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–

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.)

Awards Ceremony 101


Allow me to apologize in advance (you’ll soon see why) and assure you that, although things in Haiti seemed to be heating up a day or two ago, they’ve just as quickly calmed back down, as Aristide’s arrival has been delayed until housing and security can be arranged—several days, maybe even weeks.

So during this brief lull in exiled-former-presidents-coming-home to Haiti, I’ll finally and officially accept the Memetastic Award Clouded Marble cursed honored me with last week. 

This long-anticipated acceptance requires several things of me:

1. Displaying the “disgusting graphic” (words of the award creator Jillsmo, not mine) of the award itself—a Meme Kitty dancing among balloons and shooting stars, gleeful and glorious in award winning form. 

2. Posting 5 “facts” about myself—4 of which must be bold-faced lies.  (This will be the fun part.)

3. Passing the award along to 5 other bloggers, who will, in turn, do the same.  (This is where the apologies come into play.)

4. Linking this post back to the “Memetastic Hop,” so award creator Jillsmo can track its path through the blogosphere.  (Supposedly failing to do any of the above will cause Jillsmo to haunt and taunt me through the rest of what, I’m sure will be, a short-lived blogging career.)

So, here are some fun-filled “facts” about me.  (You pick out the one that is true.)

  1. Sara and Kathy met on a train from Istanbul to Ankara.
  2. Kathy taught English at Oral Roberts University for 6 years, before leaving to teach writing to inner-city St. Louis teens in trouble.
  3. During the 1980s, one of Kathy’s sisters served in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka, where she still lives with her Delhi-born husband and 2 sons.
  4. Someone in Kathy’s immediate family won’t allow Kathy to mention him or her in this blog and has asked her to write as if he or she does not exist.
  5. Kathy’s father was a preacher from Ft. Lauderdale.

(Let me warn you, this list is tricky.  The fact must be entirely true to count.) 

Finally, I must part with my prize and pass it along to other entirely-worthy-of-bigger-honors-than-this bloggers I read regularly. 

(Audience cheers expectantly, while best-of-the-best bloggers cower in corners, pens poised to attack if they are indeed identified.)

And the winners are (apologies all around):

  1. Lisa at “Notes from Africa.”  Lisa’s blog was freshly pressed several weeks ago.  She writes about the science she observes all around her in South Africa.  Brilliant blog.  Amazing photos.  You must read. 
  2. Mrs. H. at “A.Hab’s View of the World.”  (Sorry, my friend, I adore your blog and want others to read, as well.)  Mrs. H. writes, sometimes amusingly, but always passionately, about her ambivalence for academia.  She is currently teaching World Lit at the university where she is finishing a Ph.D. in English. 
  3. Tori at “The Ramblings.”  What can I say?  Tori is a 23-year-old mother of one from Tennessee, who is, in fact, one of the best writers I have ever read.  As I told Sara the other day, Tori  writes like Anne Lamott, but “out-Lamotts” Lamott herself.  Tori is wickedly funny and was once freshly pressed twice in one week! 
  4. Deanna at “A Mother’s Tonic.”  Deanna is a Canadian blogger who writes poignantly about both the challenges and joys of motherhood.  She makes me think, she makes me smile, she makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.  I think you will love her too. 
  5. Terri at “Into the Mystic.”  Terri is a wife and mother, a bowling fanatic, and kidney donor, who writes about “dragging [her] feet toward empty-nest-hood.”   Terri was also freshly pressed a while back.  I know you’ll enjoy her wit and insight.  She’s sure to make you laugh. 

So there you have it folks.  I believe I’ve fulfilled my obligations according to Memetastic Award protocol.  

May award creator Jillsmo hunt me down and menace me for life if I have failed in these Memetastic duties.  I am indeed a believer in the cause. 

Thanks, again to Clouded Marble, for this great “gift.” As I’ve said before, please read her blog, despite her poor judgement in passing this prize to me. 

Long live the “Meme Kitty” !!!!

I will blog—forever—

A proud winner of the Memetastic Award!!!!

(Applause continue, even as this pronouncement is posted and Meme Kitty exits stage left————-)