Duvalier Is Gone, but Is Duvalierism?

Michael S. Hooper, an attorney, is executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

A week ago Friday, this hemisphere's only remaining hereditary dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, president-for-life of the Republic of Haiti, was spirited away by his U.S. chaperons. Mercifully, the forced departure of this ubiquitous symbol of a system that has institutionalized brutality and misery did halt the current bloodletting by his Tonton Macoutes. But it did not necessarily mark the end of Duvalierism nor any necessary enlightenment in the foreign policy of the United States.

The general and three colonels who control the recently formed Provisional Junta were also the most powerful military officials of "Baby Doc" Duvalier, and they are currently governing by edict under a state of siege that Duvalier conveniently declared just before fleeing.

The Haitian people have unambiguously demanded an end to a political system that exerted control by terrorizing the population into submission and by perpetuating misery and ignorance. It is far too early to assert that these officers have now been converted to respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights, and an end to the massive corruption that has previously sustained the Haitian elite.

Yet something is indeed promising to blossom in Haiti, and the buds are being carried by the courageous and continuing protests about the disenfranchised Haitian people. Two members of the provisional government also command the widest international respect: Gerard Gourgues, law professor and president of the Haitian League for Human Rights, has been named as interim minister of justice; educator Rosney Desroches has been named minister of education.

For years Gourgues has championed the cause of the legions of human-rights victims of Duvalier's secret police and the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes. His inclusion in the transition government will prove a most positive sign if his ideals and scrupulous respect for the rule of law are actually embraced by the military officers and former Duvalier ministers now dominating the government. Some within Haiti believe that Gourgues was tapped only to bring temporary legitimacy to the junta, that he cannot act as an effective counterweight to its hard-line members--including two ministers who are known to have engaged in massive corruption throughout the Duvalier era.

Last week the Provisional Junta demonstrated that hopes for democratization were indeed plausible when it announced that the Tonton Macoutes would be disarmed and dissolved and that elections would be held within a year. To understand how such a profound transformation could emerge from the shell of the old regime--and why it may not--Haiti's recent history must be examined.

In a nation of 6 million people, fewer than 800 families possess a stranglehold on virtually all economic and political power. In contrast to this extreme of fabulous wealth, 90% of the population "exists" on less than $180 a year. The political elite expanded by the "Duvalier revolution" does not itself possess considerable wealth from industry or agriculture, but has relied rather on its monopolization of a government bureaucracy and government contracts to sustain its privileges. Repeated promises of curbs on official corruption have been largely unsuccessful; until Duvalier's downfall, huge sums were still being diverted from public revenues for private purposes.

For a majority of the 28 years of Duvalier family rule in Haiti, these elite families were content to protect their privilege and status by letting the Duvaliers and their Macoutes do as they wished. After the regime was solidified, members of the elite couldn't have stopped the killings if they had tried. Through a variety of official actions, the Duvalier era eliminated all institutions representing meaningful political pluralism in Haiti: political parties, a free press and trade unions.

The regime's security forces institutionalized the practice of incommunicado detentions without benefit of legal procedure for those perceived to be political opponents. These detentions often included torture during interrogation and sometimes political killings. The Duvaliers completely abolished the rule of law and eliminated any independence in the judiciary. Just recently, security forces conducted a campaign of intimidation against the Catholic Church; religious workers have been tortured.

Such abuses have been excused and even encouraged by the regular annual U.S. certification that Haiti was making human-rights progress. Certification then warranted increased economic assistance and the more general umbrella of diplomatic support. Justification for endorsement of this dreadful system has either been that no alternative to Duvalier was known to us or that Cold War tensions required supporting anyone who supported us.

By mid-1985, what had appeared to be the unassailable fortress of the Duvalier system turned out to be riddled with fault lines. The dramatic change came about from the convergence of four related factors: a profound economic crisis; direct pressures and demands by the Haitian population articulated by the church and by youth organizations; unprecedented tensions and scandals within the regime, and increased, long overdue international pressures.

Corruption and mismanagement played big roles in the economic disaster, but so did unfavorable international coffee prices, increased prices for--and reliance on--many essential imports like oil and many non-essential luxury imports that gobbled up scarce foreign exchange.

As the economic and political situation went from bad to intolerable, international pressure on the regime increased, principally from the United States, significantly from human rights and church groups. The U.S. government demanded certain small reforms, including a disciplining of abusive Macoutes that further unbalanced forces within the regime.

By last November each of these developments became a catalyst for the next. The more the young demanded popularly supported reforms, the more the security forces brutalized them. The more human-rights violations increased, the more the United States and other foreign governments backed off, further increasing defections from the Duvalier inner circle. The more the regime was exposed to the glare of international attention, the less it seemed to have redeeming virtues and the less anyone was willing to sacrifice for its continuation.

There are now several impending litmus tests of the Provisional Junta's good faith and old loyalties:

--The 18,500 Tonton Macoutes must be dissolved and the real persecutors must be charged with the appropriate crimes as the Alfonsin regime in Argentina has done. This will not be easy for an army of 6,500 to accomplish, particularly since many influential civilians were also Macoutes. Those who have pillaged the public treasury must also be prosecuted.

--All persons exiled from Haiti must be granted internationally recognized rights to free return, whether to participate in Haiti's reconstruction or just to visit.

--Haitians must be given the right to associate freely in the political process and to form parties of their choice; elections at all levels of government must be allowed.

--Haitians must be allowed to form democratic trade unions. Unfortunately, many in the current Haitian government and even some of our own officials will prefer to endorse or even impose their own versions of parties and unions that can be more easily controlled.

It remains to be seen if recent U.S. actions indicate a wiser and more humane policy or just a clumsy last-minute rescue effort--too little, too late. It would be fatal to American interests in the long term, and tragic for the aspirations of Haitians, if our government again attempted to impose its agenda. Haitians were right to clamor for an end to the Duvalier era and the brutality and corruption that it symbolized. But it isn't over yet.

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