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Duvalier: end of an era

Published:Sunday | October 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Jean-Claude Duvalier
François-Nicolas Duvalier, the son of Haiti's late dictator Jean-Claude, listens to a woman during his father's funeral ceremony in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 11. Looking on is Baby Doc's ex-wife Michele Bennett. - AP

Myrtha Désulmé, Guest Columnist

Despite the many attempts on his life, it was a heart attack which got the better of Jean-Claude Duvalier on the morning of October 4. Controversy raged over his funeral arrangements.

President Martelly declared that the constitution stipulated that as a former head of state, Duvalier should receive a state funeral. But Haitian pro-democracy advocates around the world expressed their outrage in letters, newspaper articles, petitions, on radio, TV, and social media, denouncing that as an affront to the victims of the Duvalier regimes. The government backed down.

Jean-Claude was six years old in 1957 when his father, François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, was elected president. Papa Doc would declare himself president for life and create a totalitarian state, enforced by a secret police force known as Tontons Macoutes, which proceeded to institutionalise terror.

In 1971, Papa Doc, knowing himself to be near the end, amended the Constitution to lower the minimum-age requirement for the presidency from 40 to 18. Jean-Claude, nicknamed 'Baby Doc', was a plump and pampered 19-year-old playboy, more interested in fast cars and parties than in politics, when destiny would be thrust upon him by forces and events beyond his control. At his father's passing, the title 'president for life' would devolve upon him.

As president, Baby Doc continued to enjoy the perks of his inherited fiefdom, while his father's political hierarchy perpetuated the reign of terror. Thousands more were killed or fled during his 15 years in power, while he lived in luxury amid a starving people.

My own father having suffered the incurable wound of losing two sons to the infernal regime, I have always been intrigued by the phenomenon of dictatorship, and wondered how one man could hold an entire nation in bondage, enduring unspeakable cruelty for decades on end. Studying dictators through the ages, I managed to distil the essential ingredients of these regimes.

Dictatorship 101

Permanence at all costs is the raison d'être of any self-respecting dictatorship. The promise of order and prosperity is often the Trojan horse, which allows the dictator to get his foot in the door. Once in, he slowly starts to build a totalitarian state by dismantling civil liberties and controlling the flow of information.

The apparatus of coercion is first formed with the military. But all dictators know that the army is fickle, and that if the military can put them in power, it also has the power to take them out. To keep the army in check, he must therefore create his own private militia or secret police, made up of ruthless, unscrupulous men, who serve at his pleasure, and are willing to lay down their lives for him, in order to maintain the perks of their job, which include the right to loot, and the power of life and death over their peers.

Freedom of association, assembly and expression is severely restricted. Intimidation, torture, forced disappearances, illegal detentions, and executions of activists and political opponents run rampant. Independent newspapers and radio stations are closed. Journalists are beaten, jailed, and forced to leave the country. Any manifestation of disloyalty or dissent is brutally punished. Fear and suspicion become the currency of the society, which is kept off balance and collectively paranoid through heavy penetration of internal security.

Political brainwashing and indoctrination set in. The legions of spies, informers, paramilitary enforcers, interrogators, and torturers are then added to the mix, to police the limits of possible thought in a way which strips the citizen of the possibility of hearing a counter-narrative.

Resistance is futile

The ordinary man on the street begins to feel that all resistance is futile. There is no point in speaking out. At this point, Parliament is dissolved and the dictator rules by decree. State institutions like the judiciary and other forces of order are destroyed and replaced by a personality cult, in which myths about the dictator are created, making him out to be some supernatural being.

The Duvalier regime ticked off all of those boxes.

Though Papa Doc had risen to power on a platform of Negritude, or black nationalism, in 1980 Baby Doc fell prey to Michele Bennett, the proverbial mulatto temptress. Their wedding, which made the Guinness Book of World Records for its US$3-million cost, was the beginning of his dramatic downfall.

After years of decadent displays of wealth and corruption, the courageous Haitian masses had finally had enough. The entire country stood up as one to eject the tyrant, who, on February 7, 1986, fled on a United States military plane, to enjoy in France the millions stolen from the Haitian people. Michele soon made off with the millions, and Jean-Claude, a man who had inherited a country before he understood what it meant, but had never before travelled, became a forlorn and lonely figure, isolated by the horror associated with his name.

Duvalier's return

During the 25 years of Jean-Claude's exile, Haitians tried to claw their way back from the devastation, pain, and heartache left by the Duvaliers. They had expected that the president for life would be an exile for life, and were therefore shocked when, in January 2011, Baby Doc returned, claiming to have come to help his country.

Duvalier was briefly arrested. Three cases were filed against him for embezzlement of funds, human-rights violations, and crimes against humanity. But though officially placed under house arrest, he could be spotted dining in fine restaurants, attending parties, and official functions. His victims had the satisfaction of seeing him dragged before the courts, but received no closure, as court rulings were still pending at his death.

The Collective Against Impunity, which was leading the legal action against Duvalier, issued a press release that which vowed to continue prosecuting the architects and collaborators of the regime, and partially reads:

"The death of Jean-Claude Duvalier cannot serve as a pretext to perpetuate impunity ... . It is only by continuing the difficult fight against impunity that the spirit of the 1987 constitution - based on the rejection of the dictatorship and the respect of human rights - will finally be respected, and that Haiti can truly build a democratic state."

Myrtha Désulmé is the president of the Haiti-Jamaica Society, the Haitian Diaspora Federation's VP for advocacy and public policy, and Caribbean & Latin American rep. Emailfeedback to and