in the summer heat. Last week, the Clinton Foundation came under fire after reports surfaced that the temporary shelters it donated in the wake of the 2010 earthquake contained mould and unsafe levels of formaldehyde. If it deepens, the wedge between international organizations and the Haitian people might not just undermine efforts to prosecute Duvalier, it could pave the road for his future freedom.