Reflections on the Death of an Unpunished Dictator

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainI was barely five years old when François Duvalier died and his nineteen year-old-son was sworn in as President in April 1971. This was done after the Haitian constitution was amended with neither national referendum nor proper parliamentary procedures to account for the dramatic change in the age requirement, from forty years of age to nineteen.

I remember my mom dressing me up for school: I had on a new pair of ankle-high black boots, khaki shorts and a white shirt. We had barely reached the first bend in the road when my grandfather quickly ran after us, ordering us to come back. I knew something was wrong, as other families scurried back into their homes. It was the first time that I recollect seeing my family gathered around a large radio in the living room; it was then that I had learned of the passing of a President.

I vividly recall being told that our President was for life, which obviously he was not. Life went on as I went back to school with a new picture plastered on the outer school walls. I remember laughing with some of our schoolmates at how chubby our new young President was. One of the peanut vendors told us that we would be arrested if we didn’t stop our silliness. We stopped.

Time went on. I became a teenage boy wearing long pants and riding motorcycles with children from Haiti’s most influential families; I also had very poor friends with whom I played football or marbles. Sometimes through jokes and other times through serious talks I learned from them about disappearances, about wives who were sleeping with military officers or public officials for political favors, and about who owned guns among the students and how to become a card carrying member of the Duvalier militia, the Macoute (Volunteer for the Security of the Nation/VSN).

Additionally, in 1971, in order to assure his power and his legacy as a strongman, Duvalier formed his private counterinsurgency military group, the Leopards, which was headed by the Commander Acédius Saint-Louis, and they carried repressive military operations around the capital that included the dumping of thousands of bodies in Ti-Tanyen, and also behind the notorious Lamanten garrison.

The Leopards were equipped and trained by the American Miami-based company, Aerotrade, whose CEO was James Byers. Let’s not forget Fort-Dimanche where thousands of Haitians were summarily tortured and starved to death. Duvalier was proud to let the nation know that “the son of a tiger was also a tiger.” Namely, that he also possessed the ferocious characteristics of his father. Indeed, the ferocity of the regime seduced a lot of young men and women who wanted to have carte blanche to carry out so-called “counterinsurgency.”

As one of my oldest brothers joined the Duvalier militia corps as a Security Intelligent Officer (VSND), a detective, I witnessed how allegiance to the Macoute machinery of power was far greater than family ties. My brother became a brute, a man intoxicated with power and devilishly defending the crimes of the Duvaliers. As other young men joined the machinery of repression, childhood friends were torn apart and even betrayals occurred.

I hated the régime. In May of 1980, there was the $5 million dollar national wedding that was lavishly displayed on public television while Haiti was going through its first major food shortage and episodes of famine in the Northwestern region of the country. The famine had commenced after the regime allowed “creole pigs” to be slaughtered due to pressure that the USAID placed on the government in a campaign to eradicate swine fever.

There were no cases of swine fever in Haiti. Since the government, as well as the Haitian bourgeoisie, never had a progressive vision for the country, they happily participated in the eradication campaign by killing the very livelihood of the peasants.

From 1979 until today, the floodgate of Haitian boats became a new marker in the economic as well as political repression of the Haitian people. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were legally sold to the Dominican Republic as sugarcane harvesters, the payment per worker added to the coffers of the National Palace. All the while, Jean-Claude Duvalier – then known as the Playboy President – was collecting an array of fancy foreign cars (from Mercedes Benz, BMW, to Audi), and likewise gifting them to opulent parties – the political gagòt – in order to satisfy his manhood. Perhaps most insulting of all were the trails of crisp gourdes he left flying to the ground for the dirt poor to fight over like dogs after his motorcade passed through disenfranchised neighborhoods.

By the time I left for the United States in December of 1981, Haiti was constantly in the news and nothing positive was projected. Haiti was portrayed as a nuisance. At the same time, the United States government continued to pour millions of dollars into the repressive state due to its anti-communist policies and extra-liberal international business plans, including Ronald Reagan’s devastating Caribbean Basin Initiative, which provided zero taxation to businesses, no rights to unionize, and allowed corporations to change names within ten years in order to enjoy renewed rounds of free tariffs.

Haiti was a heaven for sweatshops. More Haitians left the country as life became more difficult and basic hope was handcuffed by corruption, repression and incompetence. Under the Jimmy Carter administration, things improved in terms of human rights, but the structural damages suffered by the country were already too profound. When Duvalier and his cronies finally fell from power in 1986, the United States provided a rescue plan that saw the safe passage of a notorious dictator to safety in France, and in doing so prevented justice.

And so it was proven to be true: no justice, no peace. The millions of repressed people spoke the language they had been taught; Haitians were mad with joy, and that euphoric madness gave way to violence. Thus, the anger of a repressed people that fueled a bonfire of political uprooting likewise veered the country toward a continual reenactment of its traumas. Meanwhile, Duvalier was spending stolen money in a former colonial country that had inhibited Haiti’s development.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, uneducated in the affairs of governance, just as our current President and many others that preceded him, ran the country with an iron fist in order to cover up for the institutional lacunae that cripple its functioning. Due to our history of slavery, dictatorship, foreign occupation and more dictatorship, we Haitians have grown accustomed to and accepting of “the strongman” as a model; thus dictatorship as a mode of operation.

One could argue that the failures of Aristide, Préval and now Martelly rest squarely in the fact that they have had no model of democratic governance or economic inclusion in Haiti, and certainly no historical precedent of government that truly loves its nation in a non-folkloric way. What the Duvaliers gave us was a folkloric nationalism and “order” based on fear, which in turn generated a pathological populous that is cliquish, self-centered, narrow-minded and economically non-productive, constantly looking for a way out to a foreign country. Because they have never experienced stable and secure institution, it is no surprise that members of the elite are involved in kidnapping, drug trafficking and the systematic destruction of the rule of law. We have never had checks and balances. Haitians know first-hand the Duvalier rule of iron-fisted-laws and kleptocracy.

The governmental machinery propped by the Duvaliers concerned itself with the structural control of all aspects of Haiti’s socio-political life, which included the deputizing of 562 section chiefs who could then hire their own adjutants and lackeys. Such control was draconian and it created a level of paranoia as well as various forms pathologies among Haitians, including the egocentric military patriarch and clientellism (foli chèf and moun-pa).

So should Jean-Claude Duvalier receive a national funeral? No. He was never voted in by the people, and therefore was never a constitutionally legitimate president of the country.

Furthermore, with all of the crimes, bribery, and corruptions that occurred during his reign, by providing him with an “honorable” national funeral, it would be allowing green light to impunity to all dictators and demagogues who have soiled the Haitian nation in the name of nationalism. If Martelly and his pseudo-Duvalierist acolytes would like to pay homage to their “hero” as private citizens, it would be their rights to do so. But not one dime of the impoverished nation should be spent on a kleptomaniac while thousands of people are still homeless from the devastating earthquake.

Despite Jean-Claude Duvalier’s death, the search for justice must continue, and Haiti must finally be ruled democratically, responsibly, and with human interests as its core value.