Right in the middle of the misery and deprivation visited upon the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake comes a wholly amazing ruling by a Swiss court. The ruling relates to a sizeable sum of money, $4.6m to be precise. And the question before the Schweizer Bundesgericht (Swiss Federal Court) was whether the money belonged to Mr Jean-Claude Duvalier, or to the government and people of Haiti. And although the judgement is slightly opaque, the Swiss court appears to have decided that it does not belong to the Haiti government, and therefore by default it does belong to Mr Duvalier.
So who then is our Mr Duvalier? None other than the infamous ‘Baby Doc‘, former dictator of Haiti. Jean-Claude is the son of the late (and wholly unlamented) François Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1956 to 1971. Having before this time run a disease eradication programme in Haiti, François had been nicknamed ‘Papa Doc’, a name that stuck. He was elected President, but soon grabbed absolute power and initiated a reign of terror, which was underpinned by his secret police, the notorious Tonton Macoutes. He also actively used voodoo cults to subjugate the population. He died in 1971 and was succeeded by Jean-Claude.
Our Jean-Claude was nicknamed ‘Bébé Doc‘, or ‘Baby Doc’. At first he attempted some half-hearted reforms, but in reality his heart was only in his dedicated life as a playboy, and his rule was given over to facilitating that life. In this way he took over the country’s tobacco industry and other businesses and siphoned off very considerable sums of money for his own personal enjoyment. In 1986 his rule came to an end after a papal visit in which Pope John Paul II criticised his régime, which was followed by pressure from the US Reagan administration for his departure. He left Haiti and has, according to most accounts, lived a relative life of luxury in France ever since.
When he left office his assets in Switzerland were frozen, and over the past year or two the Haiti government has been trying to have it returned to the country, on the no doubt reasonable assumption that it had been stolen from Haiti anyway. The Swiss government was giving this plan some support until it was stopped by the Federal Court. There is now some speculation that the government will introduce legislation to allow the funds to be transferred to Haiti, and for now the money remains frozen.
There are too many countries in the world – particularly the developing world – that have been ruled as a kleptocracy, where rulers rule until such time as they have stripped all the country’s assets, and they then retire to somewhere congenial where they live on the wealth they have stolen. Zaire (now Congo) and the Cenbtral African Republic are examples, as was Haiti under the Duvaliers. Such conduct needs to be discouraged, and one way of doing that is to ensure that these ill-gotten gains are never accepted as the property of these dictators.
Goodness knows, Haiti needs a break. It should get this money without any further questions.