The life of Jean-Claude Duvalier, otherwise known as the Haitian dictator Baby Doc, who died yesterday at his home in Port-au-Prince at age 63, taught me a significant lesson about the US’s historic responsibility for Haiti’s long-standing pains and tragedies.
Soon after Duvalier gave up power and fled Haiti in 1986, I made my first trip there, one of more than a dozen I would take over six years, sometimes staying for months, writing stories about the seemingly natural courage and artistic litheness of a people, but also about the many political killings linked to Duvalier partisans still in the country, and about the ongoing political dysfunction.
It became clear to me, from the beginning, that the US was complicit in all of it.
The special relationship between Haiti and the US goes back to the successful Haitian revolution of 1804, in which ex-slaves led by general Toussaint L’Ouverture overthrew French soldiers under Napoleon Bonaparte. This led to a collective nervous breakdown among the slaveholders in the young United States of America and was in large part responsible for the inhuman repressiveness that reigned in the slave-holding southern states and that continued even after the South was defeated in 1865 in the American Civil War.
The fear of Haiti’s blacks continued to show itself as the US, along with France and Spain, through the 1800s carried out an embargo on trade with Haiti, launching the country into a downward spiral. This in turn led to internal strife and economic instability that gave the US justification, in 1915, for sending in US marines. The American occupation of Haiti lasted two decades and, in a sense, became the foundation of Haiti’s twentieth century existence, in terms of the internal classes of people who were to rise to power through the coming decades.
Freedom-loving Haitians had hoped that the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 would be a precursor to democracy and ultimately to economic sustainability. Jean-Claude was the son and political inheritor François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, whose unrestrained cold-bloodedness during the 1960s took the lives of thousands of Haitians who tried against odds to speak truth to power. And the son, who took power upon the death of his father in 1971, was portrayed by US diplomats as a gentler figure than Papa. But the brutality of the Duvalier henchmen (known as the Tonton Macoutes) against everyday Haitians—and the corruption that made Duvalier friends richer—led to irrepressible public anger.
Seeing that their man could no longer remain in power, the US in 1986 graciously provided the airplane that transported Baby Doc (sometimes referred to as the dim-witted offspring of his Papa) to France, where he remained in exile for 25 years.
The corruption and lying (as well as the undercover complicities with the US) lasted beyond Duvalier’s departure in 1986. Even though Baby Doc was gone, the descent into chaos and poverty continued. The US gave money to military holders of power and continued to pay agents into Haiti, trying to maintain superficial semblances of human interest in the survival of a long suffering sibling nation of the American hemisphere.
Democracy appeared to come finally in the form of a radical progressive Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who took office in February of 1991; but Aristide was overthrown in a military coup seven months later.
From the very beginning it was clear to me, and to many others, that the US, through its agents in Haiti, was involved in that coup.
One of my memories in the days after the coup—in addition to seeing hundreds of bullet-riddle bodies of Aristide supported—was being near a government office where the top Haitian army officers were meeting after the ouster of Aristide. And who was in that meeting also but the top defense intelligence officer assigned to the American embassy.
Over the next several years USAID money would go to fund so-called rights groups and workers whose allegiances necessarily were with the providers of the funding. Many were known to be right-wingers once affiliated with the Duvaliers.
What gave a measure of hope to the lovers of democracy in Haiti was that in 1993 the Democrat Bill Clinton took over the US presidency from George H. W. Bush whose administration had overseen the grave misdoings of previous years. And, for sure, by 1994, US troops were sent to Haiti to ensure that the ousted President Aristide would be returned to office.
But the taste of people power was brief.
The truth of the matter was that Aristide was unable to function with the independence that even scarcely rich neighbors like the Dominican Republic are accustomed to. Undercover subversion, with US government backing, continued to hold sway. Aristide was unable to stop political killings and he himself was accused of corruption.
All this opened a door for Jean-Claude in 2000.
I had the distinct interesting experience in September of that year of speaking to Jean-Claude Duvalier by phone. He was in France and I was in the Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, offices of a right-wing political sympathizer of Duvalier’s, a Haitian businessman who had asked that I not used his name.
Duvalier, speaking in French in a very brief exchange, told me her would one day return to Haiti. We ran the story prominently in Newsday and it was picked up by many other news outlets.
But the best Duvalier quote from that period at a gathering of Duvalier supporters in Brooklyn about a week before I spoke with Baby Doc. According to a transcript read to me by a Duvalier opponent at the time, Baby Doc said: “The cry of the people reaches our heart like an agonizing call that cannot be ignored. Consequently, I offer myself as a guarantor of inevitable changes that must take place in the future, changes without which our country will perish.”
Many thought the assertion that he would return to Haiti was nothing more than a pipe dream, but in fact he did go back to the country 11 years later.
Despite government assertions that Duvalier would be held to account for his many alleged crimes during his time in power, he convinced authorities that he was not guilty of anything punishable; and he lived in luxury until the very end, which was this Saturday when he died of a heart attack at age 63.
Aristide, it should be known, had remained nominally in power through the 1990s, but in 2004 was again sent packing and shipped off to Africa, after thugs (who according to US Congressional testimony had been sponsored by US agents operating out of the neighboring Dominican Republic) overtook parts of the country and created another round of instability.
In March of 2004 I quoted Haitian expert Robert White (who had once been an ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay) and saying that administration of George Bush (the son) found an opportunity to get rid of Aristide, much as those policy makers working for Bush’s father had done in 1991.
White and others pointed an accusatory finger at Roger Noriega, who was an assistant US secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under the recent president Bush.
“Roger Noriega has been dedicated to ousting Aristide for many, many years, and now he’s in a singularly powerful position to accomplish it,” White told me.
Aristide, like Duvalier, eventually returned to Haiti in 2011, hoping to be of influence in the presidential election of the time.
But all is not well for Aristide. He has been accused of stealing millions of dollars, an accusation many of his backers say is absurd. And he was ordered recently to stay under house arrest, although supporters of his have maintained there is no Haitian provision for house arrest.
Meanwhile, Duvalier’s death drew what amounts to effective words of praised from the current Haitian president Michel Martelly on Twitter, calling Baby Doc “an authentic son of Haiti.” Martelly said he was sending his “sincere condolences to the family and to the nation.”
Martelly is on fairly good terms with the US. As they often say in French, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” or, The more things change, the more they remain the same.”