Happy Day in Haiti — the Duvaliers remembered

Twenty-five years ago, the Duvalier dynasty came to an end. James Ferguson explains why that date remains a red-letter day in the troubled country that Baby Doc left behind

  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah

The history of Haiti contains few happy anniversaries. The events that have marked the country and made international news have almost always been bad news – natural disasters, refugee crises, political violence. And yet, despite this litany of gloom, there is one date, February 7, 1986, that remains, for the right reasons, a red-letter day. It was then, 25 years ago, that the reign of the Duvaliers came to an end and “Baby Doc” fled Haiti.

The Duvalier dynasty was viciously authoritarian and remarkably long-lived. Francois “Papa Doc” had come to power, with US backing, 1957 and had ruled until his death in 1971. His regime was protects by a paramilitary gang known as the Tontons Macoutes, while he deployed terror in many guises to murder or exile his political opponents. The United States regarded him as perhaps the “least worst” option in the unstable Caribbean of the 1970s, and so the soft-spoken country doctor-turned-dictator was able to anoint his son as his successor before his death.

Jean-Claude, aka Baby Doc, was an awkward, overweight 19-year- old when he became the world’s youngest president. Surrounded, by a coterie of advisers and bossed by his mother, he cut a rather less frightening figure than his father. When I first visited Haiti in 1985 he was still as much a figure of fun as an object of fear – but Haitians were still careful to keep their jokes private. By then he had been in power for as long as his father and had seemingly maintained the invincibility of the regime.

But with the power of hindsight, this is precisely what he had failed to do. On the surface the playboy dictator appeared to be in control: the Macoutes were still ready to crush any dissent, and Haiti’s democratic opposition was either in exile or unwilling to risk open activism. The US continued, implicitly at least, to back the regime, not least because American companies were making fat profits from the cheap-labour assembly plants dotted around Port-au-Prince. With opposition non-existent and the US choosing to ignore human rights abuses, how could Baby Doc mess up?

Well, he could marry the wrong girl for a start. His grotesquely extravagant wedding with the beautiful, pale-skinned Michele Bennett in 1980 may have made the pages of Paris Match, but it also angered his mother, Simone Duvalier, and many other senior supporters of the regime. Michele, after all, was from a prominent and wealthy mulatto family, while the bedrock of the Duvaliers’ support had always been the majority and mostly poor black population. In the eyes of many, it was nothing short of betrayal.

Michele’s taste for luxury soon became legendary. It was rumoured that she had a refrigerated room in the presidential palace where she could model her fur coats. It also symbolised the odour of corruption that surrounded Baby Doc and his circle. The son may have been less scary than the father, but he was certainly better at siphoning off Haiti’s meagre assets.

The next mistake was to mishandle the Church. Papa Doc had simply murdered or removed over-critical priests, but his son wanted to present a more liberal image and in any case recognised that the church often did the work that the state didn’t. A new generation of left-leaning Catholics was emboldened by the visit to Haiti in 1983 of Pope John Paul II, who told a massive crowd, in Creole: “Things must change here.” Slowly, the church – or parts of it – began to voice criticism of the dictatorship.

Other factors also chipped away at the regime: the spread of AIDS and collapse of tourism, an epidemic of swine fever in the countryside, the burgeoning number of “boat people” desperate to escape Haiti’s poverty. And all the time Baby Doc played with his speedboat and other luxury accoutrements, perhaps oblivious to the world outside the palace gates.

The first real signs of trouble came in October 1985, when riots broke out in the dusty northern port of Gonaives. They quickly spread around the country, with major incidents in Cap Haitien and Les Cayes. The disturbances started as food riots, targeting warehouses and shops, but quickly changed into something more radical.There were no established party politicians in charge, but rather local leaders, unelected but popular in their neighbourhoods.

Predictably the regime tried to crush the rebellion, then, when that failed, cut the price of food staples and offered limited reforms. By now, however, a series of regional uprisings had coalesced into a mass national movement, reaching even the capital. Sensing imminent danger, senior Duvalier supporters began to distance themselves from Baby Doc.

The critical moment came in January 1986 when Ronald Reagan’s administration signalled its impatience with the escalating anarchy in Haiti – and the threat to US interests. After diplomatic visits from the Jamaican prime minister, Edward Seaga, and various American officials, Baby Doc was left in little doubt that his time was up.When General Namphy, head of the Haitian armed forces, warned him that there could be real bloodshed, Baby Doc agreed to go.

On January 30, US sources announced that Duvalier had left. Amidst extraordinary scenes of jubilation, news leaked out that it was a false alarm; back in the palace Baby Doc claimed defiantly that he was “as strong as a monkey’s tail’. (In fact his party had set off to the airport, only to run into rioters, and had headed back.)

The joy was to be postponed for a week. On February 7, JeanClaude, Michele, their two children and a group of close supporters boarded a US cargo plane destined for Paris. It is said that a vast sum of money – as much as US$400 million – accompanied them. As the plane set off across the Atlantic the celebrations began – and the vengeance attacks against those seen as Duvalier supporters. But it was freedom, real and intoxicating:”Haiti Liberee” read the banners and t-shirts that immediately appeared on the streets. Port-auPrince was a mass of dancing, cheering, flag-waving revellers.

The party was short-lived, of course. General Namphy soon took over and started a violent phase of military coups and ephemeral juntas that lasted for several years. Baby Doc had little more cause for celebration. His French Riviera exile scarcely begun, Michele ran off with a lawyer and most of the money, leaving the ex-playboy a solitary and sorry figure.

Ever since, Baby Doc has said that he wants to return to Haiti.

It seems unlikely, but few who were alive on the day he left will forget how the country’s future seemed, if only briefly, better than ever before.