Duvalier 2.0? Rebranding Haiti's Former Dictator

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Ramon Espinosa / AP

Haiti's ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, center, gestures to supporters as police take him out of his hotel in Port-au-Prince

The former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has spoken. After spending almost 25 years in exile in France, the self-proclaimed "President for Life" returned suddenly and unexpectedly to Haiti on Jan. 16. Five days later, during his first appearance before the press, he proclaimed to a mob of journalists that he would like to participate in Haiti's reconstruction effort. "I decided to return to Haiti to commemorate with you, in our country, this sad anniversary. I was expecting all sorts of persecution," said Duvalier. "But believe me, the desire to participate with you in this collaboration for national reconstruction far exceeds the annoyances that I could be facing."

The 59-year-old Duvalier sat isolated in a thronelike chair and read from a prepared statement, resembling a faint memory of the 19-year-old who became the head of Haiti — and the youngest leader in the western hemisphere — after the death of his father François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. After delivering his remarks, Duvalier was quickly ushered up the staircase at the guesthouse in the Montagne Noir neighborhood where he is currently residing. Duvalier did not take any questions, but instead left the lion's den of reporters for his Haitian lawyer and his three newly appointed U.S. counselors, including former Congressman and 2008 Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr.

Fielding most of the reporters' questions was American attorney Ed Marger, who represented Haiti in the U.S. in the 1960s and who said Duvalier's father "told him [Jean-Claude Duvalier] if he ever had a problem with the United States to call me."

"Why is he back?" asked Marger. "There are millions of dollars available to the people of Haiti that have not come in because the donors of those monies, including the United States, have a problem with trust with the persons who are handling the funds."

Never mind that the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, headed by former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, already oversees the $10 billion pledged to Haiti for long-term aid. Regardless of that, Marger assured reporters, Duvalier would be an influential force worthy of aiding to manage those funds.

It sounds like a pipe dream to establish trust in a man whom Haitian authorities recently accused of corruption and embezzlement during his reign from 1971 to '86, including the allegation that he stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the national treasury before he fled the country on a U.S. chartered flight to France.

But rebranding Duvalier is part of his advisers' plan. Marger said he told the former dictator to "make sure to smile" at the end of the speech — an attempt to humanize the former strongman whose poor health has left him with a stiff neck that some observers have remarked as robotic.

Also, Marger added that part of this image change would involve claiming $6 million frozen in a Swiss bank account and donating the money to the reconstruction effort. Duvalier traveled to Haiti just before a Swiss law that could bar his access to at least $4.6 million takes effect on Feb. 1. To collect the funds, Duvalier will have to prove that Haitian authorities aren't interested in prosecuting him. Currently, however, there is an ongoing investigation seeking to prove his regime's corruption.

But Marger insisted that Duvalier's plan for the money is to help the reconstruction effort and not personal gain. Another Duvalier adviser, Barr, a former CIA agent who worked in Haiti in the 1970s, said they are hoping to tap into the base Duvalier has energized with his presence in Haiti. Although Barr said that Duvalier has no political ambitions, he drew a parallel between the pro-Duvalier momentum and that of the Tea Party movement in the U.S. He added that the downward course of the country has caused people to look to Duvalier for positive change. "He's not an organization," said Barr. "But from what I sense it's a lot of grass-roots support."

But where will this newfound spark lead the Haitian people? Barr said the movement isn't "programmed" and the direction for this course isn't always clear. Still, the energy on the streets about the return of Duvalier is palpable. After the press conference, dozens of Duvalier supporters cheered in the courtyard of the guesthouse. Duvalier appeared on the balcony and waved to the crowd, then retreated back inside.

Also, Duvalier's presence has brought about a re-emergence of former colonels and ministers from the Duvalier regime. They went to salute him with withered faces and aged bodies. Even a significant portion of the young population has a keen interest in the former dictator. Carlo Jean, 30, was 5 years old when Duvalier went into exile, but he says, "I used to hear stories of that time, and I can't compare it to anything we have now. He might have been taking money, but at least Duvalier was building the county."

But for those who have a far darker view, who remember the days of violence of the Tonton Macoutes (Haitian Creole for bogeyman), Duvalier offered an apology. "I also take this opportunity to express once more, my deep sadness to my compatriots who recognize, rightly, to have been victims under my government," he said.

A former dictator, apologizing — a start for what advisers hope will be a resurrection of a fallen leader.