Hunting Down Baby Doc
A Haitian-American reporter recalls how she pursued Jean-Claude Duvalier for an interview during his exile in France and finally put him on the record.
When I met Jean-Claude Duvalier in 2003, it was the culmination of a long-held personal and professional goal. I had spent years trying to interview him, obsessed with wanting to understand and deconstruct the mythology that surrounded him and his infamous father and made it possible for them to rule Haiti for nearly three decades in a milieu of unmitigated fear.
Until our meeting, Duvalier had been adeptly elusive. I reached out to his friends, called on political supporters and other intermediaries, and even wrote pleading letters to his lawyers. Duvalier was having none of it. He wanted nothing to do with me or any other reporter. The fact that I was Haitian American didn't help.
He was widely vilified by the majority of Haitians in Haiti and the United States, and American reporters had not been kind in their coverage of him. His undemocratic governing style, his abuse of human rights and press freedoms, and his own and his then-wife's profligate spending habits and looting of the Haitian treasury had not exactly made him a media darling. To him, talking to me risked doubly negative press coverage.
During his presidency, which ended in 1986, and in the early years of his exile, Duvalier was the subject of journalistic scrutiny reserved for the most notorious of dictators. This was due in part to his being named président à vie -- president for life -- at the tender age of 19 and his continuation of the governing practices (with the guidance of his mother and his late father's political cronies) perfected by his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier: politically motivated killings, forced exiles, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trials, jailhouse tortures, disappearances and other atrocities.
Together, father and son were labeled among the Western Hemisphere's most brutal 20th-century dictators, a hard-earned reputation that was entirely deserved. Their role in modern Haitian history is unparalleled. As a little girl in Haiti, and later in the U.S., I grew up hearing frightening stories about the Duvaliers and learning, above all, to fear them.
When I became a journalist, I knew that I had to return to that history to make sense of the past, and that's what ultimately led me to Duvalier. Now, seven years later. I find myself, like many Haitians and Haitian Americans, trying to make sense of present-day events since Baby Doc returned to Haiti last week and reignited a passionate public discourse about the long-term costs, both emotional and political, that the corrupt and brutal Duvalier reign forced Haitians to bear.
His timing could not have been worse. He arrived just when earthquake-weary Haitians were trying to refocus the international community's attention on rebuilding their battered nation. Now his arrival has turned the media's attention to his political fate in Haiti. Most Haitians believed that Duvalierism was long behind them, and now they find that the past is very much present.
Meeting Up With an Exile in Paris
I could have never imagined such developments when Duvalier finally agreed to meet me in 2003 after one of his friends called him in Paris and put us on the phone. By then I was a national correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, and I was at the friend's home in Queens, N.Y.
I would later learn that he agreed to the interview because he was considering a return to Haiti and a re-entry into politics. He believed that the time was right and that the Journal was a good forum to make the case for his return. He relished the opportunity to reach a large audience in an influential American newspaper, one whose editorial pages had criticized the man who was then running Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.