What Does One Wear to Meet a Former Dictator? (Part 2)

(To read part 1 of this post click here.)

“Wear whatever you want,” Richard said.  “We’re just going to his [Jean-Claude Duvalier’s] house.”

Yeah, right!

Not only did I not know what I’d wear, I didn’t know that I could pull this off.

I had ironed two outfits, just in case, but ended up wearing a knee length plum skirt and sleeveless blouse just a shade lighter (one I had tailored when we were living in Vietnam).  I hung a striped silk scarf from India around my neck and carried a purple pouch purse from Bangkok over my shoulder—something small, but something  to hold what I assumed would be the essentials—a notebook, pen, and camera, one that refused to work properly when I tried to photographically document the event:

Kate, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Fito, and me

My friend Kate speculated with me, as we were driven up the winding mountain road.  What would we encounter once we arrived? Would we be searched? Kate removed a pocket knife from her purse and left it with the driver, just in case.  I had read that Baby Doc lived on Montagne Noir, but we were not headed in that direction.  Where were we going?

Along the way our Toyota SUV rendezvoused with our friend Richard and his friend Fito in a white pick-up truck for the final leg of the journey.  We passed the home of Rene Preval, current president of Haiti, and stopped just before Duvalier’s road, so Fito could call ahead to announce our imminent arrival.

Passing a rather grand-looking, well-lit house of the left, we continued down the street a bit, before turning around and circling back to that same stone house, now on our right.  This was it, we assumed, but there were a number of cars out front.  Was there a party in progress?

We were met at the gate and ushered in along the driveway, where two vehicles were parked, one an SUV, another a Haitian State Police pick-up truck, but no officer in sight.  As we approached the front door, we passed floor to ceiling windows that looked into the living room, where a number of people were gathered on two off-white couches that faced one another.  Duvalier’s Italian wife, Veronique Roy, cigarette in hand, answered the door when we knocked, welcomed us in, and escorted us out onto a covered patio to the left, where she offered us something to drink, and when we declined, promptly left.

We were seated at an octagonal, wooden table with white wrought iron chairs, when Baby Doc himself stepped out onto the patio, wearing a charcoal gray, double-breasted blazer over a cable knit, blue-gray sweater that zippered at the neck, seeming smaller, thinner, and more stiff-necked than I’d expected.

Once introductions were made and we were re-seated around the table, Richard did most of the talking and functioned as translator, explaining to Duvalier that I was intrigued by the former president and had hoped to meet him before leaving Port-au-Prince and moving back to the US on Monday.

Baby Doc, who spoke to us only in French, said that we all knew about the current political situation in Haiti, and that he didn’t want to talk about that. Instead he explained how happy he was to be back in Haiti, how saddened he was by the deplorable conditions his people were living in, and how surprised he was by the warm welcome he received, especially from young people who hadn’t even been alive when he was president.

I asked the former dictator what he thought the answer was for Haiti—how he thought the suffering could be alleviated.

Duvalier explained that there was not an easy answer, of course, but that “unity” was essential, unity between the rich and poor, between those who have much and those who have so little, that the government of Haiti needs to give the people what they want, and largely that involved not allowing them to live in such inhumane ways.

Clearly this was a vague and easy answer, a rhetoric few could disagree with, but I didn’t press the issue further.  I knew my question was overly broad and understood that his response would almost have to be equally sweeping in implication.  But I could feel myself being pulled in.  Baby Doc was feeding me what he knew I wanted to hear.  He and I both knew he was doing it, and I couldn’t help but respond to what seemed genuine care and concern in his tone, facial expressions, body language.  I could almost watch myself falling for this rhetoric, a seemingly circular logic, and I was reeling because of it.

I listened, still dizzied, and asked the former president what he thought made him unique, “Apart from your father having been president before you, when did you understand that you were unique in and of yourself, that you had something valuable to offer the country?”

Duvalier’s answer here surprised me, as he insisted that he was not “unique,” that he had come to the palace at age 6, that he had had a great education, that when his father told him at 18 he would eventually be president, he had said, “No thank you!”  He didn’t want to be president.  He didn’t want that job.

So Kate asked what he thought his biggest accomplishment was as president.  Baby Doc thought this was a good question, but said that, really, when you are president, you cannot have one accomplishment more significant than another, because everything you do is your job, your responsibility.  He went on to explain that he left the country in 1986 and went into exile willingly, to avoid bloodshed, that as he was leaving, he was more concerned about his people than he was about himself.

At this point, Richard turned to me and asked, “Don’t you have another question, you came here hoping to ask?”

“Yes,” I said looking intently at Duvalier across the table.  “A number of people have told me things were more stable in Haiti, when you were president, and things are decidedly unstable now.  I read in the media, that you have returned to Haiti not wanting to be president again, but if things were indeed more stable under your administration, why would you not want to be president again?  Don’t you think you would have something valuable to offer your people?”

To this Duvalier said simply and matter-of-factly, “We’ll have to see what the people want.”

And, what will the Haitian people want?

Another exiled former president, Jean-Betrand Aristide, is scheduled to return to Haiti today, the head of one Haitian political party, the OPL, was assassinated in his home yesterday, and the final round of presidential elections is set for Sunday?

So maybe, Richard was right. Maybe it didn’t matter at all what I wore that night.

Maybe all that matters is what the Haitian people want, what they hope, what they dream.

Will Haiti wear the cloak of democracy?

“We’ll have to see what the people want”—indeed!

(To read the third and final post on this interview, click here.)

36 thoughts on “What Does One Wear to Meet a Former Dictator? (Part 2)

  1. This must have been such a surreal experience! I wonder if Baby Doc does speak English and just chose to work through an interpreter to distance himself? Make it difficult for you to pose in-depth questions?

    You asked me what I thought of Aristide returning to Haiti. I think it is just going to add to the chaos. Too many “leaders” pulling the Haitians in different directions. I know you miss being in Haiti, the place, but I think there is trouble to come and you and Sara are probably safer in the US.


    • Yes, I’m sure it’s safer here, but what I wouldn’t do to witness Haiti’s response to Aristide’s return! In some ways I feel like I had to leave just as it was beginning to get truly interesting. Oh, well—————-

      But about Duvalier–talking with him may have been the single most surreal expereince of my life, and I’ve had more of those than most to begin with.

      Thanks, Lisa!


  2. This is such a powerful, complicated and amazing story. I truly appreciate your honest confusion as you share this with us. I haven’t met many (any) dictators myself, but in order to gain that power, they must have a little je ne sais quoi? I mean, Hitler was a brilliant person who knew how to speak and motivate. That feels horrible to say in hindsight, but it is the reality. Baby Doc knows what the people want, and how to say that . . . the problem comes when what he wanted overwhelmed what they want. We shall history in the making in Haiti, whatever comes.


    • I’m glad it communicates, Lisa. It was truly the single most bizarre expereince of my life, and I’ve had a few more of those to begin with than most people.

      Yes, and it will be interesting to see what happens when Aristide arrives! Many in Haiti, the poorest of the poor, adore the man–truly adore him!


  3. I’m with Lisa on this one…a lot of dictators are/were charismatic…that’s how they persuade the masses to do what they want! I’m glad you’re smart enough to recognize BS when you hear it! Looking forward to Part 3!



  4. Well done, my friend! You captured the mood beautifully and the responses to your questions were very interesting, indeed!


  5. The power of such people is partially in the fact that they sound so reasonable. They are performers who know how to play to the audience. Sometimes takes a perceptive (and possibly courageous) person to see through the script!

    Amazing experience!


  6. Wow. What a reporting coup! You interviewed very well, Kathy. I’m amazed Baby Doc was so forthcoming with his answers, even if you felt like a few of them were canned, PR responses.


    • It would seem a coup, yes, but I’m wondering if it really is, since I didn’t go seek out this interview. It was just handed to me without my having to ask. How does that happen?! Really a great, great gift from the universe, God, whomever you’d like to credit.


  7. Oh! My head is spinning just reading about it. I’m sure the whole experience was surreal. Kudos to you, though, for being able to ask some pretty significant questions under pressure!


  8. Wow. I know a lot of other commenters have used the word ‘surreal’ already to describe this encounter, but honestly: what other word could convey what you must have felt while you were there?

    I’m really fascinated by your recollection of this interview, especially by your awareness of being ‘played’ and falling for it (sort of) simultaneously! True dictators have that very slippery slope, not that I’ve ever met with any myself, of course. 🙂 Kudos to a great post, Kathy!


    • Yes, it was so strange, so bizarre, so surreal. And, yes, it was strange to almost watch myself fall for this guy. I liked the version of Duvalier I met that night. I know I shouldn’t but I did. What do you do with that?


  9. Pingback: Variations on Exile (Baby Doc, Part 3) | reinventing the event horizon

  10. This is like living in the twilight zone.

    surreal, otherworldly…sitting across the table from someone as infamous as he is…or famous…take your pick…

    blessings–and thank goodness he sat with a great story teller!


  11. Wow!! This is an exciting experience, to say the least. I agree with most of the comments. I’ve been reading some about narcissism. I think that it is natural for all of us to want to believe that all people are good and I think that innately our essence is, all people Are good. However, sometimes things happen along the way to create personalities that, shall we say, are extreme monsters. Did Baby Doc refer to the Haitian people as “my people”?


    • I don’t think he used the word “my.” I was not able to take notes or record the conversation, but I believe he said “the people.” And, yes, I do think most of us want to believe the best about people, at least those of us who are optimists. Narcissism is an interesting personality disorder, for sure. I love to read psychology——————


  12. Pingback: Haiti and the United States: Aristide’s Return and Wikileaks: When Will the US Finally Change Course? « Celucien Joseph, Christian intellectual and cultural critic

  13. What is it about dictators that is so bloody compelling??? We’ve had a string of charismatic ones here in Pakistan 😛 My parents sing praises of General Ayub Khan (i’ve written about it here: http://munirazoom.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/college-days/ )
    And despite the downhill slide, quite a large number of Pakistanis think Musharraf was the best thing that happened to us in a long time.
    General Zia ruled the longest, and there can be no disputing the fact that he played the biggest role in f***ing up my country with his overly zealous Islamization policies.
    So glad he got blown up in a plane!


    • Yes, you have had some “interesting” leaders, haven’t you? I can’t wait to hear what you have written about Ayub Khan. Have you written about Osama Bin Laden being found in your country? I would love to know your thoughts on that! Gonna run now and read that post—————


  14. Most fascinating here – among many fascinating things – is the fact that he was charming enough to reel you in, as it were, all the while you knowing it was happening. So interesting, disturbing and magical all at once. Thanks for expressing the complexity so well!


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