At the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince, I spot Ronal’s taptap, pick-up-turned-public-bus, painted to resemble an Argentine flag – a salute to his favored team in last year’s World Cup soccer match. Ronal’s first report is about his glee over last month’s return of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Duvalier’s ouster in 1986 following popular uprisings ended a three-decade regime which was one of the most brutal, neglectful, and corrupt regimes in the hemisphere’s history.
At age 47, Ronal lived through 13 years of the tyranny. The vagaries of memory and an odd – if currently common – interpretation of cause and effect have converged to give Ronal this analysis: “The thing about Duvalier, you had peace as long as you weren’t in politics. If you didn’t speak out, they wouldn’t arrest you. You had no problem.”
The peace of which Ronal speaks was the peace of the graveyard, as he himself immediately points out. “Now you see that man standing there? He was one who got into politics and paid the price.” He points to a person by the airport gates who, as chance would have it, is my former colleague Bobby Duval. Under Duvalier in 1976 and 1977, Bobby spent 17 months in Fort Dimanche, a prison which few ever left except as corpses. Bobby never knew of what crime he was accused, but it could have been anything. People were regularly imprisoned, tortured, or killed for literally any reason: not stopping in front of the Palace for the daily noontime playing of the national anthem; speaking – if you were a man – to the girlfriend of a government henchman; protesting that a cow got into your garden, if that cow’s owner had a friend in government. (At least one of my neighbors from the village where I lived during Duvalier’s regime was arrested or disappeared for each of these reasons.) When an intensive campaign by Jimmy Carter won liberty for Bobby and other prisoners, this normally burly man weighed less than 100 pounds.
Bobby is one of those who filed a grievance with the government for a case it’s mounting against Duvalier. Meanwhile, the fallen dictator is living as a free man after having likely returned, at least in part, to try to liberate from his frozen Swiss bank account $6 or so million which he allegedly came by illegally and over which he has been fighting a 25-year legal battle. Unfortunately for his aspirations, a new Swiss law, dubbed the ‘Duvalier law,’ went into effect February 1. The Swiss government now has greater authority to confiscate stolen assets from bank accounts and return them to their country of origin. Duvalier’s return is surely political, too, though the end goal is not entirely clear.
When I return to the taptap after greeting Bobby, I try to tell Ronal how wrong he is. He protests with a logic I can’t contest. “But compared to today, life was good. Everything wasn’t so expensive. Food was cheaper. The state owned its own factories. The country hadn’t deteriorated like it has today.
“It’s the people today who’ve left this country in rubble.”
I would like to believe that Ronal’s opinion is an outlier, but in the informal poll I will conduct amongst dozens of people in the days to come, I will find wide support for the return of the man who took over the nation as a dull-witted, motorcycle-racing, 18-year-old.
There are at least two ways to understand this. One is that government negligence to earthquake victims’ needs, failure of foreign aid to reconstruct in any noticeable way, and other social and political crises have been so grave since the earthquake that any other leadership looks better. It’s a pretty damning indictment of the status quo when ‘anything else’ extends even to a man who oversaw crimes against humanity.
The other way to understand the confusion is a faulty analysis of causality. Levels of poverty and social exclusion were not lower 25 years ago because Duvalier’s policies were kind. The variables are the global wave of structural adjustment, which is the set of conditions of International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans, and other ‘free trade’ and deregulation policies which have ravaged many countries in the world, including Haiti, since the 80’s. Since Duvalier’s fall, foreign pressure has forced: the privatization of state-owned companies, lower tariffs on agricultural imports which had protected domestic production and allowed small farmers to stay on their land, the creation of new ‘free trade’ zones to encourage sweatshops, and other policies disastrous for the destitute majority.
This month, human rights, labor rights, youth, and popular education organizations throughout Port-au-Prince are holding public colloquia on the dictatorship, featuring survivor testimony, showings of photos and documentaries, and discussion. The objectives are to educate those who didn’t live under Duvalier and to reignite popular opposition for those who did. “We will never fall asleep forgetting,” read one program’s announcement.
(Those of us from the U.S. might do well to never fall asleep forgetting that the American government gave the Duvaliers consistent financial and political support, except for a brief period under Kennedy and then in the final months, when widespread dissent made it clear that the dictatorship was doomed. At that time, the U.S. flew Duvalier to his exile in France aboard an American government airplane and negotiated a transition to a military-led dictatorship.)
As for future political leadership: The run-offs are moving ahead despite the fact that last November’s elections involved so much fraud and voter exclusion as to be illegitimate by any honest measure. Even the Haitian government’s electoral council failed to ratify them. Approval by the majority of the eight council members was needed for the election to be formally stamped as fair and honest, but only four endorsed its credibility.
Nevertheless, the Organization of American States recommended that two candidates, Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat, who got 4.5% and 6.4% of the vote, respectively, proceed to a next round. (Manigat was first lady to one of the figurehead presidents of the aforementioned military dictatorship that followed Duvalier.) Foreign governments and international institutions intensively pressured the Haitian government to accept the recommendation, with the U.S. even going so far as to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the island. The Haitian government bowed to the pressure.
Other events in Haiti are cascading with dizzying speed. Cholera is killing at least one person every thirty minutes. An increased risk of evictions of those living in tent camps. An increase in rape of children. A diplomatic passport for former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been living in South Africa since having been ousted from power a second time in 2004. To this development, the U.S. government – which, a wealth of evidence shows, was involved in both ousters – panicked. In the words of State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley, Aristide’s return might be “an unfortunate distraction” and the U.S. would “hate to see any action that introduces divisiveness” before the second round of elections. Now the Haitian government appears to be stalling in getting him home.
And this: In December, the Department of Homeland Security informally announced that it would resume deportations of people with “serious criminal convictions,” after having granted temporary protected status to Haitians nine days after last year’s earthquake. Human rights and refugee organizations sounded cries of alarm given conditions in Haiti and especially in its deportee holding cells. Nevertheless, the U.S. proceeded. Among the many deported was Wildrick Guerrier, on January 20. Guerrier was held in a vastly overcrowded police holding cell, where he quickly developed the telltale signs of cholera: severe diarrhea and vomiting. Despite well-known World Health Organization epidemic protocol and interventions by a family member, Guerrier was left untreated and died a few days later. The U.S. says it will continue deportations.
Perhaps the brightest element of Haiti today is the absence of political repression. For now, that is. Pretty much anything is possible, especially given the forces that might take power after the election run-offs.
But this is where Haiti’s long tradition of political protest comes in handy. It’s easy to forget, amidst all the media imagery of hungry, desperate earthquake survivors, that strong dissidence has been a constant in Haiti’s history since before it was an independent nation. I am reminded of a line by historian Rebecca Solnit from A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster: “Disaster shocks us out of slumber, but only skillful effort keeps us awake.”
Tonight I join two friends, other survivors of Duvalier’s torture, to hear a compa band in a Pétion-ville club. It’s Carnival season here, surreally enough, and one of the features of Carnival during years of political repression was that veiled protest songs were allowed to pass as celebratory street music. The coded lyrics were sung all day long with jubilant defiance, exciting the popular imagination. Tonight, the musicians have worked into their show rebellious Carnival chants from the Duvalier days, call-and-response numbers where “Yes!” – in English – was the safe stand-in for “Let’s bring him down!” The middle-aged members of the crowd, who remember all too well the misery of that era, pump their arms in the air and shout.
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
 “3-Day Program of Activities on the Duvalier Period,” announcement by STAIA, MODEP, KRD, SEK GRAMSCI, AKP, UNNOH, CATH, GREPS, FRAKKA, GREAAL, CHANDEL, and Antèn Ouvriye, received by email Feb. 9, 2010.
 This is according to the women and children’s rights group Commission of Women Victim to Victim (KOFAVIV). From verbal testimony of KOFAVIV co-coordinator Malya Apallon Villard to author, January 25, 2011, based on outreach in IDP camps and reports filed by survivors.
 Email from Michelle Karshan, director of Alternative Chance, a re-entry program for Haitian criminal deportees, to Steve Forester, January 31, 2011.