The Perils of Dictatorship Nostalgia in Haiti
By returning to Haiti, Baby Doc Duvalier is betting on the fact that most Haitians are too young to remember the climate of fear that ruled their nation for 30 years.
All of my letters were slit open, read, crudely resealed with tape and stamped "Received in this condition." I often heard men walking outside my house late at night. They circled all the way around, once or twice, their footsteps crunching in the gravel, before walking off. When a friend arrived from the U.S. ahead of the telegram she had sent, the security men at the airport asked whom she was going to see. When she named me, they said, "We know where he lives," and drove her directly to my door.
In his harrowing book, Fort Dimanche, Dungeon of Death, Patrick Lemoine describes his arbitrary arrest for reasons never explained and his year in the prison during Baby Doc's rule. His cell was so crowded, the men took turns sleeping in shifts while the rest stood. Most prisoners in his group were not executed; they were simply allowed to die from dysentery and other diseases. Of 23 men in Lemoine's cell, he and one other man survived. He was released after U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young made a powerful speech about human rights in Haiti during the Carter administration. Human Rights Watch has estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the 30 years that Duvalier father and son ruled.
For most Haitians, contact with the regime was peripheral -- but always tinged in fear. On my first trips back, I noticed that relatives dropped their voices to a whisper when they spoke about politics -- and they changed the conversation completely if someone came into the room they didn't know or trust. I recall a conversation on the porch of an uncle's house (now destroyed); several older men -- doctors, lawyers, civil servants -- sat and praised the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier. It took me a while to realize they were being deeply ironic.
Haitians born after 1986, when Baby Doc and his mercenary wife, Michelle, hastily left the country, do not know what it was like. Haitian politics has become full-throated, heavily debated, with little or no restraint on what people think. Those old enough to remember the old days have a duty to dispel the nostalgia, to inform and remind the rest of their countrymen what it was really like in those days -- to live in fear of arrest, reprisal, disappearance.
Haiti has its share of problems now. It doesn't need to add a return to oppression to that list.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root and a native of Haiti.