In Miami’s Little Haiti, death of ‘Baby Doc’ brings mixed emotions

Tony Jeanthenor, a member of Haitian rights group Veye Yo, at a press conference Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, talking about former Haitian President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Tony Jeanthenor, a member of Haitian rights group Veye Yo, at a press conference Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, talking about former Haitian President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Miami Herald staff

News of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s death trickled slowly through the South Florida Haitian community through phone calls, word of mouth and Haitian radio.

Reaction was mixed, with many local Haitians saying they were too young when they left their country to remember much from Duvalier’s reign.

But activists took the opportunity to criticize the current Haitian government and the U.S. policy toward the Caribbean nation, and to call for the prosecution of human rights abuses under the dictator’s bloody reign.

Late Saturday afternoon, Mireille Laurent sold fruits and vegetables under a tree in front of her Mimi Market store on Northeast Second Avenue in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. She heard about Duvalier’s death from a friend as the two drove in a car.

The 44-year-old said she was just a teenager in Haiti when Duvalier was in power. She remembers standing on her porch in Gonaïves and watching Duvalier ride through the city in a caravan.

“I watched him throw money on the street,” she said. “The men ran to catch it.”

Laurent said she wasn’t upset that Duvalier, who was in exile in France for 25 years before returning to Haiti in 2011, will never stand trial for human rights abuses. “He already paid the price by being away for so long. I can’t imagine someone telling me I can’t go to Haiti for a year,” she said.

Before fleeing Haiti, the brutality of his regime caused Haitians to escape for the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Miami. Many settled in Little Haiti, helping to develop the community.

At God Bless Dry Cleaning, Helisson Atelus, 40, rested on a couch in the stifling heat at his un-air-conditioned business. He remembered the chaos in the country after Duvalier fled. “Everyone was running for their life. The country had no security, no control,” he said.

It was a stark difference from when Duvalier ruled, Atelus said.

“One good thing the son used to do, the streets would be kind of clean — especially when he would be in a zone. Especially at Christmas time, they would clean the street really good,” he said. “You could sleep on them.”

However, community activists came out strongly condemning Duvalier.

Marleine Bastien, the executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, called Duvalier’s reign a “deathly regime.”

“Good riddance — that’s the sentiment, I think, that would come from a certain segment of the community that I associate with,” said Gepsie Metellus, the executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center.

The lukewarm reaction of some local Haitians, “tells me we have work to do until Haitians say: ‘Never again. We ought to know that the Duvaliers were butchers, that the Duvaliers did this kind of damage to the country, and that we should never give unchecked power,” Metellus said.

Many called for the prosecution of Duvalier to continue even after his death, including Tony Jeanthenor, vice chair of Veye Yo, a Haitian activist organization. During a news conference in Little Haiti, he also criticized the current government of Michel Martelly.

“The sad part is Duvalier passed without facing a trial, without being in front of a judge,” he said. “We expect to at least have a postmortem trial. We don’t expect this from the regime in Haiti right now. This regime is trying to emulate Duvalier.”

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