Haiti Rumors Fly as Ex-Dictator Stays Mum in Hotel

Published January 18, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – From a posh hotel room, Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier greeted old friends and allies while providing no public insight into why he suddenly returned to the country he fled amid a popular rebellion a generation ago.

The lack of information left Haitians to speculate on what the appearance of the exiled former president-for-life could mean for the country, its efforts to build out of poverty — and what other political surprises might be coming amid an increasingly problematic electoral crisis.

The immediate speculation was on whether the ex-dictator's return is a mere precursor to a potentially more epochal event: a return by the man who helped lead the movement to topple him, ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been in South African exile since 2004.

Haitian radio repeated rumors throughout the day that Aristide was headed for Panama or Cuba, en route to Port-au-Prince. There was no immediate indication those reports were true.

Aristide's attorney in Miami, Ira Kurzban, said the ousted former president, who remains popular in Haiti, wants to come back to his homeland.

"President Aristide has said he desires to return to his country. His position is that he's always had a right to his return," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was compelled to say in a Twitter post that "We are not aware of any plans for former President Aristide to travel to Haiti."

Historian Georges Michel said such an occurrence would overshadow Baby Doc's return.

"You have some people excited, but you have not seen big excitement in the streets like when (singer) Wyclef (Jean) arrived or if Aristide would return from his exile," he said.

Another theory: President Rene Preval was behind Duvalier's return to create a distraction from the problematic presidential election in which Preval's chosen candidate is deadlocked against a popular carnival singer for a position in the second round, which was supposed to take place the day Baby Doc arrived.

"They say on the streets that Preval created a diversion to divert the attention" from the rival candidates in that race, Michel said, but he added that he doubted it would work.

"I can predict that the people will not forget their vote," he said. If an acceptable second round doesn't happen, "They will take to the streets and demand the immediate departure of Preval."

Yet another question many ask here: Why hasn't Duvalier been arrested, given Preval's past statements that he would be prosecuted for crimes against the Haitian people if he ever returned.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said he is aware of the accusations but that an arrest is unlikely anytime soon. "We want to be a government that respects the law and to arrest somebody you have to have a judiciary process," he said.

Others are insistent. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the generally Aristide-favoring Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti have said there is ample evidence and legal action to arrest him during his stay.

"The information available in existing legal proceedings and Mr. Duvalier's 25-year flight from Haitian justice clearly justify the immediate issuance and execution of an arrest warrant," IJDH said in a statement.

At the moment, at least, there are no pending charges against the former dictator. In fact, National Police for a time guarded him at the upscale Hotel Karibe before withdrawing, leaving security to hotel guards and a few U.N. peacekeepers stationed outside.

Few clues came from inside the refurbished Karibe, a new building that was badly damaged and then repaired after the earthquake. Old allies of the regime in suits and dress shirts filed into the balcony-ringed lobby, taking the elevator to and from Duvalier's room.

Henry Robert Sterlin, a former ambassador who said he was speaking on behalf of Duvalier, portrayed the 59-year-old ex-dictator as merely a concerned elder statesmen who wanted to see the effects of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake on his homeland.

"He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," Sterlin said. "He wanted to come back to see how is the actual Haitian situation of the people and the country."

Duvalier — who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier — still has some support in Haiti and millions are too young to remember life under his dictatorship. But his abrupt return Sunday still sent shock waves through the country, with some fearing that his presence will bring back the extreme polarization, and political violence, of the past.

"Part of what he does by getting back into Haiti is bring back the old battle lines," said Jocelyn McCalla, a political analyst and former director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. "People are going to start talking about being pro- or anti-Duvalier ... It intensifies the instability."

His return comes as Haiti struggles to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election, as well as a cholera epidemic and a troubled recovery from an earthquake.

Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza was in Haiti to discuss a technical team's recommendations on the election with Haitian leaders. The report recommends that Preval's candidate be excluded from the second round, but official results are not expected imminently.

Three candidates want to go on to a second round meant for two.

Preval, a former anti-Duvalier activist, made no immediate public statements on the former dictator's re-emergence, though he told reporters in 2007 that Duvalier would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars if he returned.

Duvalier has been accused of pilfering millions of dollars from public funds and spiriting them out of the country to Swiss banks, though he denies stealing from Haiti.

But there have been repeated suggestions Duvalier faces money problems. Swiss lawmakers in September approved a bill that would make it easier for countries to seize cash stashed by deposed dictators. The SDA news agency reported that Haiti would receive about $7 million seized from Duvalier.

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Associated Press writer David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.

Written by JONATHAN M. KATZ and JACOB KUSHNER, Associated Press

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