I Encountered a Duvalierist: Haitian Atrocities Then and Now


It’s getting to me folks. 

Really, really rubbing me the wrong way and getting this Confused and Befuddled Foreigner all up in arms and ready to kick some Duvalier ass.

Oops!  Did I just say that with my outside voice, my typing voice, my public, face-to-the-world voice?  Did I just threaten to kick ex-dictator-dying-to-be-dictator-again ass?

I’m what my grandmother would call “all riled up,” and “in a tizzy” over some Haitian’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude toward Baby Doc–

The attitude of at least two upper-middle class Haitian’s I talked with this week.

But what strikes me as odd is that both of these acquaintances shared a frighteningly similar perspective—one that scared the pro-democracy socks off of my oh-so middle-class American sensibilities. 

Obviously it’s important not to generalize from this small sample, but what amazed me was that both said the same thing—something I thought I wouldn’t hear—especially from well-informed and well-educated Haitians.

Both were pro-Duvalier.

I encountered a Duvalierist, two of them.

Both were not just neutral, both clearly supported someone who makes Saddam Hussein look like a Sunday school teacher.

Both said life was better during the Duvalier Era.  The streets were safer.  There was better infrastructure, more electricity, the lights stayed on longer at night.

“Okay,” I said, “but what about the oppression, the arrests, the torture, the killings?”

“That’s exaggerated,” both claimed, both in separate conversations.  Neither knew the other.

“Okay?” I said, half rhetorical question, half affirmation that I had heard them—heard the words at least.

I was dumb-founded.  I literally couldn’t come up with something to say. 

I still don’t know what to say, how to write about this, how to think.

But the stunned silence I’ve felt inside myself since those conversations has been telling.  I’m thinking, as I suspect most well-informed North Americans like me might, “So the numbers are inflated.  Then what’s a more accurate estimate?  Some say 30,000 Haitians lost their lives.  What would have been an okay number to have imprisoned, tortured, killed?”

Quite frankly I’m more than just confused.  I’m irritated.

Angry. 

Yes, I’m angered that people think this way. But I’m more angered by my own ignorance, my own naivety, my own not knowing how to talk or write about it.

How could I assume so wrongly?

Am I wrong to believe democracy is always best?  Are there indeed places on the planet where it won’t work?

I’ve long thought the Bush mandate to “export democracy” expressed many of the faulty assumptions Americans have toward the rest of the world.  I’ve known that Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, insisted Democracy depended on an educated citizenry—that the uneducated and ill-informed are poorly equipped to think about, let alone make decisions about good government.

But how does that apply here in a country where so few have gone to school, so many remain illiterate?  If education is the key—then which education, what kind, who decides?

I beginning to believe I am indeed in a place where other rules apply.  Life’s lived differently, and I don’t have the How-To Manual.

For so long Europeans and Americans have imposed their perspectives on Port-au-Prince.  Since the days of Columbus and the original “colonizing,” the conquerors have been wrong—

Done wrong.

Who’s the real dictator here?

Which are the true atrocities?

47 thoughts on “I Encountered a Duvalierist: Haitian Atrocities Then and Now

  1. I can totally understand the anger you’re feeling. It’s like watching your kid make a bad life decision… You are scared for them, mad that you can’t stop them from messing up. I think the pro-Duvalier stance might come from the country’s need for stability. It almost sounds like if things are crazy right now, and this dictator is promising structure, maybe we should take him up on it. It is bargaining for peace with someone who’s crossing his fingers behind his evil back.

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    • You have hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head! Exactly! People crave stability and desperately need it here. You know, the world is such a complex place, and it seems to get more complicated every day–or maybe I’m just beginning to appreciate its complexity, the more I see of it. But this is a really insightful comment, Tori. You haven’t been to Haiti, have you?

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    • If that isn’t true, I don’t know what is, Lisa—–things could get REALLY “interesting”–as if they aren’t already challenging enough. I don’t know a lot about Africa, but what little I do know, Haiti seems to follow similar patterns. I think that’s why I live comparing notes with you so much!

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  2. Very sorry to hear this news, Kathy.
    Corruption, oppression and killing in democratic societies is just hidden better, I think. It’s the nature of the beast, unfortunately. The beast being the egoic human mind.
    When something doesn’t directly affect someone, human nature is to justify, rationalize, excuse, ignore.
    At least that’s the way I see it.
    I think we need more people on this planet who live from their heart and who treat others with respect and dignity.

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  3. Yes (Nou Bouke) we are tired, all we want as Haitian is to live in dignity. Under Jean Claude Duvalier we had a functioning country, not the republic of NGO’s Haiti have become. Under Duvalier if you was not engage in politics you had nothing to fear. Looking back on the last 25years of American induced democracy Haiti have went backwards ,this sentiment is share amongst my neighbours from the hills above Petion Ville to my brothers and sisters in the Slums of Cite Soleil.

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    • Wow, Patrick, thanks so much for this comment! I would love to hear more from you. I love knowing what more Haitians think and feel. Please come back and offer us a real Haitian perspective. You are right. NGO’s have not served Haiti well. I wonder what you think about Aristide wanting to return now. Any thoughts?

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  4. Its ok to be in a tizzy. When Americans hear Patricks point of view they often feel like “fine were going home and you guys can fight it out among yourselves”. One of the things that bothers many Americans is that much of the rest of the world likes to tell us what we should do.

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    • Thanks for affirming my tizzied self. I’m not sure I understand you. Are you saying that the world tells America what to do too much? I actually think almost the opposite–that America tries too often to tell the rest of the world what to do. That’s certainly been the case here in Haiti. US foreign policy toward Haiti has really had tragic consequences. Would you mind clarifying your comment, so I can be sure I’m understanding you correctly?

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  5. So much to think about. Tori said it well: People crave stability. When a totalitarian government rules, crime is down and the trains run on time. But the cost is high. I know that a a certain number of Haitians supported the Duvalier regimes. But I have to believe it wasn’t quite as simple as “if you didn’t engage in politics, you had nothing to fear.” Anyone living there would also have to have turned a blind eye to the loss of certain basic human rights and to seeing money that should have gone to the country go to the elite. Sadly, in one sense, the rule of the Duvaliers may have been superior to that of the NGOs. But that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

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    • Well said, Renee! I think you have articulated an important quesion–that is how much are we willing to pay in terms of civil rights to keep crime down and lights on? I also know that people who are living in desperate situations don’t care more about feeding their children than being able to cast ballots in a free and fair election. It’s not easy to tease out the appropriate answers, is it?

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    • WRONG! When a totalitarian regime rules, crime is PRIVATIZED! That is the only difference between during and after Duvalier in Haiti. Now crime is magnified, because there are so many MORE people engaged in the fight for life. Because the Duvalier regime did not educate and push family planning.
      In a desperate world like Haiti, children are the poor’s only true possession. Plus, what did the regime care? They just sold the excess to the cane fields of Dominican Republic, or the excess died running away or whatever.

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  6. Kathy–
    sounds as if Alice has fallen down the rabbit hole…what you assume as truth is not really the truth…
    you have given me much to think about…
    and, it reminds me a bit of “the poisonwood bible”–did you read that one?
    I mean…how “we americans” see the world, and how those living in the world we are viewing see it…
    blessings
    jane

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    • Yes, it does sound like Congo! Actually, Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers and the Poisonwood Bible one of my all-time favorite novels! Thanks for that reminder. If I could get my hands on a copy here in Haiti, I’d reread it. Take care, Jane!

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  7. The worst thing that could have happened to Haiti was the earthquake. Getting a new democratic government up and running takes time- look at the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan which also have high hurdles given the culture- especially when it takes the place of a dictatorship or communist run system. In Haiti’s situation, the earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic seemed to add stress to an already stressed system. Of course the people had it better before. Who could blame them for wanting not to live in tents, fearing for their children’s lives? If Satan himself popped out of the ground, horns aflame promising normalcy my guess is they’d jump for it. I would.

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    • That’s a really true and powerful statement! They might respond to Satan himself, indeed! The thing I don’t get though, is that these folks I talked to are leading VERY comfotable lives, better than some of my poor graduate student friends back in the US. I can’t understand how or why they think they would be better off with an administration with a poor human rights record. That part, I still don’t get.

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    • I know it’s hard to believe. Certainly for those of us who believe in things like free press and frown on torture and false imprisonment it’s hard to imagine. I can’t quite make sense of it. I’m amazed, really.

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    • Dear Territerri I do not understand why that would surprise you. Have you ever had to go to sleep in a crowded room with the ambient temperature of about 30 deg C (86 deg F). Not because you cannot afford electricity but just because none is available. This is the same reason people are prepared to suffer journies through the desert and shark infested waters just to end up working below minimum wage or selling their bodies in western europe. Life is hard in the developing world. Very very hard. And human life doesnt seem to count for much. So if turning a blind eye to certain atrocities would mean improvement in quality of living, then sadly, so be it. I am not anti-democracy but give me a stable government regardless of what it’s called that would provide me with the basic amenities and I would accept it.

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  8. From what I’ve read, Kathy, Haiti under the Duvaliers was a fine place to be…if you were one of the elite. For the majority, though, I would imagine it wasn’t so great.

    Thank you for keeping us aware of what’s happening there!

    Wendy

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    • Great for the elite, as long as they didn’t speak out against one of the Duvaliers. I actually had one of the two people I talked to claim that there was less hunger during the Duvalier era, but I don’t believe it. I think that may be a convenient thing for him to believe. I don’t imagine he knows that by any means.

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  9. A world historical context is extremely usedful in understanding Haiti and Africa.
    I’m sure merely by writing that “historically speaking” the USA was just as corrupt as Haiti for about 100 – 120 years.

    The history we are taught today doesn’t hide it, but it doesn’t explain it well either and how things gradually changed into a functional republican form of government over the oligarchy/kleptocracy we had off and on over those decades.

    Does anyone recall that in order to get the railroad companies to build lines to criss cross the nation they were given 100 mile corridors in the West? Taminy Hall was a NYC problem but the same situation played out throughout cities in the country at that time.

    Surviving such eras of gross corruption and neglegence of the national health on the part of Govt. and Business in particular requires 2 TWO things more than anything else.

    Education – without it, the people never learn to harness their power effectively as they never learn as a group to effectively discern good policies from bad policies, beneficial for all vs. beneficial for a few Etc. resulting in a public always holding the losing hand vs. a vs. its ruling elite.

    Haiti has no form of public education. It’s schools are all run by private businesses which only those with significant means can afford – say the upper 10%?

    Two while struggling to emerge from the morass, that there be no gigantic outside power playing power games with your nation.

    The USA by its sheer size and military power was able to very quickly call the shots where it was concerned.

    There hasn’t been a day in the history of Haiti where Haitians have called the shots for their country – and success from that takes time, lots of time decades and decades if not centuries.

    Really that’s the explanation.

    All efforts to explain Haiti or Africa in terms of “individual experiences” are always going to miss the mark, because Haiti today and African nations today are the result mostly of actions and motivations of people who lived a century ago – those that laid the foundation of the national culture.

    What they feel today or do today won’t “change” the nation for the better without a strong effort/movement in those nations to keep the change moving forward towards the good.

    Unfortunately such a movement is critically dependent on an educated public directed by an enlightened elite – neither of which exist in Haiti, and so the circle of decay and hopelessness goes on and on.

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    • Thanks for the lengthy comment. Sounds like you know a great deal about history, more than I do, I’m afraid. Somehow even with the correction you’ve made to your comment’s second sentence in the comment above, I’m still not following that sentence. Are YOU saying the US was just as corrupt as Haiti over the past 100 years, or are you alluding to other’s believing that? Sorry, don’t know what’s wrong with me. Just too tired maybe.

      At any rate, again thanks for reading and commenting. I hoppe you’ll stop by again.

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  10. sorry I left out a phrase here ….

    I’m sure merely by writing that “historically speaking” the USA was just as corrupt as Haiti for about 100 – 120 years many will dismiss what I say as just nonsense, but for those who know history it’s on the mark.

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      • In terms of basic facts – history speaks for itself.

        I’m not interpreting, based on my own disagreement with whatever happened back then.

        The administration of Ulysses S. Grant is rife with examples of corruption and nepotism.

        The building of the railroads was a cesspool of corruption.
        To list the details would take a book, and many have been written about the corruption.

        Credit Mobiliare is an infamous example of what I’m talking about.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_Mobilier_scandal

        Jackson’s Indian Removal Act stripped illegally (according the SC of the day) lands of Native Americans to hand over to land speculators Etc. It’s enacted only through bald faced corrupt methods.

        All to often our American Pride makes many blind to the actual truth of what happened, or interprets any discussion of these times as insults to American dignity or worse yet revisionism. It’s not revisionism when one can apply the standards of that time period and reach the same conclusion – American history is rife with incredible corruption.

        We’re quick to call it criminal and corrupt when the same things happen in another country, but when it happened here, we dismiss it as products of the times. Blind to the irony that people back then considered it corrupt, but those in power both in Govt. AND Business were in control. So they got away with it.

        Actually to find a slew of examples one just needs to google Historical corruption USA or some variation of this and you’ll get a # of articles .

        Finally all too often the corruption back then was “legalized” by a congress bought off by the money interests. So today many assume that means it was all good and fair.

        Really though, if one thinks about it, was it really necessary to give title to 20 square miles of land + $48,000 to railroads for every MILE of tract they laid paid for by federally subsidized loans to build a railway to the West Coast? The size of the giveaway courtesy of the American Citizen and Native Americans makes the bank bailout of 2008 look small relatively speaking.

        It was legal, but by any measure it was also classic corruption. All to many acts of corruption on the part of most governments first assume the mantel of legality.

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  11. There are many older Americans who are simply worn out by the bashing of America. Countries want our help on their terms. They make all of these promises about how they will pay back the money. They seldom do. They get upset because the American Military comes across as heavy handed sometimes. I’m sorry that bothers people but the reality is if other countries are so unhappy then they always have that right to say go home. In many of these countries they want it both ways. They want power of the U.S. government and its power but they don’t want them to use it. Many Americans see these issues as a double standard.

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    • I respect your perspective. However, I become uncomfortable with generalizing too much. The more I see of the world, the more complicated it seems. I can only speak of the US relationship with Haiti, and even that is much too complex to generalize about. That’s why I try to ask questions in the last two sentences of this post, rather than posing answers, because I have no idea what they are. The world is really big and really confusing place.

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  12. You are right I do love history. In many ways the U.S. has been just as corrupt. We can start with the people of Appalachian who’s living conditions are horrible. The treatmen of the homeless or mental health issues. That doesn’t even beging to get into things like building the Panama Canal at gunpoint. America is at a croosroads and people better put their personal issues aside. This 14 trillon dollar debt and the refusal to touch the entitlement programs cannot go on forvever. It is criminal.

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    • I wish I knew the answer to your question. I can’t quite get a sense of how widespread the support for Duvalier is. There seems to be willingness among young people to have him return, but I think that may be more connected to their age than any aspect of culture. More than half the population of Haiti is under 21, so they weren’t alive during the Duvalier era and have no expereince with its tyranny. There does generally seem to be a willingness to follow a strong personality, but I’m not sure that involves culture exactly or whether it’s more connected to the need of desperate people for strong leadership, something that could be true across cultures. Hope this helps.

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  13. Good afternoon, Ms. McCullough. I’m glad we have a fellow USian who is concerned about the voiceless and those desperate for hope-enabling signs of progress.

    First, I’m a bit leery of someone who acknowledges the plight of the homeless and the lack of mental health care for those in need, who then turns around and says “This 14 trillon dollar debt and the refusal to touch the entitlement programs cannot go on forvever. It is criminal.”

    Mr. Morales brings up the real problem that we face here in the US, and much more prominently in Haiti and elsewhere; an educated populace is dangerous to corrupt and or incompetent leaders. Look how well ignorance and fear-mongering has worked to divide the unwashed masses, so that now we fight each other while the Powers that Be are raking in the profits. If it works so well in a wealthy society like the US, I can’t even imagine what it is like to try to change things in Haiti, or Somalia, or….

    I don’t know what you do for a living there, but I’m glad you have your art to keep you grounded. It’s gotta be a better outlet than mine, which is to escape into computer games whenever the news gets me too depressed to continue reading it.

    I’m not in the least surprised to see Duvalierists coming out of the woodwork, and seeing our reprehensible US agents, such as the dishonest Mr. Barr, have readily attached themselves to such a monster is not out of the ordinary anymore, is it? I’m quite sure that the young age of the populace has been carefully examined by these vultures, and I can bet that educating the masses will somehow run into “snags”, if these charlatans attain power.

    Great good luck to you, and to all of Haiti.

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    • Thanks so much for this comment. I wonder what you make of the whole Bob Barr situation. It seems downright bizarre to have a former US Congressman here supporting the ex-dictator. I don’t know how to think about it. It seems criminal at best.

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  14. I am appalled as you that this monster is going back. Has everyone forgotten the genocide, the plunder of their wealth by this horrible person and his croonies. Machiavelli set it best ” People have the goverment they deserve”

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    • It’s certainly a crazy and surreal time to find myself in Haiti. I don’t understand the forgetfulness, frankly. Admittedly more than half the population of Haiti is under the age of 21, but you’d think their parents would share their expereinces.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. Hope you’ll stop by again.

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  15. Sometimes I think the Westerners who colonized most of the present devloping world no longer exist, but then I read about a US congressman representing a mad man and I realise they still do.
    If Haitians support Duvalier it wouldn’t be that much different from Americans supporting Bush to a second term. The only thing is the people Bush murdered and blatanly robbed were not his country men, ‘just’ Iraqi’s. I wonder if that makes him any better than Duvalier and why everyone is acting so shocked and non-comprehending, possibly wanting to explain the ‘craziness’ of Haitian thinking to culture. It is not specific to Haiit or Africa, corruption, evil etc are human traits.
    Maybe if Africa/Haiti were to become a strong economic power house in 50 years or so, would that suddenly mean these traits all dissappeared? Or would it rather mean they found someone else to torture and steal from rather than their own countries?
    Trust me Kathryn, they have not forgotten, regardless of the age of the population. You never forget such things, and your parents will never let you forget. It’s not about who Duvalier was but mostly about what Haiti is now. There are some virtues that are impracticable in the face of poverty that characterises Haiti. Even if the people you spoke to are well-off they will always remain disadvantaged until Hiati develops to a respectable level.
    Once things improve considerably Haitians will remeber. You’ll see.

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    • I can’t thank you enough for this powerful comment! You have, I think, articulated something fundamental that’s at work here. And you have said it so well. I love you statement that what matters most is what “Haiti is now.” Thank you for sharing. I hope you’ll come back and share with us some more!

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  16. Thank you, I am humbled by your appreciation. I am sorry if I sounded a bit over-passionate. I just shudder at the state of the world sometimes and I do somewhat understand your perspective about some Haitians response Duvalier’s return.
    I think there just seems to be this divide between the developed and the developing, the white and the brown/black worlds yet we are more connected than we realise.
    If we all understood this connection a bit more and how powerfully it can be used to bring positive change, then people like Duvalier would never wield they sort of power they do.
    But I fear I must be imagining an ideal world which will never come to be.

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    • But there’s no chance of the world being a better place, if we can’t dream of what it might be like and what it might take to get there. Some might accuse me of being over-passionate myself, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Hope you will continue to dream of a better world!

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