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.