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Jean-Claude Duvalier Is Dead, But He Will Haunt Haiti for Years to Come

Lee Celano/Getty Images

Though he was a dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is remembered best for rarely being in control. He was thrust into power against his will in 1971, at the ridiculous age of 19, when his dying father, the monstrous François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, named him successor to the presidency-for-life. Jean-Claude managed to stay in office for 15 years until 1986, when his cadres and backers in Washington suddenly pulled their support in the face of a popular uprising, and he was quickly whisked from Haiti aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane with his wife, daughter, son, and hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen money.

Baby Doc ended up in France, where life continued to have its way with him. By the time the Wall Street Journal caught up with the deposed despot in the lobby of a Paris hotel in 2003, his wife had left him and he was flat broke. He had never even tried to find a job. His 2011 return to Haiti, after a quarter century of exile, stunned everyone; it was barely a year after the country’s calamitous earthquake, on the day a postponed presidential runoff was supposed to have been held. But Duvalier did not seem to have any grand plan or political gesture in mind. The news that he was on his way back broke almost by accident, when other Haitian émigrés spotted him boarding the Air France flight at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. When he got to Port-au-Prince, his affairs seemed to be in the hands of his female companion, Veronique Roy. Those of us who chased Duvalier around the capital that week noticed he looked incredibly ill, and wondered if he’d come home to die. We were surprised when he didn’t; then surprised again, three years later, when he did—on Saturday, at 63.

In all that time, Duvalier never even earned his own nickname. His father was a medical doctor, dubbed Papa Doc during his time on a U.S. Army–sponsored disease-eradication campaign in rural Haiti. Jean-Claude was just his son. The borrowed identity made sense. Baby Doc had inherited his father’s presidency and systems of extortion, torture, and intimidation, many bound up in his secret police, the dread Tonton Makout. He would maintain that dynasty, then lose control of it, only to see its power continue in spite of him in ways that still torment the country today.

Papa Doc was nothing if not shrewd, an intellectual shaped by the writings of noirisme and mid-twentieth century notions of black power. He viewed his international relations in part as a continuation of the slave revolution that birthed Haiti in 1804. He spent his years in power in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with the United States, sometimes gladly accepting support, sometimes extorting money by playing off fears of a Soviet empire in the Caribbean, sometimes breaking off relations entirely. Each turn seemed to grow his power.

Baby was known in power as someone with more interest in sports cars and partying than essays and the intricacies of governance. When the time came to make his own policy, he essentially bought the U.S. vision for Haiti wholesale. Baby Doc welcomed tourists and offered 100 percent tax breaks for factories to produce exports for the U.S., including Rawlings baseballs, jeans, underwear, and "Sesame Street" toys. He firmly pledged his support to the Reagan administration as an ally against Communism. But the power grew around him. It strengthened the generals and adjutants who, in his exile, would carry on what the Haitian anthropologist Michel Rolph Trouillot called “Duvalierism after Duvalier.” It also helped create the network of aid groups and nongovernmental organizations that controls much of life in Haiti today, which the U.S. funded to avoid further enriching the dictator himself.

For decades after Duvalier's flight to France, Haitian politics would be defined by struggle between Duvalierists who believed in authoritarian, nationalist control—preferably by themselves—and the populists who had ousted Jean-Claude. The opposition was led by a charismatic ex-Roman Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who would be twice elected to the presidency, and twice overthrown by soldiers and insurgents loyal to the former regime, with varying degrees of support from the U.S.’s own father-son presidents, George Bush père and fils. By the January 12, 2010, earthquake, that struggle had all but burned itself out—in a country of low life expectancies, two-thirds of the population had been born after Duvalier fled, the crimes and murders of his regime swept into ancient history by current crises and daily struggles for survival.

But at what now passes for the highest levels of Haitian power, there are echoes of the past. Two months after Duvalier’s return, the delayed presidential runoff was held. The winner was Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a popular musician who had been friends with members of the junta that overthrew Aristide. Martelly’s new cabinet and administration included Duvalierists and children of Duvalierist officials. Jean-Claude’s son, François-Nicolas Duvalier, served as a consultant. The president and his prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, have enthusiastically embraced an economic development program that resembles the “export processing zones” and tourism-driven efforts of Jean-Claude’s presidency. In return, they have enjoyed the solid support of the Obama administration, even as human-rights advocates have been threatened and killed, and legislative and municipal elections delayed.

Baby Doc’s return from exile was followed closely by Aristide’s. For three years, observers waited to see what, if anything, the presence of the former leaders would mean to Haitian politics. The answer, so far, has been very little. Aristide remained a near-total recluse in his home, even before last month’s house arrest, ordered as part of a corruption investigation. Duvalier kept to himself, attending functions with the president and dignitaries such as Bill Clinton, and puttering around fine restaurants with Roy. He remained unmolested by the courts, which ignored the rebukes of Human Rights Watch and others to hold him to account for the crimes of his family’s regime. When Baby Doc died of heart failure on Saturday—the same way, and one year younger, than his father—President Martelly took to Twitter to offer sympathies to “the family and the entire nation” on the loss of “an authentic son of Haiti.”

Duvalier had inherited a country and a dictatorship, and squandered them both. In life, he did nothing to atone for his father’s crimes, or his own. My abiding memory of him will always be just after his 2011 return, at a dinner at a hotel in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Having snuck into the restaurant, I watched as a table full of former cadres stood, gruntingly, to salute the entrance of a former president who could barely speak or turn his head—and did so again, minutes later, as Duvalier was helped off to an early bed. The salutes, it seemed, were less for an ailing old man than what he had once represented. Or perhaps for what all that power might have been.