Unrepentant 'Baby Doc' insists he brought Haiti democracy, not tyranny

Former dictator speaks out with claim he wants to rebuild country

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The Independent US

Combative and demonstrating an unconventional grasp of history, Haiti's former president Jean-Claude Duvalier has given his first major interview since returning home, saying he now intends to play the hard-working statesman, devoting his energy to rebuilding his shattered country.

The former dictator, who is still known to locals as "Baby Doc", used an interview with the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision to deny charges of corruption and human rights abuse that were filed against him by local prosecutors last month, following his unexpected arrival in Port-au-Prince.

He took issue with a suggestion that he had been a "tyrant", claiming instead to have been responsible for introducing democracy to the country. And he denied charges of having pilfered tens of millions of dollars from the Haitian public, including $6m (£3.7m) now sitting in a frozen Swiss bank account.

"In 25 years [of exile], I've never had a frozen account, either in Switzerland or elsewhere in the world," he said, claiming that the account in question belonged to a charitable foundation set up by his mother, Simone. "As soon as they release those funds, most of them will be used to rebuild the city of my mother's birth."

An earthquake in January 2010 devastated large parts of the country, killing thousands and leaving up to 1.8 million people homeless.

The cash is at the centre of some of the many corruption charges filed against Mr Duvalier, 59, shortly after he arrived Haiti, where he has taken up residence at one of the city's smartest remaining hotels. He is also facing allegations of systematic human rights abuse during his 15-year reign.

"When [people] talk to me about tyranny, it makes me laugh and gives me the impression that people suffer from amnesia," he said of his time in office, during which he kept order with the help of a sunglasses-wearing voodoo militia known locally as the Tontons Macoutes – literally "bogeymen".

The world had "forgotten the circumstances" under which he quit Haiti in 1986, Mr Duvalier claimed. "I left voluntarily, to avoid a major disaster and facilitate a peaceful outcome to the crisis. There was no revolution. I'm the one who initiated the democratic process."

Most historians remember things differently, however. Mr Duvalier succeeded to the presidency in 1971, following the death of his father François, known as "Papa Doc" and widely pegged as one of the 20th century's most extravagant dictators.

Jean-Claude, who was 19 at the time, was promptly christened "Baby Doc". During the ensuing 15 years of his reign, the Tontons Macoutes carried out an estimated 30,000 murders – roughly the same number they are accused of carrying out for his father. As Haiti became the Western world's poorest country, millions of dollars were siphoned from its economy by his regime. The independent media was closed down.

In 1986, "Baby Doc" left Port-au-Prince on a US Air Force jet, fleeing a popular uprising which had begun in the city's poorest slums. He was granted asylum in Paris, and for a time his family enjoyed the trappings of great wealth. However, in recent years, amid the tightening-up of Swiss banking laws, they have struggled to access funds.

Mr Duvalier suffered a rare moment of self-awareness during the interview when he told Univision that he had been insufficiently mature at the start of his presidency. However, he said his father had been "an excellent teacher" adding: "At his death, he left me with excellent collaborators."

Asked to describe the role of the Tontons Macoutes in his administration, he shook his head and instructed the interviewer to move to the next question.

The big unanswered question is perhaps why "Baby Doc" decided last month to return to Haiti. It has been suggested that he hoped to quietly pop in and out of the country to persuade Swiss banking authorities that he was not wanted for criminal activities. If that was the intention, the trip was an abject failure: no sooner did his return make headlines than prosecutors filed charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds against him.

Mr Duvalier refused to comment on the criminal case against him, saying: "I'll leave this to justice." As to why he had returned, he said: "I am currently in Haiti to help the Haitian people in their reconstruction."