Duvalier’s Return Stirs Troubled Memories

Jean-Claude `Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s return to Haiti stirs up troubled memories as advocacy groups call for his prosecution.

Jailed under the Duvalier regime for more than four months, Miami playwright Jan Mapou first felt shock at the news that deposed dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had returned to Haiti.

Then, resignation.

Now, disgust.

Locked up under the Duvalier regime for four months and three days for hosting a radio news and cultural program in Creole — not French — Mapou, a Miami playwright and bookstore owner, did not hide his feelings.

“This is a mess,” he said. “I don’t know what will be the outcome but this is a plot to get everybody confused.”

A day after Duvalier made a sudden return to his homeland after a 25-year exile, Mapou and others jailed, abused or killed under the 29-year rule of the Duvalier dynasty said the former president should be punished for his crimes.

Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, called for his arrest and prosecution.

“Duvalier’s return to Haiti should be for one purpose only: to face justice,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said Monday. “His time to be held accountable is long overdue.”


Duvalier, now 59, inherited the National Palace at age 19 in 1971 after his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, fell terminally ill.

As “president for life,” Duvalier continued many of the same iron-fist tactics, introduced by his father, to rule Haiti. A private militia, the Tonton Macoutes, wielded terror and fear over the population.

It is estimated that the Duvaliers ordered the deaths of some 20,000 to 30,000 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. Some of those executions were carried out in Fort Dimanche, a notorious prison where Mapou was locked up.

“That’s a jail you check in and don’t check out,” said Mapou, among the lucky few to leave.

The Duvalier regime split up families. Some members were absorbed into the regime while others were forced into exile.

Survival required one to be a shape shifter.

“You remained low,” said Gepsie Metellus, executive director at Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami’s Little Haiti. “In terms of self-preservation, you needed to distance yourself from family, friends, from certain acquaintances because rumors were rampant about certain people’s affiliations. It was a very traumatic time for Haitians.”

Tens of thousands of Haitians fled the brutal era of “Papa Doc,” though that repressive climate eased a little under the son’s regime. However, an economic fallout spurred a new wave of Haitians to leave the nation in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Duvalier’s family enjoyed a lavish lifestyle at the country’s expense.

His hobbies included hunting, motorcycle racing and partying. His wife, Michèle Bennett, enjoyed shopping, decorating, and forcing her chubby husband to diet.

The good times came to an end on Feb. 7, 1986, when the first couple fled to France on a U.S. military jet as unrest engulfed the country.

The two divorced in 1993.

What followed in Haiti was a succession of military juntas and political violence. There were efforts to bring Duvalier to justice.

Along with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Haiti-focused groups Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and the Port-au-Prince-based Office of International Lawyers urged the Haitian government on Monday to comply with Haitian law and arrest Duvalier, citing legal documentation of crimes he has been accused of. However, legal experts who follow the case say they are not aware of any arrest warrants against Duvalier.

The Institute for Justice & Democracy and the Office of International Lawyers note the following:

• A 2009 order from a Switzerland court, which stated that the Haitian government had informed it of criminal proceedings against Duvalier as late as June 2008.

• A 1988 decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that found Duvalier liable for more than $500 million for a misappropriation of public money for his personal use.

• An extensive accounting of Duvalier’s misappropriation of public funds conducted for the Haitian government by a U.S. accounting firm between 1986 and 1990, establishing the theft of $500 million in public funds.

On Monday, Little Haiti activists in Miami raised questions over why Duvalier would be permitted to return to Haiti while Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a democratically elected president who fought the Duvalier regime and was later ousted, would remain in exile.

“Why does Duvalier get that special treatment and people like Aristide who were legally elected get separate treatment?” said Tony Jeanthenor, vice chair of Veye Yo, a pro-Aristide group in Miami.

Jeanthenor, 49, recounted how a Tonton Macoute under Jean-Claude punched him in the back as a teenager.

The reason: He neglected to chant “Long live Duvalier.” His father also was jailed for 2 ½ months for failing to pay off a captain.


On Monday, rumors emerged that Aristide would seek to return to Haiti. The former priest was ousted by a ragtag group of rebels in 2004 and sought refuge in South Africa, where he remains today.

His Miami attorney Ira Kurzban said he spoke with Aristide since the news broke Sunday about Duvalier’s return, but Kurzban declined to elaborate on the conversation.

“His position has been since 2004 that he was kidnapped, taken out of the country and wants to head back to the country as a private citizen,” Kurzban said.