The time of torment

Jean-Claude Duvalier, who returned to Haiti from exile in 2011, never stood trial for human-rights crimes.
Jean-Claude Duvalier, who returned to Haiti from exile in 2011, never stood trial for human-rights crimes. AP

For most Haitians, the death of onetime dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier revives painful memories of the era of anguish and fear when he and his equally brutal father ruled the impoverished Caribbean nation. In life, “Baby Doc” cheated the Haitian people by robbing them of their dignity and national patrimony. In death, he cheated justice by avoiding a trial for corruption and human rights charges.

At 19, the younger Duvalier inherited a corrupt regime from his father and arrogantly assumed the title of “president for life.” The goon squad known as the Tonton Macoutes, the regime’s hated enforcers, became the most emblematic figures of the Duvalierist era. For those who sought a nation free of oppression, there were three options: exile, jail or death.

While the jails and the morgues filled up — some activists estimate that as many as 30,000 people were killed during his reign and that of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier — others joined the vast Haitian diaspora. Many exiles moved to South Florida, enriching our cultural and social diversity.

Some claim Haiti was a better place when Baby Doc ruled. That’s absurd. Only the cynics, enablers and beneficiaries of the regime’s larceny mourn his passing. A former Tonton Macoute was quoted as saying that neither carjackings nor widespread vandalism marred the Duvalier years. Perhaps — but only because the regime had a monopoly on violence, which it exercised at will.

If there is something to mourn on this occasion, it is the lost opportunity for democracy that Haitians dared hope for when Duvalier fled into exile almost 30 years ago. No one present in Haiti on that memorable day in February 1986, can forget the spontaneous outburst of jubilation that brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary Haitians into the streets to celebrate their liberation.

Their joy was short-lived. First came the seemingly endless series of coups and harsh military governments that thwarted hopes for democracy. Then, after the army was disbanded, came the grasping politicians whose only ambition was to achieve personal power and wealth.

That is the legacy of Duvalierism. It can be seen in the winner-take-all attitude that has prevented Haitian politicians from working together to solve the nation’s problems. Even today, Haitian President Michel Martelly and his political opponents have been unable to agree on electoral rules, which will soon mean that Mr. Martelly will be able to rule by decree in the absence of a constitutionally recognized parliament. Duvalier may be dead, but Duvalierism is not.

Duvalier returned to Haiti, where he died on Saturday, in 2011, calling it a gesture of solidarity with its people following a calamitous earthquake. He was arrested on charges of embezzlement, but after a brief moment of detention was set free and lived out his last days in relative luxury.

It is scandalous that Duvalier died before he fully faced justice and what could have been the most important human-rights trial in Haiti’s history. His death should not be the end of it, however. Haitians need to know the full extent of his crimes. A truth commission or investigation should be set up to shed light on the abuses of the Duvalier era, to prosecute his henchmen, and to determine whether any of the riches he stole from the country can be found and repatriated.

Haitians deserve to know the facts, so they can learn from the terror of the past. Otherwise, they are doomed to be pulled under by its still-roiling undertow.