Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti Papers Over the Past: The Re-Branding of Baby Doc Duvalier

By Susana Ferreira, Time World
February 8, 2012

On Jan. 30, more than a year after former “President for Life” Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti, a Port-au-Prince judge concluded his lengthy investigation into the ex-dictator’s brutal, 1971-86 rule. Supreme Court Magistrate Carvès Jean had at his disposal reams of documents, human rights complaints, testimony from torture victims, copies of checks, international bank transfers and diary entries from former political prisoners at the notorious Fort Dimanche prison. Yet while Jean ruled that Duvalier should be tried on financial corruption charges — for the hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly plundered from Haiti’s national coffers — he decided the statute of limitations on Duvalier’s crimes against humanity had expired.

The U.K.-based Amnesty International spoke for most human rights groups worldwide when it called Jean’s dismissal of the torture and murder charges against Duvalier “a disgrace.” Some of Duvalier’s alleged victims, including national soccer hero Bobby Duval and former U.N. Secretary-General spokesperson Michèle Montas, have vowed to appeal the ruling — citing, for one thing, Haiti’s ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights, which puts the country under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Under international law, there is no time limit on crimes against humanity.(LIST: Top 15 Toppled Dictators)

But other victims weren’t so surprised by Jean’s ruling. “I had no doubt, not even for a fraction of a second,” says former parliamentary deputy Alix Fils-Aimé, who was held in solitary confinement by Duvalier’s secret police for 16 months and then at Fort Dimanche before being exiled. “I have no faith in [Haiti’s] justice system.” And that’s especially true, critics like Fils-Aimé fear, when it comes to the handling of Duvalier. Few countries, especially after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than an estimated 200,000 people, have as troubling an image problem to solve as Haiti does. And the last thing the national re-brandingcampaign of President Michel Martelly needs is an ugly, protracted trial that would remind the world of the 30,000 Haitians abducted, tortured and killed by the regimes of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his more ruthless father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971.

Ramon Espinosa / AP Actor Sean Penn, left, Haiti’s President Michel Martelly, right, and Haiti’s Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe, center, make a toast as they pose for pictures after a special ceremony at the national palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. Penn has been named ambassador at large for Haiti in recognition of his humanitarian work since the 2010 earthquake.

As a result, a big question is whether Martelly’s efforts to market the idea of a new Haiti — one that is open for investment, tourism and modernization — include sweeping away the atrocities of the Duvalier dynasty like so much quake rubble. Another is whether otherwise well-intentioned U.S. celebrities like Haiti’s new Ambassador-at-Large, Hollywood actor and humanitarian Sean Penn, have signed on with that controversial approach. (VIDEO: Haiti’s Precarious Election)

Martelly, a former carnival singer who wants to revive Haiti’s defunct military, has spoken fondly of the iron-fisted Duvalier era, and during his first year in office he’s appointed numerous Duvalier sympathizers to high-level positions in his government. Since Duvalier showed up in Haiti in January 2011 after 25 years in luxurious French exile — he thought, mistakenly, that returning might persuade authorities in Switzerland to unfreeze some $6 million he has there — Martelly has made friendly visits to the ex-despot at his suburban Port-au-Prince home. On the earthquake’s second anniversary last month, the President even invited Duvalier to sit in the front row of a state memorial service. Following that commemoration, Duvalier shook hands with international dignitaries mere steps from where tens of thousands of victims of the Duvalier dictatorships are buried.

Other deposed leaders of Haiti, including former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and François Duvalier’s predecessor, General Paul Magloire. have managed to live quietly and in the shadows after returning to the Caribbean nation, the western hemisphere’s poorest. Duvalier, by contrast, has lived in the public eye since he first stepped off the plane, dining out frequently and waving with amused aloofness to onlookers.

Martelly has hinted he would rather leave the fury over Duvalier’s past in the past. In a recent interview with theAssociated Press, the President spoke about the need for reconciliation in Haiti; but the following day he said he wouldn’t seek a pardon for Duvalier, which is what many feared he’d meant. Meanwhile, in a recent interview withPBS’ Tavis Smiley, Penn praised Martelly for being “shrewd” in his handling of Duvalier. “The emphasis now is going to have to be moving forward,” said Penn, who was installed as ambassador-at-large the day after Jean’s ruling.(PHOTOS: After Quake, Carnival Returns to Haiti)

U.S. celebrities like Penn have been central to the Martelly government’s bid to promote post-quake Haiti. New York fashion designer Donna Karan, for example, has been called on to help boost tourism; others have taken roles in areas like education. (Karan has made no commentabout Duvalier.) “Trying to reverse 30 years of mismanagement in eight months is a challenge,” says Haitian Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe. “They’re helping carry out this message of hope, this message of all good things Haiti has to offer.”

But it’s hard to imagine how “moving forward” in Duvalier’s case — especially when so many other Latin American countries have prosecuted crimes against humanity committed during their own dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s — puts Haiti in that kind of positive light. Even if many Haitians today are too young to recall the dynasty’s corruption and brutality, Duvalier still “generates passion against him,” says Georges Michel, a historian and political journalist who advises Haiti’s Interior and Defense Ministries. “This man is vilified.” Michel himself still bears the scars from where the Tonton Macoute, the Duvaliers’ paramilitary enforcers, beat him. “Torture is an international crime,” Michael notes, arguing that if Haitian authorities refuse to prosecute him for human rights outrages in addition to embezzlement, it’s as if “they will be accomplices. That will not help our image. The civilized world will not accept it.”(MORE: What Aristide’s Return Means for Haiti’s Election)

Jean-Germain Gros, a professor of politicalscience and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says that while the Haitian p.r. campaign seems laudable, it also needs to focus on “substance” and not just “image.” Judge Jean’s Duvalier ruling, Gros adds, is simply a reminder of why Haiti has a “terrible reputation internationally” in the first place, and why an independent judiciary has to be a key part of Martelly’s Haiti makeover. Pierre Esperance, director of Haiti’s non-governmental National Human Rights Defense Network, agrees: Jean’s ruling “was an order from on high,” Esperance complains. “It was a political decision.”

Jean has not publicly responded to the criticism (nor to TIME’s request for comment.) Martelly’s office has insisted that neither the President nor his administration will interfere with the courts. Duvalier, meanwhile, has called even the decision to try him on corruption charges “outrageous,” and his lawyer Reynald Georges has vowed to appeal it. Should they win, the country’s international reputation could take yet another ugly hit. Fils-Aimé says he can’t forgive Baby Doc; but more than trial or punishment, he wants some show of remorse. “I’m not interested for him to suffer,” says Fils-Aimé. “But I think humanity would profit from seeing him repent.” Despite the government’s best p.r. efforts, Haiti — which is also battling a cholera epidemic — may be dealing with its Duvalier plague for quite a while.

VIDEO: A Love Story in Haiti (Time)
MORE: Another Presidential Ouster Brews at the Haiti Polls (Time) 

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