Haiti End of the Duvalier Era

  • As the minutes ticked away, the knot of American diplomats waiting on the darkened runway of Francois Duvalier international airport grew increasingly edgy. They had been keeping a tense vigil since 1 a.m., waiting for Haiti's President-for-Life Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier. A day earlier, Duvalier had sent an urgent message to the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, the capital. It implored the Americans to help him and his family flee the country that, after 28 years, was no longer under their control. Now Duvalier was two hours late. The Americans at the airport wondered if he had changed his mind or if the furtive escape plan had been foiled by the mounting opposition to his regime. Early-rising Haitians in the area would surely spot the immense U.S. C-141 Starlifter cargo plane that had flown from the Charleston, S.C., Air Force base and was sitting on the runway at Port-au-Prince.

    At 3:30 a.m. headlights pierced the darkness. A silver BMW with Duvalier behind the wheel approached the runway. Beside him sat his dazzling wife Michele. Later, the couple unapologetically explained their tardiness: they had decided at the last minute to throw a midnight champagne party at the presidential palace to bid farewell to their closest friends.

    Duvalier moved toward the military aircraft, pausing to bestow a few words of thanks on the row of elite khaki-uniformed guards who had protected him in the final months of his presidency. Nearby, two grim-faced men, one in military uniform, one in civilian dress, observed the Duvaliers' departure. They were members of the five-man junta to which the abdicating President was passing the leadership of the country. The Air Force plane took off at 3:46 a.m., carrying Duvalier, now an ex-President-for-Life, out of Haiti for only the second time. With him were his wife, his mother Simone, 72, four children and 17 others, headed for France and, presumably, on to an existence of pampered exile. As dawn broke over Haiti, an era of darkness had finally ended.

    Duvalier's secret departure set off a wave of explosive emotion when it was announced on nationwide radio and television less than four hours later. In a self-serving recorded message, he told his countrymen, "I wish to go down in history with my head held high and with a clean conscience. Therefore, I have decided to trust the destiny of the nation to the power of the armed forces of Haiti. I pray God protects this nation." To many of Haiti's 6 million mostly impoverished people, Duvalier's departure was the answer to their prayers.

    The head of the newly appointed National Council of Government was Lieut. General Henri Namphy, 53, the commander of Duvalier's armed forces. In a five- minute television appearance, Namphy affirmed that the council would make "a commitment to human rights" but set no timetable for new elections. The other military members of the junta: Colonels Max Valles and William Regala, who held key positions in the Duvalier regime. The civilians: Minister of Public Works Alix Cineas and Gerard Gourgue, a founding member of the anti- Duvalier Haitian Human Rights League. The council named Colonel Prosper Avril, a former presidential aide-de-camp, as its counselor. Hoping to return the country to order, the new rulers imposed a 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and appealed for calm.

    That was asking too much. As the significance of the day's events sank in, tens of thousands of people in Port-au-Prince chanted jubilantly, "He flew away; he flew away!" Others proclaimed, "Vive America!" and waved the Stars and Stripes, as well as banners of red and blue, the colors of Haiti's flag before it was replaced in 1964 by Jean-Claude's father and predecessor as President-for-Life, Francois ("Papa Doc") Duvalier.

    All too quickly the joyful atmosphere turned ugly as roving mobs tracked down Duvalier's henchmen. When one militiaman was spotted, the frenzied crowd tore off his uniform. Protesters throughout the capital called for "death to the Tonton Macoutes," the secret police that had protected the Duvalier family for 28 years. Terrified by the mob's fury, they tried to hide inside their barracks. A reporter claimed to have seen one Tonton Macoute, cornered by an angry crowd, shoot himself in the head. At week's end as many as 75 people reportedly had been killed.

    Mobs of Haitians singled out monuments to the memory of Papa Doc for destruction. At the Leogane traffic circle south of Port-au-Prince, hundreds of people brought a commemorative ironwork structure crashing down. At the national cemetery in the capital, a mob tore apart the late dictator's marble- and-granite mausoleum. Although bodies in nearby crypts were disinterred, Papa Doc's remains were said to have been removed to safety. The tin-roofed house & on 22nd September Street, where the elder Duvalier had once lived, was stoned and set alight. Rampaging groups attacked properties owned by Michele Duvalier's father Ernest Bennett, who had used his government connections to make millions in coffee and imported automobiles. The frenzy ebbed when sirens signaled the approach of the curfew imposed by the new junta.

    As a precaution, the U.S. embassy instructed the 6,000 Americans living in Haiti to stay indoors or keep a low profile until political passions cooled. The aircraft carrier U.S.S. America, en route to maneuvers in the Caribbean, was alerted in case a sudden evacuation of U.S. citizens became necessary. In the meantime, Haitians in the U.S. erupted in joyful--and occasionally destructive--demonstrations in several cities. In Miami's Little Haiti, many of the 60,000 Haitian refugees jammed the streets and shouted, "No more Duvalier!" In Boston, a group of revelers rampaged through the Haitian consulate, destroying portraits of the ex-President. In New York City, expatriate Haitians also released pent-up emotions at a demonstration on Saturday.

    Around the world, reaction to the dramatic end of the Duvalier dynasty was one of almost uniform relief. Said President Reagan, hours after Duvalier had left and the new Haitian government had been installed: "We're waiting for them now to develop something to restore order." Declared Republican Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole bluntly: "I'm glad he's gone. Good riddance. I'm glad they had an airplane for him."

    Indeed, it was the end of a bloody era in Haiti's history. Baby Doc's father Francois Duvalier was a soft-spoken middle-class physician who encouraged Haitian peasants to believe that he possessed magical powers through the use of the country's folk religion, voodoo. Elected President in 1957, Duvalier guaranteed liberty and well-being to all Haitians, but the pledge soon rang hollow. Duvalier forbade criticism of his leadership and declared himself President-for-Life in 1964. He posed for a portrait that showed an image of Jesus Christ clapping him on the shoulder.

    To enforce his rule, Duvalier created the thuggish Tonton Macoutes, Creole for bogeymen. Swaggering through the streets, they terrorized the population, extorted money and tortured and killed untold numbers. In January 1971, Papa Doc decreed that his tubby son Jean-Claude, 19, would succeed him in the presidency. Haitians were called to the polls to ratify the succession of the ) moon-faced playboy, whose interests seemed to revolve around women and fast cars. According to government figures, Baby Doc won the plebiscite handily, 2,391,916 to 0.

    Many thought the second-generation Duvalier lacked his father's force and intelligence. Still, even as the country's living standard sank progressively under his rule, there was little indication that Jean-Claude might be overthrown. In 1980 he married Michele, a divorcee with two children. Her million-dollar splurges on clothes and diamonds soon came to gall a country that could not even feed its people.

    Baby Doc's grip began to falter last November when his security forces opened fire on student demonstrators in the coastal town of Gonaives. Three people were killed. The ensuing protests added momentum to a rebellion among young Haitians who saw little chance for improvement in their lives under Duvalier. The opposition movement was supported by the Roman Catholic Church, which since the 1983 visit of Pope John Paul II had protested Duvalier's indifference to the country's squalor. Last month a new wave of protests swept the country. Although Duvalier's troops and police maintained control of Port- au-Prince, much of the rest of the country was in open revolt.

    Jean-Claude had no stomach for an all-out campaign of repressive violence to bring the country under control. U.S. officials say he intended to leave Haiti early on the morning of Jan. 31 and even got as far as the airport. The report sparked rumors that he had fled the country and led White House Spokesman Larry Speakes to announce, erroneously, that the Duvaliers had departed. Differing accounts suggest that the President either changed his mind and returned to the palace, or was intercepted by the army.

    For the next week Jean-Claude agonized over his decision while the situation around him deteriorated. His mother wanted to stay, while his wife favored going abroad, where the Duvaliers could live as they pleased on the $400 million they reportedly have stashed away in bank accounts.

    At Michele's insistence, Duvalier last Monday motored through Port-au- Prince with his wife at the wheel of a white Jeep. Sharpshooters crouched on rooftops along the route. When Baby Doc returned to the palace, he complained, "It was a masquerade. Without all that security, my life would not have been worth a gourde"--Haitian currency worth about 20 cents. Still, he put on a bravado performance. Asked if he intended to hold elections, an unsmiling - Duvalier answered, "I intend to remain President-for-Life as constitutionally guaranteed."

    He was secretly preparing for other contingencies. The U.S. embassy in Port- au-Prince had shared its stark assessment with the Haitian leader: without resorting to "repression and violence," his regime could not survive. After meeting with officials from nearby Jamaica, the President-for-Life agreed to depart on Wednesday but quickly had to renege. Reason: the Greek, Spanish and Swiss governments had all rebuffed the Duvalier family's requests for asylum. Two African countries, Gabon and Morocco, also said Duvalier would not be welcome.

    As potential sites of refuge dwindled, Jean-Claude moved to break a growing protest by some 150 leading store owners in Port-au-Prince. Roving bands of Tonton Macoutes wrote down the addresses of shuttered businesses and rousted proprietors from their homes. The strong-arm tactic worked. Shop doors swung open gradually, and by Thursday the city had resumed commercial activity.

    The final straw for Duvalier may have been his anxiety over the annual pre- Lenten carnival that was to begin this week. For Haitians, the three-day Mardi Gras festival is a time of orgiastic release, when they can momentarily forget their cares. Ordinarily Baby Doc would have joined in the festivities, but a boycott of the carnival called by his opponents was gathering momentum. The President, sniggered residents of Port-au-Prince, would be the laughingstock of a carnival to which no one came. On the other hand, any crowds that did form would be a danger to his regime.

    On Thursday at 2 p.m., Duvalier told the American embassy, "I want to go out, and I need help to get out." Within four hours a plan had been approved in Washington. Duvalier was told that he and his entourage should be ready to leave at 2 a.m. Friday. He agreed. Said one of those invited to the Duvaliers' risky coup de champagne in the palace: "They were both in high spirits. It was gay and filled with laughter. No tears." Meanwhile, France had agreed to give Duvalier's entourage temporary entry, while making it clear that permanent exile in the country was out of the question. When the couple finally boarded the C-141, they carried only one suitcase apiece. Nine hours earlier, an Air Haiti cargo plane loaded with the family's wealth, including Michele's priceless wardrobe and jewelry collection, had left the country.

    By the time the Air Force plane touched down at Grenoble, the popular French ski resort was swarming with security forces and journalists. The Haitian entourage went to an 11th century Benedictine monastery that has been converted into a hotel. While they rested and sampled the hostelry's luxurious cuisine, the French government was reportedly trying to persuade several so far reluctant African countries to offer Duvalier sanctuary. For Baby Doc the good life continued--at least for the time being.