This piece by Laurent Dubois appeared in The New Yorker.
In January, 2011, one year after an earthquake killed tens of thousands of people (by some estimates, hundreds of thousands), Jean-Claude Duvalier landed unannounced in Haiti following twenty-five years of exile in France. In the years between his return to the country and his death on Saturday at the age of sixty-three, he circulated freely about Port-au-Prince, meeting with old friends, dining at fancy restaurants, and occasionally accepting invitations to government events. For Haitians who had suffered imprisonment or torture under his regime, or who had been forced into exile themselves, Duvalier’s unapologetic presence in the country was shocking. A group of twenty-two plaintiffs, the Collectif contre l’impunité (the Collective Against Impunity) had been pushing for a trial against him, and had been gathering evidence to present in court. This February, they won a victory when a Haitian appellate court ruled that Duvalier could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law. The next step never came, and now it is too late. According to the Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody, who worked on the case, “Duvalier’s death robs Haiti of what could have been the most important human-rights trial in its history.”
Instead of a trial, we’ll have a funeral. What will it look like? Who will speak, and what will they say? In a tweet, Haiti’s President, Michel Martelly, made clear the tone he would seek to set: “Despite our quarrels and differences, let us salute the departure of an authentic son of Haiti.” But how we remember Duvalier is much more than a matter of “quarrels and differences”; it is a question of how, decades on, we should remember and confront a haunting and traumatic history of political repression.
Jean-Claude Duvalier was the grandson of Duval Duvalier, an immigrant from the French Caribbean colony of Martinique. He was also, in crucial ways, the son of a U.S. occupation of Haiti. That occupation, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, gave Jean-Claude’s father, François, his major professional and political opportunities. François studied in a medical school set up by the United States, which had closed down the existing Haitian medical school because its professors opposed the occupation, and he spent a year at the University of Michigan. He absorbed and became a part of the major cultural currents generated by the U.S. occupation, notably the teachings of the great Haitian thinker Jean-Price Mars, and wrote historical and ethnological studies.
Out of these influences, François Duvalier—who was elected President in 1957—crafted a twisted interpretation of Haitian history and politics that formed the ideological basis for his authoritarian regime. Haiti, he argued, drawing upon the racist theories of the French theorist Arthur de Gobineau, was best suited not for European-style democracy but for leadership of a despotic “African” kind. Given that the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 had been central to the development of modern universal human rights, Duvalier’s interpretation was both historically suspect and deeply cynical. But it served his purposes, and those of many outside the country, well. A 1967 State Department study concluded that while Duvalier “approached psychotic proportions at times” he was a fitting President for Haitians, who were a “paranoid” group as a whole, burdened by a generalized belief in “animism.”
Jean-Claude was born in 1951 and grew up in Haiti’s National Palace, which doubled as a fortress and an arsenal. Elected in a murky and violent political campaign that began in 1956, his father responded to threats against his regime by expanding and perfecting his use of political repression and violence. He gradually eliminated or coöpted all potential sites of opposition within the country: labor unions and student groups, the Catholic Church, and the military, which he supplemented with a group of loyal paramilitaries that became known as the Tontons Macoutes.
On April 26, 1963, armed men attempted to kidnap Jean-Claude as he was driven to school. No one was harmed in the attack, but François Duvalier responded with a series of indiscriminate reprisals against military officers he suspected of scheming against him. His forces first attacked the house of a military officer, François Benoit, killing his family members and setting his house on fire while his seven-month-old baby was inside.
“Duvalierist violence appeared limitless,” the Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in his classic 1990 study “State Against Nation.” “And because it seemed limitless, it has been called irrational.” In fact, however, there was a broader strategy: violence was “a daily sign of the omnipotence of a state that obeyed no logic besides its own…. A tally of its causalities would count more scapegoats, more victims of sheer arbitrariness, of accidents of birth, or of presence at inopportune times and places than opponents who represented any real menace.”
Some U.S. leaders, notably President John F. Kennedy, offered lukewarm support to Duvalier’s opponents. But ultimately the regime was considered a necessary counterpoint to communist Cuba. Starting in the mid-nineteen-sixties, one U.S. President after another funnelled aid to Duvalier, even as waves of Haitian immigrants fleeing poverty and political oppression arrived in the U.S..
When François died in 1971, Jean-Claude inherited this carefully crafted form of centralized violence. To make sure the transfer of power went smoothly, the U.S. dispatched warships to the coast of Haiti. In his first speech, Jean-Claude declared, “The United States will always find Haiti on its side against Communism.”
Bolstered by the U.S., the regime operated with impunity. Government funds were embezzled and siphoned out of the country, which later enabled Duvalier to live well in exile. Poverty, environmental decline, and poor health conditions in much of the country went unaddressed. Those suspected of political opposition were imprisoned, tortured, or forced into exile. The notorious Fort Dimanche prison, where many prisoners were held, was the most vivid symbol of Duvalier’s repression.
In order to boost the economy, Duvalier offered incentives to foreign companies to set up factories in Haiti. Boosters claimed the country would become the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.” The factories came, and they did offer employment to some. (At one point, every ball used in Major League Baseball was manufactured in Haiti.) But the idea that such investment would provide a stepping stone to broader economic development proved false: without sustained support for the agricultural sector, which had always been the central economic engine in Haiti, and without broader investments in education and infrastructure, these initiatives mostly benefitted the companies that ran them. Worse, they contributed to the steady and unplanned expansion of Port-au-Prince. The major monument to this economic experiment is Cité Soleil, the sprawling slum that expanded around one of the industrial zones and housed far more people than could ever been employed by the factories.
Duvalier’s years in power triggered a vast wave of emigration, beginning in the nineteen-sixties and expanding in the seventies to include a diverse array of Haitians from all classes. They travelled however they could—by plane if they were lucky, more often on precarious boat journeys. The emigration created a Haitian diaspora in New York, Miami, Boston, and Montreal. Remittances became the major source of foreign aid to Haiti, comprising up to a third of the money flowing into the country by the early nineteen-eighties.
In these diasporic communities, sometimes referred to as the “liberated territory” of Haiti, intellectuals, artists, and activists criticized the Duvalier regime and protested U.S. policies that simultaneously sustained the dictatorship and turned away its fleeing victims. The Carter Administration’s emphasis on human rights led to an easing of political repression in the late seventies, during which journalists—notably those at Radio Haiti—began criticizing the government from within. With the election of Ronald Reagan, Duvalier’s regime once again lashed out against its political opponents, but the seeds of opposition had been planted, and by the early eighties resistance in both rural areas and cities expanded. After several high-school students were killed by police during a protest in Gonaïves, a national uprising broke out and forced Duvalier into exile. During the following decade, the country was haunted by what Trouillot called “Duvalierism after Duvalier,” as democratic advances were met with military coups carried out by members of the old regime. These political upheavals brought more suffering to Haiti’s people, and sent new waves of migrants towards the United States throughout the late eighties and early nineties.
When Duvalier is buried, there will be many conversations in the streets and homes of Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, and Gonaïves, but also in those of Brooklyn, Miami, Montreal, Cayenne, the Bahamas, Guadeloupe, and Paris. The memories of those who suffered under the Duvalier regime have been passed on quietly within families inside and outside of the country, and more openly through such writers as Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Frankétienne, and Edwidge Danticat. But many have inherited a hesitation to speak about what happened during those years. The deep desire for closure, redemption, and reparation is still shadowed by a legacy of impunity and forgetting. Haiti’s future depends on a serious reckoning with the inheritance of the Duvalier regime. Now that Jean-Claude is gone, what shape will that reckoning take?
For the original report go to http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/will-haiti-reckon-duvalier-years