Washington flatfooted by return of Haiti’s “Baby Doc”
He departed Haiti in 1986 aboard a U.S. Air Force plane, winging to stage-managed exile after weeks of pressure from the Reagan administration.
Haiti’s infamous “Baby Doc”, Jean Claude Duvalier, made a surprise reappearance in his homeland this weekend, and Washington’s planners had less than an hour to prepare.
“We were informed about an hour before the point that he landed this weekend,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “If I look at the list of challenges that Haiti faces today having a former dictator return to Haiti just adds to Haiti’s ongoing burden.”
It’s a burden that has direct implications for the Obama administration, which has staked considerable political capital on the faltering effort to get Haiti back on its feet following last year’s earthquake disaster and a political crisis caused by inconclusive elections in November.
Crowley said the French government informed the United States that Duvalier — who was aboard an Air France jet — was about to make landfall on the Caribbean island. “We were given a heads-up roughly an hour before he landed,” Crowley said, adding that he believed the French had passed along the information as soon as they had it.
Crowley declined to stake out a U.S. position on Haiti’s move to charge Duvalier with corruption, theft and other crimes during his 15-year rule over the impoverished island nation, which is remembered as an especially violent and chaotic period in the country’s turbulent history. The White House, for its part, urged Duvalier to work with other Haitian politicians to begin resolving Haiti’s problems.
“Any political leader or any former political leader should focus not on him or herself but on making progress toward a set of important elections and dedicate their time and their energy to a reconstruction of the country,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Saying the United States was “surprised, not involved” in Duvalier’s return, Crowley said the former strongman’s fate was up to the Haitian judicial system.
Still, the State Department made no secret of its concern that Duvalier’s reappearance could throw fuel on the fire of Haiti’s combustible politics, already crackling with tension over the slow pace of post-earthquake reconstruction and the current political impasse.
“This is one more complication in an already challenging situation,” Crowley said. “We do not view this as being particularly useful at this time.”
Useful or not, Duvalier is clearly back in Haiti — leaving both bewildered Haitians and stumped Washington policymakers wondering what his next move will be.
“That’s a very good question,” Crowley said.
Photo credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz (Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier waves to crowd upon his return to Port-au-Prince)