As Graham Greene put it in the preface to his classic novel The Comedians, “Poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier’s rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to blacken that night.”
One wonders what Greene would have made of the latest twist in Haiti’s convoluted drama. What was there to add to four hurricanes, a massive earthquake, a cholera epidemic and a questioned presidential election?
I suppose not even that most imaginative of novelists would have predicted the return of the dictator’s offspring, “Baby Doc,” himself in charge for 15 years, after a quarter of a century of exile in France. Nearly 60 now, but still with that boyish air and distracted look, appearing not to know exactly what is going on around him — which may be part of the reason he lost power in Haiti first, his beautiful wife, Michele Bennett, later, and finally his ill-gotten fortune.
What else could happen? The return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from his own exile in South Africa (who has already announced he is ready to do so)? The return of Papa Doc himself from the Beyond, perhaps through the black magic he was so fond of and which he deployed so effectively to terrorize his compatriots? A reappearance of the fabled Tonton Macoutes, the Duvalierist goons?
The rumour that Jean-Claude Duvalier’s arrival was engineered by President René Préval has spread. This seems unlikely. Préval’s main concern has been to stabilize Haiti, and this does anything but that. Moreover, Duvalier has been detained and questioned by the police about his human rights abuses.
Still, how will Préval handle the issue of his own succession? What about the potential banning from the second round of the presidential balloting (now pushed off to March) of his chosen successor, Jude Celestin, because of ballot-stuffing and other irregularities adding up to 50,000 votes in the Nov. 28 vote won by Mirlande Manigat, albeit only with a plurality of 30 per cent?
In principle, it is difficult to imagine anybody beating Manigat, a former first lady who likes to call herself the “Mother of the Nation.” A proven vote-getter, she was elected with an ample majority to the Senate from Port-au-Prince in 2006. Celestin is a newcomer to politics, with low name recognition. Yet “Baby Doc” has thrown a wild card into Haiti’s political equation.
The rise and fall of Latin American and Caribbean dictators follows a certain script. Few die in office. Most are either toppled and forced to leave the country (like Fulgencio Batista in Cuba or Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay), or shot at home or abroad (like Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic or Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua).
Lately, the problem for current and former dictators has been their inability to go to London and do their shopping at Harrods. This became a no-no after Gen. Augusto Pinochet did it in 1998 and ended up under arrest for 18 months. Universal jurisdiction for human rights violations and the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), of which Canada was such an articulate champion, has cramped the travel and the style of many a tyrant.
But the return of Baby Doc sets a new precedent. What to do if, many decades after his mischief, the former strongman returns on his own to the scene of the crime? Isn’t it in a way an endearing gesture, perhaps an effort to achieve closure by reaching out to his former subjects and expressing contrition? “I am here for Haiti’s reconstruction,” Jean-Claude said upon getting off the plane.
The embezzled fortune (up to $500 million U.S., according to some) is long gone (partly in a costly 1993 divorce with Michele), a majority of Haitians were not even born when Jean-Claude left the country, and today the daily life of Haitians is arguably worse than it was then.
Isn’t it time to let bygones be bygones?
The answer is no. According to some estimates, between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitians lost their lives at the hands of state agents under Duvalierism. In the 1990s, a truth commission report of those crimes was shelved. Préval’s main concern ought to be that justice is done and to make sure the second round of presidential elections is seen as legitimate and fair.
Jorge Heine holds the chair in global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.