When Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprising return to Haiti in 2011 after a quarter-century in exile, some hoped the aging dictator would finally have to answer for the abuses of his regime.
Instead, as one human rights activist said after news of Duvalier’s death on Saturday, he “cheated justice.”
Duvalier died of a heart attack Saturday at his home in the Port-au-Prince mountaintop suburb of Thomassin, according to friends. He was 63.
He had just recently been discharged from a hospital after being bitten on the leg by a tarantula. A nurse at Canapé Vert Hospital said Duvalier checked in on Sept. 22 and checked out Sept. 25. He was also a diabetic, according to a friend, and was hospitalized several times since his return.
Never miss a local story.
His death ends a chapter in Haiti’s tumultuous history, the last of a brutal family political dynasty that began when his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who took power in 1957 and passed it to his 19-year-old son upon his death. The father died at age 64, also of a heart attack.
“It’s unfortunate he died in his bed, and we were unable to try him,” said Michele Montas, a former Haitian journalist and victim of the regime. “For the people who fought against him, it’s not over yet. It isn’t just a fight against Jean-Claude, but the people who supported his administration.”
Patrick Gaspard, a Haitian-American and U.S. ambassador to South Africa, reacted to the death over Twitter.
“I’m thinking of the look in my mother’s eyes when she talks about her brother, Joel who was disappeared by the dictator,” Gaspard tweeted. “News of the passing of Duvalier makes me honor my father and generations of Haitians who resisted that vicious dictatorship.”
In South Florida, Haitians were equally emotional — and stunned by the news. While the tyrant reign of Papa Doc forced Haitians to flee by the plane loads to New York, Paris and Montreal in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the younger Duvalier’s repression ushered in the “boat people.” In the 1970s, Haitians began risking their lives on the high seas in search of safe harbor and better economic opportunities in the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos and Miami, giving birth to the country’s vibrant diaspora.
“When we heard the news this morning it confirmed that he had been sick for a long time and it’s interesting that he should die close to his father’s age…and of a heart attack,” said Bernard Diederich, a New Zealand-born journalist who began covering Haiti in 1950 and interviewed Duvalier over four years for the book, l’Héritier — the inheritor.
“His death is another chapter,” Diederich said. “Right up to recently, I received a call from a lawyer in Washington who was still working on putting him in prison for human rights violations. So those guys will now be able to retire their ticket and that is the end of that.”
Despite facing charges of crimes against humanity and illicit enrichment during his tumultuous 1971-1986 administration, Duvalier seemed to live a privileged existence during his final years in the hemisphere’s poorest nation. He drove himself around town, was treated as a political celebrity and was often spotted at the city’s posh restaurants.
President Michel Martelly seemed to warm to the aging dictator, appointing some of Duvalier’s collaborators to his cabinet, and inviting him to official presidential events.
“On behalf of the entire government and the Haitian people, I want to seize this sad opportunity to transfer my sincere sympathies to the family, his close friends and supporters around the country,” Martelly said in a statement Saturday.
For Duvalier, Haiti was a birthright. Shortly before his father died, he had the constitution changed to allow his son to replace him. Baby Doc took the helm when he was just 19, making him the world’s youngest president.
“Everybody thought he would last a week, a month, but he ended up lasting longer than his father,” Diederich said.
As he grew into power, his critics say Duvalier increasingly resorted to violence to cow the opposition. His private paramilitary force, the tonton macoutes, was even more powerful than the army and became synonymous with brutality.
“He softened things, but ... he ignored things, especially the crimes committed,” Diederich said. “There were many crimes committed under his regime. What happens to somebody like that is he was riding the tiger and he couldn’t get off, and the people with him didn’t want to see change. They were the demons.”
In 1986, opposition leader Augustin Auguste was arrested in Port-au-Prince and never seen again. According to a report by Amnesty International, Auguste was likely executed.
The Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights group, estimates that anywhere from 300 to 4,000 political prisoners were held incommunicado in a network of prisons called the “Triangle of Death.” Many died from starvation and lack of medical care amid the putrid and cramped conditions, the group said.
“Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten, in some cases tortured, jailed and forced to leave the country,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, which has been supporting Duvalier’s victims in an ongoing trial. “Duvalier’s death deprives Haitians of what could have been the most important human rights trial in the country’s history.”
Even so, many saw in Duvalier the firm hand of a leader that brought order to a complicated country.
“He was a gentle giant,” said Ricard Sassine, a longtime friend, “not this tyrant, people say, who ruled Haiti during the Cold War. He wasn’t my friend the president; he was my friend Jean-Claude.”
Duvalier told the Miami Herald last year he was working on a book in which he planned to make several revelations. Sassine said the book would have helped the nation understand his controversial rule.
“He had so much he could have told people about Haiti in the 1970s and ’80s. People would have understood certain things,” Sassine said. “He knew so much about so many things. I wish he had finished his book. Either way, it should be partly published.”
Duvalier’s rule began to unravel in 1986. On Jan. 31, following weeks of unrest, the Reagan White House announced the collapse of the regime — a report later denied by U.S. and Haitian officials. Days later, on Feb. 7, Duvalier and his family fled to France aboard a U.S. military aircraft.
In Europe, his fight was with the courts in Geneva that blocked some of the $6.2 million he had stashed in Swiss bank accounts. The Haitian government at the time accused him of stealing some $120 million during his reign.
Many thought Duvalier would live out his dying days in gilded exile. However, a year after a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti in January, 2010, Duvalier stunned the country by returning. His homecoming sparked speculation that he might, once again, participate in politics. Those rumors were fueled further when his political party opened a headquarters in the southern city of Jacmel.
But Sassine, who saw Duvalier regularly, said he had grown disillusioned with Haiti’s politics.
“He said his time had passed, and what Haiti required to fix (the country), he could not do,” Sassine said. “He practically gave up political life and was enjoying life. He loved Haiti.”
Within days of Duvalier’s return, the René Préval government reopened a criminal investigation into his financial crimes and his victims joined suit. Initially, the court threw out the charges of torture and murder saying they were barred by the statute of limitations. In February, however, an appeals court reversed that decision and said Duvalier could face charges of crimes against humanity.
“We often say that one has cheated death,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability, which worked on the case. “But now Baby Doc’s death has cheated justice.”
The organization said the Martelly government has an obligation to continue investigating Duvalier’s human rights abuses.
“Now is the time for Haiti to establish a truth commission to build a historical record of Duvalier-era crimes,” the group said in a statement. “And as long as Duvalier’s accomplices and henchmen survive, they should be brought to justice.”
For the regime’s victims, the next few days could be trying. Eulogies have a way of whitewashing. And although no announcements have been made, there’s speculation that Martelly, who had hinted about pardoning Duvalier during his presidential campaign, may give the former dictator a state funeral — filled with pomp and honors.
Montas, the journalist, said that would be a shame.
“Someone who was indicted of human rights violations and crimes against humanity should not be honored in a national funeral,” she said.
Charles reported from Cap-Haitien and Wyss from Bogota, Colombia. Miami Herald Staff Writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report from Miami.
Here is a brief chronology of milestones in the life of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier:
▪ April 1971: Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier dies and his teenage son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, becomes the country's president for life under a constitutional amendment that allowed "Papa Doc" to name his replacement. "Baby Doc" is just 19.
▪ April 1985: After protests by religious groups against Duvalier's leadership, bloody confrontations are sparked between anti-government demonstrators and Duvalier's private militia, called Tonton Macoutes.
▪ Nov. 27, 1985: Three students are slain by security forces in Gonaives in the first of several bloody confrontations with anti-government demonstrators.
▪ December 1985: Protests broaden across the impoverished country. Duvalier orders significant reshuffle of his Cabinet.
▪ January 1986: Duvalier's administration closes schools and universities and forbids radio stations to report on the turmoil engulfing the country. More than 50 people are killed in disturbances, most by Tonton Macoutes. Duvalier declares 30-day state of siege.
▪ Jan. 31, 1986: Following weeks of unrest, White House spokesman Larry Speakes announces the collapse of the Duvalier government, a report that is later denied by Haitian and U.S. officials.
▪ Feb. 7, 1986: Duvalier and relatives fly to France aboard U.S. military jet. National Council of Government, consisting of three military men and two civilians, led by Duvalier's army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, takes power. The country is destitute.
▪ Feb. 10, 1986: Provisional government, headed by Namphy, names 19-member Cabinet. It dissolves Assembly and Tonton Macoutes, reopens schools, frees political prisoners, and seeks to recover Duvaliers' assets. U.S. aid resumes, after being halted because of Duvalier abuses.
▪ March 29, 1987: Constitution bars Duvalierists from candidacy for 10 years.
▪ May 2007: A Geneva court temporarily blocks the release of some of the $6.2 million stashed in Switzerland by Duvalier. Many in Haiti considered the money to have been stolen from public funds before Duvalier was ousted.
▪ August 2007: Swiss government extends a freeze on Duvalier's funds for a year.
▪ February 2010: In a reversal, Switzerland's top court says at least $4.6 million in Swiss bank accounts previously awarded to charities must be returned to the family of Duvalier.
▪ Jan. 16, 2011: Duvalier returns to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile as Haiti struggles to recover from a devastating earthquake, deadly cholera outbreak, and an electoral crisis. Two days later, he is charged with corruption and theft. He is released, but ordered to remain in Haiti.
▪ Feb. 28, 2013: Appearing frail, Duvalier appears in court and defends himself against accusations of human rights abuses. It is his only court appearance before his death in 2014.
▪ Feb. 20, 2014: A three-judge panel reinstates charges of crimes against humanity against Duvalier.