When Haiti’s President-for-Life JeanClaude Duvalier fled to France in 1986, he left a nation plagued by poverty and dependent on aid. Like many dictators, Duvalier had illicitly amassed vast personal wealth—conservatively estimated at $300 million—during his time in power. Amid reports that suitcases of gold and currency traveled with him on the C-171 cargo plane taking him into exile, Haiti’s treasury was revealed to be virtually empty. For his cash-strapped successors in the Haitian government, recovering the assets that the President-for-Life had squirreled away in various foreign nations became a matter of necessity.
In Europe and the Americas, private investigators and lawyers were hired to chase promising leads on Duvalier’s assets. But despite some initial success in recovering assets held in New York, these efforts came to a grinding halt when Haitian politics shifted and Duvalier allies returned to power. A letter from Haiti’s outside counsel to then-Haitian Prime Minister Prosper Avril in 1989 bluntly described the change:
"The behavior of your ministers leaves us no alternative except to conclude that [they] apparently want our efforts on behalf of Haiti to fail, are not concerned that Haiti will lose the substantial investment it has made in pursuing the Duvaliers, and want the Duvaliers to keep the money they stole."
For almost two decades, Haiti’s recovery efforts against Duvalier were at an impasse, until President René Préval took a unique step forward in 2007. To complete the recovery of $5.4 million of Duvalier assets still frozen in Switzerland, Haiti formed a link with the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR)—launched in September of that year by the World Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
With a mandate to facilitate cooperation on recovering corruptly acquired assets, a StAR team traveled to Haiti to provide technical assistance to Haitian authorities. At the same time, World Bank officials worked with Swiss officials and lawyers to further efforts to bring the Duvalier case to conclusion. Using the combined reputational weight and technical abilities of its founding organizations, StAR helped restart cooperation between the governments of Haiti and Switzerland.
Mark V. Vlasic is the former head of operations of the StAR Initiative. He is now an adjunct professor of law and a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC.
Gregory Cooper is a Fulbright scholar and student at the University of Texas School of Law.