Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier

Jean-Claude Duvalier succeeded his father as president-for-life in Haiti in 1971 , until overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986. He returned this week after 25 years in exile.

The story of a former dictator upon his return home

When he was 10 years old Jean-Claude Duvalier managed to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested by his father's henchman.

It was five years into the long dictatorship of his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. On May 23, 1962 a 12-year-old, Michael Heinl, was on his way to downtown Port-au-Prince. A driver overheard him repeating to another student in Creole some of the criticisms of the situation in Haiti he remembered hearing at home.

The driver was one of Duvalier's feared Tontons Macoutes, a personal police force that did not look favourably upon critics. Heinl was taken to the presidential palace.

Heinl already knew "the palace basement was where a lot of the torture was done and people didn't usually come out, even at age 12." He told CBC News that while being questioned he "saw Jean-Claude and shouted to him to come save me."

Jean-Claude, too, was frightened. He ran for his father, who immediately ordered Heinl's release.

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, shown at a press conference in 1980. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press) ((Kathy Willens/Associated Press))

Jean-Claude may have also saved the Duvalier regime that day. Heinl's father was the U.S. marine officer responsible for training Duvalier's troops. At the U.S. Embassy that day, Time magazine's Bernard Diederich reported hearing Col. Heinl say, "I'll take the palace myself."

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Assassins target Jean-Claude in 1963

The next year, on April 26, young Jean-Claude and one of his older sisters were the target of an assassination attempt by the former head of the Tontons Macoutes, Clément Barbot, who had become a Duvalier enemy. The shooting began as they arrived at school. The siblings escaped unharmed but their chauffeur and three bodyguards were killed.

Historian Elizabeth Abbott describes what followed:

"Waves of killings began that afternoon. Tontons Macoutes shot as many former or returned army officers as they could find, on the grounds that most possessed arms and therefore could have shot at the children. For good measure they also gunned down anyone driving a car like the assassin's."

When he was 15, Jean-Claude intervened when his father was beating up his mother at the presidential palace. The son, rather large for his age, managed to lock his father, then small and sickly, in another room and leave him there for three hours, Abbott writes.

'After Duvalier, Duvalier'

Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier sits while receiving journalists in Haiti's presidential palace in April, 1971, after he became president for life after the death of his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. ((Reuters))

Four years later Papa Doc chose his son Baby Doc to replace him and then had his congress amend the constitution so that when he died, Jean-Claude could take over as president-for-life.

Three months later, on April 21, 1971, death came for François Duvalier and the next day his 19-year-old son became president. Haiti was in ruins and observers said his dictatorship would not last a year. It lasted 15, a year longer than his father's.

Jean-Claude had not wanted the presidency. He was not interested in politics and wanted his father to hand the reins to his oldest sister, Marie-Denise. At first Marie-Denise, along with his mother, would be his closest advisers but after a few months, feeling betrayed by her brother, Marie-Denise went into exile.

In office Jean-Claude continued his disdain for politics, preferring partying, hunting, casual sex (mainly though not exclusively with women, according to Abbott) and racing cars and motorcycles.

At the palace he surrounded himself with chums from his school days. Six months into his presidency, and despite his appalling academic record, Jean-Claude became a law student at the University of Haiti.

Some Duvalier supporters have argued that Jean-Claude did not know what was happening but Michael Heinl, who would co-author a major history of Haiti, Written in Blood, claims "that's just not true."

A political honeymoon for Duvalier

Soon the intense repression lessened, the tourists returned, including a honeymooning Hillary and Bill Clinton, the economy picked up and American aid flowed, eventually becoming Haiti's leading source of revenue. American corporations also set up shop in Haiti. For example, the light assembly sector had seven American firms in 1967. By the last year of Duvalier's rule there were 300.

Edouard Duval-Carrié's painting, Mardigras at Fort Dimanche, depicts the Duvalier family in a torture chamber at Fort Dimanche, Haiti. In the centre is Jean-Claude Duvalier in a wedding dress. Surrounding him are family members, Archbishop François-Wolff Ligondé of Port-au-Prince, an army general, and with his hand to Duvalier's throat, Bawon Samdi, the voodoo lord of death. The wedding dress may be an allusion to rumours of Duvalier's homosexuality and/or his mother's voodoo initiation. The painting exhibited in 1996 at the Sacred Arts of the Haitian Voodoo show in Miami. Duval-Carrié studied in Montreal in the 1970s.

During his first years in office, with a facade of liberalization and his mother running the government behind the scenes, Duvalier enjoyed popular adoration.

The country's infamous corruption was unaltered and there was little to show for all the aid funds. But Duvalierists made millions exporting blood plasma and cadavers to the U.S.

During these years, Haiti's "five million crushed citizens were merely props in the charade, visible objects of misery that the Duvalier government peddled to the world in return for the gigantic handouts that could be stolen," Abbott writes in Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy."

In 1979, Abbott writes, Duvalier's mother Simone, believing she had to renew a pact with the devil that her husband had made 22 years earlier, married her son Jean-Claude in a ritualistic voodou rite.

Wedding a turning point

By 1979 Duvalier had cranked up his repressive apparatus but it was another wedding that marked the turning point of his regime.

Jean-Claude and Michèle Bennett Duvalier pose following their $3-million wedding on May 27, 1980. (Haiti Tourism)

In 1980 he married the beautiful Michèle Bennett, the mulatto daughter of a businessman. Duvalier had known Michèle since her teenage years, when she already had a "reputation." The marriage was not popular in Haiti, where skin tone and reputation matter. And their wedding brought outrage for its extravagance in such a poor country. At a cost of $3 million US, it entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive ever staged.

In 1983 Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and endorsed publicly the slogan of the country's Eucharistic Congress, "Something must change here."

Three years later Haitians would finally bring an end to 29 years of Duvalier dictatorship. On Feb. 7, 1986, Duvalier, Michèle, their two children and mother Simone fled Haiti for France, following growing popular protests that had begun the year before in Gonaives.

The life of a former dictator

The U.S. government soon froze his American assets, which included a yacht in Miami and four Manhattan apartments, one of them a condo in Trump Tower.

In 2004 Transparency International estimated that while in office, Duvalier embezzled between $300 million and $800 million US.

Duvalier's fortune took a major blow after his acrimonious divorce from Michèle in 1990. The marriage unravelled when Michèle discovered her own brothers were arranging sexual liaisons for her husband and confronted him at the love-nest where he consorted with his Haitian girlfriends. Later at home, Michèle chased Jean-Claude with a knife but somehow could not catch up to him.

In 1994 he had an unpaid balance of $14,000 and France Telecom disconnected his phone. He was also evicted from his villa for unpaid rent.

In 2010 Switzerland's supreme court ruled that Duvalier could reclaim about $5 million in long frozen assets because the statute of limitations had expired in 2001.

That prompted an outcry, which led to Switzerland passing what is known there as the Duvalier law. That law allows more discretion on returning suspicious funds to the countries from which they were stolen.  That law goes into effect Feb. 1.

Jean-Claude Duvalier waves from a hotel balcony in Petionville, Haiti, on Jan. 17, 2010. ((Lee Celano/Reuters))

A 2006  U.S. diplomatic cable released by  WikiLeaks states that French and American governments were concerned "that Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier might use a diplomatic passport to return to Haiti." But news website Haiti Libre reported Jan. 20 that Duvalier had already received that passport the year before.

Duvalier returns

On Jan. 16, 2011, a quarter-century after he fled Haiti as a deposed dictator, Duvalier did make a surprise return. His passport had expired so he travelled to Haiti using temporary documentation issued by Haiti's Consulate General in Paris, according to Haiti Libre.  Duvalier appearently hopes to receive a new passport while he is in Haiti.

Two days after his arrival, he was escorted by police to a courthouse in Port-au-Prince for questioning by Haitian prosecutors, who afterwards presented formal charges of corruption and embezzlement against him. 

Duvalier also faces a new criminal complaint "for arbitrary detention, exile, destruction of private property, torture and moral violation of civil and political rights," according to Michèle Montas, one of four Haitians filing the complaint. Montas is a journalist and former spokeswoman for UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Michael Heinl has kept in touch with the childhood friend who saved his life. He has seen the images from Haiti of Duvalier's return and told CBC News, Duvalier "does not look well to me and I'm worried about that."

Haiti timeline, 1957-2011

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