Tapped-Out Tyrant

updated 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MONEY WORRIES PLAGUE THE best of people—and the worst. Consider Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Little more than eight years ago, he and his wife, Michèle, fled Haiti under siege and settled into luxurious exile on the French Riviera with a fortune of at least $120 million pilfered from his impoverished homeland. Today the once-feared president-for-life is up to his sideburns in debt and is crying poverty.

Owing almost $100,000 in back rent and damages, Duvalier was evicted in February from the $9,250-a-month villa in the hillside village of Vallauris, where he had been living since 1990. His new five-room home is on the same street but, at $1,850 a month (he had to put down six months rent in advance), many notches downscale. Divorced from Michèle since 1990, he now shares the living quarters with his widowed mother, Simone, 80, and five dogs. It's bad enough for Duvalier, who once ruled from a gleaming white presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, that his latest residence has no view of the region's majestic coastline. Even worse, he is without a telephone. Last spring, France Telecom cut off Duvalier's service because he owed $14,800. Now he drives his rented 1994 Opel Corsa to his Italian mistress's home to use her phone and fax. "I don't have any comment on my financial situation," he told PEOPLE as he stepped from his car after one recent outing. "Besides," he added with imperious good manners, "it's not polite to discuss money."

Nor would it be very prudent. Having squandered millions in lavish living and after reportedly signing over a substantial amount in a divorce settlement with his infamously extravagant ex-wife, Duvalier cannot touch much of what's left. (Michèle, now 43, lives in Paris with the couple's two children, Francois-Nicholas, 12, and Anya, 9.) Many of the millions he had stashed in Swiss and other foreign bank accounts remain unavailable to him pending the outcome of lawsuits filed by the Haitian government. And Duvalier's assets, including a yacht in Miami and four Manhattan apartments, among them a $2.5 million condo in Trump Tower, have been frozen by the U.S. government since 1987. No longer able to afford the armed guards he once kept on his payroll, the former dictator leads a reclusive existence, knowing that he is open to retribution for crimes committed during a 29-year reign of terror that began when his father, Dr. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, rose to power in 1957. Now 42, graying slightly and much trimmer than he was in his days of brutal glory, Duvalier looks almost svelte as he pauses briefly before entering his small, fenced-in house. "The situation in Haiti is so explosive," he says. "I love my country and want to go back. But it's not really a question of being president again. I just want to go back because I love my people."

Few in his homeland return the feeling. After a brief flirtation with democracy that followed Duvalier's 1986 ouster, Haiti is once again being ruled by repression and fear. That has led to the threat of armed invasion by U.S. forces hoping to restore democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Though Duvalier is much reviled by supporters of Aristide, who was himself ousted in a 1991 coup, a small group of Haitians still want Baby Doc back.

But even if Duvalier's somewhat naive hope of returning to Haiti could be realized, there are those who wonder if he could afford the plane fare. "Duvalier has no more money at all," says Cannes lawyer Olivier Giry, one of the deposed despot's many creditors. While Duvalier's own longtime lawyer, Paris-based Sauveur Vaisse, disagrees—"I wouldn't say his situation is desperate," Vaisse says—Giry insists that Duvalier's coffers are drained, thanks in part to his own self-indulgent lifestyle. "He lost all his money on girls, restaurants, houses and cars," says Giry. "He used to receive bundles of cash from Switzerland at the beginning of each month. But the money would always disappear by the middle of the month."

Nawed Zuberi, the last remaining member of a postexile entourage that once numbered more than 20, says Duvalier now depends on handouts from friends and family, including two sisters living in Miami, to make ends meet. "The problem is he lets everyone profit from him," Zuberi says, "because he's a little slow."

Never known for his brain power, Jean-Claude was called Baskethead in school, where he regularly finished at the bottom of his class. In 1971 when Jean-Claude was 19, his father died, and he inherited the title of president-for-life. But Baby Doc reportedly left most of the governing to his mother and then, after his marriage, to his wife, the half-English, half-Haitian daughter of a wealthy coffee merchant whom he wed in a $3 million ceremony in 1980. (The 1984 Guinness Book of World Records ranked it as the most expensive ever.) Michèle would spend $50,000 a month to fly flowers from Miami to Haiti, kept her furs in a refrigerated home vault and bought dozens of pairs of $500 shoes during Manhattan shopping sprees. Said a former government official: "She didn't think of her country as anything except a cookie jar."

The Duvaliers continued indulging themselves after they were flown out of Haiti aboard a U.S. C-141 cargo jet in February 1986 and granted asylum in France. Even in exile, Michèle kept detailed accounts of her shopping trips, including a spree in Paris to spend $455,000 on jewelry at Boucheron and $180,000 on dresses at Givenchy.

Nowadays, Duvalier can only dream about such wealth. When his children came for a brief visit recently, the servant, Zuberi, had to borrow money from a friend. "Duvalier doesn't even have enough to buy dinner for his children," Zuberi says.

Though an uncertain future awaits him, Duvalier is content to play the part of the recluse. He has refused all requests for formal interviews until, as he puts it, "the situation in Haiti is resolved," and he stirs little outrage or sympathy among the village's 28,000 inhabitants. "He lives very quietly," says a neighbor. "There are no noises, no parties and no problems. But I can't say I'm proud or happy to have him here."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
JOEL STRATTE-MCCLURE in Vallauris

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