CAP HAITIEN, Haiti —Fatal heart attacks aren’t usually celebrated as fortuitous events. But when former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier dropped dead on Saturday morning at age 63, many Haitians — both those who benefited from his regime, as well as those persecuted by it — emitted a collective sigh of relief, but for different reasons.
Victims of Duvalier’s iron-fisted government, which jailed and killed tens of thousands of Haitians from 1971 to 1986, still harbored a latent fear of the aging and ailing strongman, who returned from his self-imposed exile in France in 2011. And for folks like Bobby Duval, one of the 30 Haitians who last year sued the former dictator for crimes against humanity, Baby Doc's death puts an abrupt end to a protracted Haitian judicial process that few plaintiffs had faith in to begin with.
“His death lifts a weight off of a lot of people’s hearts,” says Duval, who was jailed, starved and tortured for 17 months under Baby Doc. “I have mixed feelings; I’m happy he’s gone, but it’s frustrating to those of us who were trying to put him before a judge.”
Duval says the trial, which Baby Doc had been stalling through appeals and other legal maneuvers, is a “mostly symbolic” attempt to hold the fleshy former dictator — the second installment in the “President-for-Life” dynasty started by his father, “Papa Doc”— accountable for the death and disappearance of an estimated 50,000-60,000 Haitians during the 30 years of father-son rule. But Duval readily admits that he didn’t trust the court proceedings. “Of course not!” Duval, a former soccer player, laughed into phone. “But what choice did I have?”
Duval says the trial should continue anyway.
Baby Doc’s death could also come as a quiet source of relief to the former dictator's closest coterie. That’s because Baby Doc, who died without the riches that characterized his playboy lifestyle as president, purportedly enriched his friends by registering plundered state treasure in their names. Had the old dictator gone to trial, he might have been forced to name names, which would have been an uncomfortable moment for some of Haiti’s well-heeled elite, who now live snuggly with their borrowed graft.
“His death must come as a relief to those in his camp,” Duval told Fusion. “They’re happy they don’t have to pay back what he gave them.”
A brutal dictatorship
Baby Doc came to power in 1971 at the age of 19, following the death of his strict father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who, by all accounts, was the smarter of the two.
In office, Baby Doc acted his age. He lived a lavish lifestyle, throwing wild parties and designing public works to suit his needs; he reportedly kept the roads of the capital smoothly paved so he could race around the city in his Lamborghini.
He was as ruthless as he was opulent. His secret police, the Tonton Macoute, persecuted anyone who opposed the corrupt regime, which reportedly carted off $800 million in loot, according to Transparency International.
Proving that it’s better to be lucky than skilled, Baby Doc presided over a growth spurt that was fueled by tourism and U.S. investment in the garment industry. When he returned from exile in 2011, he was met with cheers in the capital, especially among younger Haitians who are too young to remember his government but have heard their parents talk of the days of employment and economic growth. Baby Doc lived his final years quietly in Port-au-Prince. He would been seen at downtown restaurants and government events, but mostly stayed in, suffering from poor health. Less than two weeks before his heart attack, Baby Doc was briefly hospitalized after being bitten by a tarantula, according to the Miami Herald.
While some Haitians are nostalgic for the old days, others remember him as a weaker version of his old man.
“Baby Doc was more relaxed than Papa Doc, who was much more strict. If he followed in his dad’s footsteps, he would have made sure things were done properly,” Charles Forbin, Haiti’s consul general in New York, told Fusion.
Not everyone remembers Baby Doc as a chill dude.
“I still don’t know why I was arrested. There was never a trial and I never went before a judge,” says Duval, 60. “I was only 22 when I was arrested— I was an ideological college grad ready to help my country. But I still remember it like it was yesterday. I saw 180 people die in my cell. It was like an extermination camp.”
How will the government remember Baby Doc?
The current government, which critics claim maintains Haiti’s long-standing tradition of a questionable commitment to democracy, is now put in an awkward position with Baby Doc’s death. President Michel Martelly, a charismatic Kompa singer who appears most comfortable when gyrating on stage before a sweaty crowd, had somewhat of a cozy relationship with the elderly Baby Doc.
Translation: "Love and reconciliation must always overcome our quarrels. May your soul rest in peace. #JeanClaudeDuvalier"
Those closest to Martelly say the president isn’t trying to play favorites; he extended an olive branch to all former presidents, including left-wing opponent Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who returned from exile shortly after Duvalier. But the president’s challenge now is to set an appropriate tone for Baby Doc’s funeral — he wants to give the internationally recognized figure his due nod, but can’t appear to celebrate the man too enthusiastically.
Martelly needs to tread carefully in the coming days. He doesn’t want Duvalier’s funeral to turn into the same nationally polarizing event that the trial would have been. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to appear irreverent to a past that was more prosperous and orderly than the present.
But in a country whose history is too often defined by unexpected lurches, the death of Baby Doc is another unforeseen wrinkle that might either spare or deny the country from facing its history. In any event, Haiti —once again— was robbed of a chance of determining its own fate.
As one high-ranking official said, under condition of anonymity, “God delivered justice faster than the Haitian court could.”