Wealthy life slips away for Haiti's ex-dictator

September 21, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

VALLAURIS, France -- When Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was driven from power in Haiti eight years ago, he and his family slid into luxurious exile here on the sunny Cote d'Azur, the sort of place where an out-of-work dictator could spend a lifetime of accumulated wealth.

They had a hillside villa with gated privacy and sumptuous views of the Mediterranean Sea.

They ate at the best restaurants, where Mr. Duvalier's "passion for the table," as one chef put it, was appreciated almost as much as his ability to pick up the $1,000 checks for his entourage.

Of course, there also were private tennis lessons, drives through the Alps in the family Ferrari or BMW and expensive visits to the toniest shops in Paris and nearby Cannes.

But the free-spending days are gone now. Mr. Duvalier is, by all accounts, strapped for cash. His life is in shambles. And his spectacular fall is a warning to any of Haiti's outgoing leaders pondering a life of deluxe exile in France. No matter how strong their cultural ties with France, they won't be welcome here. And no matter how vast their cash reserve, it may not be enough.

Mr. Duvalier, the round-faced president who ran Haiti for 16 bloody years after the death of his notorious father, had managed to spirit more than $120 million out of the impoverished nation by the time he fled, lawyers say. Yet, these days, Mr. Duvalier runs from creditors, his assets frittered away, stolen by friends or entangled.

Kicked out of two Riviera villas in recent years for not paying his rent, he has landed in a crumbling stone house, sans sea view, in the hills above Cannes.

The phone has been cut off because of unpaid bills. Even though the former strongman reportedly does the gardening in lieu of rent, the yard grows wild, a blight on the otherwise well-manicured neighborhood.

Mr. Duvalier's wife, Michele, who once spent $600,000 in a single year on jewelry and Givenchy dresses in Paris, has divorced him. Now married to a Frenchman, she has taken their two children, Nicolas, 10, and Anya, 8, to live in a sea-front apartment in Cannes.

Mr. Duvalier now lives with his 82-year-old mother, widow of the former dictator, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Today, Jean-Claude Duvalier, 43, whom headline writers on the Riviera call "Bebe Doc," remains an embarrassment for the French and, to a large extent, a prisoner of his need for cash and his uncertain immigration status.

When he was driven from power Feb. 7, 1986 -- after hosting a Champagne farewell for his friends in the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince -- Mr. Duvalier arrived in France aboard a U.S. Air Force jet, with American assurances that he would stay no more than eight days.

It had taken the promise of exile in France to get Mr. Duvalier to agree to leave. France accepted him in hopes of preventing a blood bath in Haiti, but only on the condition that his stay be temporary.

Finding no country willing to take him, the French government ordered his expulsion and even tried to put the Duvalier family on a plane for New York. But France backed down when the United States said it would refuse to accept Mr. Duvalier but would continue searching for a more permanent place of exile.

A long list of countries refused. When Liberia, despite pressure from the United States, declined, the French gave up hope of getting rid of him. A French court eventually overturned the expulsion order, giving Mr. Duvalier temporary residence in this region. His request for refugee status was denied.

A year ago, facing two large lawsuits for unpaid rent, Mr. Duvalier was said to be contemplating a return to Haiti. He ran up a huge telephone bill -- still unpaid -- in pursuit of that goal, according to associates.

But in the end, he decided against a return and moved into his current villa, L'Hamadryade, owned by an English businessman.

The French Interior Ministry refuses to comment on Mr. Duvalier, whose situation differs little from the African despots who stole millions from former French colonies and have been welcomed here in the past. France's association with Haiti dates to 1697, when the island became a French possession. Haiti won independence in 1804.

The Duvalier family controlled Haiti for almost 30 years. When Francois Duvalier took control of the country in 1957, succeeding a military strongman, Jean-Claude was 6. The elder Duvalier established a dictatorship and ran a notorious secret police force known as the Ton-Ton Macoutes, who gunned down opponents of his regime; he turned the country into the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

Jean-Claude, meantime, went to law school in Haiti, and, upon the death of his father in 1971 became "president-for-life" at the age of 19.

At first, "Baby Doc," as he was derisively dubbed, made moves to ease repression in the country, releasing some political prisoners and receiving new American aid as a reward. But repression and corruption eventually returned.

Mr. Duvalier and his wife, Michele, who came from a prominent family, lived a lavish life style that stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the country. His taste for pornographic videos, fast cars and French Champagne, and her penchant for French dresses and expensive jewelry, bred broad resentment among Haiti's 6 million people.

In the mid-1980s, anti-government riots in the streets marked the beginning of the end of the Duvalier reign. At age 35, Mr. Duvalier fled to France.

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