Baby Doc Duvalier: Haiti's playboy 'president-for-life'

Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier looked as blank and frightened when he returned to Haiti as on his way to exile 25 years ago

The puffy-faced Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was never the brightest spark, either at school or as "president-for-life", which he became at the age of 19 at the behest of his dictator father's cronies after the old man died.

When I peered into his Mercedes as it raced through the airport gates before dawn 25 years ago on his way to exile, he looked as blank and frightened as when he returned to the same airport yesterday for reasons still to be figured out.

Under the reign of Duvalier and his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, thousands of real and imagined enemies died of disease, starvation and torture in the Fort Dimanche prison chillingly isolated on malarial marshland on the outskirts of the capital.

Today Haitians have largely forgotten about these past terrors and the building is part of a gang-infested slum.

Some youngsters are curious about the reasonable time they hear could be had under Baby Doc if you kept clear of politics, and some of their elders have filtered out the bad memories to yearn for the dictatorship's stability and certainties.

I shook hands with the obese, sharp-suited Baby Doc in the palace a few hours after he took over in 1971. He didn't look capable of much and only the merest easing of his father's rule ensued. He was marketed as "the young leader you have all been waiting for", and his regime as "Duvalierism reviewed, corrected and broadened".

He preferred life as a playboy and some years later, as the annual carnival parade passed through the main square near the palace, I watched him ride one of his powerful motorbikes round and round behind the railings as if impatient to join in, or at least get out.

During his 15-year rule, roads were paved for the first time and the primitive economy got an unprecedented boost from a foreign-owned factory sector assembling clothes, electronics and toys, which created tens of thousands of jobs. Sanitation, electricity and phones didn't work much, but at least you knew where you stood and could make arrangements.

A brief "liberalisation" period ended in 1980 after he married a domineering, upper-class woman with extravagant tastes. By then the Haitian youth were gaining political confidence and six years later they brought down the regime, which had been abandoned by its old guard (the "dinosaurs") who saw Baby Doc's marriage as a sellout to the mixed-race ruling class Papa Doc had cowed.

The subsequent quarter-century of bungled democracy, military coups and deepening poverty have made his rule look rather benign, despite the grim statistics of repression and breathtaking embezzlement.

Greg Chamberlain covered Haiti for the Guardian for 22 years


Greg Chamberlain

The GuardianTramp

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