Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was cremated Saturday, according to friends who accompanied his body back to the funeral home after a simple Catholic Mass in which he was remembered as the 19-year-old boy president who became a wise man.
President Michel Martelly denied an official send-off to Duvalier, Haiti’s ninth president-for-life and one of its most controversial leaders.
There was no national anthem sung, no flags lowered to half-staff and no official mourning period. But there was a Haitian flag draping his dark brown coffin. It was not the black and red adopted by him and his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, during their 29-year father-and-son dictatorial rule, but rather the blue and red flag reintroduced after the regime’s fall on Feb. 7, 1986.
In Haiti, that flag has come to symbolize anti-Duvalierism and the vexing struggle for democratic rule.
“They could have used the black and red, and didn’t; so it should be appreciated and praised, and seen as the family divorcing themselves from the totalitarian regime and endorsing the rule of law, republican regime,” said Georges Michel, one of the authors of Haiti’s post Duvalier-era 1987 Constitution. “I believe it was a gesture of reconciliation.”
Among the hundreds of mourners packing the church two former presidents: Boniface Alexandre and Gen. Prosper Avril. Absent were members of the foreign diplomatic corps, Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. But Martelly’s friend and adviser Gregory Mayard-Paul, the head of Haiti’s counter-narcotics agency and former Interior Minister David Basile and Haiti’s Ambassador to the Dominican Republic Fritz Cinéas, who once served as Francois Duvalier’s private secretary, were there.
Only Cinéas acknowledged the controversial nature of Duvalier’s 15-year-reign.
“While in power,” Cinéas said during the Mass, “was he trapped by ill-intention collaborators? Was he intolerant? Was he weak and did he stay silent in front of abuse committed by some of his friends or partisans? Did he, because of his young age, indulge more in the pleasures of life rather than worry about the affairs of the State?”
“It is still too early for the judgment of history to clearly establish responsibilities,” Cinéas said. “Unlike what the press sometimes wrongly reports, he did publicly acknowledge his mistakes and offered his apologies to the people.”
Shortly after his shocking return to Haiti nearly four years ago after 25 years in exile in France, the former president-for-life said at a news conference: “I take this opportunity to express my deep sadness to my countrymen who rightly feel like they may have been victims under my government.”
For victims of the Duvalier regime, however, the words weren’t enough. Dozens sued the ailing dictator, accusing him of crimes against humanity and human rights abuses. The case was still pending when he suffered a heart attack at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 4 over a breakfast of cornflakes and milk at the house of his friend and former army colonel, Joseph Baguidy.
As Duvalier was eulogized inside Saint Louis de Gonzague Catholic Church, more than three dozen demonstrators — mostly the young offspring of his victims who were either killed, jailed, tortured, disappeared or forced into exile during his presidency — staged a sit-in in front of the Citizens Protection Office, a government agency that is supposed to register abuse grievances.
With their mouths tied with handkerchiefs, and dressed in white shirts stained with red ink symbolizing blood, demonstrators held signs that read, “You cannot forget what the Duvalier dictatorship did to the country.”
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.
“We wanted to make sure we marked this moment,” said Elisabeth Pierre-Louis, daughter of former Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis, and one of the demonstrators.
The symbolic protest had been organized by Asire, one of several groups that lobbied against any official send-off.
“A national funeral would have dishonored the victims,” Pierre-Louis said. “He was not the wise and nice president that they have made him out to be.”
Supporters and friends disagree.
“He had a quiet temperament and was incapable of impoliteness,” Cinéas said. “Recently, his allure was that of a wise man and we had all noticed on his face, the beauty of his wisdom.”
Priest Occide “Père Sicot” Jean recalled their years of friendship and Duvalier’s support for Haiti’s farmers like Simon Saint-Vil, who criticized the lack of government presence and official commendations.
“Only God can judge the soul,” Jean said during his 11-minute eulogy in French. “The judgment of a man does not go beyond the physical, which is an envelope that rots and decomposes after man’s transformation following his physical death.”
His words garnered a standing ovation and applause from the crowd. One man threw himself across the casket.
As Jean spoke, Duvalier’s two sisters, ex-wife Michèle Bennett and the couple’s two children, Francois Nicolas and Anya, listened from a front pew. Across from them, in another front pew facing the draped coffin, sat Duvalier’s long-time companion Veronique Roy. She was dressed in a simple black suit with her trademark dark shades and ponytail, and was barely acknowledged during the Mass.
“For over 24 years, my life has been Jean-Claude and Haiti, and it will forever be Jean-Claude and Haiti,” Roy later told the Miami Herald.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Bennett and the children were each allowed to bless Duvalier’s casket — but not Roy — with Holy Water before Baguidy and other aging, former army officials, saluted the casket and carried it out the church.