Sunday, January 23, 2011

Baby (Doc) Come Back

In what's either the biggest act of political hubris in a long, long time, or the execution of a cunning plan to retake power, Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Port-au-Prince last week after two decades in exile. His sudden arrival threw the country's already shaky political establishment into turmoil; for his part, Duvalier said he was returning to help his country rebuild after the massive earthquake that leveled large parts of Port-au-Prince and killed perhaps as many as 300,000 people – though he offered no explanation on why then he waited a whole year to make his return.

And that has people speculating that Duvalier is hoping to take advantage of the political vacuum which currently exists in Haiti. The presidential elections held last November have been marred by charges of fraud and vote-rigging; a run-off between the two top candidates still hasn't been held. Meanwhile, Port-au-Prince remains a city of rubble and refugee camps with an out-of-control crime rate. This seems to have spurred former Duvalier loyalists to lobby their boss to fly in from exile in Paris to try to retake the reins of power, a motivation at least partially confirmed by Duvalier's lawyer, Reynold Georges, who said of his client in an interview with al-Jazeera: “he is a political man. Every political man has political ambitions.” Georges added that under the new Haitian constitution that he helped to draft, Duvalier has the legal right to stand for election.

So far though, Duvalier has only stood before a Haitian judge to answer charges of corruption and embezzlement dating back to the end of his reign in 1986. Baby Doc Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986, taking over for his father Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The rule of the Duvalier clan was marked by authoritarian rule and widespread human rights abuse; the Duvaliers kept power in large part thanks to a brutal militia known as the Tonton Macoutes. When Baby Doc was finally overthrown in a popular revolt, he is said to have taken a large chunk of the national treasury with him into exile, nearly $6 million of which still lies frozen in a Swiss bank account. A Haitian judge now has three months to decide whether the criminal case should continue against Baby Doc Duvalier; meanwhile he'll likely be staying in Haiti whether he wants to or not, his passport was seized by Haitian authorities.

As for the question of why would Haitians even want a brutal dictator back in the first place, it is likely an expression of just how frustrated people are over the slow pace of reconstruction in Port-au-Prince. Despite pledges of billions of dollars in foreign aid, little work in the capital has actually been done. Much of the money is tied up in political and bureaucratic red tape, and Haiti's current political turmoil isn't helping the situation. It is worth noting that the crowd who met Duvalier at the airport included a fair number of young people, all of whom were likely born after he fled to Paris. They don't remember the brutality of the Duvalier regime, but have only heard the stories of how Haiti was once not an economic basket case. Given the current sorry state of affairs, it is a powerful image.

Duvalier's return has also prompted speculation that another ousted Haitian leader may stage his own comeback: former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was driven from power by another coup in 2004. Unlike Baby Doc though, Aristide is said to still have broad support among the Haitian population. For his part, Aristide insists that the coup against him wasn't a popular uprising, but rather a manufactured revolt secretly backed by the United States because economic reforms he proposed to fight poverty and improve the lives of average Haitians would have a negative impact on American business interests in Haiti. According to this editorial by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Aristide's decision to disband the Haitian army also factored into the United States' decision to support his ouster, since the army's main duty was to protect the country's small, but powerful upper class as well as international business interests, primarily from the United States, Canada and France. Weisbrot goes on to cite information contained within the Wikileaks dump of US foreign policy cables that contend to show the United States pressuring Brazil, the nation heading up the UN coalition supposedly providing security in Port-au-Prince, not to allow Aristide to return to Haiti from exile in South Africa.

The official position of the US State Department is that Aristide's return would only confuse the political situation in Haiti. But with near anarchy on the streets of the capital, an indefinitely-postponed presidential election and the return of a brutal former dictator, it's hard to imagine how Aristide's return could possibly make things worse.
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