By Max A. Joseph Jr.
History is replete of rehabilitated political leaders whose actions, while in power, were either misunderstood or purposely distorted. Conversely there are politicians who could not possibly be rehabilitated because they had exhibited a depraved indifference to human lives. The moniker “the great” certainly did not apply to Alexander (356-323 BC) during his lifetime, and no one could have foreseen that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who brought unbelievable sufferings to early 19th century Europe, would someday be revered as a visionary and social reformer.
That being said, many nations, big or small, have experienced momentous events in their history that define their existence. Haiti, a storied Caribbean country whose epic resistance against slavery at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries earns it the enmity of the greater world, is certainly one of those cases. Surprisingly, many historians, instilled with deep-seated prejudices, seem to have collectively decided that the Duvaliers-era, particularly that of Papa Doc which lasted 14 years (Oct 22, 1957-April 21, 1971) essentially defines Haiti history.
This past summer, a ten-episode docu-series “Evolution of Evil” chronicling the lives of the 20th century worst political villains was the foremost attraction on the American Heroes Channel (AHC). Needless to say, I stayed attuned. Luminaries such as Hitler, Mao and Stalin, Papa Doc, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Bin Laden and Benito Mussolini, made the infamous list.
In the segment on Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the producers, apparently too eager to prove the villainy of the late Haitian president, resorted to using inductive reasoning and gossips that defy logic, thus invalidating any legitimate argument against the man.
Demonizing Papa Doc as an “atheist and Vodou practitioner” (an oxymoron) that took advantage of a primitive, mostly illiterate and superstitious nation is consistent with the western perspectives of Haiti. Whether Papa Doc thought of himself as the Vodou deity Baron Samedi, “the lord of all cemeteries,” as Raymond A. Joseph, the former Haitian ambassador to Washington, authoritatively stated in the documentary, was utterly irrelevant to the subject-matter.
Papa Doc was certainly not the first and would not be the last of world leaders associated with the occult. And, considering that Vodou is a bona fide religion, I wish the ambassador would have taken care to explain why the late Papa Doc’s self-identification with a Vodou deity was macabre. I also wish the producers could have made use of testimonials of medical professionals that lent credence to their theory that a diabetic stroke that felled Papa Doc in 1959 was responsible for his purported “insanity.”
Not surprisingly I came away unimpressed with the segment because the smoking gun, which could have erased any reservations one might have had about Papa Doc, was simply not there. Their overreliance on gossips of notorious opponents of the Duvaliers, outrageous theories and scant attention to verifiable facts, is an indication the producers might be afflicted with a “chronic patriarchy disorder,” which sanctions a lower standard of proof whenever Haiti happens to be the subject-matter. It reminds me of the time I stumbled upon a booklet chronicling the great revolutions of the world in which the author stated that Toussaint Louverture, the famed slave that took command of the 1791 revolt, was a member of the mulatto elite.
On closer examination, much of the crimes attributed to “Papa Doc” Duvalier are exaggerations that support the narrative put forward by detractors and naively embraced by the unsuspecting public. The Duvaliers-era was unquestionably tyrannical, but does it warrant putting Papa Doc in the same category with notorious 20th century villains and geopolitical heavyweights like Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, who collectively were responsible for the deaths of well over a hundred million human beings? Shockingly, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Antonio Salazar of Portugal, Francisco Franco of Spain, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Rafael Trujillo of the DR were not included in this pantheon of devil incarnate.
It is patently absurd for anyone to insinuate or claim that Haiti would presently be stable and prosperous, had the Duvaliers not ascended to the country’s presidency, which seems to be the hypothesis upon which their vilification of “Papa Doc” is based. This pathological fascination with the Duvalier-era is, to say to least, bizarre considering that other noteworthy episodes in Haitian history such as the indemnity payment to France (1825) and the first U.S occupation (1915-34) exceeded by far the villainous actions of Papa Doc in scope and negative consequences. Even the current occupation of Haiti has already surpassed the Duvalier-era in terms of lives lost, economic despair, social dysfunction and human rights abuses.
Papa Doc presidency was definitely not transformational. Even Noirisme (a side-effect of the U.S. occupation), which could be used by historians as a mitigating argument for his rehabilitation, was a failure as its imprints on Haitian society have since faded into oblivion. I am neither an apologist for the Duvaliers nor a revisionist intent on disproving that their combined presidencies had negatively impacted Haiti. My only concern is that this perennial spotlight on the Duvaliers by people with vested interests, leaves Haitians blindsided to the internal and external challenges that actually pose an existential threat to Haiti. Though a rehabilitation of Papa Doc remains a farfetched possibility, his detractors are ironically making a case for it because their zealotry and gossips would be readily discarded by history.