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01.16.10

Haiti Dictator's Poor-Man Exile?

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier told The Daily Beast he'd like to donate $8M to his homeland. But is the former despot too broke to support even himself—or just as corrupt as ever?

When you inherit the family mantle of President for Life at age 19, things don’t necessarily go as expected—for you or for your country.

Haiti’s fate—since Jean-Claude Duvalier’s all-powerful father died, bequeathing control of the Caribbean island onto the teenager in 1971—has involved a cruel series of shocks for country in desperate need of something better. As for Duvalier, since his fall from power he has just kept on falling, from a rich thirtysomething playboy tooling around southern France in a Ferrari in the mid-1980s, to a man who has been “broken” by exile and who got caught skipping on his bills.

In recent years, his entourage has asserted that the former Haitian President for Life stays in a modest two-room Parisian apartment with his companion for just $1,275 per month.

That is why his pledge of $8 million to bolster the desperate earthquake relief effort in his decimated homeland this week—which came in an exclusive email to The Daily Beast—raised so many questions. Does he really have the money to pledge, or is he just promising to donate money he no longer controls for PR purposes? More importantly, what happened to the tens—or perhaps hundreds—of millions of dollars that he has been accused of siphoning from Haiti during his 15-year rule? That money is sorely needed in Haiti now more than ever.

Let’s start with the $8 million “pledge.” In his message to The Daily Beast, Duvalier asked Swiss authorities to “immediately transfer the entirety of the assets of the Foundation in the name of my late Mother Somone Ovide Duvalier ($8 million) to the American Red Cross with an eye toward bringing emergency assistance” to an array of Haitian cities. Duvalier didn’t clarify exactly which money he was talking about, but the Swiss Office of Justice made clear in February 2009 that it would return the remaining known portion of the Duvalier fortune in Swiss vaults to Haiti to support humanitarian, social, and financial projects aimed at improving the lives of the Haitian people. Anyone with title to the money—Duvalier or his associates, for example—who wanted to prevent this transfer was given a multi-month time-frame by which they needed to provide proof that the money was not ill gotten.

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The amount that Duvalier referred to in his message to The Daily Beast is about equal to the 7.6 million Swiss francs that the Justice office referred to last year. (At the current exchange, that would be equal to about $7.4 million, but the dollar has recently recovered several percent of its value.) The Swiss apparently discovered millions of Swiss francs attributed to the Duvaliers in 2002, and froze the money.

This means that the Duvalier "pledge" is unlikely to carry any weight at all, but that the Swiss might end up channeling this money, as planned, toward helping Haiti.

But what about the rest of the Duvalier money? The Haitian government has estimated that the Duvaliers and their associates swindled the nation for around $120 million, largely from social works funds (perhaps of the sort that would have strengthened the nation’s infrastructure and helped it to better weather a massive earthquake). Other estimates about the looted amount vary wildly, from $20 million to as much as $300 million.

Duvalier himself told Newsweek in 2004 that such allegations are lies, and he noted that no court had convicted him for corruption. Then again, there is no record of him ever having held a paying job.

The Duvaliers were undoubtedly worth many millions when they moved to France 24 years ago. To console himself over the loss of the trappings of absolute power, “Baby Doc” tooled around the Côte d'Azur in a shiny Ferrari Testarossa and lingered at the Théméricourt chateau with his shopaholic (former) first lady of Haiti, Michèle Bennett—who he married in an astoundingly decadent ceremony said to cost $3 million in 1980. But by the mid-1990s, after a bitter divorce, she apparently made off with the lion’s share of the remaining money.

While there has been great skepticism in the Haitian community about comments by Duvalier's associates that he squandered it all (or lost it to his ex-wife)—other than what is being held in Switzerland—Duvalier’s hardships have increasingly eked out over the last decade. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2003 that Duvalier had been detained for skipping out on the bill in a $78-per-night hotel where he had lived with his mother in southern France. (His girlfriend reportedly paid the bill to get him released.) In recent years, his entourage has asserted that the former Haitian President for Life stays in a modest two-room Parisian apartment with his companion for just 850 euros ($1,275) per month, and that the perpetually unemployed Duvalier lives off the largess of friends or longtime supporters.

If true—and that is a big "if"—it could explain his increasing rumblings about returning to his homeland. In 2005, a regional newspaper reported that the reborn Duvalier political party intended to run Jean-Claude as their presidential candidate the following year. That plan fell apart as it became clear that he would have to appear in person in Haiti to register. In a rare 2007 radio address to his country, Duvalier apologized to his people for the “wrongs” of his regime, saying: “If during my presidential mandate the government caused any physical, moral, or economic wrongs to others, I solemnly take the historical responsibility...to request forgiveness from the people and ask for the impartial judgment of history."

That halting apology followed what he described as confusion over countless allegations of human-rights abuses in the 2004 Newsweek interview. He noted that U.S. aid was “conditioned on our human-rights record,” and the money kept rolling in. “We had no problem with the American (Reagan) administration,” he said, as justification.

Not surprisingly, Haitian President René Préval rejected Duvalier’s radio apology, but he noted that Duvalier is legally welcome to return to Haiti at any time—and that he will face a trial for his regime’s abuses if he does.

In the radio address, Duvalier also said that exile has “broken” him—wording that echoes his secretariat’s description of his feelings in a phone message left for The Daily Beast, when Duvalier was described as “very shocked and “crushed” by the quake.

Amid the mystery about Haiti’s lost—and desperately needed—millions, one thing seems certain. Even if Duvalier and his ex-wife really squandered nearly all of it, they still look disturbingly fortunate from the vantage point of their accursed homeland.

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