The Ghosts of Duvalier

Baby Doc's return to Haiti is a potent reminder that his legacy of poverty and corruption lives on.

Perhaps the best way to understand former Haitian dictator and would-be president-for-life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's quixotic return to his homeland after 25 years in exile in France is through William Faulkner's classic observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even the past."

What better proof than the stunning spectacle of the once porky, now gaunt 59-year-old shuffling from the airport after a perfunctory meeting with the cooperative immigration officials who accepted his expired diplomatic passport, and the police convoy that protected him on his route to his luxurious Karibe Hotel in a Port-au-Prince suburb, where he stood on the balcony and waved regally to beaming supporters and bemused journalists? A quarter-century earlier, this man had fled Haiti under military guard, reviled by his people and a pariah to the international community.

But Duvalier left behind Duvalierism, a system of government too profoundly entrenched to truly eradicate. And it's Duvalierism, with or without its figurehead, that explains, among other tragedies, the near paralysis of the René Préval government's response to the 2010 earthquake that killed nearly 300,000, decimated the civil service, smashed buildings, and obliterated the landscape. More recently, it explains the government's attempt to pervert the electoral process by engineering the victory of Jude Celestin, Préval's protégé.

Papa Doc Duvalier, Jean-Claude's father, was a workaholic dictator who micromanaged every aspect of his country's life. He ruthlessly eliminated opponents, imprisoning, torturing, and killing -- driving hundreds of thousands into foreign exile. Because he distrusted and feared the army, he emasculated its leadership, unified the services under his personal direction and authority as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and created an elite presidential guard who depended for their jobs and lives on their absolute loyalty to him.

To secure and control the nation, Duvalier developed an armed civilian militia widely known as the Tonton Macoutes, the bogeymen of Haitian folk belief who prowled at night in search of bad little boys and girls. The goon squad or secret police had been part of Haitian society since the slave patrols. Duvalier's genius lay in how he designed their hierarchical structure, chose their (usually humble) social origins, and included priests (voodoon and Christian) and rural section chiefs who ruled their fiefdoms with iron fists and reported personally to him any subversive activity or even thought.

Under Duvalierism, environmental degradation went unchecked. Poor farmers chopped down trees to make the charcoal that was their cooking fuel, and deforestation and eroding soil hastened the loss of fertile topsoil and led to both drought and flooding. Throughout Haiti, rivers ran brown, riverbeds emptied, wells ran dry.

Duvalierism fed on the people's poverty, which he showcased to the international world to attract aid and loans that rarely reached their intended beneficiaries. The chosen few -- Duvalierist officials, friends, loyalists, and the cautious, sometimes persecuted, and often complicit elite -- reaped the rewards of the corruption at the heart of Duvalierism. Other Haitians survived, and increasingly, the rural population relocated from the hungry countryside to the possibilities of bustling cities.

In 1971, after Papa Doc died in his bed, 19-year-old playboy Jean-Claude inherited his father's legacy and Haiti's presidency-for-life. He delegated its management to family friends and, as he grew older, his own friends. His kleptomania fueled increasingly brazen thefts of state funds, millions spent on lavish living, millions more stashed in foreign bank accounts. (Of the estimated $300 million to $900 million stolen during his regime, only $5.9 million remains. Had the earthquake happened on Jan. 13, 2010, that money would have been Duvalier's; on Jan. 12, hours before the disaster, Switzerland's highest court ruled that the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes had expired. The Swiss government raced into action, freezing the money, which may yet be returned to Haiti.)

Jean-Claude also encouraged the development of industrial parks where foreigners could operate assembly industries such as textiles, baseballs, and electronics. This accelerated a steady migration into the cities, where the growing population was jampacked into shoddy housing in urban slums built with no infrastructure and condemned to a perpetual search for water, food, fuel, transportation, medical care, and employment. The corruption that permeated the Haitian state extended to the construction industry, which ignored building codes and bribed inspectors who overlooked flawed structures that would later crumble in the earthquake.

By the time he was forced to flee in 1986 under U.S. pressure amid uprisings throughout Haiti, Jean-Claude's Duvalierism had bankrupted the Haitian state and enshrined corruption and incompetence in the government and civil service. Subsequent leaders, notably the democratically elected and initially wildly popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide, struggled against their toxic legacy, mostly unsuccessfully. In January 2010, the consequences of those failures kept alive the past that isn't yet past, which is why an extraordinarily high number of Haitians were killed, injured, and made homeless -- a mortality rate worsened by destroyed roads, impenetrable congestion, leadership paralysis, and foreign aid that created blockages and confusion as well as salvage and succor.

And then, on Jan. 17, 2011, Air France disgorged the disgraced ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier onto Haitian soil, and here's where Faulkner comes in, because hundreds of Haitians cheered Duvalier. One man (surely paid for his services) inexplicably held a teddy bear aloft. And residents of tentcamps and other Haitians, and even members of the diaspora, surprised journalists by reminding them that under the Duvaliers you could walk safely through the streets, things were not so expensive, and in Papa Doc's day, medical care was free. Perhaps Jean-Claude might just be "the breath of fresh air" everyone longed for, the man who could guide -- make that replace! -- the unloved politicians they blame for Haiti's current conditions of misery and suffering.

What explains this surprisingly ambivalent reaction to a brutal dictator back in their midst? Let's look at Haiti's demographics. Well over half of its population, mean age 20.2 years, never lived under either Duvalier. In the turmoil of presidencies, military interventions, earthquake, and cholera, the Duvaliers are little more than murky memories recalled by family and friends, and by the country's ubiquitous radio talk shows. What they hear now is that Duvalier fell onto his knees to kiss Haitian soil and, being "deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," has come home to help. (Let's not forget that in France, taxi drivers and other expatriate Haitians support the never-employed Duvalier in a modest apartment.)

But this nostalgia is not ubiquitous. A large contingent of Haitians remains committed to Aristide and his shattered dreams. Others place their hopes in other leaders or are too beaten down to care. Some, like Canada's former governor general, Michaëlle Jean, whose family fled Papa Doc's Haiti after her father was tortured, are horrified at Jean-Claude's return. Jean-Claude Bajeux, a pro-democracy activist exiled under Papa Doc, recalls: "[Y]ou had no way to defend yourself in court, no protection, and you could be killed any time if the president decided it was convenient, or take your wife or your husband and all your property."

And so why has Duvalier come back? First, he is more nostalgic than anyone for the past and is personally deluded enough to dream that the disorganized Party for National Unity, Papa Doc's resuscitated old party, may lead him back to the collapsed National Palace. Over the years, he has made no secret of his desire to lead Haiti again, so that he can rectify the misdeeds -- he hints darkly at misuse of international funds -- of his successors. Secondly, he apparently believes that he committed no crimes and dismisses the possibility of being successfully prosecuted. Lastly, his physical degeneration has sparked persistent rumors that he is terminally ill and has come home to die.

The larger question is why the Préval government permitted, indeed facilitated his return. Was it to thumb its collective nose at the international community that has just rejected the recent electoral results? Was it to curry favor with the Duvalierist forces Préval had long fought against? Is it some sort of charade to warn away Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- still in exile in South Africa -- whose return would have so much more legitimacy than Duvalier's?

On his second day home, the police politely escorted Jean-Claude to the courthouse where he was charged with corruption, theft, and misappropriation of funds. As crowds waited outside, pro- and anti-Duvalier demonstrators hurled insults and protested. Soon after came the reek of tear gas. But Jean-Claude was not detained, and he returned to the Karibe Hotel.

Just before he fled Haiti, back in 1986, Duvalier took to the radio and denied he was going. "The president is here, stronger than ever, as strong even as a monkey's tail," he intoned. Le plus ça change … or as Faulkner knew so well, the past is still very much with us.

--/AFP/Getty Images


Le President, C'est Moi

Ivory Coast's president is making a desperate stand to keep his job -- but will his move just mean more misery for a country that's already seen enough?

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—At a campaign event in October, I watched the incumbent president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, dance as if he didn't have a care in the world. We were in the newly refurbished Congress hall of the Hotel Ivoire, filled to the brim with Gbagbo supporters. As the theme to his campaign started playing on the loudspeakers and the audience clapped, the president sauntered down the aisle. Eyes wide open, he shook his hips and cut the air at chest height with his hands in time to the music. The audience sang along to the refrain: "Devant, c'est mais" -- "Ahead of us, it's maize," or in other words: "The opposition isn't much to worry about."

Recently, however, Laurent Gbagbo has had plenty to worry about. Despite his upbeat campaign, Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 presidential election -- the first genuinely open ballot held in the country's independent history -- by Ivory Coast's U.N.-backed independent electoral commission. Instead of packing up his office, however, he resolved to stay. His allies in the country's Constitutional Council nullified millions of votes from the north, where his rival is the favorite, declaring Gbagbo the winner. He took the oath of office, named a cabinet, and began issuing official statements as if nothing had happened.

Unfortunately for Gbagbo, he's not the only one claiming the presidency -- Alassane Ouattara, the opposition candidate who actually won the election, has done the same, setting up an office in a hotel in Abidjan and also swearing in a new government. Both sides are armed -- Ouattara is supported by the leftover rebels from Ivory Coast's recent civil war and a U.N. peacekeeping force of 9,000, while Gbagbo is backed by the army. The United Nations says 50 people have already been killed in post-election violence, victims of armed gangs who have besieged opposition districts during the overnight curfew. And many fear things will get worse before they get better.

With most of the world backing his rival, Gbagbo is under increasing pressure to resign. Unfortunately, it's exactly this kind of pressure that Gbagbo -- a self-styled man of the people -- is least likely to respond to. His caricature in the popular Ivorian weekly comic, Gbich!, features him with long sideburns and a towel draped around his neck to mop up sweat as if he were a boxer -- a style he often adopted during the long years he spent as an opposition politician pounding the streets under a hot tropical sun.

During those years, he was one of the only opposition leaders to challenge Ivory Coast's long-standing President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who died in 1993, leaving the country destabilized and open to a long period of disputed power and civil war, even after Gbagbo finally took office officially in 2000. Through the north-south conflict that followed from 2002 and 2007, it was to Gbagbo's credit that the state remained mostly intact. Civil servants never missed a pay check, the country remained the world's largest cocoa exporter, and sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest port, Abidjan, remained functional and even expanded. Luckily for Gbagbo, the key riches were in the southern tropical zone, which the government had a stronger hold over: cocoa, coffee, rubber, and some oil. But even those in the north -- the rebel zone -- enjoyed virtually uninterrupted electricity and water supplies.

Although Gbagbo held the state together during the civil-war years and helped engineer the eventual reconciliation in 2007, promising that elections would be held imminently, he didn't escape the process unscathed. Ivoirians now view the decade of Gbagbo's rule as their most disastrous since independence. When he was elected in 2000, Gbagbo was handed a five-year mandate -- but it grew longer each year as elections were delayed over and over again. His rule became a symbol of the tired, dogged conflict that simply wouldn't let Ivory Coast free.

Going into the 2010 elections, facing Ouattara -- an expat technocrat, former prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny, and an IMF deputy managing director -- Gbagbo knew his candidacy was a tough sell. So he focused on driving home two messages to the crowds. The first was to blame the lack of progress on the war -- and in turn to blame the war on Ouattara, who comes from the north and shares a support base with the rebels. The second strategy was to reframe the past decade as a battle for real independence from France, the former colonial power -- a tactic that played well to the continuing Ivoirian sense of inferiority and resentment toward the country's former colonial overlords. After all, France still controls large parts of the economy, including the port, railways, electric grid, water system, and airport.

But as results from the second runoff started coming in on Nov. 28, the confidence of Gbagbo's campaign slogans -- like "Rien en face" ("We're up against nothing") -- began to look misplaced. Ouattara formed an alliance with former President Henri Konan Bédié, whose support base comes from the country's largest ethnic group, the Baoule. As areas that had voted for Bedie in the first round turned to Ouattara in large numbers in the second round of the runoff, it was clear the alliance would hold -- Ouattara was going to win. And Gbagbo, the man who'd fought under the cry "We win or we win," started to consider another option.

Fortunately for him, he still had a card up his sleeve. A year earlier, Gbagbo had appointed a close political ally to be head of the Constitutional Council, which still has the final say on election results. Paul Yao N'Dre accepted complaints from Gbagbo's camp that the vote in the north (Ouattara's base) had been disrupted by ballot stuffing and electoral violence. He disqualified more than half a million votes in areas that voted massively for Ouattara in the first round -- and Gbagbo stayed put.

The international community has made its displeasure known since the beginning of the standoff. Ivory Coast has been kicked out of the African Union until it has just one (not two) presidents. Gbagbo and his family face sanctions and travel bans from the European Union -- not something that's likely to bother Gbagbo, who has barely been back to the old continent since a coup attempt in 2002 caught him unawares in Italy -- and the United Nations resolved on Dec. 20 to keep its peacekeepers there, protecting Ouattara's camp.

And so this former history teacher turned populist opposition leader turned president is fast gaining a reputation as the African Hugo Chávez: involved in a bitter struggle with the "international community" and drumming up support with sermons on the evil imperialists. In his first televised address to the nation since the election, on Dec. 21, he claimed that he is the true president and accused "the international community" of "[declaring] war on the Ivory Coast."

In Francophone Africa, such talk isn't so easily written off as ridiculous -- but the real conspiracy may be different from the purported one. In October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-hand man, Claude Gueant, paid a visit to Ivory Coast, declaring that France was not backing any one candidate in the elections. Privately, however, diplomats whispered that France preferred a Gbagbo victory in the long-delayed elections as the best guarantee of stability for French business interests, which have hardly suffered despite the anti-colonial rhetoric.

Where the standoff goes from here is still anyone's guess. One of Gbagbo's nicknames here is "the baker," because he "rolls everyone into flour" -- an expression meaning that he finds a way to come out on top in any situation. In this case, it remains to be seen whether Gbagbo will live up to his reputation or if the rebel groups and peacekeepers will propel Ouattara into the presidency -- but someone is certainly going to get rolled.