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|Posted March 16, 2003
|Exile in France Takes Toll On Ex-Tyrant 'Baby Doc'
|By MARJORIE VALBRUN, Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
PARIS - Haiti's Ex-Dictator Duvalier Lost Wife, Chateau, Millions in Embezzled Funds -- Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a dictator who fled Haiti in 1986 with millions of dollars, came to France to live in high style. Home was a villa in Mougins in the hills above Cannes. He and his family drove through the French Riviera in a BMW and a Ferrari Testarossa and shopped at expensive boutiques. They owned a chateau outside Paris and two apartments in the city.
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Today, the former "President for Life" is broke, his lawyers and friends say. He lives in a borrowed apartment with a girlfriend. He is divorced, and French attorneys once retained by the Haitian government believe his ex-wife made off with what remained of the Duvalier riches. Mr. Duvalier says he lives off donations. He bums rides from friends. Wives of die-hard supporters cook him meals. He pines for Haiti.
"I didn't come to France to live indefinitely," Mr. Duvalier, 51, says in an interview in the lobby of the Paris building where he lives. In meetings with supporters here, he is mounting a quixotic campaign to rule his homeland again. "The whole time I've been here, my heart and my spirit have been in Haiti," he says.
In 1971, the tyrannical Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier was ill and dying, so he anointed his only son, then 19, to succeed him. After 15 years, a popular uprising and U.S. pressure forced Baby Doc to flee the impoverished Caribbean nation of eight million. As he was driven to the airport, Haitians heckled him. In Paris, more Haitian protesters greeted him. The French government said he could stay for no more than six days. But after denying his asylum requests several times, the French let him stay.
Human-rights groups say 40,000 to 60,000 political opponents were killed during the 29-year reign of the father and son. Mr. Duvalier, along with family and political cronies, also embezzled at least $500 million during his last decade of rule, according to Haitian government officials and lawyers and American officials. Successive Haitian governments -- there have been nearly a dozen since Mr. Duvalier was deposed -- retained lawyers in France and the U.S. to help recover the money.
Mr. Duvalier denies having opponents jailed or killed, or that he was a dictator. "If I were dictator, I would have done everything in my power to stay in power," he says. He also denies stealing. He says he arrived in France with a modest inheritance and some savings, though he won't say how much.
"I laugh when I hear the amounts: $400 million, $800 million. It's a lot of blah, blah, blah," he says, adding that he has spent what he had. "There were the children to care for, school expenses, other bills. People said I always paid for others' meals at restaurants. But many times it was friends who invited us out and they paid the bill."
As part of an investigation into the looting allegations, authorities raided the villa Mr. Duvalier and his wife rented in Mougins shortly after they arrived in France. The authorities say they caught Mrs. Duvalier trying to flush a notebook down the toilet. It logged recent spending -- $168,780 for clothes at Givenchy, $270,200 for jewelry at Boucheron, $9,752 for two children's horse saddles at Hermes, $68,500 for a clock, $13,000 for a week in a Paris hotel.
Gilles August, one of the French lawyers retained by Haiti at time, says he and another attorney working on the case tracked down about $20 million in a Duvalier bank account in London, but the money was transferred before they could seize it. They traced the money to accounts in New Jersey and Luxembourg before losing the trail. Another large bank account was located in the south of France, but a Duvalier relative got word of a court order to freeze the account and emptied it, Mr. August says.
TELL ME A STORY The lawyer says he suspected that friendly parties in the Haitian government tipped off the Duvaliers. During the 1980s, Haitian governments came and went, and eventually the authorities lost interest in the money chase. "It was like calling your client and your client doesn't exist," Mr. August says.
Haiti's current government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide says the pursuit of the Duvaliers was abandoned for many years, but Haiti issued an indictment in 2000 against Mr. Duvalier and several members of his government. "If Duvalier came back here, he would be arrested for theft of government monies," says government spokeswoman Michele Karshan.
In 1993, the Duvaliers divorced. The next year they sold their chateau outside Paris. Mr. Duvalier says he and his former wife split part of the proceeds, but used most of the money to pay French back taxes. By this point, Mr. August believes, Mrs. Duvalier controlled the couple's remaining savings. "Given the control Duvalier's wife had over him, it's very possible that she took the money, and he is broke," he says.
Mr. Duvalier's former wife, Michele Bennett, 53, who now uses her family name, declined to respond to written questions posed to her through Sauveur Vaisse, a longtime Duvalier attorney in France.
After years of extravagant living, Mr. Duvalier began to appear short of cash. On Aug. 22, 1995, a couple identifying themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Valere checked into two rooms at L'Eden Bleu, a $78-a-night hotel in Mougins, says manager Patrick Budail. After the pair stayed weeks without paying, Mr. Budail called the police, and the gendarmes took the couple into custody. At the police station, someone recognized them as Mr. Duvalier and his mother.
The police released them when Mr. Duvalier's girlfriend, Veronique Roy, came to settle the bill. The hotel let Mr. Duvalier and his mother return, but Mr. Budail says they paid only part of the subsequent bills. So Mr. Budail moved son and mother to a single room. Later, he says, he stopped serving them meals. Ms. Roy picked the pair up very early on the morning of Nov. 3, by which time they had run up a bill that Mr. Budail places at $18,000, including late fees, and says is still unpaid. (Ms. Roy says she paid in full, adding that the hotel was trying to profit off the Duvalier name.)
In 17 years of exile, Mr. Duvalier never tried to find a job, write books or otherwise earn money. He says he once took university classes to improve his leadership skills. "All I know is politics," he says.
Among Haitians, Baby Doc remains a deeply polarizing figure. Many at home and abroad continue to seek his expulsion from France and want him to be tried for crimes against humanity. "He accepted the title of President for Life, the money, the power," says activist Gerald Bloncourt, a 76-year-old artist expelled from Haiti in 1946 for his part in a communist uprising. "He should accept the blame."
A small but growing minority of Haitians remain nostalgic for Mr. Duvalier. In Paris, his few supporters include Haitian taxi drivers, real-estate brokers and factory workers, as well as some entrepreneurs whose fathers were ardent "Duvalierists." Mr. Duvalier and Ms. Roy live in a one-bedroom apartment that belongs to a friend who pays the $1,000-a-month rent, he says. Ms. Roy, a Frenchwoman who resembles Angelina Jolie, says she met Mr. Duvalier at a party the day Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Now she serves as his chief adviser and public-relations representative, and helps him maintain a pair of Web sites that include an open letter to compatriots and news articles about Haiti's deteriorating social, political and economic conditions.
Ms. Roy says she has gone to Boston, Miami, New York and the Dominican Republic to meet with Haitian supporters, including former government members, old allies and their children.
During Mr. Duvalier's rule, Haiti was Latin America's poorest nation, and it remains so. Since 1980, according to the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, it has had the region's highest infant mortality and illiteracy rates. Life expectancy, currently 51 years, is consistently the region's lowest. The highest is Barbados at 74 years.
Chain-smoking Dunhill cigarettes in the Paris lobby, Mr. Duvalier says Haiti was better off under his rule. "Look at the condition I left the country in," he says. "And look at the condition it is in now."
Asked what mistakes he made, Mr. Duvalier struggles. "We were not perfect," he finally allows. "Perhaps I was too tolerant."
Write to Marjorie Valbrun at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal of April 16, 2003.
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