The death of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier has, momentarily, brought Haiti back into the international spotlight. Such is the notoriety of Baby Doc’s, and his father Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s, rule that his passing is enough to remind people that Haiti still exists.
Haiti was at the forefront of global media coverage after an earthquake killed at least 200,000 in 2010 and was followed by a botched humanitarian relief effort and a deadly cholera outbreak. Such coverage is now a distant memory, however, and the Haitian people have returned to anonymity, condemned as one of the most downtrodden populations in history.
A productive sugar and coffee plantation colony for the French during the 18th century, Haiti exploded onto the international scene with a slave revolt turned revolution which began in 1791. Led by the charismatic Toussaint Louverture (the ‘Black Napoleon’), the Haitian Revolution successfully overthrew the French overlords and secured independence for the black majority in 1804.
A nation of the oppressed, the dark days were not over for Haiti’s suddenly freed slaves. Expelling the remnants of the French colonial administration terminally damaged the economy and poverty was soon rife. Furthermore, despite an undoubtedly shared enthusiasm for freedom, Haiti’s new population was not particularly homogeneous:
They were originally of many tribes and languages of Africa, and thus lacked the cement of a shared culture, religion, language or, later, as peasants and freed men, the group socialization that might have been conveyed by a colonial experience. (Rotberg, 1988)
A series of unstable leaders ruled Haiti throughout the 19th century, without really governing. The majority of the population remained desperately poor and repressed, with no attempts to incorporate them into any fledgling political system.
By 1915, prospects in Haiti had become so dire that the US decided to intervene to stabilise its commercial interests on Hispaniola and prevent German merchants from seizing control. As a result, a troop of the Marine Corps was sent to occupy Port-au-Prince. The occupation would last until 1934, during which time some investment in infrastructure and basic services occurred. However, the US was primarily concerned with its own interests not those of the Haitian people:
The American occupation was thus without plan, and disappointing to those who had hoped that it would transform a society too long isolated from the currents of world progress. (Ibid.)
Another series of failed governments emerged after WWII until, in 1957, Papa Doc arrived. A physician who promised real change for the Haitian people, Papa Doc revealed himself to be a monster. Quashing all political dissent in the most brutal fashion – mainly through his feared henchmen the Tonton Macoute – Papa Doc ran Haiti as his personal fiefdom. He plundered its wealth to the detriment of its overall economy and intensified the misery of an already oppressed people.
Prior to his death in 1971, Papa Doc named his son Jean-Claude as his successor as ‘President-for-Life’. Whilst perhaps not as brutal as his father, Baby Doc ruled in the same kleptocratic style and starved his people. Dissent remained stifled and widespread human rights abuses were committed by the state.
Eventually, with diplomatic support withdrawn by the US, a resurgent and frustrated Haitian military, and widespread popular unrest, Baby Doc fled into French exile in 1986. His successors, a mixture of military juntas and weak politicians, have failed to alleviate the plight of the Haitian people or make any democratic progress in what must be one of the most politically-starved countries in the world. Indeed, Haiti still ranks as ‘authoritarian’ on the global democracy index and it is classified in 171st place (out of 187) in terms of per capita income.
State repression may have dissipated but things have remained largely unchanged for the people of Haiti. For some, the death of Baby Doc will draw to a close just one of many unsavoury chapters in the nation’s history. For others, it will mean that true justice can never be imposed upon a family that sought to grind down a people to the basest poverty for their own personal gain.
Haiti will go back to being anonymous as more ‘important’ issues proliferate across the globe. Its people will continue to suffer in silence.
Rotberg, R.I., ‘Haiti’s Past Mortgages its Future’, Foreign Affairs (1988)