By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (MCT) — Each time jailers returned him to his fortress of misery, Claude Rosier thought this might be it: the day he’d breathe his last breath, felled by a firing squad or wasted by dysentery.
“You knew you were there to die,” he said.
But Rosier never gave up hope that he would make it out of the cramped, filthy cell he shared with 31 others. Ultimately he did.
He was freed in 1977 after a decade of being shifted from station-to-station in what he calls the Duvalier regime’s “triangle of death”: the National Penitentiary, the Casernes Dessalines on the grounds of the National Palace and Fort Dimanche, the most notorious torture chamber in the Caribbean.
The surprise return of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has triggered mixed emotions among Haitians — confusion and nostalgia among them.
The applause that greeted him at the international airport has been replaced with discussion and debate among those who lived under the regime, many of whom despise Duvalier, and those who did not.
Rosier, who chronicled his imprisonment in the French-language book “The Triangle of Death: Diary of a Haitian Political Prisoner,” has waited 45 years to bring his tormentor to justice. Last week, he was among five Haitians who filed human rights abuse claims against Duvalier.
He calls it a teaching moment for a traumatized nation that has never come to terms publicly with the actions of previous leaders. (A truth and justice commission formed in 1995 by then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide failed to carry out recommendations and its mandate was restricted only to crimes during the 1991 coup d’etat period).
“There are a lot of people who don’t know what took place under this government; a country where people could not speak, where children distrusted their fathers, parents distrusted their children, brother distrusted brother,” Rosier, 79, said.
Half of the Haitian population was born after 1986, the year Duvalier and his wife, Michele Bennett, were forced into exile amid cheers. In the past 25 years, the country has been jolted by military dictatorships, chaotic democracy and natural disasters.
Meanwhile, all of the symbols of Duvalier repression are gone, including the regime’s most infamous hellhole, Fort Dimanche. Today, it is overrun by squatters, a place where mothers survive by selling pies made of clay. The memories of the people who perished live on only in the minds of their loved ones and cellmates, and on the Internet (www.fordi9.com).
Defenders of Duvalier have said that he was only 19 when he assumed power upon the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He inherited a system that included a secret militia and military that specialized in terror, and, they say, he never personally killed anyone.
“If we revere Jean-Claude today, it is because the other people who came after him have not done much better,” said Junior Cesar, who lives in the shadow of the crumbled prison and was a one-year-old when Duvalier fled. “If they did, we would have been able to do a comparison. Democracy has not been well-planned.”
In a rare appearance Friday, Duvalier, 59, underscored the failings of his successors and offered condolences to his “millions of supporters” who, he says, suffered in his absence.
“Thousands were brutally murdered, grilled, tortured or necklaced, their homes, their belongings looted, ransacked, burned. And all this under the lights of the cameras around the world,” he said of his supporters in post-Duvalier Haiti.
Additionally, he offered an apology “to those countrymen who rightly feel they were victims of my government.”
The governments that succeeded Duvalier have brought neither prosperity nor much stability to the country but the suffocating repression has been lifted and the secret police eliminated.
“You have a generation that reached adulthood under free speech, free assembly,” said Georges Michel, a local historian.
That, observers say, is to the credit of President Rene Preval. Despite ongoing troubles with the disputed November elections that have been called deeply flawed, those elections occurred without the violence of the past, where voters were necklaced — tires burned around their necks — and gunned down on their way to the polls.
But in a country where jobs are scarce, deadly cholera is rampant and earthquake reconstruction has been invisible, some are now questioning whether those gains of the past 25 years are enough.
Still, even as Haitian officials last week told Amnesty International they planned to investigate the human rights allegations against Duvalier, doubt remains about whether the former dictator will ever stand trial.
His lawyers have disputed all allegations of corruption and embezzlement. And regardless, they say, the 10-year statute of limitations has run out.
As of late Friday, Duvalier’s attorney, Reynold Georges, said he had not seen the human rights claims — now five — that have been filed against his client.
Rodolfo Mattarollo, a human rights expert in Latin America who is an ambassador to Haiti on behalf of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), said the international community “has a great responsibility in Haiti,” where there has been “a lack of continuity in memory” over the last three decades.
Shocked by the number of young people who yearned for the dictatorship, Preval, shortly after coming to power in 2006, spoke of the need to remember the past. He wanted to turn the old cells of the Casernes Dessalines on the palace grounds into a museum. But since the devastating January 2010 earthquake, the cells have served as the lobby area of the president’s office.
“I know all of the difficulties of Haitian justice. I know they are in a very difficult position. It is a great challenge. But not to accept it, that would be a great mistake,” Mattarollo said of the prospect of not prosecuting Duvalier.
He dismisses those who argue that Haitian law doesn’t allow for human rights complaints. He said international law should take precedence.
Mattarollo, who has followed the reaction of the international community to Duvalier’s arrival, questions that community’s commitment to seeing that justice is done.
“For us in Latin America, Duvalier was synonymous with dictatorship,” he said. “For the Haitian government not to prosecute would be a grave mistake. It’s today or never.”
Not everyone agrees.
In the ruins of Fort Dimanche where tin and concrete shanties make up the Village of Demokrasi (Democracy), Duvalier’s return is viewed as a symbolic break with the last 25 years.
Once-fervent supporters of Aristide and Preval, residents today say democracy has failed to bring jobs and security. They long for order.
“Aristide was a good president, but he was too tolerant,” said Carmel Jean-Baptiste, 38. But it’s time, she said, for Haiti to move on.
“I don’t have a problem with human rights, but it cannot start with Jean-Claude Duvalier,” she said. “There are a lot of people who have died in the period after Jean-Claude and they have never found justice.”
Like others inside the slum, who live on less than $1 a day, she craves a better life, a different Haiti.
“We are prisoners of our own selves, a people who are living in misery, sheer misery,” she said. “We have no democracy.”