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Coming face-to-face with Haiti’s Duvalier past

Last Sunday, in an effort to escape the intense summer heat of Port-au-Prince, I called into a restaurant on the out-skirts of the city.

Sitting just a few tables away was an instantly recognisable face: former Haitian dictator Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who surprised many with his return to Haiti last year.

The experience was at the same time disturbing and surreal. I stared at him without smiling and he looked back at me as though he recognized me. He sat on a table with two others and I realized that although everyone around must have known who he was, everyone pretended otherwise.

Although I grew up outside of Haiti, the Duvalier dictatorship was always part of my reality. I associated him with the notorious prison of Fort Dimanche and his private militia, known as the Tonton Macoutes. This dictatorship was the very reason I did not grow up in my country of birth.

Crossing paths with him for the first time in my life reminded me that he and his father were responsible for upwards of 30,000 civilian deaths during his rule, not to mention a mass exodus of Haitians from the country.

Port au Prince

Duvalier’s brazen meanderings around Port-au-Prince reminded me of a recent discussion that I had with Sylvie Bajeaux, the widow of Haiti’s foremost human rights leader, Jean Claude Bajeux. Sylvie lamented that by ignoring the issue of justice in attempting to reconstruct the country, Haiti was destined to repeat its past mistakes.

Despite his supposed house arrest, I had heard from others about Duvalier’s public appearances. I had heard of people leaving restaurants in silent protest at his presence but I knew of only one person who refused to stay silent. This person confronted Duvalier at a popular restaurant and blamed him for the exile of his wife. Duvalier retorted that he had taken responsibility for all that had happened.

It is ironic that Duvalier could flaunt his freedom while petty criminals are known to languish for years in prison. Perhaps it is this reality that makes Sylvie’s prediction ring true. If the state cannot carry out justice equally, how can it build a strong institution that meets the needs of all of its citizens?

But despite this fact, Duvalier’s public appearances demonstrate that there has not been tremendous public clamour that Duvalier be held accountable for his crimes. Sylvie attributes this to the fact that Haiti’s large young population has no memory of his regime. In fact, school books largely ignore the 29-year dictatorship. The era is instead heralded nostalgically as a time when law and order prevailed.

Given Haiti’s weak judiciary, it is not surprising that earlier this year an investigative judge recommended that Duvalier be tried only for corruption, not human rights violations. Some argue that prosecution would damage a reconciliation process in the country.  Sylvie argues that history shows that reconciliation can only be possible when there has been an honest accounting of a sordid past, not by disregarding it. 

Photos: Top:The ruins of Port au Prince Cathedral stand as a reminder of the tragedy that befell Haiti on January 12th, 2010.  Photo Eoghan Rice. Bottom:  Young girls at the Ecole Anne Marie Javouhey in Port au Prince where Trócaire funded school repairs and a feeding programme after the earthquake. December 2010. Photo: Jeannie O’Brien.

Regine Dupuy is Trócaire’s Country Representative in Haiti.

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