Like the headless horseman from Sleepy Hollow, former president Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier resurfaced on January 16 in Haiti, a quarter century after Haitians revolted and removed him from power.
He was spotted in a Port-au-Prince hotel that afternoon enjoying a relaxing meal with a small coterie of friends, making no effort to shield himself from the crowd and the cameras.
“I was in Haiti at the time,” recalled Ilio Durandis, founder of the grassroots organization Haiti 2015. “I thought it was a rumor. Everybody was shocked. I texted some friends: Have you heard? Is CNN on it?”
As Durandis was leaving the country on the same day, he decided to drop by Duvalier’s hotel, not far from the airport. There, he saw the former dictator waving to the people.
“No one knows why he’s back,” Durandis said. “There’s a lot of speculations.”
Duvalier was charged by authorities on January 18 with corruption, embezzlement and wrongful association committed during his regime, from 1971 to 1986.
Like the rest of the world, Haitian immigrants are trying to make sense of Duvalier’s intent: Is he out to make peace and stake a forgiving place in history, or is he intent on reclaiming power as Haiti assembles a government in disarray? Why now as the country remembers the first anniversary of the fatal earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and left nearly 3 million without homes?
Whatever the reasons, Durandis believes the United States and France knew about Duvalier’s movements, and were complicit. France is where Duvalier has lived in exile since a popular uprising overthrew his dictatorship in 1986. A U.S. military aircraft transported the family there.
Like Durandis, many Haitian Americans are too young to have personally experienced the brutality of Duvalier’s regime, inherited from his father, the ruthless Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier who ruled from 1957 to 1971. Both dictators were spectacularly vicious and violent, and stories about them are like moralistic folk tales, passed down by generations of Haitians.
“For me the Duvalier regime was a source of enigma,” wrote Haitian Times editor & publisher Garry Pierre-Pierre. “I remember François broke my aunt Christine’s tooth when he threw a bunch of coins at her while we were standing in our courtyard in Ruelle Alerte. From time to time, Francois would tour the city and throw money at pretty women.”
Pierre-Pierre left Haiti after Baby Doc became president in 1971 and came to New York to live with his mother.
M. Skye Holly, a student at The New School, said her mother made sure to remind the family of what it was like to live in fear and defiance under the Duvaliers.
“He was greatly despised,” the Brooklyn native said of Baby Doc. “He inherited the dislike and disgust that so many Haitians had for his father. Local artists would depict him in paintings as a cross dresser, which was supposed to be an ultimate insult.” Human Rights Watch cited estimates of 20,000 to 30,000 civilians killed by Duvalier’s private army.
Holly says many Haitians were offended by Duvalier’s ostentatious lifestyle while most of the population was living in dire poverty. “When Duvalier married, it was a lavish wedding, and locals were upset that he could spend so much money on a wedding while so many Haitians were living in horrible conditions.” Duvalier spent an estimated US $3 million on the state-sponsored affair.
But not all Haitians feel negatively about Duvalier’s legacy. Florida business owner Serge Pamphile, who spoke sympathetically of Duvalier, said the country needs a strong leader and that most Haitians “behave and respond better under strong authorities.”
“For the past 25 years, we have tried every kind of president, and it has not worked,” he said. “So, that’s why we need someone like Duvalier to take over and run the country.” In November, Haiti held the first round of presidential elections, but after accusations of widespread fraud, the political scene is gridlocked.
Some say Duvalier’s return is the latest catastrophe the country did not need, like the earthquake, the cholera epidemic, and the widely disputed November elections, but Pierre-Pierre sees it as an opportunity for the country to process its past and move forward.
“Haiti has been stuck since then, partly because the people have never exorcised the demons that were the Duvaliers. Jean-Claude left the country not having been held accountable for anything, and his absence has been jarring to Haitians. If he is forced to face justice, Haitians can begin the arduous task of rebuilding their nation,” he said.
For many Haitians, as they look at a country that still bears the scars of victimization and poverty, the questions remain.
“Is it shock, desperation or regret?” asked Holly. “If he saw the images of the earthquake’s devastation, could he see the devastation that he caused? I’d like to know.”
Durandis said the former strongman has every right to return and live in Haiti if that’s what he wants, but he must be held accountable for his family’s abuse of power over seven decades.
A public apology or an acknowledgement of remorse for the violence the family had inflicted would be a start, said Durandis.
“History is there, our parents are still around. I don’t think we can forget, but we can forgive,” he said.
Note: The original version of this article has been corrected to report that Duvalier was charged by authorities, but not arrested, as originally reported.