I was a semester away from graduating from college when the news broke that Jean Claude Duvalier had fled in exile after more than 15 years in power. The day was February 7, 1986.
It was a momentous occasion that most Haitian émigrés had dreamed of, but never imagined would come true. The Duvalier brutal dictatorship had begun in 1957 with the election of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The elder Duvalier had selected his only son, then a 19-year-old, as president for life after his death in 1971.
With the regime in complete control of the country, the Duvalier era seemed poised to last for life. But a series of domestic faux pas and Marie Antoinette-like actions weakened the dictatorship and Jean Claude left after unrelenting protests led by university students.
I was at school in Tallahassee, Florida, watching the developments on television. I remember the image of a portly Jean-Claude driving, rather stoically. His fashionable wife, Michèle Bennett, was sitting in the front passenger seat as they sped to the airport with their son Nicolas — and a throng of photojournalists in tow, capturing the moment.
I watched the news with a mixture of excitement and dread. I was excited that my parents and their friends dreamed of seeing their tormentor leave the country once and for all. I dreaded the seminal moment, because I thought for sure that this is the only chance I would get to cover a big story out of Haiti.
To me, my opportunity ended with the Duvalier. But it was the first chapter of a story replete with missed opportunities, poor governance and international meddling that has seen the country descend into one crisis after another.
But it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
After Jean-Claude’s golden exile in France, the country’s military junta ruled for a couple of years and handed power to Eartha Pascal Trouillot – the first and only female president. She organized what is widely to be the first free and fair elections that ushered in the presidency of Jean Bertrand Aristide.
With that election, the country was giddy with excitement and continued the banbòch (fiesta) democratic that the military had called the transition period. What began as a celebration quickly turned sour when the military high command staged a bloody coup, sending Aristide to exile. He would spend three years in the United States before Bill Clinton sent 20,000 troops to “restore democracy.”
And so, as we celebrate the anniversary of Jean Claude’s departure – February 7 – became legally mandated as the date that a new president be sworn into office for a peaceful transfer of power under the constitution.
So much for not covering Haiti.
Haiti’s presidents a sorry lot
Since 1990, I’ve reported on every major and minor development out of Haiti. I’ve interviewed every president and most Prime Ministers, except for Jovenel Moïse and his team. I have a few thoughts about our presidents since Aristide. For the most part, these leaders have been either naive, incompetent or corrupt.
Aristide’s first term was aborted just after six months and derailed the democratic train. He failed to transition from an activist fighting the Duvalier regime to a president for all the people. He was a polarizing figure, beloved by the impoverished masses and despised by the tiny elite who saw in him a threat to their hegemony.
After his three-year exile in Washington, Aristide finished his aborted term and carried the rest of his presidency rather uneventfully.
Rene Preval I
Preval had been Aristide’s Prime Minister and his political “twin brother” and was elected president through a popular vote. His tenure was unremarkable with everyone knowing that he was warming up the presidential throne for Aristide. International delegates would visit Aristide’s private residence before meeting Preval at the National Palace. Ever the loyal deputy, Preval proposed no major projects so as not raise Aristide’s ire.
If denizens of Washington thought they had cultivated a democratic leader in Aristide, the former priest assumed the second term determined not to be toppled again. He began organizing and arming marginalized young men in the various slums into gangs loyal to him. He reneged on pledges he made as conditions for his return to power. He antagonized the elite once more and wrongly assumed his militia could protect him from a second coup.
It wasn’t meant to be. He was toppled yet again and forced to exile in Africa.
Aristide’s forced departure created another transitional government and another international invasion. First, the U.S. sent troops that gave way for a United Nations stabilization force, which brought cholera and credible accusations of sexual abuses of women.
It’s really remarkable when you think that Aristide was overthrown twice.
The second go-around for Preval saw a cagey political operative who was steeped in retail politics, promising nothing, and delivering few achievements. He kept the political opposition at bay by outwitting them and neutralizing them in ways that left them scratching their heads.
People voted for him thinking wrongly that he would bring Aristide back to power. He did no such thing. Preval made history by being the first person to serve two completed terms as president.
Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly was by far the worst president in Haiti’s modern time. He was completely out of his depth and his shallowness accelerated the country’s spiral to new depth. He spent his tenure pulling the wool over the Haitian people’s eyes. He took credit for projects that began under Preval and left nothing to his hand-picked successor, Moïse.
Moïse was unknown to most Haitians. By the time his election came around, the Haitian people had lost their appetite for democracy, becoming disenchanted and disillusioned with Washington blatantly interfering when their guy in Port-au-Prince didn’t win.
Moise was elected with about 10 percent of registered voters casting a ballot.
If Martelly was incompetent, Moïse was a political cretin with no base and no support from any segment of Haitian society. A corrupt leader, he picked fights that ultimately led to his assassination on July 7, 2021.
Sadly, I’m certain that the worst is yet to come. The police force, which replaced the Haitian army, is a fractured institution unable to protect and serve the people. It is fighting a losing battle against the gangs that Aristide started, which have become the de facto ruler of today’s Haiti, dictating the terms by which people abide.
Times like this I think back to February 7. It was such a glorious day then, now that date stature has diminished and means precious little to the masses that can’t seem to catch a break from a succession of profoundly bad leaders.