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Theories abound in Haiti over why Baby Doc came back

Is Jean-Claude Duvalier after money, or did he come home to die? Or does he somehow fit into the unresolved political process?

January 20, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — There are as many theories about why Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti as there are cracks in the crumpled walls of the presidential palace.

Did the doddering dictator come home to die?

Or is a still-wily Baby Doc here in a scheme to recover millions of looted dollars?

Or is he a pawn in a ploy to upend an unresolved political process — and to the favor of whom?

Duvalier himself has uttered only a few words publicly since he stunned the world by returning to Haiti on Sunday, ending a quarter of a century in exile in France. On Wednesday, he again stood on a balcony and waved to journalists and a few supporters gathered outside the luxury hotel where he returned after being taken in for questioning on Tuesday.

He faces possible criminal charges, including embezzlement, and on Wednesday four Haitian citizens filed criminal complaints against Duvalier alleging torture and crimes against humanity.

His silence and his demeanor — he looks much older than his 59 years, he shuffles more than walks, and his gaze is unfocused — has fueled speculation that he is ill. The rumors run the gamut from lupus to cancer to a recent stroke.

Veronique Roy, his longtime companion in designer sunglasses, has been at his side every step of the way, and she often answers questions for him. She has explained away several of his lapses as fatigue from the trip or emotion at coming home.

Duvalier is believed to have stolen millions of dollars from the Haitian treasury during his 15-year rule. He certainly spent a great deal of money to sustain his French Riviera lifestyle, and he lost a great deal more in his 1990 divorce from the glamorous Michele.

An estimated $5 million to $6 million has long been frozen in a Swiss bank account and unavailable to Duvalier. A Swiss statute of limitations ran out last year, and a court ruled that the bank had to give the money to him.

But that would have looked bad after an earthquake killed more than 300,000 people in Haiti and left this capital in ruins. So the Swiss parliament passed what was familiarly known as the Duvalier law, allowing banking officials to give the money to the Haitian government, which has been seeking to obtain the funds for several years.

The Duvalier law goes into effect Feb. 1.

One theory is that Duvalier hoped to come to Haiti, avoid prosecution and then be able to claim that because his homeland has not charged him with anything, he is eligible to receive the millions.

Duvalier traveled from France on a diplomatic passport, which immediately led to speculation that President Rene Preval brought him here. It turned out, however, that the passport was issued the year before Preval took office and, in fact, had just expired.

How did he travel on an expired passport? France must be behind his return! In fact, Duvalier flew first to Guadeloupe, a French territory; he could do so with his French residency permit and did not need a passport. It is when he flew from Guadeloupe to Haiti that alarm bells should have gone off, and French authorities now say they did alert the Haitian government when Duvalier embarked on the last leg of the journey.

"We were never at any moment, by anybody, in any manner, informed of this initiative by Mr. Duvalier to go to Port-au-Prince," French Foreign Ministry chief spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters in Paris.

Many Haitians remain convinced that Preval urged Duvalier to return as a distraction from a disputed presidential election that international monitors say was riddled with fraud. Preval is under pressure to remove his party's candidate from a still-unscheduled runoff in favor of musician Michel Martelly, who — according to tainted results — supposedly placed third in the race.

But there are negatives for Preval in Duvalier's return. Many of his closest allies, as well as members of his party base, suffered under the Duvalier regime; his own father was jailed. Bringing back the former dictator would alienate those groups.

And as soon as Duvalier set foot in Port-au-Prince, a popular clamor went up for the return of another deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who still enjoys a wide following. Preval has been reluctant to permit Aristide's return and has succeeded in barring Aristide's party from recent elections.

On Wednesday, Aristide stirred the pot, saying he was prepared to travel to Haiti "today, tomorrow, at any time." In exile in South Africa since being toppled in 2004, Aristide does not have a passport, his lawyers say, and the Haitian government has not responded to his petitions for one to be issued. In his statement Wednesday, Aristide called on the Haitian and South African governments to resolve the matter "in the coming days."

And yet, there's a benefit for Preval in Duvalier's presence, say people familiar with his thinking.

Preval is deeply opposed to Martelly, the candidate that the Organization of American States is recommending be allowed into the runoff. Martelly, a very popular candidate, has an entourage that includes several old Duvalier cronies.

Every minute Duvalier is around, Haitians will be reminded of that connection.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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