Baby Doc returns to the scene of the crime

January 19, 2011

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to Haiti in mid-January, 25 years after he was driven into exile by a popular uprising in 1986. Shortly after his arrival, he was taken into custody from his luxury hotel and charged with corruption, embezzlement and other crimes that occurred during his brutal 15-year reign. Duvalier was allowed to leave custody, but was ordered to remain in the country while the charges are investigated.

Isabeau Doucet is a journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She has been reporting on the humanitarian crisis gripping Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck there in early 2010. This article was written several days before Duvalier's arrest.

THE RETURN to Haiti of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier on January 16 has brought a chilling new element of chaos and insult to a country already in the grips of a democratic crisis.

Baby Doc's return forces obvious questions about the continued forced exile of twice-democratically elected and overthrown Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose political party, Fanmi Lavalas, still the most popular party in Haiti, was excluded from running in the recent elections.

Duvalier's return demonstrates that the popular movement that overthrew him, uprooted his Macoutes, disbanded his army, and elected the country's first and only mass-based government has itself, for the time being at least, been put safely out of action: broken, divided, misrepresented, discredited.

During last week's one-year anniversary of the earthquake, in addition to the commemoration of the tragic loss of life, and also outrage at broken promises and systematic NGO, UN and government failure, much of the discussion was over a leaked copy of the Organization of American States (OAS) findings about the contested November 28 elections.

Haitian police lead Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier out of his hotel
Haitian police lead Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier out of his hotel

According to the international monitoring body, President René Préval's desired successor, son-in-law Jude Celestin, should be disqualified from participating in the second round of the elections. But independent observers said the OAS had used questionable methodology in coming to what Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research called "a political decision," adding it was "highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented for any electoral authority to change the results of an election without a full recount."

SO HOW does Baby Doc fit into this? His father, François, a country doctor and amateur anthropologist, took power after winning a rigged election in 1957. He used voodoo influence and a Haitian militia called the Tonton Macoute to terrorize all segments of the population and installed his inept, socialite son, Jean-Claude, as president for life.

An estimated 50,000 people were killed under the Duvaliers. There was no freedom of speech, dissidents were murdered, jailed or forced into exile. Haiti has never recovered from this brain drain of the intellectual class, exiled into diaspora.

Haiti's oral culture means that information circulates by rumors--the word on the street, in the hotels, on the radio, on Twitter and bouncing all over town via text messages. The whispers are a typically contradictory mixture of half-truth and falsehood: Baby Doc was brought back by Préval to support Celestin for a Duvalierist succession; Aristide is poised in Panama and the army is coming back next; Baby Doc is sickly and dying, and already has a return ticket; Préval has been forced to leave the country; this is France and the U.S.'s doing.

In recent years, a perverse nostalgia for the days before democracy and the neoliberal liquidation of the state--which Baby Doc set in motion--had taken hold. Street graffiti sarcastically pronounced, "Bon retour, M. Duvalier." Today, that is no longer a sardonic jest. Most of Haiti's population is too young to remember anything of the Duvaliers' regime, but they are so desperate for change that some might welcome even him in their hope for a return to "the good days."

If any existing candidates in the election could capitalize on this misplaced nostalgia, they might see themselves sharing the podium with Baby Doc. Martelly, the compa singer who, according to the OAS recommendations, would replace Celestin in the second runoff round, has been known to praise Tonton Macoute leader Michel François.

Leading candidate Madam Manigat, the 70-year-old law professor and former first lady who cut her political teeth in the aftermath of the Duvalier dynasty, still has ties to the old order. Even candidates like Charles-Henri Baker, whose political career had seemed all but over after a poor showing in November, seems to enjoy special access to Duvalier and could look to benefit from Baby Doc's support.

Duvalier surely wouldn't risk this return without being confident that Préval's threat, in the autumn of 2007, that he would have to "face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars" was now empty rhetoric. It's almost impossible to imagine Préval wanting any association with Baby Doc, so if he's had any hand in this, it could be that he wants to use the specter of Haiti's authoritarian far-right past in order to strengthen the shaky case for his "centrist" successor.

Then again, the return to the political scene of a "strong man" could be the latest example of how little respect the international community has for Haitian leadership and democratic process. Could this, ultimately, be the explanation for why Baby Doc would return now, in these crucial days that are to determine the political future of Haiti? Haitians are dying to know.

What is certain is that Baby Doc's return is merely the starkest manifestation yet of a basic political fact--after the interlude of 1990-2004, Haiti has once again become a de facto dictatorship. Its affairs are at the mercy of the international community, and this latest, so-called democratic election is double-speak for a process that effectively ensures the near-total disempowerment, exclusion and pacification of the Haitian people.

First published at the Guardian.

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