Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has failed to show up for a court hearing in his native Haiti at the beginning of February, prompting the judge to postpone. A frustrating event indeed for Haiti’s citizenry — and for the international community. Both are anxious for the former dictator to stand trial for crimes he committed in the Caribbean nation during his rule from 1971 to 1986. Justice has yet to arrive.
The Duvalier family ruled Haiti for decades, starting with Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Jean-Claude’s father, who ruled from the late 1950s until his death in 1971. Jean-Claude then inherited the presidency, in which he quickly earned a reputation for corruption and ruthlessness. The Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti explains that during Jean Claude’s rule a curtailment of civil and political rights in the island indeed took place, as well as the “arbitrary detention, exile, forced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killing of opponents of the regime.”
Duvalier was deposed in 1986 and went into exile. His absence did not, however, prove beneficial to the Caribbean island, as Haiti has been unable to improve socio-economic conditions and remains, arguably, the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished state. This situation stems from endemic corruption and continuous governmental instability, exemplified by the 1991 military coup that unseated President Jean Bertrand Aristide. (It took the controversial deployment of U.S. troops in 1994 to return the deposed president to power.) A decade later, a second coup removed Aristide for the second time and, once again, the country entered into further turmoil. Ironically, Aristide blamed Washington for being behind his second violent overthrow in 2004.
The situation of the impoverished state sank to a new low in January 2010, when a devastating earthquake hit, killing over 300,000 and prompting an effective collapse of the Haitian government. A combination of governmental institutions and organizations, such as U.S. military deployment, MINUSTAH (the U.N. mission to the island) and the Red Cross took over major duties, including providing medical assistance as well as maintaining citizen security. Due to the collapse of internal order scheduled presidential elections were postponed until November 2010, and a runoff occurred in March 2011, in which former musician Michel Martelly was elected as the new Haitian head of state.
In mid-January 2011, Duvalier returned to Haiti and has since lived a care-free and lavish lifestyle – even giving in December 2011 gave a commencement address at the Robert Blanc School of Law and Economic Sciences in Gonaïves (the irony is rich). All of which attests to the fact that that the government is unable, or unwilling, to detain him. This is as much evidence of its feebleness as is the former dictator’s nonchalant non-appearance in court. Also worrisome are the reports by different Haitian media and NGOs regarding links between President Martelly and Duvalier, specifically around the concern that Martelly had granted individuals with familial ties to Duvalier’s government key political positions (the father of Martelly’s former Prime Minister, Garry Conille, for example was a minister of sports and youth for the Duvalier dictatorship).
This may explain the government’s lukewarm attempts to prosecute the former dictator. And should the trial proceed, the consequences of a guilty verdict may not be that severe for the former dictator. He is charged solely with financial crimes, rather than human-rights abuses, and if he is convicted on these charges — an outcome looking unlikelier by the day — he would face a maximum of five years in prison. This complicated situation has provoked an outcry from both the international community as well as Haitian citizens, who repeatedly suffered under his rule and wants to see more serious charges brought forth. Duvalier’s lawyers are furiously trying to keep him out of prison, arguing that he has already been trialed before in Haiti, as well as in France and Switzerland.
Since it is likely that Duvalier will avoid jail time, the question of whether he will seek a renewed role in Haitian politics remains open. My colleague Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, argued that Duvalier certainly has the funds to buy his way into a prominent role after robbing the Haitian treasury during his rule. In addition, Duvalier has already been accused of building a paramilitary squad in Haiti, known as the Pink Army (Le Police/Lame Woz). While it is debatable whether Duvalier will seek to hold political office once again, it’s beyond question that he has the financial funds, support and connections to continue being an influential — and negative –force in Haitian politics.