COLUMN ONE : The Sorry Exile of Baby Doc : Haiti’s previous dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, fled to France in 1986, supposedly with $120 million. Now he lives in near-poverty--a cautionary figure for his nation’s military leaders.
When Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was driven from power in Haiti eight years ago, he and his family slid into luxurious exile here on the sunny Cote d’Azur, the sort of place where an out-of-work dictator could spend a lifetime of accumulated wealth.
They had a hillside villa with gated privacy and sumptuous views of the Mediterranean.
They ate at the best restaurants, where Duvalier’s “passion for the table,” as one chef put it, was appreciated almost as much as his ability to pick up the $1,000 checks for his entourage.
Of course, there also were private tennis lessons, drives through the Alps in the family Ferrari Testarossa or BMW and expensive visits to the toniest shops in Paris and nearby Cannes.
But the free-spending days are gone now. Duvalier is, by all accounts, strapped for cash. His life is a shambles. And his spectacular fall is a warning to any of Haiti’s outgoing leaders pondering a life of deluxe exile in France. No matter how strong their cultural ties with France, they won’t be welcome here. And no matter how vast their cash reserve, it may not be enough.
Duvalier, the round-faced president who ran Haiti for 15 bloody years after the death of his notorious father, had managed to spirit more than $120 million out of the impoverished nation by the time he fled, lawyers say. Yet, these days, Duvalier runs from creditors, his assets frittered away, stolen by friends or entangled.
Kicked out of two Riviera villas in recent years for not paying his rent, Duvalier has landed in a crumbling stone house, sans sea view, in the hills above Cannes.
The phone has been cut off because of unpaid bills. Even though the former strongman reportedly does the gardening in lieu of rent, the yard grows wild, a blight on the otherwise well-manicured neighborhood.
On Tuesday, Duvalier’s two ragged Pekingese terriers crawled through a hole in the wooden gate to yap at a rare visitor.
Inside the house, a small Haitian woman paused from doing dishes to answer the doorbell. Describing herself as “a friend of Monsieur Duvalier,” she said he was visiting Paris, though reporters have seen him on the grounds in recent days.
Duvalier’s wife, Michele, who once spent $600,000 in a single year on jewelry and Givenchy dresses in Paris, has divorced him. Now married to a Frenchman, she has taken the Duvaliers’ two children, Nicolas, 10, and Anya, 8, to live in a seafront apartment in Cannes.
Duvalier now lives with his 82-year-old mother, widow of the former dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.
Today, Jean-Claude Duvalier, 43, whom headline writers on the Riviera call “Bebe Doc,” remains an embarrassment for the French and, to a large extent, a prisoner of his need for cash and his uncertain immigration status.
When he was driven from power on Feb. 7, 1986--after hosting a champagne farewell for his friends at the Presidential Palace in the capital, Port-au-Prince--Duvalier arrived in France aboard a U.S. Air Force jet, with American assurances that he would stay no more than eight days.
It had taken the promise of exile in France to get Duvalier to agree to leave. France accepted him in hopes of preventing a blood bath in Haiti, but only on the condition that his stay be temporary.
Finding no country willing to take him, the French government ordered his expulsion and even tried to put the Duvalier family on a plane for New York. But France backed down when the United States said it would refuse to accept Duvalier but would continue searching for a more permanent place of exile.
A long list of countries refused. When Liberia, despite pressure from the United States, declined, the French gave up hope of getting rid of Duvalier. A French court eventually overturned the expulsion order, giving him temporary residence in this region. His request for refugee status was denied.
A year ago, facing two large lawsuits for unpaid rent, Duvalier was said to be contemplating a return to Haiti. He ran up a huge telephone bill--still unpaid--in pursuit of that goal, according to associates.
But in the end, he decided against a return and moved into his current villa, L’Hamadryade, owned by an English businessman.
The French Interior Ministry refuses to comment on Duvalier, whose situation differs little from that of the African despots who stole millions from former French colonies and were welcomed here in the past. France’s association with Haiti dates to 1697, when the territory became a French possession. Haiti won independence in 1804.
The Duvalier family controlled Haiti for almost 30 years. When Francois Duvalier took control of the country in 1957, succeeding a military strongman, Jean-Claude was 6 years old. The elder Duvalier established a dictatorship and ran a notorious secret police force known as the Tontons Macoutes, who gunned down opponents of his regime; he turned the country into the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Jean-Claude, meantime, went to law school in Haiti and upon the death of his father in 1971 became “president-for-life” at the age of 19.
At first, “Baby Doc,” as he was derisively dubbed, made moves to ease repression in the country, releasing some political prisoners and receiving new American aid as a reward. But repression and corruption eventually returned.
Duvalier and his wife, Michele, who came from a prominent family, lived a lavish lifestyle that stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the country. His taste for pornographic videos, fast cars and French champagne, and her penchant for French dresses and expensive jewelry, bred broad resentment among Haiti’s 6 million people.
In the mid-1980s, anti-government riots in the streets marked the beginning of the end of the Duvalier reign. At age 35, Duvalier fled to France.
France’s failure to get rid of him, and the anger many French felt at being made the dumping ground for the despot, is one reason that few in the conservative government are eager to play host to any of Haiti’s current rulers.
To the French, Haiti has become an American problem.
“I would rather we didn’t accept any of them,” said Charles Pasqua, the French minister of the Interior. “That’s not our job. Why won’t the Americans accept them? It is the Americans who wanted to intervene in Haiti. Why don’t they pay the price? Their country is larger than ours.”
During Duvalier’s early years on the Cote d’Azur, the Haitian government hired lawyers and investigators to search for his fortune, much of which was taken out of the country by friends and associates in suitcases stuffed with cash, then deposited in England, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
It was clear that Duvalier had plenty of money.
Although he tried to stay out of the limelight, he and his wife were known around Cannes and Paris for their shopping excursions--and their penchant for cash purchases. Court records list dozens of large purchases in the late 1980s, including a $200,000 pair of earrings. Duvalier spent much of his time at sports car auctions.
In Duvalier’s rare interviews, he has portrayed himself as a victim of his ungrateful homeland and of French anger over his presence. But, in a 1988 interview with Le Figaro magazine in Paris, he admitted, “I ruined myself with the people of Haiti.”
In 1988, two years after Duvalier arrived in France, lawyers for Haiti won a key victory against him. A British court ordered the seizure of Duvalier’s account in one London bank. But a week before, the money--$21,325,615--had been transferred to Luxembourg.
According to court documents, that money, along with $400,000 in four other London banks, was transferred on orders from Michele Duvalier’s brother. Members of her family were accused of massive corruption during their years in Haiti.
“We will always have our suspicions that someone tipped them off,” said Jacques Sales, a Haitian-born attorney in Paris who led the fight for Duvalier’s millions.
After that disappointment, Sales said the Haitian government “gave up. They had hoped that everything would be over in a matter of weeks. And when they realized it would take years and that they might not even be in power when it was found, they kind of lost interest.”
So, with Duvalier now apparently broke, what happened to all his money?
Attorneys involved in the case say some of it probably was taken by Duvalier’s associates, who served as middlemen between European banks and Duvalier’s French villa. Other money may have been taken by Michele Duvalier, whose relatives controlled some of the accounts. Some, undoubtedly, still sits in foreign accounts, waiting for Duvalier to collect it.
“Not even Duvalier could spend more than $20 million like that, overnight,” Sales said.
Some who remember Duvalier’s brutal style of rule, and his denials that he stole money from the Haitian people, think Duvalier just wants to appear poor now, in hopes of winning sympathy for a return to Haiti.
No one knows for sure how much money Duvalier has, though his days of conspicuous consumption have ended.
He is being sued by one lawyer for non-payment of fees. His staff has dwindled to one Pakistani servant, who reportedly has been reduced to begging neighbors for extra work. Duvalier’s attempt to buy a Mercedes recently was turned down by a car dealer who demanded cash.
He could be living on the $1.2-million proceeds from the 1992 sale of his 20-room chateau near Paris.
He bought the chateau, on 25 wooded acres, during his rule in Haiti in the hope that he would live there one day. But when he arrived in France in 1986, regional authorities refused to allow him to move in, citing his human rights record; the government blocked the chateau’s sale.
After a protracted court battle and huge legal fees, the sale was allowed. The regional government bought the property, paying about half what Duvalier had paid, to turn it into a nature preserve. The Haitian government, in disarray, declined to appeal the decision.
Attorneys figure there could be as much as $10 million, and perhaps a good deal more, in other countries. But Duvalier can’t leave France, for fear he will not be allowed to return. In any case, no other country is likely to grant him entry.
With Haiti in disarray, though, the search for that money has ended--for the moment, at least.
“We wanted to try to get hold of that money for the people of Haiti,” said Sales, who has represented the Haitian government in France. “But when we saw that year after year the governments in Haiti changed, one bad government being succeeded by a worse government, we finally realized that, even if we found the money, it would have just been returned to the thugs who were running Haiti. The Haitian people will never see it.”