Why 'Baby Doc' Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti: 5 theories

Did 'Baby Doc' Jean-Claude Duvalier unexpectedly return to merely 'see his family,' as his lawyer maintains? Or was it a maneuver to finagle $6.2 million from his frozen Swiss account?

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier talks by phone on the balcony of his hotel room in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 19. Duvalier returned Sunday to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile, a move that comes as his country struggles with a political crisis and the stalled effort to recover from last year's devastating earthquake.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
The Organization of American States (OAS) has suggested Jude Célestin should be dropped to third place and, therefore, ineligible for the run-off vote. Law professor Mirlande Manigat and singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly would then face off in the vote.

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s surprise return to Haiti after nearly 25 years has baffled observers and spurred dueling theories over why the former dictator returned now.

What could have motivated Mr. Duvalier to walk into a hornet’s nest? While no one outside Duvalier and his circle know for sure, observers speculate that it could be anything from his ailing finances to health problems or that he is a pawn being used to divert attention from Haiti’s protracted political situation.

“At this stage, we don’t know why he would have come back. Maybe he was testing the waters, planning to come for a few days and leave. We don’t know,” says Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. “What it has done is make murky waters in Haiti even murkier.”

Theory 1: 'Duvalier came back to see Haiti'

Since his Air France flight touched down Sunday evening, Duvalier has not spoken publicly about his motive for coming back to a country he ruled brutally for 15 years before fleeing in 1986 to France. But those close to him say his motives were apolitical and he merely wants to help his country in his twilight years.

“Duvalier came back to Haiti, his country, to see his family and to be with his people," said his attorney, Reynold Georges. Asked if Duvalier planned to return to France, Mr. Georges today told reporters: “No, no, no. He is in his country. As a matter of fact, he is repairing his house to stay.”

Yet, a return to Haiti meant Duvalier, who purportedly stole hundreds of millions in public money and oversaw the murders of thousands of Haitians, would likely face charges for at least some of his alleged crimes. Back in 2007, President René Préval told reporters that Duvalier could return but would have to face justice.

That’s exactly what happened Tuesday when a prosecutor formally filed corruption and embezzlement charges. An investigating judge must now decide whether to pursue the charges.

Theory 2: Visit necessary to access $6.2 million in Swiss account

One of the most logical reasons for Duvalier’s return is financial. The riches he accumulated by allegedly robbing the Haitian government have vanished, leaving him with a modest life in a small apartment in Paris reportedly paid for by loyal supporters.

But, of the hundreds of millions of dollars that he reportedly pilfered from Haiti's state coffers, an estimated $6.2 million remains in a Swiss bank account that has been frozen since 1986.

A Swiss law set to go into effect Feb. 1 – the law on returning illicit dictator funds – will allow the Swiss government to return that money to the Haitian people. Last May, the head of international law at the Swiss foreign ministry told reporters that the Swiss government would likely apply the law to the Duvalier funds.

There was a caveat: If Haitian authorities had the opportunity to capture and prosecute Duvalier, the Swiss law could not be used. Hence, if Duvalier made a brief appearance in Haiti – he had a return ticket for Thursday – he could go back to France and claim the money.

“If he went to Haiti and was not prosecuted, he could have returned and said ‘I was there and they had their chance,’ ” says Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch and a former prosecutor in Haiti. Duvalier “may have gone hoping that he would not be detained and could come back to France and claim the $6.2 million.”

Duvalier may have believed he would not be prosecuted because, in many ways, he believes he did nothing wrong, says biographer Elizabeth Abbott, who chronicled the rise and fall of Duvalier and his father, “Papa Doc,” in a 1991 book.

Theory 3: Health problems sparked return

“I don’t think he has any idea of the destruction he wrought,” Ms. Abbott says. “I’m sure he was thrilled to be back but he doesn’t see that he did anything that was wrong. He’s said that he made a few mistakes.”

Abbott says Duvalier appears physically weak and frail. Many who remember his plump mustachioed face from before he fled in 1986 wonder whether health problems prompted his return.

Mr. Georges, the attorney for Duvalier, in an interview Wednesday says he, too, has heard that speculation. “I haven't spoken with him about that yet,” he says.

Georges adds that the prosecutor’s case is weak because a statute of limitations expired while Duvalier was in France.

“The government is afraid and they tried to arrest him,” he says, adding that President Préval was trying to force him out of the country. “I myself was arrested twice by Préval for the same reasons and they wanted me to leave the country – because I talk too much.”

Theory 4: France, US orchestrated return to pressure President Préval

Haitian, US, and French authorities have said they were unaware of Duvalier’s return until shortly before the flight landed after a stopover in Guadalupe. But observers question how such a high-profile figure could have boarded a plane without the blessing – and, possibly, the encouragement – of any of those governments.

Ms. Abbott describes Duvalier as “somewhat not an autonomous person,” whose return to Port-au-Prince “had to have been orchestrated.”

Eyes have immediately turned to the French and US governments, two of Haiti's largest foreign donors. Foreign governments financed most of the $29 million election and vowed that it could take place fairly and freely. It has turned into a mess.

The country is supposed to inaugurate a new president next month, but it has yet to hold a second round of balloting. The first round on Nov. 28 ended in claims of fraud and widespread irregularities. Election monitors have said it’s unlikely a second round of voting will be held before late February.

The Organization of American States (OAS) reviewed a sample of the votes and produced a report that suggests the government candidate, Jude Célestin, should be dropped to third place and, therefore, ineligible for the run-off vote. Law professor Mirlande Manigat and singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly would face off in the vote.

Some speculate that the US and France sought to pressure Préval to accept the OAS report by bringing back Duvalier, which could potentially signal that international authorities would act unilaterally to see certain ends met.

“I don’t think [Duvalier] would have been able to do it without permission from France and the United States,” says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the country's provisional electoral council said it would take the OAS recommendations into account, if necessary.

Theory 5: Préval engineered return to warn away Aristide

President Préval has not addressed the report’s suggestions publicly, but Haitian media has reported that he objects to its findings. “He’s reportedly been told that if he doesn’t accept the OAS findings, he’ll be forced into exile,” says Mr. Weisbrot.

Préval himself is also eyed as potentially being behind Duvalier's return. Such would give Préval breathing room by distracting from the OAS report and also help ward off the potential return of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is more popular than Duvalier and reportedly also mulling the idea.

Indeed, Mr. Aristide said in a statement today: "To all those asking me to return home, I reiterate my willingness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time.

Préval is known to be a shrewd political operator, as described by US Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson in a 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. "Given Haiti's strong tradition of presidential rule, the blurred constitutional lines of authority, and his own reluctance to delegate authority, I believe that Préval – and only Préval – will continue to set the rhythm and scope of change in Haiti," the ambassador wrote.

Amid all the speculating and back-and-forth between the OAS and the Haitian government, “Baby Doc,” a dictator who last stepped foot in the country 25 years ago, has taken center stage.

(Editor's note: This article was updated after publication.)

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