By Vania Andre
Etzer Lalanne is not a man you’d expect should be nearly a millionaire. His large glasses hang over his small eyes, surrounded by bags and wrinkles – evidence of the hard long years of working as a cab driver in New York City.
More than 25 years ago, a Florida court awarded Lalanne – a Haitian refugee who was granted political asylum in the U.S. – $750,000 in a civil case against Jean Claude Duvalier, for the 10 months he spent as a political prisoner under the dictatorial regime in 1981.
Despite the victory, red tape and the crafty skills of lawyers and accountants prevented Lalanne, 62, from ever seeing a cent of his money. But, for the first time in more than 25 years, a dream that lay nearly dead for more than two decades, showed some signs of life with the passing of Duvalier on Oct. 3.
Even in death his wrongs have to be rectified, Lalanne said. His sentiments echoed that of thousands of Haitians who agree Duvalier’s passing does not wipe the slate clean for the stain he left in Haiti’s history. On Wednesday, reports surfaced the former dictator would not be receiving a state funeral on Saturday.
“After killing so many people, there’s no way you can honor that man with a state funeral,” Lalanne said. “There’s no way I could accept if he did.”
The former leader’s death reawakened questions of accountability and whether Lalanne, alongside thousands of others with grievances against the exiled despot, would finally be able to cash in their calls for justice.
“Lalanne has a legal right to revisit and pursue this case, the question is whether he has the practicality to do so,” said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). “It’s a matter of whether he can find the money and resources to fight this case.”
The likelihood that there’s any money left is very small, said Ira Kurzban, a Florida-based attorney that represented Lalanne, Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste , a Miami activist who passed away in 2009, and the Haitian people in the 1986 case that sought $504 million in damages from Duvalier.
Duvalier had an army of lawyers and accountants to hide his money, Concannon said. He was very open about how he stole public money and “did a good job of hiding it.”
International banking privacy laws worked in Duvalier’s favor, allowing them to carefully move the money to offshore accounts where his identity would be protected.
”They set up phony corporations or funds which had the ostensible purpose of economic development, such as the fund Michelle Bennett (Duvalier) set up for development of a children’s hospital in Haiti, which was used as a dummy account to collect money for the Duvaliers and their associates,” Kurzban said in an article after Lalanne was awarded the money. Bennett, who married Duvalier in 1980, divorced him shortly after they went into exile.
”They simply took for their own use international funds that were provided by the United States and international organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.”
“I came in 1991 and there was only a fraction of the money left, which U.S. courts recovered for education initiatives in Haiti,” said Kurzban, who attempted to collect the money awarded to Lalanne, but was blocked by Swiss courts who decided to turn the funds directly to the Haitian government.
Back to ‘86
Almost seven years had passed since Lalanne was arrested at the airport in Port-au-Prince for visiting exiled friends in the Dominican Republic. After a brief stay across the border, he was arrested upon his return and imprisoned for 10 months, where he endured months of “inhumane” torture.
“That’s all I did, “ he said. “There was never an explanation given to why I was arrested. They must have had spies in the Dominican Republic reporting back.”
It was now 1986 and at 32, he had been granted political asylum in the United States, beckoning the promise of a new beginning fortified in justice.
Backed by top lawyers, he and the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, of the Haitian Refugee Center, filed a suit seeking to freeze the dictator’s assets, and claim damages against him. Shortly after Duvalier fled, the new Haitian government worked with Switzerland in tracking any money Duvalier stole from public funds hidden in Switzerland. After several months, $6.5 million was found in a Swiss bank account of a Liechtenstein-based foundation, set up by Duvalier’s mother through a Panamanian company.
“Our goal is that he does not live in luxury with the money he stole from the Haitian people, “ said Niels Frenzen, a lawyer on the case.
At the time, Duvalier embezzled and misappropriated millions of Haiti’s public money while the small island nation was in dire straits economically. Ninety percent of the population lived off of less than $150 annually, according to court documents. Eighty percent of children under five years old were malnourished with nearly a third of Haitian children dying before they reached their sixth birthday. Duvalier quickly pocketed any money donated by international aid organizations. In one instance, Duvalier stole $20 million out of $22 million the International Monetary Fund granted to Haiti in December 1980.
While stealing money from a country crippled with extreme poverty, Duvalier spent the people’s money on lavish parties and expenses. It all came crashing to a stop however, when Duvalier was forced into exiled in February 1986.
Twenty-five years after going into exile, Duvalier returned to Haiti in 2011 in a futile attempt to claim the $6.5 million a Swiss court decided to return to the government, Concannon believes.
As for Lalanne, he’s a living testimony to a dark era of Haitian history that has not been forgotten, even with the passing of its leader.
“Little has changed in my opinion, “ he said, adding that the Martelly / Lamothe administration is reminiscent of the Duvalier regime in many ways. Nonetheless, “I feel great knowing that at least some of the money stolen from Haiti was given back to the country. I just hope that the government used if for the people,” he said.
Several of people have cases similar to Lalanne’s all over Haiti, Concannon said. They have the right to pursue this, regardless of how many steps it takes.
“All we can do is keep pushing to get through the justice system and see if at the end of the journey there’s any money left.”