White House Shrugs On Duvalier

The White House appears ambivalent about both the return of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to Haiti and the arrest of the controversial former President on charges of embezzling millions from the island nation.

More puzzling is the vague answer from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs as to what the U.S. would say about another deposed Haitian president if he makes good on his stated desire to come home to the earthquake-wracked Caribbean country.  Jean Bertrand Aristide, restored to power by the U.S. in 1994 and overthrown in ’04 amid widespread charges of corruption, has said he wants to return from exile in South Africa.

Aristide has long charged that the U.S. was responsible for his removal in ’04.

Asked at Tuesday’s White House briefing what was the Administration’s response to Duvalier arriving in Hawaii, Gibbs replied to ABC-TV correspondent Jake Tapper that “obviously, this is an important and crucial time for the people of Haiti.”

At that point, Gibbs and the correspondents learned from NBC-TV’s Chuck Todd that Duvalier had been placed under arrest by the current government in Port au Prince.

“I would mention that any political leader or any former political leader should focus not on him or herself,” Gibbs then said,”but on making progress towards a set of important elections and dedicate their time and their energy to the reconstruction of the country.”

Later, repeating that answer regarding Duvalier, I asked Gibbs if the same policy toward former leaders in Haiti applied to Aristide if he also came home.

“Look, again,” he told me, “I think we are in a period of obviously some uncertainty in Haiti.  Current or former political actors and their supporters should be focused on not what is best for them but what is best for the people of Haiti.  And that goes for anybody, either, as I said, in power or formerly in power — that, first and foremost, we should be thinking about peace, we should be thinking about prosperity and we should be thinking about what’s in the best interest of the people of Haiti as they continue to deal with, more than a year later, the impacts of a devastating earthquake.”

When I asked if that meant the Administration had no problem with Duvalier or Aristide returning if they met that criteria, Gibbs said “[I]t’s not for me to divine who travels where on a Haitian passport.”  

At that point, NBC’s Todd said he was confused and asked Gibbs to “claifty the Haitian thing.”

My colleagues would surely agree that Gibbs did not do this.

“Obviously for somebody to come into the country of Haiti requires a passport for the country of Haiti,” he told us, “and I’m not going to get into that.  And I’m not going to get into particularly diplomatic developments that have happened while I’m standing up here.  Mine was a broader answer to, whether it is Duvalier or anybody else — again, whether in power or out, coming into the country in a time of uncertainty, it is important that we focus on peace and we focus on the people of Haiti.”

Go figure.