By Marjorie Valbrun
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:15 PM
Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier always knew he would return to Haiti one day.
That's what he told me, over and over, in 2003, when I spent two weeks interviewing him in Paris. "I didn't come to France to live indefinitely," he said then, sounding as if he were merely a voluntary transplant and not a stateless former dictator.
Good luck with that, I thought.
I should have known better. Two weeks ago, the onetime "president for life" stunned the Haitian population and caught the government completely off-guard when he showed up and casually announced that he had come back "to help." The man who inherited the presidency at age 19 when his father died, and who was forced from power in 1986, was finished with life in exile.
When he arrived in Haiti, four people who say they were victimized by his regime promptly filed legal complaints charging him with crimes against humanity. He was taken into custody by Haitian authorities, charged with corruption and embezzlement, and then released and ordered not to leave the country. He was originally holed up in an upscale hotel but has since moved to a private guest house, where he has received old friends, political advisers and supporters as if he were a visiting dignitary.
Duvalier's presence has confounded just about everyone and has ignited a debate among Haitians abroad and those on the island about how their country should handle the return of one of its most polarizing figures.
It's no minor dilemma. Although recent events - a major earthquake, killer cholera, flawed elections - forced our attention to more pressing matters, the Duvalier era has never been too far from our collective consciousness.
Human rights groups say 40,000 to 60,000 political opponents were killed or disappeared during the time that Duvalier and his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, ruled the country, from 1957 until the son's exile. Haitian and U.S. government officials say Baby Doc and his relatives embezzled at least $500 million. Yet we've had no public reckoning, no trials or jury judgments, and no truth and reconciliation commission. What we've had instead is a chronic Duvalier problem, a long-festering wound that we may finally begin treating with Baby Doc's return.
The Duvalier problem is what I wanted to confront directly when I finally got my interview with the reclusive Baby Doc in 2003. By the time we met, he was no longer the big spender about town. He was divorced from his glamorous and controlling wife. He no longer traveled with an adoring entourage. By all accounts, including his own, he was flat broke.
Although I was just 6 years old when I left Haiti for the United States in 1969, my father, a consummate storyteller, kept the Duvaliers alive in my mind and helped me understand why they had such a hold on the Haitian imagination. When I became a reporter, I wanted to learn how they had kept that grip on the population's psyche and used it to dominate political life, decide who would live and die, and prompt hundreds of thousands of people to leave Haiti.
Over the course of our meetings in Paris, in fancy hotels and in modest Haitian restaurants, and during subsequent telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges, I got to know Duvalier as a man who is by turn intellectually dishonest, manipulative, even downright clueless. In rare but telling moments, he also seemed deeply sad.
"There has not been one day since I left that I have not thought about Haiti," he said in an unguarded moment. "The whole time I've been here, my heart and my spirit has been in Haiti."
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."
He said he should have made better use of the media to present a more positive image at home and abroad. He didn't consider himself a dictator and thought he should not have been viewed as one.
On our way to dinner one night, I asked why he never sought to rehabilitate his reputation while in exile. Why didn't he get a job, or write a book, or go on the lecture circuit, or do something, anything, to earn money?
"All I know is politics," he said. "Really, politics takes up most of my time; it's nonstop."
I asked him what he did for fun.
"I like to take walks. . . . Sometimes I go to museums, especially when there are Haitian art exhibits. You know, I had a collection of 400 works of art in Haiti," he said wistfully. "I left them all behind."
Then I asked if he had ever considered the possibility that he might never return to Haiti.
"No. I never let that thought enter my mind," he said, a bit irritated. "Haiti is my country before and above all."
Marjorie Valbrun is a journalist in Washington. Read more of Valbrun's reporting on Duvalier at The Root.