Published in Foreign Policy
Perhaps the best way to understand former Haitian dictator and would-be president-for-life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s quixotic return to his homeland after 25 years in exile in France is through William Faulkner’s classic observation that “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
What better proof than the stunning spectacle of the once porky, now gaunt 59-year-old shuffling from the airport after a perfunctory meeting with the cooperative immigration officials who accepted his expired diplomatic passport, and the police convoy that protected him on his route to his luxurious Karibe Hotel in a Port-au-Prince suburb, where he stood on the balcony and waved regally to beaming supporters and bemused journalists? A quarter-century earlier, this man had fled Haiti under military guard, reviled by his people and a pariah to the international community.
But Duvalier left behind Duvalierism, a system of government too profoundly entrenched to truly eradicate. And it’s Duvalierism, with or without its figurehead, that explains, among other tragedies, the near paralysis of the René Préval government’s response to the 2010 earthquake that killed nearly 300,000, decimated the civil service, smashed buildings, and obliterated the landscape. More recently, it explains the government’s attempt to pervert the electoral process by engineering the victory of Jude Celestin, Préval’s protégé.
Papa Doc Duvalier, Jean-Claude’s father, was a workaholic dictator who micromanaged every aspect of his country’s life. He ruthlessly eliminated opponents, imprisoning, torturing, and killing — driving hundreds of thousands into foreign exile. Because he distrusted and feared the army, he emasculated its leadership, unified the services under his personal direction and authority as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and created an elite presidential guard who depended for their jobs and lives on their absolute loyalty to him.
To secure and control the nation, Duvalier developed an armed civilian militia widely known as the Tonton Macoutes, the bogeymen of Haitian folk belief who prowled at night in search of bad little boys and girls. The goon squad or secret police had been part of Haitian society since the slave patrols. Duvalier’s genius lay in how he designed their hierarchical structure, chose their (usually humble) social origins, and included priests (voodoon and Christian) and rural section chiefs who ruled their fiefdoms with iron fists and reported personally to him any subversive activity or even thought.
Under Duvalierism, environmental degradation went unchecked. Poor farmers chopped down trees to make the charcoal that was their cooking fuel, and deforestation and eroding soil hastened the loss of fertile topsoil and led to both drought and flooding. Throughout Haiti, rivers ran brown, riverbeds emptied, wells ran dry.
Duvalierism fed on the people’s poverty, which he showcased to the international world to attract aid and loans that rarely reached their intended beneficiaries. The chosen few — Duvalierist officials, friends, loyalists, and the cautious, sometimes persecuted, and often complicit elite — reaped the rewards of the corruption at the heart of Duvalierism. Other Haitians survived, and increasingly, the rural population relocated from the hungry countryside to the possibilities of bustling cities.
In 1971, after Papa Doc died in his bed, 19-year-old playboy Jean-Claude inherited his father’s legacy and Haiti’s presidency-for-life. He delegated its management to family friends and, as he grew older, his own friends. His kleptomania fueled increasingly brazen thefts of state funds, millions spent on lavish living, millions more stashed in foreign bank accounts. (Of the estimated $300 million to $900 million stolen during his regime, only $5.9 million remains. Had the earthquake happened on Jan. 13, 2010, that money would have been Duvalier’s; on Jan. 12, hours before the disaster, Switzerland’s highest court ruled that the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes had expired. The Swiss government raced into action, freezing the money, which may yet be returned to Haiti.)
Jean-Claude also encouraged the development of industrial parks where foreigners could operate assembly industries such as textiles, baseballs, and electronics. This accelerated a steady migration into the cities, where the growing population was jampacked into shoddy housing in urban slums built with no infrastructure and condemned to a perpetual search for water, food, fuel, transportation, medical care, and employment. The corruption that permeated the Haitian state extended to the construction industry, which ignored building codes and bribed inspectors who overlooked flawed structures that would later crumble in the earthquake.
By the time he was forced to flee in 1986 under U.S. pressure amid uprisings throughout Haiti, Jean-Claude’s Duvalierism had bankrupted the Haitian state and enshrined corruption and incompetence in the government and civil service. Subsequent leaders, notably the democratically elected and initially wildly popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide, struggled against their toxic legacy, mostly unsuccessfully. In January 2010, the consequences of those failures kept alive the past that isn’t yet past, which is why an extraordinarily high number of Haitians were killed, injured, and made homeless — a mortality rate worsened by destroyed roads, impenetrable congestion, leadership paralysis, and foreign aid that created blockages and confusion as well as salvage and succor.
And then, on Jan. 17, 2011, Air France disgorged the disgraced ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier onto Haitian soil, and here’s where Faulkner comes in, because hundreds of Haitians cheered Duvalier. One man (surely paid for his services) inexplicably held a teddy bear aloft. And residents of tentcamps and other Haitians, and even members of the diaspora, surprised journalists by reminding them that under the Duvaliers you could walk safely through the streets, things were not so expensive, and in Papa Doc’s day, medical care was free. Perhaps Jean-Claude might just be “the breath of fresh air” everyone longed for, the man who could guide — make that replace! — the unloved politicians they blame for Haiti’s current conditions of misery and suffering.
What explains this surprisingly ambivalent reaction to a brutal dictator back in their midst? Let’s look at Haiti’s demographics. Well over half of its population, mean age 20.2 years, never lived under either Duvalier. In the turmoil of presidencies, military interventions, earthquake, and cholera, the Duvaliers are little more than murky memories recalled by family and friends, and by the country’s ubiquitous radio talk shows. What they hear now is that Duvalier fell onto his knees to kiss Haitian soil and, being “deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake,” has come home to help. (Let’s not forget that in France, taxi drivers and other expatriate Haitians support the never-employed Duvalier in a modest apartment.)
But this nostalgia is not ubiquitous. A large contingent of Haitians remains committed to Aristide and his shattered dreams. Others place their hopes in other leaders or are too beaten down to care. Some, like Canada’s former governor general, Michaëlle Jean, whose family fled Papa Doc’s Haiti after her father was tortured, are horrified at Jean-Claude’s return. Jean-Claude Bajeux, a pro-democracy activist exiled under Papa Doc, recalls: “[Y]ou had no way to defend yourself in court, no protection, and you could be killed any time if the president decided it was convenient, or take your wife or your husband and all your property.”
And so why has Duvalier come back? First, he is more nostalgic than anyone for the past and is personally deluded enough to dream that the disorganized Party for National Unity, Papa Doc’s resuscitated old party, may lead him back to the collapsed National Palace. Over the years, he has made no secret of his desire to lead Haiti again, so that he can rectify the misdeeds — he hints darkly at misuse of international funds — of his successors. Secondly, he apparently believes that he committed no crimes and dismisses the possibility of being successfully prosecuted. Lastly, his physical degeneration has sparked persistent rumors that he is terminally ill and has come home to die.
The larger question is why the Préval government permitted, indeed facilitated his return. Was it to thumb its collective nose at the international community that has just rejected the recent electoral results? Was it to curry favor with the Duvalierist forces Préval had long fought against? Is it some sort of charade to warn away Jean-Bertrand Aristide — still in exile in South Africa — whose return would have so much more legitimacy than Duvalier’s?
On his second day home, the police politely escorted Jean-Claude to the courthouse where he was charged with corruption, theft, and misappropriation of funds. As crowds waited outside, pro- and anti-Duvalier demonstrators hurled insults and protested. Soon after came the reek of tear gas. But Jean-Claude was not detained, and he returned to the Karibe Hotel.
Just before he fled Haiti, back in 1986, Duvalier took to the radio and denied he was going. “The president is here, stronger than ever, as strong even as a monkey’s tail,” he intoned. Le plus ça change … or as Faulkner knew so well, the past is still very much with us.