During his 14-year reign as Haiti’s “president for life,” François “Papa Doc” Duvalier waged a war of attrition against his own people, looted the country’s finances and “disappeared” thousands of dissident voices. Duvalier, like capitalism, was no respecter of persons.
Knowing this, one would not expect to find an abundance of Papa Doc memorabilia on display in many Haitian homes, but this was exactly what I found during a research trip last winter. In fact, most Haitians I spoke with in Port-au-Prince, from both the Duvalier and Aristide generations, hasten to contrast his benevolent legacy with the chronic turmoil of the Aristide era.
There’s no doubt that things were better then, one friend told me, when electricity was an everyday affair, when five Haitian gourdes had the purchasing power of one U.S. dollar (vs. 34 gourdes today), when tourism was booming and Haitians had jobs. But what about the impoverished rural areas of Bombardopolis and Jean Rabel, the trigger-happy tonton macoutes and all-around state-sponsored terrorism?
Now that every corner in the working-class Delmas neighborhood has either aba (down with) Préval or aba Titid (Aristide) sprayed defiantly on its walls, Papa Doc has become the subject of a systematic forgetting (and forgiving), much the same way that Joseph Stalin has in contemporary Russia.
Students of Haitian history know that the lionization of its leaders is nothing new — nearly all of Haiti’s 45 heads of state have relied on their ability to appear larger than life to gain, and keep, office. The increasing likelihood that Wyclef Jean could join this illustrious genealogy prompts us to reflect on both the historic role of the presidency as well as what it would actually mean if someone like Wyclef were to win.
Strong national consensus has meant life or death for Haiti’s presidents. Most presidents, however, manufacture that consensus. During the course of what anthropologist Drexel Woodson calls “the long Haitian nineteenth century” (1804-1915), presidents often employed rural armed militias known as piquets or cacos to solidify power under the guise of genuine civil support. In the 20th century, Duvalier had his tonton macoutes; before him, presidential hopeful Daniel Fignolé had his “steamroller” protest marches.
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*Dear Wyclef: Please Don’t Run!
*CHART: The Gap Between Promises and Reality in Haiti