Haiti rumors fly as ex-dictator stays mum

January 18, 2011 7:25:19 AM PST
From a posh hotel room, Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has been greeting old friends but is giving no public insight into why he suddenly returned to the country he fled a generation ago.

In contrast to the mass uprising that drove him from power, calm prevailed Tuesday at the hotel where Duvalier stayed, with only a few police and security guards. A U.N. official suggested the former strongman's arrival could make it easier to charge him with atrocities committed during his term in office. But there was no sign officials had any plans to drag him before a court - or that they were even sure what he was doing in the country.

Duvalier's trip prompted Haitian radio to speculate an even more disruptive event was at hand: a return by the man who helped topple him, ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been in South African exile since 2004 and who still has strong support throughout a country struggling with an electoral crisis.

Local radio stations have repeatedly reported rumors that Aristide was headed for Panama or Cuba, en route to Port-au-Prince. There was no immediate indication those reports were true and there was no response to requests for comment from Aristide's office in South Africa.

Aristide's attorney in Miami, Ira Kurzban, said the ousted former president, who remains popular in Haiti, wants to come back to his homeland.

"President Aristide has said he desires to return to his country. His position is that he's always had a right to his return," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was compelled to say in a Twitter post that "We are not aware of any plans for former President Aristide to travel to Haiti."

Historian Georges Michel said such an occurrence would overshadow Baby Doc's return.

"You have some people excited, but you have not seen big excitement in the streets like when (singer) Wyclef (Jean) arrived or if Aristide would return from his exile," he said.

Another theory: President Rene Preval was behind Duvalier's return to create a distraction from the problematic presidential election in which Preval's chosen candidate is deadlocked against a popular carnival singer for a position in the second round, which was supposed to take place the day Baby Doc arrived.

"They say on the streets that Preval created a diversion to divert the attention" from the rival candidates in that race, Michel said, but he added that he doubted it would work.

"I can predict that the people will not forget their vote," he said. If an acceptable second round doesn't happen, "They will take to the streets and demand the immediate departure of Preval."

Yet another question many ask here: Why hasn't Duvalier been arrested, given Preval's past statements that he would be prosecuted for crimes against the Haitian people if he ever returned.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said an arrest is unlikely anytime soon. "We want to be a government that respects the law and to arrest somebody you have to have a judiciary process," he said.

Even so, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Tuesday that Duvalier's return increases the chance that he could be charged with atrocities committed during his 15-year rule because it will be easier to bring charges in the country where the crimes occurred.

He cautioned, though, that Haiti's fragile judicial system may be in no position to mount a case.

Others are insistent. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the generally Aristide-favoring Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti have said there is ample evidence and legal action to arrest him during his stay.

At the moment, at least, there are no pending charges against the former dictator. In fact, National Police for a time guarded him at the upscale Hotel Karibe before withdrawing, leaving security to hotel guards and a few U.N. peacekeepers stationed outside.

Few clues came from inside the refurbished Karibe, a new building that was badly damaged and then repaired after the earthquake. Old allies of the regime in suits and dress shirts filed into the balcony-ringed lobby, taking the elevator to and from Duvalier's room on Monday.

Henry Robert Sterlin, a former ambassador who said he was speaking on behalf of Duvalier, portrayed the 59-year-old ex-dictator as merely a concerned elder statesmen who wanted to see the effects of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake on his homeland.

"He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," Sterlin said. "He wanted to come back to see how is the actual Haitian situation of the people and the country."