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Duvalier breaks silence, offers condolences to quake victims

The former Haitian dictator says he hopes to help with reconstruction. A team of U.S. lawyers is with him, as he seeks to gain access to frozen funds.

January 22, 2011|By Allyn Gaestel, Los Angeles Times
  • Former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier greets supporters after making a statement to journalists from his guesthouse in Petionville, Port au Prince.
Former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier greets supporters after making… (Hector Retamal, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier broke his silence Friday, five days after arriving unexpectedly in his Caribbean birthplace, expressing condolences for the victims of last year's earthquake and a wish to participate in the struggle for the country's reconstruction.

The aging and frail former "president for life," known as "Baby Doc," read softly from a prepared statement. He glanced periodically at the crowd of journalists packed into the entryway of the luxurious guesthouse he now inhabits in the hills of Port-au-Prince.

Duvalier moved to the Montagne Noire neighborhood after discreetly leaving his luxury hotel Thursday.

"The desire to participate at your sides in this endeavor for the national construction far surpasses the personal hassles I could have confronted," he said, alluding to the legal travails he now faces. Since his return to Haiti, a court has begun investigating accusations of embezzlement, fraud, and crimes against humanity by Duvalier.

He expressed sympathy for his supporters who faced persecution after his ouster and flight to exile in 1986. A period of dechoukaj, or uprooting of the regime, resulted in the death and destruction of property of remaining Duvalier loyalists.

Duvalier also said he was saddened by those who "identify, with good reason, to have been victims under my government."

Human right groups say thousands of Haitians were imprisoned, tortured or killed, during his rule.

His brief statement was followed by explanations from a team of American lawyers, including former U.S. congressman and presidential candidate Bob Barr, who said he was assisting Duvalier with his international public image.

One of the lawyers, Edwin Marger, denied that Duvalier harbored any political ambitions. But he Duvalier does want access to funds frozen in a bank account in Switzerland to contribute to the reconstruction.

Marger cast doubt on Duvalier's charitable intentions, however, when he acknowledged that "ultimately, if we accomplish our purpose … I would expect to be paid. I'm no altruist."

A youthful crowd playing music and carrying Duvalier's photo was brought in from other neighborhoods to dance and offer vocal support. A member of Duvalier's entourage was seen handing 50 Haitian gourdes, or about $1.25, to one of them. Sergo Olman, 25, said he had come to see Duvalier: "I hope he can change the country."

Also Friday, the U.S. government revoked the visas of several Haitian officials in a bid to pressure President Rene Preval to eliminate his chosen candidate from a runoff race after a fraud-plagued presidential election.

Gaestel is a special correspondent.

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