The True Legacy of Tyranny
Two days ago, Haitian President Michel Martelly strutted across a stage in front of the newly renovated Cap-Haitien airport, lauding his accomplishments during his first three-and-a-half years in office. Most conspicuous among them was the structure gleaming behind him, now the nation’s second link to the outside world. Why the airport, built in 1952, took sixty-two years to receive its first major carrier has a lot to do with ex-president Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose death was the object of this morning’s headlines, and the legacy of political repression, corruption and impunity that he, his father François Duvalier, and his democratically-elected successor Jean-Bertrand Aristide, have left in their wake.
I am too young to remember the Duvalier epoch. I wasn’t quite a year old when Haiti’s “President for Life” drove his Mercedes to the airport in Port-au-Prince and boarded a U.S. Army C-141 for France. I have only heard stories of the decades of terror that his exile unmasked — audiotape of torture sessions, seized from state prisons and played back over the radio, simultaneously horrified and put to rest the minds of people who had wondered for years about the final state of their relatives. I have only heard stories, as well, of the pent-up rage his ouster unleashed — a friend of my parents reported seeing children playing soccer with the severed head of one of Duvalier’s secret police in the street in front of his house. I am old enough, however, to remember the inevitable consequence of Duvalier’s era of terror — the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-wing populist who capitalized on anti-Duvalier sentiment, in 1990. The masses elected him in hope of a better life, but at Aristide’s prodding, that hope turned to violence, stoked by fiery presidential speeches that implored the people to “Give them what they deserve!” The homes and businesses of several wealthy people were burned. Those who merely lost possessions, however, were fortunate. People with Duvalierist connections were hunted down, dragged from their homes or cars, and “necklaced,” a term that refers to the practice of throwing a gasoline-soaked tire around someone’s neck and setting it ablaze.
The Haitian Army, fearful that the entire country would go up in flames, forced Aristide into exile in 1991. The United States, which had sponsored the nation’s first democratic election the year before, demanded that he be allowed to return. When the Army refused to comply, the U.S. placed Haiti under a trade embargo that would last the next three years. Even by the standards of “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” those were exceptionally hard times. Oil being one of the items embargoed, our city went without electricity for eleven months. Church members reported that some, unable to buy rice at a price they could afford, were scraping out the marrow from ox horns, desperate for any food that could provide calories. Waves of boat people left Haiti’s shores in those days on overcrowded boats. Most of them were doomed either to capsize in shark-infested waters or be intercepted by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and repatriated.
In 1994, the Haitian Army finally acquiesced to Aristide’s return, and the surge of hope all across the country was electric. Some waved banners in the streets; others shouted from the rooftops; many simply wept for joy. The unthinkable had happened. A democratically-elected president had beaten the Army, and would serve to the end of his term. The hope of the moment made the violence, corruption, and impunity that the Aristide era quickly devolved into a much bitterer pill for his supporters to swallow. President Martelly, who in 1996 was a pop-music star who had demonstrated against Aristide’s return, saw his name surface on a hit list and had to flee the country for a year. Tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid, generously given after Aristide’s return to help him rebuild his shattered country, somehow failed to reach the projects for which they had been designated. In an ironic twist of fate, radio journalist Jean Dominique, who had gone into exile under Duvalier and again in the early 1990s due to his support for Aristide, was murdered outside his own station after daring to criticize Aristide’s corruption. In a display of brazenness that would have impressed even Duvalier, a prominent government official sealed off a major highway and landed a plane stocked with cocaine in broad daylight. By the time Aristide fled into exile in 2004 (the nation’s bicentennial of independence), few mourned his departure and fewer (including myself) thought the nation could go any lower.
We were wrong. In January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the capital of Port-au-Prince, killing 200,000 people in less than a minute and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Many of their deaths had nothing to do with the natural disaster. They were murdered. Their deaths were orchestrated decades in advance by the criminals ruling the country. The Duvaliers set the plan in motion, stuffing their pockets with millions of dollars in foreign aid intended for the millions of peasants who were forced to stream in from the deforested countryside to work menial factory jobs in the city. Their deaths were sealed, however, by Aristide and his party, who despite roughly twenty years in power, did not break, but rather perpetuated the cycle of soliciting foreign aid, diverting it to personal rather than public ends, and viciously silencing any and all who dared to disagree.
The true legacy of tyranny is the glimpsed in the fact that Martelly, strutting across the stage on Thursday, is now widely deemed to be a good president simply for accomplishing something—anything. Call it the law of diminishing expectations. Never mind that the city of Cap-Haitien still receives only 12 hours of electricity per day. The city went without it for nearly a year under the embargo. Never mind that the city’s roads are still choked with traffic and the gutters overflow with garbage when it rains. Under Aristide, those roads were not even paved. Never mind that Martelly has not hidden his sympathies for the Duvalier régime, inviting Jean-Claude to state functions after his return from exile three years ago. At least one is not jailed (or worse) under Martelly, as one was under Duvalier, for expressing anything other than sympathy for the state. In a country in which it takes sixty-two years to build an airport, whatever does not move backwards is praised as forward motion.