Adieu, Duvalier Dynasty

By Courtney Cox

The quote, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” is an apt description of the Duvalier reign in Haiti. The Duvaliers (‘Papa Doc’ and later ‘Baby Doc’) presided over one of the most oppressive governments in the Western Hemisphere.

Historically, Haiti was the ‘Pearl of the Antilles,’ largely deriving its wealth for the métropole from sugar cane production, an industry governed by black codes and accomplished by slave labor. After over a century of French colonial exploitation, the power shifted to the oppressed. In 1804, a successful slave revolution culminated in the first black republic. One can only imagine the degree of deliverance and optimism that permeated the new island nation.

The joy that accompanied this unprecedented victory was short lived, however. The world’s first black republic has been subsequently plagued by post-colonial exploitation and ruthless dictators (often serving as Western controlled puppets). With the recent death of one of these tyrants, Baby Doc, an assessment of his human rights legacy in Haiti seems timely.

In 1971, the nineteen-year-old Baby Doc succeeded his father as ruler of Haiti. His human rights rap sheet screams despot. Fulfilling his father’s legacy, Baby Doc refused to tolerate political dissent. He maintained a secret police (the MVSN – formerly known as the Tonton Macoutes under the Papa Doc administration) which bore the responsibility of enforcing his policies. Their enforcement culminated in widespread censorship, innumerable disappearances, unfathomable detentions and prisons terms, torture, and well over 30,000 executions. Baby Doc also robbed his poverty stricken populace by hoarding and frivolously spending government revenue. Let’s not pretend that Baby Doc’s oppressive reign was one carried out in isolation. His regime was significantly supported by the United States through economic and military assistance in order to further its anti-communist exploits.

On a visit to Haiti in 1983, Pope John Paul II declared that “something must change here,” and three years later, something did. Twenty-nine years into the Duvalier family reign, a popular uprising ended this chapter of Haitian history. Baby Doc was forced into exile in 1986, and a United States military plane whisked him away to France. His exile was cushioned with illicit Haitian funds, and he escaped all accountability for his abusive regime.

Baby Doc returned to Haiti twenty-five years after he was ousted and one year after a devastating earthquake ravaged the island. He claimed he returned to his native land to “help.” Some speculated that he returned home to die. Shortly after his return, he delivered a feeble apology at a news press conference. He claimed, “I take this opportunity to express my deep sadness to my countrymen who rightly feel like they may have been victims under my government.”

His attempt at reconciliation proved woefully inadequate. Baby Doc was formally prosecuted for financial corruption crimes soon after his return. Allegations of crimes against humanity were added, but a judge quickly dismissed them, claiming that the Haitian ten year statute of limitations barred claims that occurred in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The petitioners appealed the dismissal of the human rights charges. During the appellate hearings, a judge asked the tyrant about the allegations of executions and torture. He responded that “deaths exist in all countries.” The Court of Appeals of Port-au-Prince did not entertain Baby Doc’s replies. In February 2014, the Court held that the human rights claims were not subject to the ten year statute of limitations because of their “continuous character.” The Court reasoned that customary international law is a part of Haitian law, and the charges against Baby Doc constitute crimes against humanity under customary international law.                                                                                                            
Baby Doc died just eight months after the Court of Appeals’ decision. His dictatorship was another etch in the tumultuous history of an often misunderstood and abused island nation. His death begs many questions. Will the shadows of his regime ever truly be brought to the light? Will his victims ever experience justice? In the weeks since Baby Doc’s death, victims and their families are not discouraged, because they know that the tyrant did not work in solitude. Some of Baby Doc’s henchmen were named as codefendants, and consequently, trial preparations will proceed.