Variations on Exile (Baby Doc, Part 3)

(To read Part 1 of this post click here, to read Part 2 click here.)

It’s been six days since I interviewed Baby Doc and I am still reeling—whirl-winded by the sheer size of the experience, the weight, the scope of opportunity that came so unexpectedly.

And, frankly, I’ve not digested the experience yet— it seems to have exhausted me; I feel depleted–confused by having almost “liked” the version of Duvalier I met that night.  What does one do with that realization?

Quite frankly I wish I were back in Haiti now. 

Certainly, I love our home in Lexington and enjoy seeing Sara’s happiness at being here, but I would do anything to be in Port-au-Prince when Aristide arrives.  The plane to return him from exile has already left South Africa; he’s expected to arrive in Haiti within hours.

But if I had to identify one overwhelming response to meeting Jean-Claude Duvalier, it would be this—a bit of dismay at how intrigued I still am by him—not Baby Doc the dictator, but Baby Doc the man, the details of ordinary around him. 

The fact that his house, though perhaps the grandest on his street, was not as spectacular as I had suspected it would be.  The couches in the living room seemed old and worn.  There were no fancy fixtures.  The wrought iron chairs on the patio needed paint.

But then again, that’s what we all amount to in the end—the peeling paint, the nicks, the scars.  The couches need recovering.

The bottom line is this:  the story of Haiti is largely one of exile and variations on that theme—coerced comings and goings, arriving unwillingly on a tiny island, you then don’t want to leave.

So it was for the slaves the Europeans brought from Africa, and so it was for Jean-Claude Duvalier, made president for life at age 19 when his father died, a job he didn’t want, a role he didn’t want to play.  He ruled for 15 years, was exiled for 25, and has finally come home to Haiti again.

And in some ways, so it is for Sara and me.  Though we came willingly to Haiti, we were not at all ready to leave, and having left feels like a loss, an amputation.  Haiti is the phantom limb, the one I dream about, the one that calls to me at night.

Eventually we all get kicked off one island or another.  A tribal council is convened.  The votes are cast.

And someone has to go–

33 thoughts on “Variations on Exile (Baby Doc, Part 3)

  1. Perhaps once you’re more rested, you can reflect better on your discussion with Duvalier? Though maybe with time, it’ll become even more bizarre and unreal.

    I’m sure it’s doing Sara a lot of good to be getting some rest, after all the problems she had just doing her job in Haiti.

    They talked about Aristide on our television news last night. The person they were interviewing (who was an economist or something) said it was a good thing Aristide was going back to Haiti. That keeping him in South Africa was costing the South African taxpayers a lot of money as he was housed and protected like a diplomat or senior government official.


    • I can’t even begin to tell you how much I wish I were going to be in Haiti today for Aristide’s arrival! I saw photos last night of him on the plane–a South African government plane, interestingly enough. Guess it was cheaper for the government to fly him to Haiti in a private jet than to house him there any more. Interesting.

      About Baby Doc–well, my head’s still spinning.


  2. Kathy,
    You need to be kinder to yourself. Who hasn’t been seduced by people who you know have a dark side? The only difference is that Duvalier’s darkness is greater and more well known. But like I said before, a seductive devil makes more sense to me than a terrifying one. But also, I don’t know you well, but I get the feeling you want to believe that all people have some innate goodness. I want to believe that as well. So perhaps, because you are a kind and caring person, you honed in on that goodness. I don’t believe that he is fully a horrible person. I’m sure he hurts and cries, I’m sure he doubts and fears. Don’t beat yourself over liking him. He wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did if someone didn’t like him.

    Also, I know the pain of leaving a place far behind. But, you don’t know where tomorrow will bring you. Treasure the memories of Haiti. Live with the intention of returning someday. Stay supportive as the events unfold. But more importantly, live in the now and see what happens.

    Sending positive thoughts and support your way,


    • Thanks, Lisa! I think you are right–I do try to find the best in people–always–even when, perhaps, it’s not appropriate. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your words of support! Thanks so much, my friend–thank you, thank you!


  3. I was thinking about the furniture in BDD’s house…assuming it’s been there since he left, wouldn’t it be at least 25 years old? That would explain the “old” feeling you had…

    Hope you and Sara both get some rest after the unpacking is finished!



    • True, Wendy. The furniture would be at least 25 years old. This was a house that had been confiscated by the government and now returned to him. I just found it curious that he had not replaced the furniture upon returning–brought in a decorator and brought things up to date. It was a strange expereince all around——————


  4. “coerced comings and goings, arriving unwillingly on a tiny island, you then don’t want to leave”…. Holy Moly! You managed to make me understand Haiti’s history of tension in ONE SENTENCE.


  5. The person you met did not have ‘power’…it is the ‘power’ they say that corrupts…who would you have met if he had ‘power’? Random thought brought on my your fine post.


  6. “haiti is the phantom limb”–
    that’s lovely…and an apt description of how your being there, and the rapid leavetaking left you feeling…

    here’s to hoping you can re-enter your body and “normal” and ordinary life soon…


  7. I don’t know what to say that won’t otherwise echo what everyone else has already said. I was also struck by the sentence that Tori pointed out. And I agree with Lisa that you need to be kinder to yourself in regards to this experience.

    Those who would judge and would “require” you to come to the same conclusion you had before you met Baby Doc probably haven’t gotten that close to meeting a media villain before. I know I sure as hell haven’t, so I refuse to make a judgment in regards to how you “should” have reacted or how you “should” feel about it now. I think that the point is this: you met someone very few people have the opportunity to meet (or that very few people have the desire to meet); you gave this villainized (perhaps deservedly, perhaps not) person a chance to make a case for his own sense of humanity; and, in the end, you have proven yourself sensitive to the one simple fact that we ALL have a story and are ALL dynamic.

    What a sad world we would live in if we were all the static, one-dimensional characters others would assume us to be!

    I for one am grateful for your experience because you’ve reminded me that we can really only judge a person’s character once we have gotten to know a person…and, even then, we should remind ourselves of the myriad situations that could lead to the development of this person’s character. Do we forgive and forget the atrocities Baby Doc succumbed his people to prior to his exile? No. Do we qualify the man himself as utterly inhumane and evil without first meeting him? Maybe not….


  8. I agree with Lisa Kramer and Charles. As for the furniture, I’m sure it will be out with the old and in with the new in no time. Like someone said, things are just getting heated up. That’s my two cents worth.


  9. Pingback: The Sunday Paper, born of tadpoles & kumquat. « The Ramblings

  10. What a mesmerizing series. Politicians are masters at their games….I grew up going freely in and out of the Alabama governor’s mansion- these posts ring very close to home….


    • Thanks so much. It was a crazy-weird-surreal expereince! Was your father the governor or were you the best friend of one of the governor’s children? How interesting! Can’t wait to see you in Kentucky–or Tokyo–whichever comes first!


  11. A lot of life hit me in mid-March, so I’m sorry I didn’t get to read this post until now. What an experience! I’m so glad you saw some of his many layers. I agree with a lot of the prior commenters; we are all unique human beings and so much more than the simple (sometimes awful) facts of our history. Thanks for adding your take on Baby Doc.

    PS: You have so many posts now — I know I could have used a search box! Just a suggestion. 🙂


  12. While on the one hand, I agree that you should be much kinder to yourself for having positive feelings about him, on the other hand it’s almost refreshing or comforting that it doesn’t sit completely well with you.

    At the risk of romanticizing a place of such turmoil, the pull of Haiti as you describe it sounds amazing.


  13. Kathryn, Just got a chance to read your three-part series on meeting Baby Doc and I am really struck by your thoughtful posts. Cannot believe you were able to meet him in person — but of course he was charismatic and able to convince you of his feelings for the suffering of people in Haiti. He is a politician!! What I was struck by when I was in Haiti last month is that the people I talked to (and they weren’t rich, privileged Haitians by any stretch — although my impressions are totally anecdotal and don’t represent any majority necessarily) is that they felt that Haiti needed a “strong man” to control the government and get things done — and that, in fact, the country “worked better” when the Duvaliers were in power. Which is so sad, since they were dictators in every sense of the word, and much brutality took place under their regimes. However — Aristede, whom I’ve read much good about from Paul Farmer and others, was perceived to be weak, unable to rule, and having sold out Haiti to the US & others in the trade concessions he gave to regain power in the 90s. I loved Haiti so much, it made me inexpressibly sad to think the governments they’ve had have been so terribly inept at providing the least, most basic services to the people — and I am constantly left wondering WHY that is so. I do think that the NGO-onslaught, UN occupation and tons of disparate services — each doing its own thing and not coordinating with the government (for well-founded fear of rampant corruption I suspect) — has also not served the country well. And particularly in the reconstruction and use of all the post-earthquake aid it seems essential that the government be empowered to DO things … primarily build infrastructure and bolster agricultural production. I keep longing to see a Civilian Conservation Corps — employing millions of men & women like in FDR’s time, sent out to build roads, bridges, schools and dams — with the money that countries have promised in aid. And then, of course, making universal public education free & available, which would take an unbearable burden off poor people’s backs, increase the literacy rate, lower the birth rate (educating girls does that), and produce an educated electorate. I just hope and pray that something positive happens out of all this misery the country has been through — and of course, I totally second your emotion about how enchanting, mesmerizing and unforgettable the country is. I simply cannot wait to go back!!
    Thanks for the amazing story, K!


    • I also got my introduction to Aristide from Paul Farmer–and, I’m afraid, was told nearly the identical thing about Haiti under the Duvaliers. It was more stable. There was less crime. Like you, it pained me to hear this. It seems conterintuitive. Why would he have been a weaker president?

      Frankly, so much about Haiti perplexed me. The issues are so, so complicated. As soon as I thought I was beginning to understand, I would realize anew how I understood so little.

      My partner Sara, who admittedly understands the country better than I do, agrees that partnerships with the Haitian government is essential. And education–gosh, imperative. It’s impossible for Haitian citizens to make informed decisions about leadership, if they lack the ability to read and write. Democracy depends on an educated citizentry.

      I could go on and on. Also, I think there was something about Baby Doc that reminded me of my father–so I think my “falling” for him could have been based in some very primitive responses in me–still unresolved issues.

      Thanks so much for reading, Betty. And thanks for such a thoughtful comment. It’s great to hear your perspective, especially since you have just returned. I, too, can’t wait to go back to Haiti!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s