Haiti Bad Times for Baby Doc

  • Share
  • Read Later
Like a hurricane born in the Caribbean and gathering momentum as it pushes northward, word spread last week that Jean-Claude Duvalier, 34, Haiti's President-for-Life, had fled his country. The reports said that Duvalier, who is known as "Baby Doc," and members of his family had gone into exile rather than face vengeance at the hands of a burgeoning populist movement against him. On Friday, in response to growing unrest throughout Haiti, Duvalier imposed a state of siege. Hours later White House Spokesman Larry Speakes made the dramatic announcement to reporters traveling with President Reagan aboard Air Force One that the Haitian government had fallen and Duvalier had left Haiti.

Yet within hours, to the vast embarrassment of the Reagan Administration, the pudgy dictator appeared in the capital, Port-au-Prince, like a spirit conjured up by practitioners of voodoo, Haiti's folk religion. Baby Doc cruised through the streets in a BMW, surrounded by a bevy of armed outriders. In a radio broadcast to the country, he used an old Creole saying to brag, "I am here, strong and firm as a monkey's tail."

Haiti's crisis last week centered on a family that has used terror and corruption for 28 years to grow wealthy by imposing its will on the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. For the first time in Baby Doc's reign, spontaneous demonstrations throughout the country brought misery-ridden Haiti close to open revolt. Rioters controlled many parts of the countryside, and the government was firmly in control of only the capital.

The demonstrations against Jean-Claude Duvalier stood in stark contrast to the events of Jan. 22, 1971, when then President-for-Life Francois ("Papa Doc") Duvalier decreed that his 19-year-old son, quickly nicknamed Baby Doc, would succeed him. The elder Duvalier died three months later, leaving a legacy of brutality and fear on which he had built a dictatorship after his election in 1957.

At first it appeared that Jean-Claude might be a more enlightened despot. He promised an end to repression and an economic revolution. But he actually made few real improvements. True, political opponents were no longer executed as often as they had been under Papa Doc, but the son imitated the father in using the army and the secret police, the dreaded Tonton Macoute (a term for bogeyman in Haiti's Creole dialect) to brutalize the population.

The second-generation Duvalier flaunted an opulent life-style in the midst of incredible poverty. The President, who is fond of yachts and sports cars, did not forgo either pleasure when a critical shortage of foreign currency last year left the country almost without fuel. His most costly indulgence may have been his 1980 marriage to Michele Bennett, 34, a Haitian divorcee who once worked in New York City as a secretary. Their wedding was Haiti's social event of the decade. The price tag: $3 million. Fireworks alone cost $100,000.

Michele Duvalier at first endeared herself to the population by distributing clothes and food to the needy and opening several medical clinics, but her avarice quickly outpaced her husband's. Today she is one of the world's richest women. On shopping sprees to the U.S. and Europe, she has acquired an array of furs hardly appropriate to Haiti's steamy climate. Late last year, in the middle of an economic crisis, she flew to Paris to buy designer clothes, jewelry and works of art.

Government officials fear the First Lady because her power rivals, or perhaps exceeds, her husband's. While Jean-Claude sometimes dozes through Cabinet meetings, his wife scolds ministers. The birth of her son, Francois Nicolas, in 1983 provided an heir apparent to the Duvalier fiefdom.

At the same time that the Duvaliers have been salting away millions of dollars in foreign banks and squandering millions more, the vast majority of Haitians live in deep poverty. Eight out of ten people are illiterate. Most earn less than $150 a year, although the official per capita figure is about $280. The tropical farmland produces coffee and mangoes for export, but the country is plagued by widespread hunger. Its once thriving hardwood forests have been chopped down for fuel.

Given that yawning gap between haves and have-nots, political ferment was inevitable. The U.S., which provided $54 million in aid to Haiti in 1985, warned Duvalier that future payments would be jeopardized unless he improved the country's human rights record.

The regime's reply was a nationwide referendum last July 22. Truckloads of illiterate Haitians were driven from one polling place to another to vote oui a dozen times or more. The official results: 99.98% reaffirmed Baby Doc as President-for-Life.

Young opponents of the regime, outraged by the sham referendum, started organizing nonviolent protests that tapped a wellspring of discontent. When three students were killed on Nov. 28 during an antigovernment protest in Gonaives, demonstrations followed in a dozen cities and towns. Last month an army captain and two members of the Tonton Macoute were charged with the murders.

The government in recent months has tried to intimidate the Roman Catholic Church, which has become a center of dissent. Some 80% of Haitians are nominally Catholic, and the clergy has spoken out more since the 1983 visit of Pope John Paul II, who criticized the Duvalier regime and assured the downtrodden population "I am with you." One day after the July referendum, a 78-year-old Belgian-born priest was beaten to death by thugs. Three other priests, including the director of the Catholic-run radio station Radio Soleil, were expelled from the country in July.

Last week's unrest began in church. Sunday's evening Mass at the old Cathedral of Cap Haitien had just concluded when a lone voice in the congregation bellowed out, "Abas (Down with) Duvalier!" With startling vigor, the cry was taken up by other worshipers, and the chanting demand for Duvalier's ouster quickly became the catalyst for a short-lived demonstration on the steps of the church.

Within minutes, army troops from a nearby barracks descended on the crowd. The soldiers fired rifles into the air, rained down blows with hardwood clubs, and barged into the cathedral in search of the instigators. As word of the brutal military response spread, thousands of demonstrators roamed through the historic town. The following day the Tonton Macoute showed it had learned nothing from the November killing of the Gonaives students. At a demonstration by several thousand people outside the Cap Haitien Cathedral, militiamen fired wildly into the crowd, killing three people and wounding 30.

On Wednesday the Cap Haitien warehouse of CARE, the U.S.-based relief organization, was stormed and looted by slum dwellers. They trampled three people to death, then fought over canisters of cooking oil and 100-lb. sacks of grain.

Almost hour by hour, the swells of revolt kept growing. Nearly half the 60,000 inhabitants of Cap Haitien marched peacefully through the streets Wednesday afternoon, calling on the army to stage a coup d'etat and take power. There were also appeals for a general strike to begin Feb. 12. Such a sustained work stoppage would probably cripple the moribund Haitian economy, which gets much of its foreign currency from tourism.

By Thursday the chant "Down with Duvalier!" was echoing across the country. Said one resident of Cap Haitien: "No one is afraid anymore. Duvalier must go." In Gonaives, thousands of protesters blocked the streets with barricades and burning tires. When the local army headquarters was overrun by anti-Duvalier marchers, agents of the Tonton Macoute tried to open fire, but they were disarmed by an army tactical battalion. Terrified, the agents ripped off their trademark blue denim uniforms and tried to escape the mob's wrath. More crowds demanded that the military overthrow the dictatorship, and rumors started that Baby Doc, his wife and an entourage of 100 had already fled to France.

Even after Duvalier had declared a 30-day state of siege and the armed forces put on a heavy display of power, the riots continued. At an early Mass at the St. Jean Bosco church in a poor district of the capital, a soldier shot and wounded the priest for no apparent reason. An enraged congregation spilled into the street and set off more protests. In other parts of town, militiamen fired into the crowds, while rioters smashed car and store windows, looted shops, and constructed roadblocks from tires and burning garbage. By week's end an estimated 26 people had been killed. Although none of the 14,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti were reported injured, the State Department advised Americans not to travel there.

On Saturday, the capital was tense but calm. There were reports of demonstrations in Cap Haitien, the second largest city, and the Dominican Republic, which lies east of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, was nervously monitoring the volatile situation. While Duvalier was still in Haiti, there were serious questions about whether the President-for-Life would be President for long.

The protests that lured thousands of Haitians into the streets last week to denounce the government probably represent a point of no return for the country. Even if Duvalier's reign has not yet ended and he somehow manages to cling to power for a while, his viselike grip on Haiti has been irrevocably shattered.