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'Baby Doc' Duvalier missed Haiti. That's why he came back.
More than anything else he said to me, I believe this remark was Duvalier at his most candid, though I was never sure if he missed the Haitian people or his place ruling the country. His comment may partially explain why he risked arrest, widespread ridicule and possible attacks on his life to return.
Many Haitians believe that Duvalier, an unelected president to begin with, forfeited his right to come back to a nation that he abused and disgraced. It is hard to reconcile how someone who claims to love his country could give it such a bad name, steal from its coffers, abuse its institutions, pervert its constitution and undermine its quest for democracy. He may love Haiti in his own way, but his past actions betrayed no love for his people.
"A lot of blah, blah, blah," is how he described allegations of past theft to me. "I never had the financial means that the media said I had. I laugh when I hear the amounts, $400 million, $800 million. Where do they get this imagination?"
He denied any past wrongdoing. He rejected accusations of corruption during his presidency. He dismissed allegations of officially sanctioned murders and arrests of political opponents as fictional creations of a biased news media. He never uttered a word of remorse and ceded only one major mistake: "Perhaps I was too tolerant."
Duvalier was clearly uninterested in looking back. His state of denial made me wonder if he'd managed to convince himself that the abuses never actually occurred. Perhaps he had to in order to live with himself. Still, I sensed a lonely weariness about him, an emotional burden weighing on him. I believe it was unspoken regret, but until his somewhat limited apology last week directed to victims of his government, I never thought he'd admit it.
"I want to take this opportunity to express, one more time, my deep sadness to those countrymen who feel, rightly, that they were victims of my government," he said in Port-au-Prince.
This mildly apologetic Duvalier has come a long way since our meeting nearly eight years ago, when any kind of public remorse seemed impossible. In Paris, he told me I was too young to understand Haiti's complicated political history and too accepting of versions told by disgruntled expatriates. Now, he is at least acknowledging that there were victims.
Back then, after 17 years in exile, he was tired of constantly having to refute allegations of corruption, theft and human rights abuses. He believed he could be president again and said that this time he would actually run for the office. That may explain why he still had a dignified, presidential air about him. He always wore a jacket and tie. He held formal meetings with political supporters, local Haitian immigrants or visitors from Haiti and Montreal, in a quiet back room in the building where he lived with his longtime companion, Veronique Roy.
Duvalier was a beefy 34-year-old when he arrived in France, but when I met him he was much thinner and looked older than his 51 years. His round, pudgy face had slackened and become jowly. He walked with a limp that he attributed to an old motorcycle injury and a bit of rheumatoid arthritis. He's 59 now, and recent news reports have speculated that he is ill and possibly dying, but neither he nor close friends have confirmed the reports.
I was surprised at how soft-spoken and introverted he was. Even when having dinner with friends, he seemed withdrawn and often sat quietly chain-smoking as others chattered nosily around him. At those moments it was hard to picture him as the brute force who once terrorized his own people.
Duvalier and I often talked politics into the wee hours as he smoked one Dunhill cigarette after another. He would become very animated as he gave me long tutorials on Haitian political history, but when I asked what major political mistakes he made as president, he was hard-pressed to come up with examples.
"We were not perfect," he allowed, "but we were making good progress."