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.)

What Does One Wear to Meet a Former Dictator?


Up until the last minute I didn’t believe it would happen. Even as we were on our way to Jean-Claude Duvalier’s home in the hills outside Port-au-Prince, my friend Kate (my ally in this effort) and I didn’t know what to expect or where we would rendezvous with Richard, who claimed to be Duvalier’s friend and had set up the “interview.”  The road was dark, as we wound our way up the mountain to encounter God only knew what.

It all started soon after Baby Doc’s unexpected return to Haiti in January.  I had asked Richard, who, in fact, directs the security operation in Haiti for Sara’s NGO, if I could go to the Karibe Hotel in Petion-ville, where Duvalier was staying, as we had to clear any out-of-the-ordinary outing with Richard’s team.  Security in Haiti is that precarious and risk-management is essential to the functioning of the NGO in potentially unsafe situations.   I wanted to attend a press conference Baby Doc was supposed to hold there on his second day back in the country.  Inevitably the event was delayed for a number of days first because the Karibe indicated it could not manage the number of press expected to attend and then by the eventual arrest of Duvalier on his third day back.

When I made the request, Richard, whose father had been a Haitian ambassador to France during the Duvalier era, surprised me, asking if I, in fact, wanted to meet Baby Doc.  At the time, I knew Richard’s father had been a diplomat, but I didn’t know when or for whom, and though I said I certainly I’d like to meet the man, I never expected it could or would happen.  Ultimately circumstances prevented me from attending the press conference which was held after the ex-dictator left the Karibe and was staying in a guest house on Montagne Noir.

I never again mentioned meeting Baby Doc to Richard, as, first, I had no real ambition of meeting a man who had allegedly committed crimes against humanity and, second, I knew Katie Couric herself would have loved to interview the former president.  I never expected it could be arranged for an unknown writer from Kentucky like me.

That is until this past Wednesday evening, when Richard approached me at my partner Sara’s going away party.  (We moved home to the US on Monday after a year in Haiti, where Sara directed the initial phase of an international NGO’s relief effort.)

“Would you still like to meet Baby Doc?” Richard asked at the barbeque, as I sat by the pool, minding my own business, admiring the setting’s breath-taking view of Port-au-Prince:

“Of course,” I stuttered, surprised by the question, imagining Richard was just making friendly conversation and couldn’t really make that happen.

“Then I’ll arrange it,” he asserted, turning to answer his phone.

He walked away.

And I laughed to Sara who was standing nearby, “Do you really think he can make that happen?”

“I don’t know, but I certainly don’t want to go,” she insisted.

She asserted the same, when Richard called the next day to announce the meeting had been arranged, “They’re expecting us Saturday evening.”

“Good God,” I said, having won the “Stylish Blogger” award, “What does one wear to meet a former dictator?”

(continued here)