The Duvaliers flee Haiti, February 7, 1986

My engagement with Haiti started during the year leading up to February 7, 1986. That year  I learned Creole from the Indiana University tapes, and bought their dictionaries, which were in notebook form. I went over to the Haitian Corner, a bookshop near my apartment that was run by Jacques Moringlane, who would sit amid his stacks of books and papers, talking on a big black telephone and surreptitiously taping the calls. That was my Intro to Haitian Politics. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Masters of the Dew, to Memoirs of a Third World Leader (by François Duvalier, cynically dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King), to The Comedians, and I read Thomas Madiou and Moreau de St. Méry, and Alfred Métraux, Jean Price-Mars, CLR James, Sidney Mintz. The biggies. My first trip down began around February 1st, because any fool who read Haiti Observateur with even the smallest amount of attention could tell that soon the bloody and infamous Duvalier dictatorship that had been started by François in 1957 would come to an end, and when I say soon, well, it was almost immediate. Until I arrived that first time, Haiti was a land of my torrid imagination: Toussaint, the Citadelle, the Marron Inconnu, the Presidential Palace, Papa Doc, the Tontons Macoute, Charlemagne Péralte, the sea, the palms, gingerbread houses, the French Revolution, conch, poulet creole, Boukman, Makandal, Creole, Vaudou. The country was nearly fictional.

Then suddenly it was very real.

I’ve written about February 7 so many times and thought about it so much, that it’s hard for me to recall the emotions that coursed through all of us as we waited for Jean-Claude Duvalier to leave Haiti on that day in 1986, thirty-five years ago—waited for him to let Haiti be, to stop inflicting his and his father’s “worldview” (if they could be said to have had one) on the Haitian people and peyi. Historians have written about what it’s like to be present when history is happening. Being in the French Revolution or the storming of the Bastille, or for that matter, within the mob at the recent attack on the Capitol in Washington, or at Waterloo or greeting the living skeletons at the liberation of the Nazi death camps… all these come to mind. Lived history is emotional and frightening and extremely real during the moments it’s lived. Of course it changes the the world and it changes the lives of those who experience it first hand. Then it turns into ink on the page and into thought and memory, and it loses some of its organ-churning, soul-cracking power.

But I do remember the wait, and what followed—especially what followed.

I remember those dark Haitian hours at Francois Duvalier International Airport in the very early morning. The whole country was holding its breath, with fingers crossed. The week before, the nights in Port-au-Prince had been filled with gunfire and the days with interviews with presidential hopefuls, both serious and un, in their brightly lit living rooms, with plastic flowers on the coffee tables and hopeful faces of family, friends, and followers looking up at the man of the house, all dying for a some portion of power for their candidate, or better yet, the fauteuil presidentiel itself. The Duvalier dynasty, and all the violence and repression it had engendered and supported, was falling, and falling fast. Jean-Claude Duvalier, scion of the 29-year dictatorship, son of Francois (Papa Doc), was on the verge of leaving the country, ousted by a combination of popular unrest and pressure from the international community.

Poverty and corruption would come to an end! Democracy would rule! Literacy, equality, fraternity! And justice for all!

I was sitting with my colleagues from the Haitian and international media on the sandy ground at the airport. Red ants were biting us. It seemed somehow right and fitting for us to be beset by angry fire ants at the fall of Duvalier. Reporters kept jumping up and stomping, shouting obscenities, and slapping themselves. You’d sit back down and the ants would continue their attack. An enormous U.S. cargo jet was sitting there, too, on the tarmac. This was the night we’d been waiting for. The U.S. embassy had alerted us to Duvalier’s imminent departure.

And off he went—at the wheel of a silver BMW (I have written about it so many times…) loaded down with his mother, his nonchalant, cloche-wearing, cigarette-smoking wife (ditto), his kids, and who knew what national treasure—right up the cargo jet’s ramp and off to Paris. Others in his close retinue accompanied him.  It was a night to remember.

The Duvaliers were gone. Democracy had come to Haiti.

Oh my God . I just got a Twitter notification. Nicolas Duvalier (you can see him in the photo at the top of this blog, the little kid in the back seat of the silver BMW; he too lived through that history at the airport…) just Tweeted out his thoughts on the coming 35th anniversary.

First in Creole: “Haiti has arrived at a dangerous crossroads. The game must end, it is time for all serious Haitians to unite for a national dialogue so we can give satisfaction to the people. The people are tired of misery while a small team makes off with everything.” and then in French (same Tweet): “For the good of the general interest, we must absolutely put our individual interests aside.”

I follow this blofeur, if you can believe it. He’s back in Haiti thinking about a possible future as president. The heir of the man who helped keep Haiti on the world’s sidelines and who enforced all the misery that echoes through the streets and fields there today, is calling for national unity to end Haiti’s poverty. Note how Ti Nicolas places himself among a certain “we.”  His “we” says everything: we politicians, we leaders, we elite, we thieves, we people who actually control this country, we who are at fault, we who alone can fix it…


Nicolas Duvalier, Grandbaby Doc

His dad used to drive around Port-u-Prince in his macoute-mobile, tossing coins out to the impoverished thousands like a French king.

Come on,  Ti Nic Duvalier, Grandbaby Doc, don’t you know that democracy has come to Haiti?  That it was supposed to arrive, anyway, on the very day you split for Paris avec la famille? That you and the rest are no longer supposed to be in charge?

“We must absolutely put our individual interests aside…”

Ah, yes. Democracy has come to Haiti.

How often we all repeated those words, Haitians and sympathetic outsiders alike. Democracy has come to Haiti. The morning of February 7, 1986, as dawn rose over the crowded capital, we said those words and wrote them with incredible joy. The Haitian people emerged at first light into Port-au-Prince’s broad boulevards, waving green branches like a human forest and dancing with mad happiness. I saw a tousled, cynical hard-bitten French war photographer with tears coursing down his face, undone by the crowd’s emotion. This was what it meant to live through history. It changes your life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your own country’s history, or another’s.

But soon after that beautiful day, the tone changed. You couldn’t help looking at what had happened on February 7, and asking how it happened, why, and what its results were. At first: in the tumultuous hours following Duvalier’s flight, a ruling junta was put in place with a general at the head. You perhaps asked yourself how this group had been selected to replace the dictatorship. You did remember that the U.S. embassy had alerted you to the exact moment of Duvalier’s departure. You did visit Ruelle Vaillant, the voting place where, in November 1987, during the first round of the first presidential elections to be held in Haiti after the fall of the dictatorship, voters were massacred by members of the Duvaliers’ former secret police and allies in the Haitian armed forces, and the election was cancelled (two candidates were assassinated before the scheduled election; 12 candidates were thrown off the lists because of their connections to the Duvaliers).


Ruelle Vaillant, massacre of voters, 1987

You then could not fail to note that the next  election, held almost two years  after the junta was installed, was a disciplined military exercise in which about 10 percent of eligible voters participated, and the candidate won by a fraction more than 50% of the vote, against ten other candidates. You did scratch your punditting chin when even so carefully selected a president was overthrown little more than four months later, by the military. The democracy that had come to Haiti didn’t look much like a democracy. But this was also true throughout Latin America at the time.

Over the decades, there were moments of renewed hope, of course. In 1990, the Catholic priest and liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected with 67.5% of the vote in a huge demonstration of electoral excitement, and in the face of threats against voters and voting places. It is thought to have been the first free and fair election in Haiti’s history. The people were invited into the Palace to celebrate.

I was WhatsApping with former President Aristide the day before yesterday, and discussing  all this. “The 1990 election was obviously a victory of the ballot against the murderous arms of the Duvalier dictatorship,” he wrote.

And he added: “It showed that the struggle against subhuman deprivation might eventually permit Haiti to pass from misery to decent poverty. But in order to maintain the status quo and the system of social exclusion, Haitian elites have always rejected the democratic principal that demands that government organize free, honest, and transparent elections, and that citizens respect the electoral results…. In this past decade, not one democratic election has taken place. All this is a clear expression of the establishment’s refusal to accept the norms and prerequisites of the rule of law.”

So far, the United States has never objected to one of these fraudulent elections. Obviously under Trump, that wasn’t likely. My readers will leap up, so let me say here not only did the U.S. not object, but it validated and supported those sham votes.

An aside, for Ti Nic: In 1961, Papa Doc (Ti Nic’s grandfather) won a presidential referendum asking Haitians to give him another six years in office. The vote was 1,320,748 for, 0 against. Looking at that amazing figure, you have to believe it’s entirely possible that Nicolas Duvalier could win the presidency of Haiti.

In spite of regularly scheduled though undemocratic elections, the Haitian people continued to be ignored by successive new governments. (It’s useful for one’s global analysis never to ignore the parallels between Haiti and the U.S., by the way: all the echoes.) There is still “a system of social exclusion.” Among many of the 15 leaders who have run Haiti in the past 35 years, the state has been considered a kind of cohort piggy-bank, with its money, wherever it might come from, to be shared among the administration. Very few of these leaders wanted to or were able to create programs that benefited the Haitian people. When they did that, they were ousted or threatened with overthrow.

For 35 long years, the best of Haiti’s possible leaders were refused entry into its government, either because they were too outspoken, too progressive, too wily, too independent, or too fierce to be stomached by the traditional international “Friends of Haiti,” the U.S., Canada, France, the U.N., and the OAS (and the IDB and the IMF). They became professors, human rights leaders, journalists, and lawyers for justice.  Some were assassinated, some silenced, some ostracized, while the small entrenched Haitian business elite who have an interest in the status quo continued to dominate the Haitian political scene. The best were for the most part eliminated from power, while the worst managed to grab almost everything, most often with outside powers quite aware but turning a blind eye.

Aristide slipped in there, but he was anathema to the business and social elite, who had friends in the Republican party and in Congress. After his exhilarating and astonishing victory in 1990, he was soon ousted. That was during the administration of the U.S. president we call Papa Bush. Aristide was reinstated in 1994 by Bill Clinton. In 2004, Aristide was overthrown again, this time during the era of Baby Bush. By the way, they didn’t send Aristide to Paris, where they’d sent Baby Doc in 1986. Instead, they sent him to the Central African Republic. Probably this was in some way related to the fact that in 2003, he had demanded that France pay Haiti about 21 billion dollars in reparations. (France did not agree.) Aristide is still beloved by Haitians (except for the ones who hate him), and has been back in the country for  almost ten years, but has kept himself in the background, politically.

Fate also wasn’t kind to Haiti. The cruel 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 250,000 and left behind mountains of rubble. Bill Clinton, the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, promised to help the country “Build Back Better” – that was his slogan. But in general, only businesses with traditional American connections were built back in any way at all. The rest of the country languished and languishes under rubble, literal and figurative.  Elections were notional, justice gestural, and outside help just a toss of money into the development hole. Current President Jovenel Moise, a former banana producer and auto parts dealer, was elected in 2016 with only 10% of eligible voters casting ballots. He was a protégé of his immediate predecessor Micky Martelly, whose electoral victory was questionable, and Moïse’s victory was also similarly suspect. When millions of dollars in public funds “disappeared” in the PetroKaribe scandal two years ago, his regime was fatally besmirched. “Spectacular corruption, mismanagement, and repression,” is how the Miami Herald characterized his administration in their February 7 anniversary editorial.

And yet he continues on. It’ll take a popular earthquake to dislodge this sticky character. Why would anyone voluntarily leave a coffer that keeps on giving…? And only the unimportant people he governs want him to leave. He doesn’t think much of them. And there won’t be any more serious elections, since the people of Haiti have been effectively disenfranchised.

People always wonder why Haiti has so much trouble when it’s only about 700 miles from the U.S.  For a long time, I didn’t know how to respond to this until I realized that it’s precisely because it’s only 700 miles from the U.S. that Haiti has had so much trouble. And it is not just too close to Florida, but also too close to Communist Cuba, which during the Cold War engendered all sorts of problematic situations between Haiti and  Washington.  Historically also, the slave-holding Americans  feared Haiti’s  free Black people, and more recently did not love it when Aristide demanded those billions of dollars in reparations from France, since reparations have now become an issue in the U.S. as well. Also its proximity meant that Haitians fleeing  a bankrupt economy tried to get to the U.S., which hasn’t habitually welcomed new Black immigrants with open arms.


People who were born as Duvalier fell are 35 years old now, and have lived with the carrot of democracy and a better life always dangling before them, unlike the Duvalier generations. Yet nothing practical and necessary has improved. Over here by the side of the road in Tabarre outside Port-au-Prince, a woman of about 35 sits naked on a doorstep, something almost unimaginable in Haiti of yesteryear, her skin covered in dust. Neglected, ignored, ill, destitute. She’s not the only one in her condition in Port-au-Prince. Starvation, which was rare in spite of all the reports of Haitian poverty, is now stalking the country. Families can’t afford their few cups of rice per week. Schools cost too much for most parents’ budgets. Kidnappings abound and no one is safe, not schoolgirls, not cashiers, not well-known lawyers, not priests, not foreign visitors. The kidnappers are violent, well armed, demand exorbitant ransoms, and are quick to kill their victims. Rarely are they captured. COVID is also a problem with few resources available to address it.

The one thing that has drastically improved during these 35 year is that for large chunks of time, Haitians have had the freedom to return to their habits of public expression and dissent, which have reemerged  to question and combat all the neglect, financial shenanigans and outright corruption of the state and its agents in the wake of that special moment when democracy was supposedly reborn. No one now would ever mistake the Haitians for a cowed or subservient population. Disturbances come in spurts as the situation worsens and security devolves, but right now, today, is a moment of serious popular unrest. Taking to the streets has become almost a seasonal event, and rightly so, given the grotesque corruption of government, the pornographic inequality of incomes, the dismissal of any and all needs of the Haitian citizenry.


Haiti revelers at Jacmel carnival Photo: Franck Fontain

And Carnival is coming, now, a time when, traditionally, political turmoil tends to overflow into the streets, songs are sung against particular politicians, and political trends can turn, and turn again. Of course Mardi Gras is always in February, so these annual protests always seem to arise around the anniversary of the Duvalier adieu. As Haiti gets ready for 2021’s weeks of celebrations—still on in spite of COVID—strikes and protests against the current regime have burst out all over the country with calls for Moïse to step down on the 35th anniversary. There’s serious constitutional dispute over whether his term ends this year or on Feb. 7, 2022; not surprisingly Moïse himself sides with those who say 2022. He enjoys the presidency and its perks. Since last January, Moïse, who dismissed a large part of the Senate and the whole of the chamber of deputies, has been ruling by decree, often making new rules that enhance his executive powers. Now he is trying to replace the Haitian constitution. Many Haitian rights groups are calling this a dictatorship.

Though criminality and impunity continue, the ongoing protests in advance of the 35th anniversary of the end of dictatorship show that all hope is not lost. Haitians’ worsening poverty is a disgrace to the whole world, like the slums of India and the favelas of Brazil. As protesters trudged down the hill from the wealthier suburbs toward downtown Port-au-Prince the other day, reporters there said they could be heard shouting quotes from sections of the 1987 post-Duvalier constitution declaring their right to food, education, and health care. After three and a half decades, all this is long overdue.


Haiti, the beautiful

As a small coda, I just want to thank Haiti and its people for allowing me to experience these past 35 years as an observer. I’ve learned so much and felt so much and am honored to have been there as a witness to change and growth and the possibility  of better things in the country’s future.

Here are those better things for the future:  free and fair and secure elections. Free and fair, not just for president, but for deputies, senators, and mayors.

OK, and on to the agenda for those government officials: a five-year and a ten-year economic plan, immediately published and posted online and on posts and billboards nationally, in Creole and French. Safeguards on government-held bank accounts to protect them from thievery. A professionalized police force. A reformed judiciary. Freedom for all in the National Penitentiary who have  been held for more than a year without seeing  a judge. Establishment of a committee to examine all jails and prisons.  A strong and bold ministry of women’s affairs. Enforced taxation at a certain level of wealth and on all foreign and Haitian businesses in Haiti, no exceptions. Public education (this means free!) for all, in Creole in the early grades and then moving on to French and English. Health insurance for all. A government that welcomes Haitians from the diaspora as consultants and participants. Pensions for the elderly. A rise in the minimum wage. And professional and technical and occupational training for the labor force. Seismic inspections and grants for rebuilding and rebolting, etc.

And expanded mental health care for an entire population suffering from the lifelong traumatic stress of poverty and neglect.

I couldn’t live with myself if I believed that this is a pipe-dream. I know bits and pieces of it were beginning under Aristide, and under the late President René Préval. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, especially once France begins to pay those reparations.

BULLETIN: U.S. legislators today called on Biden to support the assertion that Jovenel Moïse’s term ended today (rather than next year), while Moïse used today’s commemoration  of the fall of Duvalier to go full Duvalierist, rounding up more than a score of alleged participants in a conspiracy against his government and, he asserted, against his life, among whom a Supreme Court judge, a former presidential candidate, and a well-known police inspector.