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Haiti’s Duvalier dilemma

duvalier
Written by Debbie Ransome

From Caribbean Intelligence

Even in death, the Duvaliers have managed to shine a light on the deep splits in Haiti’s society.

When dictator and self-appointed “president-for-life” Papa Doc Duvalier died in 1971, after a 13-year reign of terror enforced by voodoo and violence, his grave was later destroyed.

After the mayhem caused by his notorious shadow security force, known as the Tontons Macoutes, that kind of reaction was understandable.

So, too, the sudden death on 4 October of his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, at the age of 63 did not lead to closure for Haitians, but has instead posed a dilemma over how his legacy should be viewed.

State funeral?

As the dust settled on the news that Jean-Claude Duvalier had died, it was clear that Haiti’s next headache was to decide whether to provide a state funeral for the former president.

If it were to take place, it would open up obvious divisions and probably provoke unrest in a country well versed in riotous protests.

Jean-Claude Duvalier had, in fact, been driven out of Haiti and into exile by exactly that kind of public reaction.

As spokespeople for current President Michel Martelly raised the prospect of a state funeral, supporters of the parties that had seen off Baby Doc wasted no time in shouting their displeasure.

Local station Radio Kiskeya reported on 7 October that a petition had been launched in four languages, just to make sure everybody had access, opposing the idea.

The station reported on the conflicting views in Haiti in the immediate days after Duvalier’s death,

Its website said: “The death of Jean-Claude Duvalier is the death of a tyrant and an oppressor of the Haitian people. But with this death, Duvalierism and the consequences of this regime for our country, unfortunately, do not disappear.

“The death of the tyrant should serve to revive our duty to remember. Because above and beyond formal conventions, in a democratic society, the respect due to heads of state is an important element of civic education.

“This respect is not related to power itself, or with having occupied presidential office, but to the responsibility to represent with dignity the people who chose him.

“Therefore, the honours due to a head of state are legitimate only when he was elected and not when he seized power by force, or if he has inherited and practised abject repression to maintain his rule.”

By the end of the week, it was clear that Baby Doc would not be receiving a state funeral.

The Duvalier ability to resuscitate the depths of Haitian tribalism had risen to the surface once again.

Crimes against humanity

In 2011, Jean-Claude Duvalier surprised Haitians and the world by returning home suddenly after 25 years in exile. Families of his victims promptly started to pursue him through the country’s courts for torture and other crimes against humanity.

In 2012, an investigating judge ruled that there was no provision in Haitian law for crimes against humanity and that Jean-Claude should stand trial only for misappropriation of public funds and in a lower court.

Following an appeal by victims with the help of human rights groups, Haiti’s Appeal Court reversed this decision in February of this year, on the basis that there could not be a statute of limitation for crimes against humanity and that not only Jean-Claude Duvalier, but his alleged collaborators, should also be brought to trial.

It was in this limbo of further investigation and prosecution that Jean-Claude keeled over at a friend’s house during a Saturday visit and died.

Human Rights Watch counsel and spokesman, Reed Brody, said: “It’s a shame that the Haitian justice system could not bring Baby Doc Duvalier to trial before he died.”

‘Justice and truth’

Within hours of Jean-Claude’s death, Amnesty International tweeted: “Death of Duvalier, but ‘you cannot kill the truth’ about the crimes of its regime”.

Amnesty went on to publish a more extensive statement on 7 October which called for the continuation of investigations and prosecutions “owed to thousands of people killed, tortured, arbitrarily arrested and disappeared under his regime”.

The Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara Rosas, said: “The death of Jean-Claude Duvalier must not be used to brush away the crimes committed under his regime.

“An entire network of volunteer militia and state authorities are also suspected of perpetrating human rights violations under Duvalier’s command. These people too must be investigated and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecuted in fair trials.

“This is not the final chapter in this horrific episode of Haiti’s recent history. Instead, it should be a reminder that there are thousands of victims who still deserve justice, truth and reparation for the human rights violations they suffered,” she added.

Amnesty and other human rights groups have spent years documenting Jean-Claude’s presidency which ran from 1971 to 1986. They believe that up to 30,000 people were killed during the regimes of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Human rights groups managed to track down victims and families of political leaders, journalists, trade unionists and those suspected of being opponents of first Francois and then Jean-Claude and document the activities of the infamous Tontons Macoutes (bogeymen), who worked as an unofficial presidential militia and characterised the Duvalier dynasty.

The secret society nature of Haiti was captured in Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, of which Greene himself wrote: “Poor Haiti itself and the character of Dr [Papa Doc] Duvalier’s rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect.”

In what today would be viewed as an amazing rebranding exercise, the Tontons Macoutes were renamed in 1971 as the Milice de Voluntaires de la Sécurité Nationale (Volunteers for National Security).

‘Slap on the face’

Current President Michel Martelly also took some of the brunt of the human rights groups’ anger when Amnesty’s Erika Guevara Rosas announced public meetings in Canada, the home of one of Haiti’s largest Diaspora groups.

She added: “Whereas President Martelly could have expressed compassion for the thousands of victims of Duvalierism and participated in forging memories about the crimes committed at that time, he willingly decided to express ‘sadness’ and ‘sympathy’ only for Duvalier’s family.

“This is a slap on the face for human rights and the victims’ struggle to justice.”

For anyone looking for a fresh start and a Year Zero for Haiti following the funeral of its last dictator, analysts say: Think again.

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), which has studied Washington-Haiti relations for decades, says that Haiti’s problems go much deeper than outgoing dictators and exiled rulers.

“Its [Haiti’s] problems are not solved in anyway by his [Duvalier’s] death,” he told Caribbean Intelligence.

He puts Haiti’s problems down to a mixture of a sell-out of Haiti’s trade prospects many years ago by Washington and what he calls Haiti’s own “kooky” politics.

On the Washington side, Mr Birns points to the Clinton era, when Haiti’s potential rice export industry prospects suffered because of US interests in rice-growing areas, including Arkansas and Louisiana.

He said that President Clinton had to “undercut” Haiti’s rice industry in favour of the subsidised rice from American states.

He said that Washington had also interfered in Haiti’s domestic events to make sure it could never become another Cuba.

“Washington still sees Aristide as a menace and will not countenance his election,” Mr Birns told Caribbean Intelligence.

“There is unfinished business here,” he said of Washington’s relationship with Port-au-Prince.

Larry Birns points out that the US continues to look upon Haiti solely as a source of refugees to be kept away from American shores and as an important point in the fight against illegal drugs.

“The Haitian problem as viewed from the State Department,” he explains, “should not be overwhelmingly to keep Haiti from being another Cuba.”

On US aid to Haiti, Mr Birns says that there are no programmes to present “any real prospect for Haiti to do it alone”.

A new era for Haiti?

For a country that started off with the most Caribbean promise in the 18th Century, Haiti seems to have headed in the wrong direction, as the rest of the region around it has become the middle-income part of the so-called developing world.

Haiti’s Revolution saw the defeat of Napoleon’s forces and led to the 1804 declaration of independence which made Haiti the first black republic in the world and the second nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, to win independence from a European power.

After Haiti became independent, France stepped in with a massive claim for compensation on behalf of its slave owners. For many observers, that was the start of the new republic’s slide into never-ending poverty.

For many Haiti watchers, the country’s problems go way beyond the Duvaliers – both Papa and Baby Doc – and even beyond the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Many predict that Haiti’s problems might never actually be solved.

Joseph Katz, a long-term analyst of Haiti, wrote two days after Baby Doc’s death: “Jean-Claude Duvalier is dead, but he will haunt Haiti for years to come.”

In his article, Mr Katz catalogues the continuing political dance between Duvalierists in the cabinet of President Martelly and their opponents, supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who flew back to Haiti from his own exile within months of Baby Doc’s return.

According to the World Bank, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world, with a 2013 GDP per capita of US$820.

The World Bank said that 59% of Haitians live below the national poverty line of $2 a day and that it is “one of the [world’s] most unequal countries”.

COHA’s Larry Birns says that another issue holding back Haiti’s development is what he refers to as the “linkage” between Haiti’s very wealthy class and policymakers in Washington.

“It is the permanent poor man of the Caribbean,” he told Caribbean Intelligence.

“There is nothing on the horizon to lighten Haiti’s woeful plight,” he concluded.

Debbie Ransome is the Editor at Caribbean Intelligence. For more on CI, click here.

About the author

Debbie Ransome

Editor, Caribbean Intelligence

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