How about “president for life” Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier landing unannounced back in Haiti 25 years after he fled to exile in France? Was that ever a sad, dumb move? Jean-Claude, now almost 60 years old, a dictator without a country, wandered around Port au Prince eyeing the destruction and meeting with a slim trickle of old supporters for one day, mumbling in his soft voice to reporters that, “I just came to help,” before he was arrested by authorities and charged with extortion and embezzlement.
He is now out on bond in Haiti, prevented from leaving the country, and living in a borrowed guesthouse with his girl friend waiting to find out about more charges and what might be done with him.
Some quick background: The round-faced, dim-witted Duvalier inherited the entire country and all of its people in 1971 on the death of his father the Voodoo practicing physician Francois “Papa Doc.” Duvalier.
Papa Doc had been popularly elected in 1957 when he ran on a Black Nationalist platform. Born in Port au Prince, he was a graduate (in public health) of the University of Michigan and had become the public health director of Haiti, a country plagued by disease as well as illiteracy. Until his death in office, Papa Doc ran a murderous regime that killed more than 30,000 Haitians and drove thousands of professional people of mixed race from the island, quite similar to what happened in Cuba under Castro around the same time but without the pretense of Communism to hide the dictatorship.
Jean-Claude was 19 when Papa Doc assumed room temperature. Baby Doc didn’t want the job. He much preferred to read comics, eat Ho Ho’s, watch TV, buy exotic cars and fool around with girls. He tried to get his older sister Maria-Denise to take the title but she refused, and then his mother Simone, known –no surprises here, as “Mama Doc” but she wouldn’t do it either. Mama was a tough cookie, like her murderous husband she was a Voodoo practitioner, but she wanted to stay as First Lady and so she forced her son to take the public lead.
Jean-Claude made a few whispery speeches after inauguration as “president for life”, and instituted some minor reforms, but decision-making (with a puppet parliament) went to an inside coterie of his father’s friends, the “dinosaurs,” who worked in concert with Mama Doc and then later with Jean-Claude’s new wife, Michelle.
Jean-Claude’s marriage to the beautiful Michelle Bennett Pasquet in 1980 caused him no end of problems. Michelle was a 30-year old divorce with two kids. She had been married to the son of a Captain Pasquet who led a failed coup against Papa Doc years before and had come to a predictably grizzly end for his troubles. Her family, the Bennett’s, were well known in Haiti and engaged in shady businesses. (They expanded their economic reach after the marriage, acquiring a BMW dealership, coffee and cocoa export companies, the airline Air Haiti, and a drug smuggling operation that put Michelle’s brother in prison in Puerto Rico in 1983.)
Baby Doc’s largest problem was that Michelle was mulatto. Though Mama Doc was of mixed race herself her husband had aligned himself solidly with the black lower class against the mulatto ruling elites. Clever Michelle was hated by Mama Doc for the political problem of her skin color and because she pushed her mother-in-law sideways from power by becoming a publicity -prone First Lady after her $3 million taxpayer funded wedding extravaganza to the dopey Jean-Claude.
Michelle began attending cabinet meetings. She became famous for remonstrating with government ministers while her husband slumbered slack-mouthed and drooling at the head of the conference table. Tales about the couple’s behavior, Jean-Claude’s passivity, Michelle’s aggression, the Bennett family’s rapacity, and the presidential couple’s mutual profligate spending traveled like a drum beat around the island.
The president’s palace in Port au Prince, more than twice as large as the US White House, was the scene of lavish entertaining, sometimes costume parties. At one of them, Baby Doc dressed himself as a Turkish pasha. At dinner, in a mauve turban and robes, he rose, his moon face shining, in front of live TV cameras and handed a door prize to one of his light-skinned guests of a bag of jewels worth $10,000 –a value which he pointed out.
For the amusement and edification of the Haitian black underclass Michelle had had television screens set up in a nearby Port au Prince park so the homeless people there could watch the televised festivities in the palace ballroom; mounds of rich and lavish food, wild dancing, drunken gaiety. That night thousands of poor Haitians, many of them underfed and homeless, watched that costume ball and their moronic president, done-up like a Turkish pastry doing the Frug with his beautiful but nasty wife. This was not a good career move.
The first uprisings against Baby Doc and Michelle started in 1983, not long after a visit to the country by Pope John Paul 2nd, who said, looking around at the miserable conditions, “things must change here.”
The Duvalier’s reacted by firing some ministers, shutting down independent radio stations and cracking down on demonstrations and troublesome gatherings with police and soldiers, not just on the streets, but in private homes.
Open rebellion slowly built and in 1986, Michelle, Jean-Claude and their family fled the country for France. I was at the Voice of America then. We immediately leased a small and popular AM radio station in Port au Prince and started doing the news from Washington sung in Creole, rhymed and set to rap music, which appealed greatly to the masses of Haitians, hungry for information during a time of national crisis.
After a week in Paris, Jean-Claude rented an expensive villa in the town of Mougins in the south of France, a ten-minute drive from Cannes. Mougins was an unpublicized watering hole favored by European nabobs (Winston Churchill often vacationed there. Picasso lived his last dozen years in Mougins.)
Soon French police raided the Duvalier house looking for evidence of official corruption back in Haiti. They didn’t seem to find any, at least none that I know of, but they did catch Michele trying to flush receipts for recent purchases in Paris down the toilet. In one week she had spent $168,780 for clothes at Givenchy, $270,200 for jewelery at Boucheron, two saddles for the children’s horses at Hermes for $9,752.00 and $67,500 for a clock she liked at an antique shop. The couple had spent $13,000 on rooms and food that same week at a Paris hotel. This was all 25 years ago when the dollar was worth three times or more what it is today.
My wife and I saw Baby Doc, Michelle and Mama Doc later that year. Patricia and I and our two boys and some friends from La Jolla were staying at Auberge du Pere Bise on Lac Annacy, a beautiful lake in Talloire, France for a week before we dropped the boys in Switzerland for summer school.
Du Pere Bise, a tiny four-star restaurant busy since the turn of the previous century, was well known in Europe. Jean Claude, his mother and his wife were staying at Auberge as well. We saw them occasionally at dinner. Jean-Claude was famous then but one benefit of small and very expensive inns like that is the privacy, no pictures, no autographs, and no approaches by strangers. I never saw any other guest speak to them.
The last I saw the ex-president, pudgy in a powder blue summer blazer and tie, puffing on a cigarette at their table, his mother was wiping what appeared to be fois gras from his cheek with a napkin while his wife looked out the window to the lake.
Michelle and Jean-Claude underwent a nasty divorce in 1990 after he said he caught her Honking the Bobo, as the Creoles say, with another man. She walked away with a generous financial settlement, remarried, and still lives in Europe
Mama Doc died in 1997 while she was living, as the press describes it “in modest circumstances” in a Paris suburb with Jean Claude and his girlfriend Veronique Ray, a granddaughter of the former president of Haiti Paul Mosloire, who preceded Papa Doc as ruler.
Jean-Claude, who has never worked, says that he is broke. His name (or maybe it’s his number) Is on a $6-million account in a bank in Switzerland but it has been frozen for years by claims from the Haitian government and he can’t get it.
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