The Death of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier: recalling Haiti’s tragic past and looking upon its bleak future

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.

Baby Doc (l) and Papa Doc (r)
Baby Doc (l) and Papa Doc (r)

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.

toussaint-louverture

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:

US Marines march into Haiti in 1915
US Marines march into Haiti in 1915

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.

The 2010 earthquake set Haiti's development back even further
The 2010 earthquake set Haiti’s development back even further

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.

Sources

Rotberg, R.I., ‘Haiti’s Past Mortgages its Future’, Foreign Affairs (1988)

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Beijing Learns from Tiananmen Square: Hong Kong protests continue to simmer

The student-led democracy protests in Hong Kong continue to cause disruption and provide a headache for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the world watches on with interest.

Thousands rally on the streets of Hong Kong
Thousands rally on the streets of Hong Kong

Riled by the CCP’s reneging on an agreement to allow Hong Kong to select its next leader – whilst there will be a democratic vote in the 2017 election, all the candidates have been selected by Beijing – a variety of interconnected movements have embarked on the most sustained pro-democracy protests in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It is unlikely, however, that the Hong Kong protests will end in a bloodbath similar to that seen in the Chinese capital in June 1989.

Firstly, Hong Kong has a democratic tradition dating from its days as a British colony, a tradition Beijing reluctantly accepts. Whereas the Tiananmen Square protests engendered a direct challenge to the Chinese political system, the Hong Kong situation is simply an extension of typical resistance to the impositions placed upon the province by Beijing. For instance, pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong hold candlelit vigils for the victims of Tiananmen Square on the 4th June each year.

Candlelit vigil for the Tiananmen victims in Victoria Park
Candlelit vigil for the Tiananmen victims in Victoria Park

Secondly, the Hong Kong press has much greater freedom than its mainland Chinese counterpart. Whilst there have been efforts to restrict freedom of speech in Hong Kong, several liberal newspapers openly publish articles lamenting the transgressions of the central government. Chinese state media was unable to cover-up the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, the government at least used the press to justify the crackdown on the protesters to Chinese citizens, helping to prevent further eruptions of popular protest.

Thirdly, the economic consequences of the Hong Kong protests are not particularly damaging to Beijing. In 1989 China was beginning to feel the positive affects of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Foreign direct investment was beginning to flow into the country, eventually allowing China to become the greatest manufacturing centre in the world. The trauma caused by the Tiananmen Square protests threatened to scare away foreign investment and helped encourage the drastic response carried out by the CCP and the PLA.

China's economic revival was thrown into doubt by the vicious government response to the Tiananmen Square protests
China’s economic revival was thrown into doubt by the vicious government response to the Tiananmen Square protests

Hong Kong has a far more autonomous economy than most of China’s individual states. Striking, public disorder and violence will largely damage the financial prospects of people in Hong Kong. Beijing has enough patrons within the Hong Kong business community to ensure that those that fail to tow the party line will miss out on lucrative contracts. Employers will be scrambling to drag any of their employees in the midst of the protesters back to work to avoid future retribution against their companies.

The Hong Kong demonstrations are a test of Beijing’s confidence. So far, the CCP has responded with a media campaign and carefully-crafted rhetoric, almost feigning indifference. Whatever the differences, the Tinanmen Square massacre has taught Beijing the importance of a measured response.

Whilst the Hong Kong issue is by no means settled, it is likely that these latest protests will gradually fizzle out as people realise that Beijing will not bite and that they are better off ensuring their economic well-being rather than pursuing a political dream that the Tiananmen Square protests showed was not yet possible.