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How Will Duvalier’s Return Impact Haiti’s Turmoil?

January 17, 2011 at 5:24 PM EDT
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Gwen Ifill talks to NPR's Jason Beaubien in Port-au-Prince about the possible implications of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's surprise return to the country.
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GWEN IFILL : For more on the situation in Haiti tonight, we turn to NPR’s Jason Beaubien, who joins us by telephone from Port-au-Prince.

Jason, this is quite a remarkable development, a turnaround. Do we know any reason tonight why really Jean-Claude Duvalier came back?

JASON BEAUBIEN, National Public Radio: We really don’t.

Everyone today was expecting that Jean-Claude Duvalier was going to give a press conference. One of his aides came out and basically said that there wasn’t a big enough room at the hotel. It was really quite strange, because, clearly, they could have just done it out front. It seems like a little bit of a stall really in terms of providing information about why he’s here. His people officially are saying that he’s back as a private citizen. He’s here, they say, to help with the reconstruction.

But, clearly, the timing of this is incredibly strange. I mean, that is sort of the biggest shocker of this. In the midst of a political crisis, to have such a powerful person in Haitian history, in — in recent Haitian history, return, someone who is so controversial — some people absolutely love him. Other people make out that he’s practically the devil. So, it’s an incredibly polarizing figure to have come back at a time that the country is trying to figure out who is going to be the next president.

GWEN IFILL: You’re right, but it — it seems that there were people at the airport to greet him. There were cameras that recorded his arrival. Was it that much of a surprise that he came back?

JASON BEAUBIEN: It really was a surprise. There were all those people at the airport because the word went out on the radio that he was on a plane. At first, it just seemed like rumors that he was coming on this Air France jet. But the — the word got out. And it was on the local radio. And people just rushed down there.

And so those people that were there were very much his supporters. But even amongst the elite, when you talk to sort of the social elite, politically elite here, people were really surprised. Clearly, the upper levels of the Haitian government knew this was going on. He was traveling on a Haitian diplomatic passport, so, clearly, the upper levels of the Haitian government knew.

But it really seems like just about everybody else, this was the last thing in the world that they expected to happen to a country that is trying to deal with this earthquake, trying to deal with the cholera epidemic, trying to just figure out how this presidential election is going to move forward in the next phase. People were really quite surprised and shocked to hear that — that Baby Doc was returning.

GWEN IFILL: Given what we know about his history and the unprosecuted crimes he’s accused of, where was he? And what happens now that he’s back? Is he subject to still being pursued or prosecuted?

JASON BEAUBIEN: That’s one of the big open questions at the moment. He’s staying at one of the very nice hotels in Petionville, a suburb just on the side of Port-au-Prince here. He was given a police escort. It’s clear that he’s being welcomed by the state here.

At the same time, human rights groups are calling for him to be prosecuted, for him to stand charges for the crimes that were committed by his regime. It’s completely unclear at this point what is going to happen with that, whether there will be an attempt to bring charges against him or not.

GWEN IFILL: He looked kind of frail in the photographs that we saw. Do we know anything about the state of his health?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Well, we really don’t. And — and that’s one of the reasons that it would have been nice to actually see him in a press conference, get a better of sense of what’s really going on. There are all kinds of rumors going around. Some people are saying he’s gravely ill. Other people are denying that.

Everyone is just reading the tea leaves at the moment, because he hasn’t come out — come out and given a statement and really addressed why he’s here, what are you doing here, and sort of where things are going to go in the future, whether he’s planning to jump into politics, whether he’s going to be, you know, as he says, just a private citizen visiting for a few days.

Most people don’t seem to believe that. They believe that he’s come back and he’s going to be here to stay. And there’s the big question, what role is he going he play in Haitian politics, or even what — what could happen to him himself? There are people who — whose families were — were killed, they say, by his regime, people who were tortured. And the question is, will people attempt to — to bring him before justice?

GWEN IFILL: Jason, how much closer — this political standoff that’s been going on, have there been any developments? Is it moving any closer to resolution?

JASON BEAUBIEN: It does feel like it’s moving closer to resolution. The Organization of American States came out with a recommendation that Madam Manigat and Michel Martelly should be in the runoff, which was a change from what the Haitian government, the Haitian electoral commission originally said.

So, that — that report has gone to President Preval. We expect that we are going to get some sort of statement from him on whether or not he is going to accept that. But the second round of the runoff was supposed to be yesterday. And that just — that just didn’t happen. It’s been postponed, as you said, indefinitely. So, this could get dragged out for, you know, weeks. We really don’t know.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Jason Beaubien, it’s good to talk to you down there on the scene. We will be in touch. Thanks.

JASON BEAUBIEN: It’s good to talk to you, Gwen.