Growing up the son of an iron-fisted dictator would be tough for anyone – especially when your dad was the fearsome “Papa Doc.”
I met Haiti’s President for Life, Dr. Francois Duvalier – better known as “Papa Doc” – at his palace in Port-au-Prince during the 1960’s. At his side was a shy, pudgy boy who was obviously petrified by his father, just like everyone else in spooky, nightmarish Haiti.
“Papa Doc” ruled over the Western Hemisphere’s most desperately poor nation, an island whose amazingly rich topsoil had been washed away after massive deforestation, leaving barren, arid mountains and dead soil to feed the growing population.
Duvalier had started off as a crusading country doctor fighting diseases, but power soon drove him off the deep end. “Papa Doc” ruled through terror enforced by his sinister blue-denim-clad militia, the “Tonton Macoutes,” meaning bogeymen in Haitian Creole.
The Ton-Ton killed, beat and tortured at random, imposed “street taxes,” and extorted businesses. I was lucky to survive a number of run-ins with them.
A Ton-Ton commander who tried to overthrow Duvalier supposedly transformed himself through voodoo into a black dog. “Papa Doc” ordered all black dogs on the island killed. He kept heads of his victims in the palace and used to lecture the bodies of executed enemies. Weekly executions were held at the sinister, yellow-painted Fort Dimanche.
The key to Duvalier’s power lay in voodoo. He was the island’s chief “hongan,” or high priest of the slave cult from West Africa. Haitians believed he could kill by curses, hear or see everything, even raise the dead.
At night, the mountains throbbed with the beat of drums and cries of voodoo worshippers. “Papa Doc” was said to fly through the darkness and make himself invisible.
The British author Graham Greene wrote a delightful book about Haiti, “The Comedians,” which was also made into a decent film. I met many of the colorful real characters upon whom the book was based.
After Duvalier Senior died in 1971, his 19-year old playboy son took power, and was immediately christened “Baby Doc.” In fact, the son was a figurehead for Haiti’s tiny ruling oligarchy of wealthy, light-skinned mulattos.
Revolution seethed in Haiti as full-blooded blacks sought to overthrow the mulatto oligarchy. The mulatto-led army battled insurrection, killing tens of thousands and torturing many.
In 1986, “Baby Doc” was forced into exile, but not before taking some $300 million with him to France and his beautiful mulatta wife, Michelle.
The lovely Michelle soon burned through most of “Baby Doc’s money in a legendary shopping spree. After cleaning him out, she divorced him. `You can’t divorce me,’ exclaimed Duvalier, “I am the president of Haiti!’
“No,” she sweetly replied. “I married the president of Haiti. You are now a nobody! Au revoir.”
“Baby Doc” has lived modestly in Paris ever since. The French allowed him to stay as an option in case they ever want to take a more active role in their former colony. Warmhearted Swiss bankers kept $6 million of Duvalier’s looted money, but froze it after he was charged with crimes.
Last week, “Baby Doc” surprised everyone by suddenly flying to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, proclaiming, to general amusement and disgust, that he had come to help his battered country. He was promptly arrested and charged with crimes against humanity, then released.
Never very bright, “Baby Doc” was hoping Haiti’s political and economic chaos might allow him to get back into power. He still commands a large following among devotees of voodoo and some mulattos. Duvalier may also have hoped his visit might help unblock his frozen funds in Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Haiti remains in a total mess after a discredited election and last year’s earthquake that killed 200,000. More violence and suffering are inevitable.
Some Haitians believe their island has been cursed by the evil, top-hated voodoo deity, Baron Samedi. There appears no real hope for poor Haiti. It will likely remain a ward of the United States, Canada, and the UN.
“Baby Doc” will be lucky to escape jail or lynching. But nothing is for sure in Haiti. His luck may yet change. Up in the mountains the drums beat, and the whisper goes around, “the Great Hongan is returned.”
This post is in: International Politics