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.)

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)

My Old Kentucky Home


Having lived a year in post-earthquake Haiti and shipped 66 boxes worth of passion for Port-au-Prince ahead of our departure, my partner Sara and I, late last night, arrived home in Kentucky with 6 suitcases, 4 carry-ons, and two tired dogs in tow.

And today I am still too whip-lashed by re-entry (too shocked by easy access to electricity) to write much of substance, especially about my Saturday evening talk with Baby Doc, which in itself has left me dizzied with disbelief–clearly, the conversation of a life-time shaded by the half-light of infamy.

However, now that I’m back in the land of easy broadband, I can offer a few photographic highlights of our last days in Haiti:

Movers wrap everything, tables included, in cardboard

Lucy supervises shipping

Ralph visits Haitian vet to avoid US quarantine

Good bye party hosted by Sara's staff at Kalico Beach (near Cabaret)

Lucy oversees our departure for the airport

From atop Ralph's crate

Arrival at the Port-au-Prince airport

Lucy and Kathy wait at the gate

My talk with Baby Doc

Though I’m too tired to say much, I will add that, my 45 minute conversation with Baby Doc, would have been the coup of a life-time, were I a journalist in the traditional sense.  However, I was granted this access as a “friend of friend” and talked with Jean-Claude Duvalier, not about his recent arrest or allegations of wrong-doing, but about who he is as a man, as a president returned from exile, who sees his country suffering and is saddened by it.

I sat across the table and was stunned by the seeming humanity of an ex-dictator, some say committed crimes against humanity.   How could someone supposedly evil actually appear so warm, charming, and, above all else, humble?  I expected arrogance and experienced not one drop of it. 

Is this man maybe not what the world has judged him to be?  Are people capable of change, worthy of redemption?

Whoever Jean-Claude Duvalier is, he’s not what you’d expect.

Midnight, Give or Take an Hour


It’s been a wild and crazy weekend at our house here in Haiti, a weekend in the US when clocks have surreally sprung ahead an hour, dizzying me even at a time-bending distance in Port-au-Prince.

We’ve gotten 66 boxes of everything from fans to folding screens, pots and pans to patio furniture, shipped on a slow boat from Port-au-Prince to Baltimore, a boat so slow we’re hoping to have our lawn furniture in Lexington before the first snow falls next November and clocks again fall back an hour.

Saturday we spent at the beach, and Saturday evening I literally had a long talk with Baby Doc.  Even I find it hard to believe, but I have what may indeed be the worst photo taken this side of the 19th century to prove it.  For now the story will have to wait until we’re settled safely in Kentucky.

Kate, Jean Claude Duvalier, Fito, and me

Early in the morning we indeed leave on a day long trip from Haiti to home-sweet-home, one that will take us from Port-au-Prince to Miami, Miami to Dallas, and Dallas to Lexington, where we are scheduled to arrive an hour this side of midnight.

But in the meantime, I promise–

Sitting across the table talking to “Baby Doc” Duvalier, felt like an hour on the far side of midnight, an event horizon at my back.

(If you’d like to read a post about my past “adventures” at the Port-au-Prince airport, circumstances we are likely to encounter again on our way home from Haiti, click here.)

Bargaining for the Good Life: Duvalier and the Haitian Elite


As I’ve struggled over the past several days, trying to make even minimal sense of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return to Haiti Sunday evening, and worked even harder attempting to understand the Duvalierists I’ve discovered in my life since then, I’ve remembered why art is such a good way for me to grapple with complex issues, ones for which there are no easy answer.  When slugging through the muck and mire of not knowing remains the only way through a particular darkness, I, like both Aristotle and Shakespeare, find comfort in art and literature’s ability to “imitate nature,” be like the thing that’s bothersome, while, at the same time, not being the thing itself.

 So, in the midst of my Duvalier-induced dementia, I remembered a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  I’ve often taught this piece to composition students when wanting to demonstrate how “showing,” rather than merely “telling,” makes for stronger writing.  But yesterday Le Guin’s story reminded me why and how literature can become a way through confusion, especially in a place where more than a million remain homeless, cholera continues to kill, and ex-dictators come home to roost. 

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a seemingly ideal city that hides a dark and disturbing secret (a dystopia, in literary terms).  Happiness and peace in Omelas depend on the suffering and misery of one small child, dungeoned in filth and despair.  According to Le Guin’s narrator, coming of age in this seemingly perfect place involves visiting this child and realizing, for the first time, the price Omelas pays for peace.

Clearly Omelas is not a perfect parallel to Port-au-Prince, since here the wealth and luxury enjoyed by an elite minority depend on the suffering of millions.  My Duvalierist friends may long for the good-old-days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc, an era when the lights stayed on and the streets were clean, but even now in Haiti the balance is shifted in favor of the privileged few.

 In the story’s final paragraph (click here to read the story in its entirety), Le Guin tell us about a few citizens of Omelas, but only a few, unwilling to accept this “bargain,” unwilling to exchange the suffering of an innocent child for their own well-being, to trade conscience for comfort.  These are, indeed, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” 

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

 For the same reason these few in Omelas walk away, here in Haiti some have come and  decided to stay, refusing, in their own way, to accept the bargained-comfort that is life back home.  But this situation is extreme. 

I wonder how this same unwillingness to compromise conscience plays itself out in your life.  What do you sacrifice, what do you say “no” to, because doing so is good and fair and just? 

 How is conscience alive and well in your life?