Baby Doc’s Second Act

Youheard the one about the three biggest lies in the world? “Of course, I’ll still love you in the morning.” “The check is in the mail.” “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.”

That last one can be applied in a somewhat similar context to Jean- Claude Duvalier, the former president of Haiti who showed up unexpectedly in Port-au-Prince in January saying he was so moved by the current plight of his countrymen that he had to come home to help them.

Better known as Baby Doc, the son and successor to that monarchic ruler (some would say despot), Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, arrived in January with his advisor/companion Veronique Roy, ready to do his part again for the people.

For some who remember the Papa Doc and Baby Doc regimes, the first impulse is to secure their wallets and check their health insurance, although past and present regimes would be hard-put to cast stones at the father and son’s political impurities.

After all, this is Haiti, with a volatile political history that has seen a long list of leaders go down in infamy.

Haiti has always been the stepchild of Latin America, tolerable but not one of us, with its Creole lifestyle, and the endemic economic and political problems and racism that a predominately Black population invites.

This country of 10.1 million seems cursed by the Gods, enduring the endless havocs of nature, a spate of corrupted leaders and compliant people inured to their misery. Most seemed dumbfounded by Baby Doc’s appearance, although he had signaled several times that he was homesick – and supposedly broke – and ready to return home. What for is still conjecture.

“I’m not here for politics. I am here for the reconstruction of Haiti,” he told the media in a vague explanation. Some of his detractors speculated his real intentions were more than humanitarian.

In a prepared statement, he added, “the desire to participate at your side far surpasses the personal hassles I would have confronted.” It was prophetic because shortly after, he was arrested and charged with long-ago crimes of corruption and embezzlement, but later freed.

That took care of one theory – that he came to Haiti, not for humanitarian endeavors but to qualify to the $5.7 million he stashed in a Swiss Bank that required him to first establish his legitimacy. He wouldn’t get it if he was deemed a rogue Haitian leader, which the charges against him established and if the journey was premeditated to beat a new Swiss law enacted in February for such miscreants.

Five million dollars seems pin money even for perennially distressed Haiti, which is getting millions in assistance from the U.S. and an international coalition for the reconstruction of the country after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, killing 230,000 people.

Meanwhile, political leaders in Haiti and the U.S. scrambled to undo the puzzle and expose Baby Doc’s real motives, which he insists are altruistic.

Baby Doc was never overthrown in the strict sense of a coup because there was no military to speak of when he willingly abandoned Haiti.

He controlled the dreaded Tonton Macoute, the private militia created by his father, who had castrated the military forces as a matter of selfpreservation. Someone, probably his girl friend and political advisor, Ms. Roy, member of a prominent Haitian family, has been telling him the people still loved him and all was forgiven.

In 2006, his supporters founded the Francois Duvalier Foundation in Haiti as a first step of his rehabilitation that also touted the good deeds of the Duvalier era. Baby Doc had said he would run for president in 2006 under the Party of National Unity but, for unexplained reasons, didn’t.

A former prominent Haitian resident said the timing is now right for Duvalier’s return amidst all the current chaos and unbridled political scene yearning for stability and leadership.

“He has nothing to lose. He’s flat broke, and he’s a pariah in France, and whether you believe it or not, he’s still a popular man in Haiti. “Papa Doc created a middle class that until then never existed, and the Baby Doc years of 1971-86 were some of the more successful, with more infrastructures like schools and medical facilities.”

About the Duvaliers cracking a few heads in the process, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg.” 

Baby Doc is supposedly rekindling presidential ambitions, but you wonder, judging by his past, if he really wants to be president again. He became “President for Life” at age 19 and initially resisted the drudgery of the presidency, eventually growing into the job but still preferring the distractions of a playboy.

Whatever happens, you have to factor in the U.S. involvement, which always plays a hand in the affairs of Haiti, charitably open or clandestinely malevolent.

Personally, I wish for the Haiti I got to know as a correspondent in the Papa Doc years when, the Tonton Macoute notwithstanding, life seemed pleasant and agreeable.

A group of journalists would stop in Port-au-Prince to unwind at a French hostel, the San Souci, with its unbeatable hospitality and French fare, and shop for primitive Haitian art at the Red Carpet Shop or get a haircut, listening to classic music with the barber.

On one stop, my wife and I shared the dance floor at the San Souci with María Callas and Aristotle Onassis, who had parked his yacht in the bay for a night out on the town.

A fellow correspondent and I once scored an interview with Papa Doc, surrounded by his Tonton Macoute security detail in his office in the gleaming white Presidential Palace.

I recall the event more than the interview. I do remember him looking a bit bleary eyed with half-lidded eyes and, most of all, a white, pearl-handled revolver resting on his desk, just in case.