Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti’s former president, known to one and all as “Baby Doc,” died of a heart attack last week in Port-au-Prince, aged only 63.
He was not mourned.
Rumor in Haiti had it that the son of “Papa Doc,” the fearsome late dictator, Francois Duvalier, had died as a result of a deadly curse by one of the nation’s leading “houngans,” or voodoo lords. Sweet revenge said many Haitians.
In the mid-1960’s, my old friend Tijo Noustas and I, driven by youthful recklessness, crashed the dinner at Haiti’s National Palace. We met Baby Doc, who was just a little kid back then, and had a very, very scary encounter with Papa Doc Himself. I still recall his coke-bottle thick glasses and sinister, whispering voice.
Papa Doc ruled Haiti’s 10 million wretched people by a combination of supernatural fear and terror. Once a simple country doctor, Duvalier became Haiti’s leading voodoo houngan. Haitians believed he could turn himself into a crow, lay spells, raise the dead and kill at long distance.
If Haitians were not sufficiently cowed by voodoo magic, Papa Doc had his dreaded paramilitary thugs, the TonTon Macoutes (bogeymen in Creole). Dressed in blue denim from head to foot, the heavily armed TTM’s terrorized Haitians, abducting suspects, and imposing “street tax” on passersby. I had numerous run-ins with the TTM’s, all near-death experiences.
Papa Doc was a paranoid monster who routinely had his foes, real or imagined, shot at the yellow-painted Fort Dimanche. The executions were carried live on radio.
However brutal, Duvalier was supported by Washington which feared a Cuban-style takeover of Haiti. Castro’s Cuba was only 80km from Haiti across the strategic Windward Passage and looked like heaven compared to Haitian Hell.
When Duvalier died in 1971, his tubby, 114 kilo son, Jean-Claude, was put into power as a figurehead by the TonTon Macoutes, the wealthy mulatto business elite and Uncle Sam. He was a miserable creature, afraid of his own shadow, terrified, like many Haitians, that Papa Doc might rise from his grave like the evil voodoo deity, Baron Samedi.
The mulattos and TTM’s went on looting Haiti’s meager resources while the other 99% lived near starvation, afflicted by parasites, typhoid, syphilis, and diseases known only in Central Africa, which rural Haiti resembled. Port-au-Prince, once a charming colonial city, became a cesspool of rubbish and swarms of diseased beggars.
Many Haitians considered the era 1915-1934, when Haiti was occupied and run by the US Marine Corps, as the only felicitous time in their tragic history and hoped the American military would return.
In the 1780’s, Haiti, then a French slave colony, was the richest nation in the Western Hemisphere, including Spain’s gold and silver-producing Latin American colonies. Four crops a year of that era’s version of today’s oil riches– cocoa, dyes, spices, sugar, coffee and tobacco –poured into France. Bordeaux and Nantes were built on the revenues of the West Indies trade and slavery.
Then came slave revolts in 1791 and 1804 that drove out even Napoleon’s veteran troops. Able slave leaders like Toussaint L’Overture and J.J. Dessalines were quickly replaced by fools and mental deficients, ending in the mad emperor Henri Christophe who finally shot himself with a silver bullet outside Cap Hatien. Whites were massacred. Haiti’s freed slaves relentlessly cut down its trees to make charcoal. Heavy rains washed away Haiti’s rich topsoil, leaving erosion and famine, the hemisphere’s worst environmental, social and political disaster. Haiti became the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The inept Baby Doc and his beautiful mulatto wife, Michelle, were finally kicked out of Haiti in 1986, taking with them steamer trunks of cash. They went into a gilded exile in Paris, then Grasse. Various inept leaders replaced the younger Duvalier, including a Marxist former priest, J.B.Aristide who was in turn deposed by a US-engineered coup and shipped off to South Africa.
As a final misery, a massive 2011 earthquake devastated much of Haiti, killing tens of thousands, or even a million, no one knows. UN “rescue” troops from Nepal spread cholera; other UN troops paid girls \$1 for sex.
Baby Doc’s wife Michel, having spent all their money on shopping, announced she was leaving him. “You can’t do that,” he pleaded, “I’m president of Haiti”
She hissed back, “I married the president of Haiti; you’re now a nobody!” And left.
Baby Doc finally returned to Haiti and claimed he would face accusations of mass murder and genocide. He never did. Many Haitians knew that poor Baby Doc was no monster, just a faint reflection of his frightening father and a henpecked husband. Duvalier II was more worthy of pity than retribution.
And so last week, his sad life withered away in Port-au-Prince as Haiti continued to sink ever deeper into an abyss of poverty, disease and hopelessness.