Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s former dictator, is to be buried Saturday in the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, without benefit of a state-sponsored funeral. As I discovered on a recent trip to Haiti, some Haitians, frustrated by the lack of economic progress and forgetful of the oppression he once represented, had begun to speak nostalgically of his family’s almost 30-year dictatorship. On his death last week, President Michel Martelly called him an “authentic son of Haiti”—without mentioning his appalling human rights record.
Baby Doc was a marker in my life. It was only when he succeeded his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1971 that my Haitian immigrant parents approved my visiting a native land I had not seen since age 12. The prevailing view, promoted by Jean-Claude’s backers, was that his regime would be Duvalier-light—a more tolerant, more benign version of the iron-fisted rule his father had imposed for 14 years. In some ways it was—after all, the new “president-for-life” was only 19 years old—and he seemed more interested in girls and motorcycles than in ruling over a terribly poor country just waking up from a forcible slumber. Yet the son would rule for another 15 years.
On landing in Port-au-Prince, I quickly discovered that many of the repressive mechanisms installed by Baby Doc’s father remained in place. The menacing Tonton Macoutes, in their ubiquitous dark glasses, with pistols in their waistbands, controlled entry at the Aeroport François Duvalier. The bogeyman across from me turned the pages in an ink-stained ledger for several minutes while I sweat with anxiety. Apparently my name was not in the book, and I was waved through.
A few evenings later, I sat on a darkened porch in an old, tree-lined residential quarter of the capital with a handful of older relatives and their friends. Their conversation took a strange turn as they seemed to heap praise on “our little prince.” “He has a lot on his plate,” said a voice in the dark. “Let’s hope he is surrounded by wise advisers,” said another voice.
I could almost smell the irony. I realized that despite our common ancestry, I was a stranger and they were being cautious. I was already familiar with the way my parents and their friends 1,500 miles away in New York dropped their voices when they talked Haitian politics. And they changed the subject completely if someone entered the room whom they did not trust. Habits acquired under decades of Duvalier rule did not go away easily.
Several years later, repression remained evident. I took a leave from my job as a reporter at the Washington Post to spend much of a year in Haiti. All my mail from the U.S. was slit open and read. Baby Doc’s regime made no effort to hide the fact. The envelopes were roughly resealed with Scotch tape and stamped “Reçu en cet état” (“received in this condition”). When the French Institute sponsored a discussion about Haiti’s future, young Haitians packed the auditorium—government officials also menacingly filled a row at the front. When a speaker conceded that criticism of the government was off-limits at that event, much of the crowd got up and left. The terror was no longer as blatant as it had been under the father, but the restrictions under the son left Haitians voiceless on important issues.
Behind the scenes, the old guard continued many of the Duvalier methods. In his book, Fort Dimanche, Dungeon of Death, Patrick Lemoine chronicled two harrowing years in Haiti’s most notorious prison under the Baby Doc regime. Of 23 men who shared his tiny cell, only he and one other survived—and that was thanks to a strong human rights stance by the Carter administration. Lemoine never learned why he was arrested in the first place.
Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti in 2011 after a 25-year exile. He claimed he wanted to “help the Haitian people” and was even invited to make a commencement speech at a school in Port-de-Paix, a northern city, commentators noted, where his father had been especially brutal. The Martelly government seemed to be trying to rehabilitate him, inviting him to official events, although he declined most offers. Enthusiastic supporters showed up at his rare public appearances, claiming that there had been prosperity and order during his reign, even as he fended off charges of torture and crimes against humanity.
The promise of order and prosperity, though, is the Trojan horse of dictatorship, especially in a time of chaos and limited progress. People seem to forget the fear most quickly and begin to lose faith in the messy process of democracy. Progress in Haiti has been slow, and the fragile democracy there is deadlocked in a fight between the president and parliament over elections. Nostalgia for a strong leader can overwhelm common sense. Lemoine’s book should be required reading in Haitian schools. All Haitians should also see The Man by the Shore, a beautiful film by Haiti’s most accomplished filmmaker, Raoul Peck, that re-creates the fear that pervaded daily life under the Duvaliers.
Few of us should shed tears for Jean-Claude Duvalier. He and his father stole too many lives.
Joel Dreyfuss, former managing editor of The Root, lives in Paris, where he is writing a book about his family’s 300-year involvement with Haiti.