Editor’s Note: This piece was initially published at Amy Wilentz’s website.
Jean-Claude Duvalier is dead. I never met him. I saw him just once, at the airport in Port-au-Prince, in the early morning hours of a day that then seemed fateful: February 7, 1986. He was driving up to a US cargo plane, and then heading into exile in France. His whole family was in the car with him. It was a brief moment. He whizzed by and was gone. The next day hundreds of thousands of Haitians came out into the streets of Port-au-Prince to celebrate.
But that was not the end of the affair, not by far. The effects of Duvalierism, as conceived by Jean-Claude’s father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier and continued by Jean-Claude, resonate to this day.
Papa Doc, who ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971, thought of himself as a Black Power leader. He used the ideas of noirisme on his rise to the presidency, and after. Yet he was not a liberationist or a man who believed in freedom, except as the idea of liberty suited his propaganda needs. He was a small-scale totalitarian: he created the feared Tontons Macoute, his secret police who stopped at nothing, and he hunted his enemies down and killed them like valueless animals. He executed people on suspicion of betrayal; trials were not necessary. He burnt down the homes of his enemies with their families boarded up inside. He disappeared children and brothers and mothers. He rounded up whole communities and had them killed. He plundered the country and allowed others who were in favor to plunder where they wished. Even his close associates were terrified of him.
Jean-Claude inherited this apparatus—secret police, corrupt ministers, frightened populace— when his father died. Baby Doc was 19. He had neither the wit nor the inclination to change the methods by which his father ruled; indeed, he profited from the corruption that surrounded him. Thousands more enemies were killed or fled during his fifteen years in power, while he lived in luxury amid a starving people. But too many were fleeing a wrecked economy, and eventually the United States government, which for years had adopted a permissive—if not cordial—attitude toward Duvalier, finally had had enough, and stepped in, and Baby Doc fell.
When the dynasty was entering its final weeks, I was a young journalist living in New York in a neighborhood where many Haitian exiles then lived. Every day, they would gather on street corners on the Upper Upper West Side of Manhattan to read the exile newspapers and debate the timing of Duvalier’s ouster. I listened to them and read their papers, too, and decided to go down to Haiti to cover the fall, and that’s how I ended up at the airport, watching him leave Haiti. He stayed away for twenty-five years.