When I learned that Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile, I was sitting at the bar of a posh resort on Île a Vache, a small island off the southwest coast of Haiti. The bartender, a man in his 50s from Cap Haïtien, announced with surprise and excitement “Duvalier te rive.” Duvalier arrived. “He’s here? In Haiti?,” I asked to be sure I understood. Of course, yes was the reply.
“Why is he here?,” I asked the bartender. “We have enough problems already. We don’t need him to make it worse.” The bartender agreed, but countered that because Duvalier is Haitian, he has the right to return to his country whenever he wants – even if he stole millions of dollars and thousands of people were tortured and murdered under his regime. He went on to say that if he was in Port-au-Prince, where his wife and children live, he would have tried to see him, primarily out of curiousity.
As I sat and listened to Haitian radio about Baby Doc’s return, I became increasingly concerned that his arrival would result in manifestations throughout the country, and selfishly wondered if that would in turn mean that I’d have to cut my vacation short or be forced to stay on Île a Vache for much longer than I’d planned (thus spending significantly more money than I’d planned). I was surprised to learn the next morning that all hell hadn’t broken loose in Port-au-Prince, or anywhere else on the western side of the island for that matter.
A few days later, after I returned to Leogane and settled in, I logged on to my computer to catch up on all the latest news surrounding Baby Doc’s return to Haiti. Based on my observations, and radio and media reports, I surmised that in-country reaction to Baby Doc’s arrival was largely a mix of indifference and curiosity. The media, especially international media, may have been in a frenzy over his return, but the majority of Haitians were not.
By the following week, I had all but forgotten that Baby Doc was still in Haiti – until the conversation I had with one of our Haitian translators. I was speaking with the translator about the latest news surrounding the elections, and asked her what she thought about Duvalier coming back to Haiti. I was absolutely shocked when she revealed that she thought he was good for the country. According to her, and I would later hear this from another young Haitian, under Duvalier’s dictatorship, things were done: schools were built, people had electricity, the crime rate was lower and Haitians didn’t struggle quite as much to meet their daily, basic needs. Jean Bertrand Aristide, she offered, didn’t do anything for the people during his presidency, and not only did crime increase, namely kidnapping and gang-related violence, but he also was responsible for the death of thousands of Haitians.
More surprising than her seemingly Duvalierist stance was her view of Aristide. I explained to her that, based on my understanding of Aristide’s presidency, he was essentially sabotaged. Because he was advocating on behalf of the poor and wanted to “spread the wealth around”, so to speak, many people and countries, including the United States, prohibited/blocked his ability to make any real changes because he threatened their own wealth and didn’t fully comply with what the US wanted. Additionally, armed opposition groups, funded by the elite minority in Haiti and the US, were deployed to make it appear as though Aristide didn’t have control in the country (increased kidnappings, drug trafficking, etc). Therefore, when “they” decided he needed to go in 2004, the Haitian people wouldn’t give him their support or protest his ouster.
We spent the next 30 minutes or so debating the facts as we understood them, unable to fully comprehend the other’s point of view. At least we both agreed that René Préval has been ineffective as President, and Jude Celestin would be just as ineffective if not more.
It’s been nearly a week since that conversation, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I still don’t think Duvalier was good for the country despite the things he did. But now I’m wondering what exactly is the truth regarding Aristide’s presidency. Perhaps I’ll do some more reading to try to figure it out. In the meantime, I hope Aristide doesn’t arrive in Haiti (and it looks like he won’t). We don’t need any more distractions right now.