Duvalier family feud could threaten Haiti presidency

For weeks, Haiti has been abuzz with rumors of a deepening feud between President Jean-Claude Duvalier's wife and his mother. Now, it becomes clear that it is more than feuding. The two strong-willed women are locked in a bitter power struggle that may even threaten the Duvalier presidency.

In the byzantine structure of Haitian politics, presidential family feuds have become commonplace and often play a role of high importance.

The young President-for-life has tried to play down the rivalry -- and in the process, according to informants here, walked a tightrope as the two women curried his favor. He appears, however, to be siding more and more with his wife, Michele, whom he married last May.

Recently Michele flew to Jamaica, along with the Haitian foreign minister, to lunch with Mitsy Seaga, the wife of Prime Minister Edward Seaga. She also met Mr. Seaga. The visit was not announced publicly but tended to confirm the feeling that Michele is gaining preeminence.

Several weeks ago, the President placed more than a dozen relatives and friends of his mother under house arrest and, according to well-placed informants, may deport them for criticizing his wife. There was even a suggestion that he might deport his mother, Simone. Such steps have been taken in Haiti. Francois Duvalier sent family members packing on several occasions during his long presidency.

But Mrs. Duvalier has powerful friends and a coterie of loyal admirers, some of whom were her late husband's closest allies. Some of her strongest support comes from members of the Ton-Ton Macoutes, the paramilitary bully boys who propped up the long dictatorship of Francois Duvalier, who passed on in 1971, leaving Haiti's presidency to his son.

Although the young Duvalier received pledges of loyalty from the Ton-Ton at the same time as he curbed some of their power, there is an open question whether their loyalty rests with Jean-Claude or with Simone.

Influential members of the Haitian elite --some 5 percent of the 5 million people in the island nation who have more than 80 percent of the wealth -- are watching the Duvalier power struggle uneasily.

Many of them tend to side with Simone --not that they were always happy with her late husband during his presidency, but there was, in their view, more certainty under Francois Duvalier than under Jean-Claude Duvalier, particularly since his marriage.

They worry about Michele's continuing overtures to the Haitian masses. Among the things they question are her efforts to set up a social welfare foundation in the mode of the late Evita Peron in Argentina.

Many businessmen openly resented a letter she sent them in December that suggested how much they should contribute to the fund. Most ignored the appeal. The foundation has yet to get off the ground.

Observers here say that the Michele-Simone struggle has reached the point that it threatens Jean-Claude's nine-year rule. Some members of the elite are reportedly ready to tell Jean-Claude that he must either put a curb on Michele's activities -- or else.

It is even suggested -- and seriously --that the President could be forced to divorce his wife.

Some Haitians even ascribe a racial conflict to the struggle between wife and mother. The Duvalier family is black, while Michele's family, the Bennetts, are mulatto. Her father is a prominent banker here.

Michele was previously married to the son of Alix Pasquet, a businessman who staged an abortive coup attempt against Francois Duvalier in the 1960s. Simone Duvalier's original objections to her son's marriage to Michele were based on that former marriage. She also did not like the idea of Jean-Claude marrying a divorced woman, although there have been numerous divorces in the Duvalier family.

The improverish Haitian masses find the situation fascinating, and they seem to feed on the rumors of what is going on in the glistening white presidential palace.

"Wait until carnival and then you'll know how the Haitian people really feel about the feud and about Jean-Claude marrying Michele," commented a leading Haitian official late last year.

During carnival, the songs and plays on words by the Haitian people both in French and Creole, the local patois, suggested that they are not too friendly toward Michele. At the same time, Simone also came in for some critical comments in the songs.

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