A supporter of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier holds his photograph, January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Celano
Behind the cash register at O’Brasileiro in Pétionville, the wealthy town that lies above the wreckage of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, a peculiar item is wedged, hidden from the view of the diners and drinkers. It’s a color photograph of Jean-Claude Duvalier and his grown son, Nicolas, relaxing at a table not long after they returned from twenty-five years in French exile, with O’Brasileiro’s owner behind them, leaning proprietarily on the backs of their chairs. Everyone in the picture is beaming. Happy days, apparently.
Usually, such pictures hang on a restaurant’s wall. Not this one. This one—well, you have to know it’s there to have a chance to see it, and it is brought out by the staff reluctantly. One wonders what moment the restaurant’s owner is waiting for before he puts the picture on the wall. Or does he keep it where it is only so that when Duvalier himself stops by, it can be rushed into a place of honor? At any rate, the restaurant keeps this piece of history in reserve; yet simply having it is shameful.
This is what Duvalierism is for Haitians today. A piece of their history that might rise resurgent at any moment, but that for the time being must be kept under embarrassed wraps.
To most who know anything about the reign of the Duvalier dynasty, it came as a shock that Duvalier could ever have returned to Haiti. Many attributed such a crazy event to the topsy-turviness of post-earthquake Haiti. After all, including the deadly regime of his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, the Duvalier “governments” were responsible for an estimated 30,000 deaths over almost thirty years, their victims including professed enemies of their thuggish totalitarian rule as well as market ladies, street kids and perfectly average Haitians who somehow got in the way of the Duvaliers’ feared secret police, the Tontons Macoute, or the Haitian Army, which the regime controlled.
But, despite all the blood he and his father had shed, Baby Doc Duvalier did come back, a little more than a year ago. He returned unabashedly and with no apology to the Haitian people, and stood surrounded by his former henchmen on the balcony of Haiti’s most luxurious hotel, which took him in and provided security during his stay.
His return had nothing to do with the earthquake and everything to do with business as usual in Haiti.
Although quickly put under house arrest by the administration of then-president René Préval, Duvalier took advantage of Haiti’s lax enforcement to flit about the nighttime watering holes of the elite. He even managed to attend a few public events. Bill Clinton, United Nations special envoy to Haiti, shook Baby Doc’s hand recently for the cameras at a memorial service for the victims of the January 2010 earthquake.
Now that Haiti has a new president, the rehabilitation of Baby Doc is gaining speed and strength. Michel Martelly, a right-wing sympathizer who has included Duvalierists and family members of former Duvalier officials in his administration, has signaled a desire to look past the Duvalier days by pardoning Baby Doc for any human rights crimes he or his regime committed. In January the investigating judge on the Duvalier case recommended that Baby Doc be tried only on lesser charges of embezzlement.