Duvalier and Haiti’s Triple Threat

Duvalier and Haiti’s Triple Threat

Why was Baby Doc able to return after decades of exile and evade justice, despite his crimes?


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.

* * *

What led to this shocking situation?

Unfortunately for Haiti, there are three former presidents currently in-country against whom human rights charges could conceivably be brought. And Duvalier’s supporters are hoping that political considerations on behalf of the other two will protect their man from legal proceedings.

One of those presidents is the controversial Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first serious political figure to emerge after the fall of Duvalier. After a series of bloody-minded juntas and military governments finally gave way, Aristide, who had a huge following among Haiti’s urban poor, was elected in an internationally monitored popular landslide in 1990 and took office five years to the day after Baby Doc left the country. He was overthrown a few short months afterward but returned to power in 1994, with Clinton in the White House and supporting his comeback. Aristide later ran for a second term and served three years before being overthrown again and shipped off to South Africa.

In Haiti it was big news when Baby Doc came back, but Aristide’s second return, a little more than a month after Duvalier’s, was even bigger.

Now, however, the country is faced with what Aristide and his advisers must have realized would eventually become a paralyzing dilemma. As everyone in Haiti knows, Aristide’s enemies have, sometimes plausibly, attributed a series of assassinations and human rights violations to Aristide supporters or to his party or to his administration or even to the former president himself. It’s assumed that during the seven years of his South African exile, one thing that kept Aristide from returning to Haiti was fear of prosecution on such charges. He understands that his foes would love to see him arrested, jailed and brought before an unfriendly judiciary. Aristide’s former ally René Préval, who followed him into the presidency and served for two full terms, is also vulnerable to human rights charges, in particular for a prison massacre that took place on his watch.

Thus, impunity for Duvalier is, regrettably, good for Aristide and Préval, and this simple fact explains why so few Haitian voices have been raised to demand a trial for Duvalier. Aristide himself—a former Catholic priest who used to excoriate the Duvalier regime every Sunday from his shantytown pulpit—has been woefully silent on that subject (and on every other subject) since his return to Port-au-Prince.

Duvalier’s presence on the scene and the legal quandary he has created may explain what gave Aristide the final courage to return to Haiti even though he knew his enemies were gunning for him. It may also explain why Préval, who was president during the return of both his predecessors and who loses no love for either man, was willing to permit their stepping once more onto Haitian soil. The three former presidents, two of them fairly elected, together cover a great deal of the Haitian political spectrum. They are like the three cups in the county-fair shell game, with a serious human rights prosecution the elusive pea among them.

But there are other metaphors for the three men, metaphors understood instinctively by most Haitians. In Haitian vodou there is a triple god called Marassa Twa. The triplets, as they are known, are terrible gods to serve. They are childish; they throw tantrums. They are powerful and visionary. If a Haitian family has triplets, the children are considered strong and divinely touched. As with the marassa gods, each one of the triplets must be treated equally. If one is punished, all three must be punished in the same fashion. None can be favored; none can be singled out.

So while one might imagine that it’s Aristide who is hiding behind Duvalier’s impunity, it is equally true that Duvalier is crouching behind Aristide’s political strength and his consequent impunity. And it is also true that Préval, perhaps the least popular of the three former presidents, is hiding behind the impunity of both the men whose return to the island he permitted—permitted at a moment, it must be remembered, when Préval’s opponents were calling for human rights charges to be brought against him. In all likelihood, none of these figures will face a fair and proper trial, and that’s too bad, because certainly Duvalier ought to.

There is an obvious solution to the problem, though it’s not evident that Haiti can arrive at it within Duvalier’s lifetime (he’s 60 and is said to be ailing—though in the O’Brasileiro photograph he looks just fine). The solution is for Haiti, under President Martelly, to put in place a justice system that is not prey to corruption, which is to say, a justice system that would not submit to popular pressure to convict Duvalier, or simply bow to financial inducements to put Aristide or Préval in the dock—a judiciary, that is, that would follow the law to the letter.

Impunity is no good for democracy, and that’s because impunity is invariably the offshoot of a thoroughly corrupt justice system that will naturally tend to benefit one powerful criminal after another. A truly independent judiciary would allow Haiti to edge toward a future as a state that is responsive to and responsible for its people, not to the whim of a mob or to a riffled wad of cash from special interests. Without regularly and reasonably salaried judges who can come to their decisions in full personal security, Haiti will have great difficulty moving toward democracy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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