01.17.11

Baby Doc Met with Tears and Cheers in Haiti

Despite accusations of human-rights abuses, former Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier was met with cheers and tears after his surprise return from exile Monday. Lisa Armstrong reports from Port au Prince.

Haitian police have detained former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier after his surprise return to the nation he once ruled with an iron fist. Duvalier said he had “come to help” after the earthquake, but instead many hope to see him brought to justice for the alleged torture and murder of thousands of people during his rule in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Lisa Armstrong reports from Port au Prince on the welcome reception Duvalier received from his supporters.

When Jean-Claude Duvalier boarded an Air France flight bound for Haiti yesterday afternoon, he was met with cheers.

“People were crying with happiness, and there were also tears in [Duvalier’s] eyes,” says Ralph Broussard, a Haitian architect who was on the same flight from Paris. “I think it meant so much for him to be able to go home after 25 years out of his country.”

Duvalier, 59, the former Haitian president also known as "Baby Doc," was overthrown in 1986. He fled to France, and has been in exile there ever since.

Duvalier was also met by ecstatic crowds when he landed in Port au Prince. He did not make a public statement, however, Haitian television stations reported that Duvalier said he had returned to help Haiti.

Duvalier’s euphoric welcome is in stark contrast to the one he has received from human-rights organizations, which today are calling for his arrest.

Venia Ellian, who lives in a small camp that abuts the airport runway, says she heard people cheering in the streets by the airport last night. In her camp, people were jubilant.

“They were making noise, screaming, ‘Duvalier came back! Duvalier came back!'” says Ellian, 23.

“They were happy because Baby Doc said that he came back to rebuild Haiti, and he is going to use some of his own funds to rebuild the country.”

This euphoric welcome is in stark contrast to the one Duvalier has received from human-rights organizations, which called for his arrest.

Duvalier was declared president for life in 1971, after the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. During their years in power, the Duvaliers ordered the deaths of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 opponents at the hands of their militia, which, due to their brutality, were given the name of a Haitian bogeyman— Tonton Macoutes

“The widespread and systematic human-rights violations committed in Haiti during Duvalier’s rule amount to crimes against humanity,” said Javier Zuniga, special adviser at Amnesty International, in a statement. “Haiti is under the obligation to prosecute him and anyone else responsible for such crimes.”

Though President Rene Preval had once said that Duvalier would face charges for abuse and allegedly looting money from the treasury, some speculate that Preval himself invited Duvalier back to Haiti to distract Haitians from the contested November election results.

An Organization of American States (OAS) report, which was given to Preval last week, recommends that Jude Celestin, the presidential candidate from Preval’s party, withdraw from the election runoff due to vote tally irregularities. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza was scheduled to visit Haiti today to discuss the report with Preval.

This morning, Philippe Asindor, 48, was sitting with friends under a blue tarp in a camp in Tabarre, cutting metal strips to make small charcoal stoves. They were all excited that Duvalier had returned, and reminisced about a time they described almost as a paradise.

“The country was not like this when he was president,” said Asindor, as he pounded on a piece of metal before throwing it to the side, beside his pair of pink crocs. “It’s natural that he would come back; our country is in bad shape now, and he knows we need help.”

Asindor says that when Duvalier was president, there was little crime in Haiti, and people were more respectful. Asindor grew up in La Saline, a now dangerous slum. During Duvalier’s presidency, he says he was able to walk freely in the neighborhood, even at 2 a.m., which is something he would not feel safe doing now.

“Duvalier used to throw money from his car, and we would run in the streets, and pick it up,” says Asindor. “I was young then, and I don’t know why he left, but I am happy he came back.”

Broussard also says that he was glad to see Duvalier on the flight yesterday, and feels the former president had been unfairly portrayed.

“All that stuff about Duvalier, I think is bad publicity,” he says. “Duvalier was the first ex-president to give money to Leogane, which is where his mother is from, after the earthquake.”

Asindor agrees that most of what the foreign media and organizations have said about Duvalier is not true. He spent the night of January 13, 2010, the day after the devastating earthquake, sleeping under the shade of a small tree in the camp in Tabarre, and has been living there ever since. He feels that Duvalier will be the one to provide homes and jobs for people like him.

“This is not about Duvalier, foreigners just try to paint a bad image about anything to do with Haiti,” he says. “All these things about the Tonton Macoutes, it is a misunderstanding. They would only come if you did something bad. They were like the national security, they always kept the country peaceful.”

Though Ellian is too young to have lived through the Duvalier regime, she learned about him at school.

“From what I know, people were happy when he was president. They had full security, and electricity 24 hours a day,” says Ellian. “But I also know about the Tonton Macoutes. If you said bad words about Duvalier, he would send his soldiers to kill you or send you to jail.”

Like Asindor, Ellian has been living in a tent for a year and is desperate to find a secure home and a means to support herself. She was raped two days after the earthquake and now has a baby, Richard, as a result.

She was supposed to go to the doctor this morning because she has been having constant headaches, but stayed home, because she was afraid that the streets would be “hot” due to Duvalier’s arrival.

While Ellian is hopeful that Duvalier will help his people, she is tired of all the fruitless promises from NGOs, politicians, and other leaders.

“I’m happy if Duvalier came to rebuild Haiti, but I’m not in his heart, so I cannot tell you what he is going to do,” says Ellian. “Honestly, I don’t believe he will help. It’s not easy to find a person who stands behind his word.”

Lisa Armstrong is reporting from Haiti for The Pulitzer Center.