In a dimly lit room at a guest house in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, the press anxiously awaited something that had been promised to them every day over the past week, but never delivered. Since Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had mysteriously returned to Haiti on an Air France flight on the evening of January 16th he had not spoken to the press, not even uttering a word to any of the hundreds of journalist covering his homecoming.
Behind a over-sized wooden table in the dimly lit room stood a short older Haitian man in an olive colored suit, his hands on back of a large wooden chair embroidered with red fabric. He looked down nervously as dozens of cameramen and photographers jockeyed for position in anticipation of what was to come. The man in the olive suit looked to the side, saw someone approaching, pulled back the chair, and then stepped away. From a hallway attached to the room walked Duvalier, he sat down on the chair and a paper statement was dropped in front of him. This was it, this is what we were waiting for…
“Dear friends of the press,” he read in French as flash bulbs filled the room with light, “Thank you for having responded to my invitation today. I take this opportunity to speak to my fellow citizens.” His voice seemed strained, like he had a mouth full of cotton balls, but his delivery was better than expected. Since returning to Haiti, he seemed to be unaware of his surroundings, and some even thought he had the look of someone with Parkinson’s, but when he began talking it made it appear that it was all an act.
The question on everyone’s mind since the bizarre return of the exiled dictator was why he had returned. In his statement he inadequately answered that question: “I wanted to pay homage to the victims of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010,” he explained while reading from his paper statement, “which caused, according to official estimates, the death of 316,000 people. Unfortunately, I did not arrive in time for the anniversary.”
For the past week Haitians, journalists and the international community has been speculating as to what the real intentions of this unexpected homecoming was. This speculation was broken down into five educated guesses:
1) He missed Haiti, and wanting to see his buddies (according to his lawyers)
2) He was sick, and wanted to die in his mother-land (rumors were flying that he had pancreatic cancer)
3) He had returned to help Haiti, even though it was completely unclear how he would actually do that…
4) He wanted to be President again (but because he was named President-for-life before, technically he never stopped being President, right?)
5) He was broke, and he needed money…
In the end it turned out that number five, that he needed money, was the most likely reason. Duvalier has returned to Haiti in an effort to unlock six million dollars in frozen funds in a Swiss bank account. According to a new law in Switzerland, if he returns to Haiti without being prosecuted for crimes related to the money, his chances of getting it back into his own pockets becomes much better.
In addition, reports have said that he has until the end of January to do so, making this trip more strategic then heartfelt. While I’m sure Duvalier would love to help this struggling nation get back on its feet after the earthquake, I’m not exactly sure how him getting that money, instead of returning it to the people who he stole it from, actually helps anyone other than himself.
But Duvalier had a snag in his plan, and was asked to come to the Parquet (or courthouse) to be questioned. There a judge opened an investigation into charges that he embezzled funds, took part in corruption, and other dastardly things before being released while the investigation continues. In Haiti, charges are proposed and then investigated by a judge who decides whether those charges should be brought to court. That investigation could take up to three months, after which a proper trial would begin.
The problem is that the statute of limitations in Haiti is between 10 and 20 years, and because he’s been gone for 25, it may be impossible to hold him accountable for many of the crimes he committed during his dictatorship. Amnesty International thinks differently. “There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity,” explained Gerardo Ducos at a news conference on Friday, “Duvalier needs to be held accountable for his crimes now so that others don’t think they can get away with this in the future.” He’s right, but unfortunately for him there appears to be a major disconnect between how the Haitian people perceive Duvalier’s return, and how the international community perceives it.
“I think it’s a great thing,” explained one resident of the Petionville golf course tent camp speaking about the former-dictator’s return to Haiti, “When he was here there were jobs, the streets were clean, and there was no crime. The country was good back then.” And while there is no doubt that Duvalier was a tyrannical leader, killing anyone who objected to his way of ruling, the people here see those times as better than it is now. “Preval has ruined this country,” he explained, “we should have Duvalier as our president now, he could bring change.”
And this message is echoed throughout the city. Even our landlady, whose father was killed by the Duvalier regime, considers his return as insignificant. “It’s just a distraction,” she explained, “We have so many other bigger problems to deal with, why would he come now and make things complicated?” And she’s right. The reality is that this story has distracted the country, and the world, from the more pressing issues that this country is facing right now.
Two weeks ago the Organizations of American States (OAS) concluded a review of the presidential election results saying that the Preval-backed candidate, Jude Celestin, should be excluded from the second-round run-off, and that Michel Martelly should be inserted in his place. Since that announcement, Preval has come out and said that the review is just a suggestion, and it doesn’t need to be followed, and now the country is still waiting for the Provisional Electoral Committee (CEP) to announce who will actually be going on to the next round. According to the UN, the final election results will be announced on January 31st, and Martelly said in a new conference on Friday that if the CEP doesn’t go with the OAS’s recommendation, then his people will be back on the streets fighting for their vote. (We all remember how awesome that was…)
All of this coupled with the United States ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, coming out and saying that if the OAS review is not implemented then both US funding, and possibly funding from the UN, for future aid projects could be withdrawn means that this country is on the verge of another collapse. Add the ongoing cholera epidemic and the continuous need to help those left homeless from the earthquake, and this whole Duvalier thing seems more and more ridiculous.
So after 6 minutes of talking, Duvalier finished his statement, stood up, and walked away. The moment we had been waiting for had come, and was now gone. As he finished his statement, about two dozen Haitians erupted in applause behind us, having snuck in while we were focused on the former dictator’s first speech in Haiti in over 25 years. Later they told reporters that they had been paid to show up and show their support for Duvalier, and that his people had let them in so they could cheer for the cameras.
What this whole debacle has taught me is to keep my logic at the door when operating in Haiti, as nothing seems to make sense in any way that you would typically expect it to. If you would have told me two weeks ago that Duvalier would be here now, I would have laughed and called you an idiot (in a nice way…of course). If you would have told me that Preval would shrug off a review of the election results (that he asked to be conducted, BTW) and said they were simply a suggestion, I would have scoffed and said that would be stupid. But now I’m forced to prepare for the illogical in a place that could really use some logic. Now there are rumors that Aristide may return, which seems TOTALLY ridiculous, but now, not so unbelievable. God forbid there was some structure here, god forbid there was some order.
According to Duvalier’s people, he will be staying in Haiti until the investigation into his past offenses are complete. “Everything that has a beginning,” explained one of his advisers, “must have an end.” But for Haiti, this is just another speed-bump on the road to recovery, and a soap-opera that is diverting the world’s attention when it’s needed elsewhere. Hopefully the “end” will come sooner rather than later, so that we can focus on what’s important, and not on what’s not. Holding Duvalier accountable for his crimes is a necessary step, but it shouldn’t take precedent to the recover effort, because the past is the past, and the future here is grim.