Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

On Saturday Haitians in the United States and in the homeland received news of the death of Jean-Claude Duvalier and shrugged collectively. The Duvalier years — from 1971 to 1986 — are ones that most Haitians would rather forget. Many of us moved away from Haiti and sought a better life anywhere, but our troubled homeland.

Many of my American colleagues don’t understand why we want to forget such atrocities. For one thing, we are a passive aggressive nation, and in our mind, we dealt with the regime of the Duvaliers by burning and looting and even necklacing (burning alive with a tire across the body of the victim) those we suspected were Duvalier henchmen or sympathizers. Of course, many victims were low-level sycophants who didn’t know better to lay low when Jean-Claude was ushered out of the country to a comfortable exile in France.

Jean-Claude’s return three years ago to Haiti foreshadowed the reaction of his death. No one cared that he was back and he seemed immune from prosecution because the country had been through hell and back since he left in February 1986. Our democratic experiment hadn’t gone as planned and we’re still struggling to rebuild institutions that were destroyed or weakened under the rogue regime ushered by Jean-Claude’s father, Francois.

Francois, a country doctor who earned a masters of public health degree from the University of Michigan, killed, maimed and exiled his detractors. He instilled a climate of fear and tyranny that pitted families against each other, husbands against wives and so on. No one was sure where the other person stood politically, so therefore, conversations about the news of the day were kept to ourselves.

I left Haiti too young to have understood the Duvalier years in person. But over the years, I’ve come to understand them quite well, having pored over in history books, traveled the world and covered Haiti for the over two decades. No one in my family was directly targeted by the regime, but my parents lived in fear that young men in our family were seen as a threat and could disappeared in the middle of the night like so many young men at the time did. They worried about whether their young daughters’ rebuff of a romantic advance of a tonton macoute – Duvalier’s sinister henchmen- would mean their demise.

So in the early 1960s, one after another of my relatives begin a slow, self-imposed exile. They left before tempting fate one last time. A decade later, we had few families left in Haiti and at that time, Jean-Claude ushered in a kinder, gentler dictator. He didn’t kill his enemies like his father did. He didn’t have to. Everyone knew the rules.

Contrary to popular conception, Haitians are not a vengeful people. There was a widespread feeling of sympathy for Jean-Claude, who returned to his birthplace a broken and ill man. It was clear he came home to die home, contrary to the thousands of people who died in exile forced on by Duvalier.

Human rights organizations have estimated that 30,000 people were killed under Jean-Claude. I’m not sure if this number is correct or not, but the survivors were zombified and lived else while physically in Haiti. At the peak of his power, Jean-Claude lived the good life. He drove fast cars and introduced orgies and drug uses to Haiti’s ruling class, which would later trickled down to the slums where crime is currently rampant.

He owned ranches and held lavish parties with his fashionable wife, Michelle. The most spectacular one was winter parties held inside the palace where women were decked out in fur coats purchased in New York and Paris. These fetes were televised for the poor masses to watch. Soon, the regime would fold and Jean-Claude continued his party in the south of France until the money ran out.

By the time Jean-Claude returned to Haiti, he had a revisionist history and set out to absolve himself of any of the crimes he was accused of, and even hinted that he was too much of a Democrat, which is why he lost power. He didn’t crack down hard enough.

President Michel Martelly was the first to break the news of Jean-Claude’s death on Twitter and the world has reacted. I had to cancel dinner plans on Saturday to do interviews about Jean-Claude’s death. I have an understanding family who shrugged the inconvenience and postponed our plans for next time.

Martelly, who is known as a neo-Duvalierist – his administration features many children of Duvalier’s ministers and staunch allies – has continued to go on Twitter to canonize Jean-Claude as a great leader. I think he is tempting Haitian people patience and inclination to let bygones be bygones.

It would be a great mistake if Jean-Claude receives a funeral worthy of a head of state. Martelly would be tempting his own political fate. He is riding high on projects that are coming to bear, but were on the drawing cards for years. As Bob Marley say you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. Martelly would be wise to heed this saying.

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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