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01.15.10

'Baby Doc' Speaks

In an exclusive email to the Daily Beast, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who fled Haiti for France in 1986, offered quake victims comfort and an $8 million pledge of support.

In an exclusive email to The Daily Beast, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was exiled to France in 1986, offered quake victims comfort and an $8 million pledge of support. Duvalier’s dramatic departure to France was celebrated all around Haiti, and was seen as the closure of a dark period of terror that began under “Baby Doc’s” father, Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc.” The transition to democracy after his departure has been rough.

Reclusive former Haitian ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier has lived in France since he fled his homeland nearly a quarter-century ago. But Duvalier, famously known as “Baby Doc,” emerged from the shadows via email late Friday night. In an exclusive email to The Daily Beast’s Eric Pape, Duvalier offered comforting words in the aftermath of the earthquake that leveled the country he once led, lauding the international “wave of solidarity,” and asking Swiss authorities to direct $8 million to emergency relief efforts.

In "these hours of great national distress," the 59-year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier promised his "complete solidarity" with those who are suffering. He called on Swiss authorities to transfer all of the money from the foundation named for his late mother, Simone Ovide Duvalier, to the American Red Cross for the Haitian relief effort. (It is unlikely that Duvalier has control over the funds he's pledging; more likely, he's hoping to persuade the Swiss government to do a good deed with money his family once controlled.)

“In this moment of pain and of mourning, I must assure you of my absolute solidarity,” Duvalier wrote.

In the 438-word French-language statement (the whole message is in italics below)—which came in response to a solicitation for comment about the tragedy—Duvalier’s secretariat sent an email late Friday night entitled: Message de Solidarité au peuple haïtien de M. Jean-Claude Duvalier, à la suite du séisme du 12 janvier 2010. (A woman from his secretariat previously left a telephone message saying that Duvalier was too “very shocked” and too “crushed” to speak in person, but she suggested that he might respond by email.)

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“Baby Doc” was installed in power in 1971 following the death of his father, François Duvalier. (“Papa Doc” projected an all-powerful aura, winning elections by absurd margins, and he later proclaimed himself president for life. His strongman regime was blamed for many thousands of deaths.)

His son held power until 1986, when, faced with a popular revolt over corruption and a crumbling economy—which stood in stark contrast to Baby Doc's decadent lifestyle—the Reagan administration facilitated his flight into exile and he settled in France (although he never gained formal asylum). Initially, “Baby Doc’s” presence here spurred numerous reports about the exiled leader’s high life—and his wife’s spend-friendly ways, but their bitter divorce in the mid-1990s is said to have cost him his fortune. He reportedly now stays in an inexpensive Parisian apartment with another wife.

After Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned in 2004, Duvalier announced that he would run for president, but didn’t follow through—apparently because Haitian law requires that candidates appear in person to register. Later, in a rare address played on Haitian radio in 2007, Duvalier offered an apology to Haiti and suggested that he wanted to return home. President René Préval noted that while Duvalier was legally permitted to return, he would face the courts over abuses committed by his regime. Duvalier hasn’t gone home—yet.

While his potential return has long been a divisive issue, some of his comments about the earthquake are far more consensual. Especially his final one: “God save Haiti!”

Here is a translation of his full message:

Message of Solidarity toward the Haitian people by Mr. Jean-Claude Duvalier, following the earthquake of January 12, 2010.

Dear compatriots,

It is with great horror and a profound emotion, but also with a very great concern, that I have monitored the murderous and devastating consequences of the terrible earthquake that has so piteously struck our country.

In these hours of great national distress, my thoughts go out to the wounded, the victims, particularly the children and the youth, and their families and loved ones.

In this moment of pain and of mourning, I must assure you of my absolute solidarity, and I address to families so cruelly tested, my sincere condolences and my deepest sympathies.

I also address my gratitude to all of the mobilized rescue teams for the remarkable work that they accomplish in extremely difficult conditions.

I would like to express my sincere thanks and encourage the tremendous wave of solidarity that all Haitians around the world are showing, and of which the international community is associating itself fully. This community should rest assured of my deep gratitude.

Faced yet again with this heavy and appalling toll inflicted on the people and the land of Haiti, the entire nation must mobilize to overcome these woes.

In spite of the gravity of the situation, I wish to tell you of my hope and my conviction that Haiti will once again find its way, thanks to an exceptional mobilization of the life forces of our country [and] with the assistance of the international community, the path toward a true reconstruction.

Haitian People, I know your extraordinary courage, selflessness, and the sacrifices that you are all capable of to save our country. The painful moments that we live are calling out to a sense of national sacrifice. In these particularly dramatic circumstances for our country, I must express all of my solidarity and my support.

I officially ask Swiss authorities to immediately transfer the entirety of the assets of the Foundation in the name of my late Mother Simone Ovide Duvalier ($8 million) to the American Red Cross with an eye toward bringing emergency assistance, primarily to the populations of the cities of Léogane—the birthplace of my late mother, Carrefourthe birthplace of my late father, and Port-au-Prince, where I was born, as well as Gressier, Pétion-Ville, Jacmel, les Cayes, Petit Goave, Grand Goave...

I have immediately taken measures so that an initial emergency aid of scope reaches Port-au-Prince as soon as possible, and a considerable benevolent network is mobilized to help the population in distress.

To the destitute families, to the homeless, to the affected areas, to the children and the youth, I send a broad message of fraternity (brotherhood) and of solidarity amid this very cruel test.

God save Haiti!

Until next time.

Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Paris, January 15, 2010.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles.  He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape