In death, ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier continues to stir passions in Haiti

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier appears in a Port-au-Prince courtroom in March 2013.
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier appears in a Port-au-Prince courtroom in March 2013. AP file

The old man keeping watch remembered a time not long ago when a frail-looking Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier would pull into the parking lot near Haiti’s razed presidential palace, step from behind the wheel and slowly turn to say a few words.

“When are you coming back to power? We’re waiting on you,’” Inode Jean, 90, recalled asking the ailing former dictator shortly after his return to Haiti more than three years ago after 25 years in exile in France.

“He would always say, ‘Be patient. We have to return,’” said Jean, grieving over Duvalier’s death and nostalgic for an era he considers to be among Haiti’s better days. “He and his father were the same: They were not bad for Haiti. Don’t you see that since they left, the country has gone down? Haiti is finished.”

Duvalier’s death Saturday from a heart attack at age 63 has exposed old wounds, stirred divisions and served as a bitter reminder that Haiti has never confronted its past.

The failure to confront the country’s tumultuous history, and the turbulent and disappointing years following Duvalier’s 1986 flight into exile aboard a U.S. military aircraft, have fueled nostalgia for the “order” and “stability” that he had imposed.

“People simply forget that this was the order of impunity and fear that sought to silence the nation,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political science professor at the University of Virginia. “This is why, ultimately, the vast majority of the population fought against his regime and celebrated his departure. It is rather amazing that one needs to remind people that he did not exit power voluntarily. He was forced to leave the country because Haitians resisted his rule and mustered the will and courage to force him to do so.”

As his body lies in a morgue under police protection, Haitians at home and abroad are divided on his legacy as they debate how he should finally be laid to rest. Even members of the government cannot agree on how he should be buried.

“When you say Duvalier, immediately you get two sides,” said Anthony Georges Pierre, a former Duvalier junior cabinet minister and Haitian historian who has taken to the airwaves in Miami in recent days to defend Duvalier’s right to be buried like any other Haitian president. “It is a minority who is focusing on him not to have a state funeral. They want him to pay mostly for what his father had done.”

Duvalier’s supporters want him to be commemorated with a national observance: three days of official mourning, flags at half staff and a declared holiday on the day of his burial. .

Victims and critics of the regime say Duvalier — who became the world’s youngest president at 19 when his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier died in 1971, also of a heart attack — does not deserve any more than the regime’s victims received.

“The Duvaliers killed the living and the dead, had no enemies but ‘those of the nation,’ referred to their victims as ‘traitors,’ and banned them from having funerals and tombs,” Lyonel Trouillot, the Haitian novelist and poet wrote in the country’s main daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste.

To honor Duvalier, Trouillot said, is to dishonor the tens of thousands killed, tortured and disappeared under the regime, and the many more forced into exile to escape the ugliness. He added that Duvalier lived in the shadow of his father and that his life was insignificant and not deserving of recognition, not “even as a villain.”

Unlike when thousands took to the streets to greet Duvalier upon his surprise January 2011 return, there has been no outpouring of grief here since his death. The only crowd gathered outside the funeral home are the specialized Haitian National Police officers assigned to keep watch over his corpse. And there is no gathering outside the office complex where he often sought refuge to work on an unfinished memoir.

But Haitians are unleashing their emotions on radio, social media and street corners.

“He was a grand president who represented a grand history, and he deserves a state funeral,” said Eberson Attys, 39, standing in a crowd on a street near downtown. “Even if he was a dictator, he deserves the same honors as a René Préval if he were to pass. He was president.”

But others have started an online petition asking authorities to respect the “memory and the dignity of the Haitian people” and to forgo national honors. By Tuesday afternoon, 375 people had signed it.

Michel Brunache, spokesman for Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, said the government’s thoughts were first with the victims of the Duvalier regimes, from 1957 to 1986.

“We express our regrets that the Haitian judicial system didn’t have the time to deal properly with the case,” he said. “If you consider that he was a former president, he should get a state funeral. But if you look at it from the point of view of the victims of his regime, it is another story.”

Days earlier, President Michel Martelly’s spokesman Lucien Jura offered a different view, saying Duvalier was a president and, therefore, deserves a state funeral.

But Martelly has not yet announced his decision. On Saturday, he issued several messages on Twitter. One called for reconciliation among Haitians, while another called Duvalier “an authentic child of Haiti,” which provoked strong reactions.

“The death of Jean-Claude Duvalier reminds us that Haiti is still in a transition 28 years after his departure from power. This is part of his legacy,” said Lionel Delatour, a Port-au-Prince-based political analyst. “During his father’s and his presidency, most of our country’s institutions were critically weakened or destroyed. I am referring to the army, the university, the business associations, the labor unions, the political parties and the parliament — all became a shadow of themselves or institutions by name only.”

The Duvalier era, Delatour said, also led to “an unprecedented exodus of millions of Haitians and a massive brain drain that has some calling Haiti, today, a failed state. This, too, is also part of his legacy.”

Joseph Dominique Baguidy, a good friend of the former president and the last person to see him alive, said Duvalier doesn’t get the credit he deserves. While family members initially said Duvalier died at home, Baguidy said Duvalier was having breakfast — a bowl of corn flakes and milk — with him when he suffered a heart attack at 9:30 a.m.

Duvalier was dead by the time he reached the hospital.

“If you love Haiti, there is no way you can look at the state of the country then and now, and say you prefer now,” Baguidy said.

Tourism, and exports like sugar and cement, flourished, Baguidy said. There was electricity and there were manufacturing jobs.

“He left a country that was functioning. All institutions in Haiti had professionals. The public administration was working,” said Baguidy, who was in Duvalier’s first military police graduating class. “There was security, and it was at the base of everything, development, the life of a people. All that has since been erased.”

Like others who supported the regime, he points out that on the day Duvalier left, supporters were killed, “necklaced” with burning tires. Those who didn’t die were forced into hiding, their homes ransacked.

“Is someone’s life any more valuable when it is taken by a dictator than by someone who isn’t a dictator?” he said. “They talk about a dictator, but during that era, Haiti wasn’t the only country that had a dictator.”

Duvalier is the second former Haitian president to die in almost four months. Former President Leslie Manigat died in June in Port-au-Prince, and was honored with a state funeral.

One option, which some are pushing Martelly to consider, is a more low-key send-off, an official service with a band and the country’s flag.

Regardless of what Martelly decides, it is sure to be an interesting send off. Duvalier’s ex-wife, Michèle Bennett, whom even supporters hold responsible for his downfall, is already in Haiti. The woman who engineered his return, Veronique Roy, his longtime female companion, is also here, as is his son, Nicolas.

There is also the question of whether he will be draped in the current red and blue Haitian flag, a symbol of anti-Duvalierism, or the red and black flag used by the family's regime and retired after Duvalier’s departure.

Duvalier’s funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Saint-Louis de Gonzague, the Catholic school from which he graduated and where Manigat, also, was buried. There was no announcement about how elaborate the service might or might not be.

“His demise has turned a historical page for those victims,” said Jean-Robert Lafortune, a Miami Haitian community rights activist who said his name was among a list of 21 other persons classified by a Duvalier presidential committee in 1982 as being a danger to the Haitian state.

“Duvalier was never interested in bringing dialogue or inspiring others to talk of peace for the homeland,” Lafortune said. “He was the last of a species.”

Video provided courtesy of Lynn and Louis Wolfson || Florida Moving Image Archives at Miami Dade College.

Related stories from Miami Herald