Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s former dictator, is to be buried Saturday in the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, without benefit of a state-sponsored funeral. As I discovered on a recent trip to Haiti, some Haitians, frustrated by the lack of economic progress and forgetful of the oppression he once represented, had begun to speak nostalgically of his family’s almost 30-year dictatorship. On his death last week, President Michel Martelly called him an “authentic son of Haiti”—without mentioning his appalling human rights record.
Baby Doc was a marker in my life. It was only when he succeeded his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1971 that my Haitian immigrant parents approved my visiting a native land I had not seen since age 12. The prevailing view, promoted by Jean-Claude’s backers, was that his regime would be Duvalier-light—a more tolerant, more benign version of the iron-fisted rule his father had imposed for 14 years. In some ways it was—after all, the new “president-for-life” was only 19 years old—and he seemed more interested in girls and motorcycles than in ruling over a terribly poor country just waking up from a forcible slumber. Yet the son would rule for another 15 years.
On landing in Port-au-Prince, I quickly discovered that many of the repressive mechanisms installed by Baby Doc’s father remained in place. The menacing Tonton Macoutes, in their ubiquitous dark glasses, with pistols in their waistbands, controlled entry at the Aeroport François Duvalier. The bogeyman across from me turned the pages in an ink-stained ledger for several minutes while I sweat with anxiety. Apparently my name was not in the book, and I was waved through.