SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The return of ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile has prompted another exiled leader to push to come back.
Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was flown out of the country in 2004, reminded his supporters — and Haitian and foreign officials — that he’s prepared to come back to Haiti, a country from which he was forced into exile nearly seven years ago.
“As far as I am concerned, I am ready,” he wrote in a statement that was distributed to the press Wednesday. “Once again, I express my readiness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time.” Aristide, who has applied for but not received a passport to travel, was still in South Africa, despite rumors of his imminent return, supporters said.
Aristide’s statement has added another layer of complexity to an already bizarre week that began with Duvalier’s return. The timing of the controversy could not be worse for the country, observers said, because it has taken attention away from the lingering electoral crisis.
Duvalier, who is accused of pilfering the treasury of hundreds of millions and using secret police to torture and murder opponents from 1971 to 1986, returned to Haiti on Sunday.
Prosecutors filed charges of corruption and embezzlement on Tuesday. And victims came forward Wednesday to add human rights violations to those charges. An investigating judge is now weighing the case against him.
Spokesmen for Duvalier said the former dictator came back to help his country. Indeed, a crowd of supporters welcomed him back and gathered in front of the posh hotel in the Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince where Duvalier had been staying until Thursday.
“I think some people think of him and say ‘life was easier when he was here,’” said Yves Destin, who was left unemployed after last year’s earthquake. Destin added that many Haitians are too young to remember the Duvaliers. “People tell stories about how everything worked then and it was cleaner. They don’t know that there were also a lot of problems.”
Duvalier and aides canceled press conferences scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. And his public statements have been few, leaving many to wonder why he would return after nearly a quarter-century away.
Rumors about his health and presidential aspirations have been denied. But there is speculation that his return was a last-ditch attempt to make a claim for roughly $5.8 million he allegedly robbed that’s still frozen in a Swiss bank account.
Duvalier amassed a fortune before fleeing to France, but “he burned through a lot of the money,” said Elizabeth Abbott, who wrote a 1991 book about Duvalier and his father, Francoise “Papa Doc.” “It was incredible how lavishly he lived.”
It was a lifestyle that included apartments in Paris, a residence in southern France, sports cars and pricey meals, according to reports. He then lost millions in his 1993 divorce.
But the Swiss Return of Illicit Assets Act goes into effect on Feb. 1, and the Swiss government had planned to use it to return that money to Haiti.
“It’s possible that [Duvalier] thought that if he returned to Haiti he could throw a wrench in the process, or at least try to claim some credit for any return of assets to Haiti,” said Mark V. Vlasic, a partner at the Washington law firm Ward & Ward PLLC and a law professor at Georgetown University.
Vlasic was head of operations at the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative when the Swiss law was written. While at the bank, he worked with Swiss officials on the Duvalier case. The law was passed, in part, to help Haiti recover the Duvalier money. Corrupt politicians have been able to hide money in Swiss bank accounts and then live off that money in luxury once in exile.
When it passed it was lauded as a landmark move by the Swiss government to cut down on financial crimes. However, it’s not clear if the law can be utilized if a country has its own opportunity to prosecute the official for financial crimes.
It is unlikely Duvalier will get the money back. Swiss courts have already ruled it was taken illegally.
Now that Duvalier is in Haiti, human rights groups have said it’s important that he face justice.
“It would send a message that we have the capacity and the will to see a case of this magnitude through the system,” said Haitian lawyer Patrice Florvilus of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which is linked to Aristide, a political opponent of Duvalier. “It’s extremely important.”
It’s unclear how long the judge will investigate before making a decision about the case and questions have been raised as to how strongly the government will push for the prosecution or if it prefers that Duvalier gets on a plane and leaves.
In his statement, Aristide said the purpose of his desire to return “is very clear: To contribute to serving my Haitian sister and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education.”
Aristide’s letter drew a quick reaction from the U.S. State Department. Spokesman P.J. Crowley posted on Twitter that “We do not doubt President Aristide’s desire to help the people of Haiti. But today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past.”
The country is supposed to seat a new president in a few weeks. But it has not held the second round of elections to elect that leader or announced which two candidates will compete in that round.
“I think that the timing [of Duvalier’s return] is a huge distraction from the election, which is the real issue that needs to be addressed,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
The country’s electoral council certified results from the first round, which would have sent former first lady Mirlande Manigat and government candidate Jude Celestin to a second round. But after an analysis of a sample of votes, election monitors from the Organization of American States released a report that stated singer Michel Martelly should be moved to second place.
President Rene Preval has not addressed the report publicly. A Center for Economic and Policy Research analysis of the OAS findings and of the vote totals found numerous problems. “The vote should be run again and open to all candidates,” Weisbrot said.
U.S. and U.N. officials today urged Haiti to adopt the OAS findings. U.N. Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy said the electoral commission “must honor its commitment to fully take into account the report’s recommendations.”
He said he expected an official decision by Jan. 31 and a second-round vote in mid-February.