François Nicolas Duvalier. Photo credit: François Nicolas Duvalier, Facebook
François Nicolas Duvalier. Photo credit: François Nicolas Duvalier, Facebook

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

This year marks Haiti’s 215 years of independence from France and from what every analyst is saying, it will be a difficult one politically and economically. Last year, 2018, was particularly trying for President Jovenel Moise, a political neophyte with no base of support. His grip on the country appears tenuous at best.

His struggles, coupled with more than a decade of consistent mismanagement, has people exasperated and yearning for a change. The economy is reeling and there appears to be no respite for a country that has been through one political upheaval after another.

As if this is not problematic enough, young people, particularly millennials in Haiti and the Diaspora, are turning their eyes and pinning their hope of a better Haiti on Nicholas Duvalier, the grandson and son of the dynastic family that misruled and terrorized Haiti for 29 years.

I do not know the younger Duvalier. I have never heard him speak publicly and do not know of his political ideology; so I am reserving any judgement, harsh or otherwise. But I know of the dirty deeds that both his father and grandfather subjugated Haiti. I deeply believe, and the facts support this, that many of the problems Haiti faces currently can be traced back to 1957, when Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president in a vote rigged by the military. They thought that the country doctor would be easily manipulated and be a puppeteer. Boy were they wrong. He ushered in a reign of terror the likes of which the country had not experienced in its history.

I was a mere whisk of a 4 years old when Papa Doc’s caravan rolled through our neighborhood, as he often did during holidays or during visits by foreign heads of state. The bespectacled man locked eyes with my aunt and threw a handful of coins at her, breaking two of her front teeth.

This was a popular way for the dictator to show his largess and love of the Haitian people. He did a number on people across social and economic classes. He provided golden parachutes for the intelligentsia by sending them to Francophone African countries, who were newly freed from France and Belgium rule, to run their bureaucracy.  Papa Doc gave them a job with prestige and power while ridding himself of potential rivals. He did a number on the army, making them subservient to his goons, the Tonton Macoutes militia that he created as protection.

(L-R) Jean Claude“Baby Doc” Duvalier, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier
(L-R) Jean Claude“Baby Doc” Duvalier, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier

Papa Doc sent buses in rural areas to fetch dwellers to the capital and line up the streets and sing his virtues to show his visitors how much he was loved. But, he never paid the fare back to their villages. So they stayed having found the metropolis more livable than their hamlets. As a result, Port-au-Prince, a once middle-class enclave that was built for 200,000 people, began a slow descent into becoming a huge slum of more than 4 million inhabitants.

Every institution was weakened. Papa Doc even barred the Boys Scouts from operating in Haiti, fearing that it could become a den of opposition to his despotic rule. Summary executions were the norms. Haiti’s economy took a precipitous nose dive in sharp contrast to other Caribbean nations.

I was still a youngster but I could feel that the tension around the country was thick. People were guided by fear. People didn’t make eye contact in public. Family members were suspicious of each other. Songs and books that were deemed to be subversive were banned. Sure, there was little crime, but that’s because the state-sponsored terror machine made sure of it.

In 1971, Papa Doc introduced his son Jean Claude, “Baby Doc,” as his heir apparent. Baby Doc was only 19 when he ascended to power a few months after his introduction to the nation.  Papa Doc in his famous speech said that he had led the social revolution and that his son would usher the economic revolution that he couldn’t lead because of his premature death.

Baby Doc was the butt of jokes for being portly and not the sharpest knife in the kitchen. His father left him in good hands with his loyal lieutenants. Instead of ushering an economic revolution, Baby Doc siphoned the state’s coffers in Swiss and American banks.  He continued his father’s repression and a few years into his reign, young people began to leave the country in droves.

Baby Doc had proclaimed himself president for life and at a tender age of 20 something, he reasoned that he wasn’t going to die any time soon. So parents who could afford to send their young sons away did so.

The mid-70s was the era of Afro, funk music and bell bottom pants in the United States and of course, in Haiti young people followed American culture. But the goons around Baby Doc saw this trend ominously for their dear leader and began targeting young men.

One day, I watched a couple of Macoutes pounce on a young man who was sporting the coolest afro. Armed with scissors they mangled the fro’ so badly that they had to be cut. I can’t forget that scene more than 40 years ago because it terrified me so much.

By 1975, I was in the U.S. trying to fit in and forgetting about life in Haiti. I developed a fondness for baseball and a passion for American football. Haiti was a distant past in my life.

A decade later, Baby Doc would leave Haiti in the middle of the night amid popular uprisings. So my memories of Haiti are not academic, although in college I pored into books about Haiti as a student of history. It was not a wonderful place as some nostalgic types want us to believe now that the country seems mired in a perpetual crisis.

Too often I hear how wonderful, how clean, how safe Haiti was. No one remembered the zombification that took place. No one realized that Duvalier and his regime was turning Haiti into a nation of sheep.

The lack of leadership in the ranks is a stark reminder of the Duvalier legacy where people who speak up end up in bad places. There was no free press to speak of and a generation of young reporters emerging during the early 1980s was summarily arrested, jailed, beaten and exiled.

This is by no means an exhaustive look at the Duvalier regime; books have been written about that. Even a cursory look doesn’t paint a pretty picture. However, I am perplexed how people have chosen to forget reality and forge a new one for themselves. It’s delusional, plain and simple.

What Haiti needs right now is cadre of competent leadership and leaders who understand the country’s role in the Caribbean and the world at large. We need an educated populace who can be part of the arduous task of building institutions, civil society and infrastructure.

Thinking that someone with a surname that some falsely remember as our golden savior is foolish and will lead Haiti even deeper into the abyss that it already finds itself. What will cure Haiti is the resolve of all Haitians, including its Diaspora — not some mythical character, whatever his or her name is.

Garry Pierre-Pierre

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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