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Document Friday: “Anti-Duvalier Haitians might seek revenge, even after 20 years.”

January 21, 2011

Baby Doc Duvalier, President for Life.

Even before Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic warned that Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s return to Haiti would be “unhelpful.”  A February 2006 cable –published on The Guardian’s website– quotes the Foreign Minister of the Dominican Republic telling the US Ambassador that, “Anti-Duvalier Haitians might seek revenge, even after 20 years.”  Today’s hot documents show why.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive 220, which stated, “The flight of Jean-Claude [Baby Doc] Duvalier from Haiti has created an opportunity to break the pattern of Hatian history.”  By almost all accounts, Baby Doc’s [1971 to 1986] reign –though bad– was less bloody than that of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier [1957-1971].

According to a 1970 US Interdepartmental National Security Study Memorandum, “Many of [Papa Doc’s] acts have seemed deliberately calculated affronts to Western human values.” The affronts included: “the wanton killing of entire families…the wholesale elimination of villages…the stealing of [a rival’s] corpse at a funeral; the beating of worshipers inside of Port-au-Prince cathedral; the forced attendance of school children at a public execution…the public display of a rotting corpse on Port-au-Prince’s main thoroughfare; the delivery of the severed heads of his enemies to Duvalier; [and] the forcing of his son-in-law Max Dominique to take part in the execution of his friends.”

From National Security Study Memorandum Study 70 -- Haiti.

Papa Doc initially won power with the backing of poor, lower-class Haitians.  He used the indigenous Voodoo religion to create a cult of personality at home, and a reputation as a exotic, spooky despot abroad.  Though some of his actions may be apocryphal, the terror he levied on Haitians was not.  He claimed to be Baron Samedi, the Voodoo spirit of death.  He cemented his power by creating death squads named the “Tonton Macoutes” or “bogymen,” who patrolled Haiti wearing mirrored sunglasses and designer T-shirts.  In 1963, a political enemy attempted to assassinate Papa Doc; Duvalier came to believe that the would-be assassin had transformed into a black dog.  He ordered all black dogs killed. (Papa Doc eventually tracked down the killed the assassin and –it’s said– had his enemy’s head put on ice so he could spend some time with it.)  Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists even recount that Papa Doc boasted of using Voodoo to kill the president.

Baby Doc’s lifestyle was no less atypical.  It’s reported that in 1979 he married his mother because she believed “she had to renew a pact with the devil that her husband had made 22 years earlier.”  During his reign, members of the Duvalier clan made money exporting blood plasma and cadavers to the United States and other countries– no doubt some came from his political enemies.

"One day all this will be yours." Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

Before his 1971 death, Jean-Claude designated his nineteen-year-old son Francois “Successor to the Presidency.”  Papa Doc called for a popular referendum to ratify his choice of successor.  According to the the official Haitian results, all but three votes were for Baby Doc; there was also one negative vote and two blank ballots.

A month before Papa Doc’s death, a National Security Counsel study predicted that the “self-indulgent and corpulent” Baby Doc’s success as ruler of Haiti “would depend on his own ability to stay alive over the next few years.” Not a ringing endorsement.

In fact, Baby Doc ruled for fifteen years, a longer period than his father.  During his reign, he even managed to find time to study law at the University of Haiti (I can’t determine if he got his J.D. or not.)  Initially, according another NSC report, Baby Doc “committed to more liberal policies” than his father, including loosening press restrictions and freeing some political prisoners.  The Haitian economy and tourism industry rebounded for a bit.  Bill and Hillary Clinton even honeymooned on the island.

Many consider Baby Doc’s 1980 wedding to Michele Bennett to be the event that led to his downfall.  The wedding cost more than $3 million dollars –presumably stolen from the Haitian population– and was awarded a spot into the Guiness Book of World Records as “the most expensive ever staged.”  The wedding’s cost cost and grandeur –as well as the upper-class background of his bride– led to increased resentment of Baby Doc by the Haitian population.

A "bogymen" from the Tonton Macoutes.

In 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti echoed Baby Doc’s nascent opposition, proclaiming “Something must change here.” In 1986, in response to widespread food riots and a crippled economy, Duvalier fled to Paris where he continued to live an opulent life.

This week, Baby Doc returned to Haiti where he may face charges for corruption and other crimes.  State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley cited “the delicate situation that Haiti faces, the many challenges that Haiti faces in terms of public health, in terms of reconstruction, in terms of the ongoing election process,” and explained that Duvalier’s return was “not… particularly useful at this time.”  I tend to agree.  And Crowley could have also cited the historic record.

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