The Downfall of Furniture-Face : HAITI The Duvaliers and Their Legacy by Elizabeth Abbott (McGraw-Hill: $19.95; 381 pp.)

With each new inventory of the glorious and tragic history of Haiti, the glory seems to diminish and the tragedy darkens. This eloquent book by a Canadian journalist, long resident in Haiti, presents a people at the end of its tether. The nation, begun in hope and heroism by a slave revolt, hardly exists anymore.

Thirty years of Duvalier terror and "kleptocracy" have brought the former pearl of the Antilles to its present grief, although anti-black prejudice and exploitation from the outside plus mulatto-versus-black prejudice within, helped to create what Graham Greene called "the comedians," the Duvaliers and their gangs.

Elizabeth Abbott documents the fumbling and dithering--and conniving--of the great powers, particularly the neighbor to the north, which tolerated the Docs, Papa and Baby, because they said they were anti-Communist. In the end, as she points out, Haiti had but one product to sell: misery. But most of the aid that provided 70% of Haiti's income went to swell the Duvaliers' Swiss bank accounts and to pay for the machinery of oppression.

The chronicle is full of passion, and generally the writing rises to the challenge, occasionally tripping with such failures of tone as "a quivering mass of obedience." When the author quotes Papa Doc, "Gratitude is cowardice," she amply documents his torture of former friends. It wasn't simply that he used rape and murder as a tool for controlling an unruly population. He enjoyed them.

Occasionally, the little country doctor, who had once labored to heal the peasants of yaws, a leprosylike disease, performed a killing himself. But generally, he preferred to watch through the peepholes in the palace torture chambers, where survivors reported seeing the glint of his glasses.

One might think such shenanigans unnecessary. After all, in 1961, he won re-election by the interesting score of 1,320,749 votes to 0. Modestly he declared, "I accept the people's will." The murders went on. When a man named Francois Benoit seemed to be an enemy, the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier's private militia, killed his parents, child, visitors who happened to be in his house, servants, dogs, and even a passer-by who happened to have the same first name. Typical of the comedy of Haiti, Benoit himself escaped.

At the height of the terror, the churches were infected, and priests wearing guns sang Masses and informed on those who confessed to them. When I reported on Haiti in the '60s, I saw a poster depicting Jesus with his arm around Papa Doc and the caption: "I Have Chosen Him." Later, the Pope paid a one-day visit to Haiti--it cost millions of dollars to prepare for the event--and the church became the strongest organized anti-Duvalier force. Abbott prints a prayer composed by Papa Doc: "Our Doc, who are in the National Palace, hallowed be Thy name. . . ."

This madman understood Haiti, "expert in its internal racism, its obsession with the glories of its history. He played on the despair of its numbing poverty and bribed its flagrant greed."

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier had none of his father's cunning. Abbott quotes "novelist/journalist Herbert Gold," reporting Baby Doc's answer to the question of whether the job of President-for-Life interfered with his education: "Not a night goes by but I fall asleep with my arms wrapped around my books." Actually, he preferred "whizzing his toy cars" about the floor of his playroom.

While others have described the brutality and venality of the regime, none have done it in such authentic detail. The apparently affable and stolid Baby Doc (he was a good dancer) instructed prison guards in how to treat a prisoner who had lobbied for Haiti in the United States: "Make garbage out of him, turn him into a vegetable."

As the regime waned, Baby Doc won a referendum with 99.98% of the vote. His advisers decided it was a mistake to make things unanimous. They were also trying to figure out how to get rid of him and a wife who made Imelda Marcos look like Mother Teresa. Finally, the Tonton Macoute leaders agreed to cooperate. Time for the rats to leave, and an American plane scooped up the Duvaliers and their luggage. So far, with the help of their French lawyers, they are keeping their hundreds of millions of dollars and enjoying the Riviera.

In a final voodoo ceremony at the National Palace, Baby Doc and his wife Michelle sacrificed two unbaptized babies in order to put a strong curse on anyone who tried to sleep in the presidential bed. One wonders why this couple cannot be brought to justice.

Although there are a few irritations in the proof copy, such as a plague of whoms that should be whos and some misplaced pronoun agreements--perhaps corrected in the final text--this book is powerfully composed with a dense rush of event and documentation, the passion of personal feeling, an outrage expressed in bitter irony. Abbott knows Haiti, cares, and has a grasp of a history that combines the sinister and absurd Duvaliers with the fate of a gifted and seemingly doomed people. The book gave one lover of Haiti nightmares.

Papa Doc's madness, the oafishness of Baby Doc, also known as Furniture-Face, the Appointed Son, and the cosmic greed of the sexy Michelle, who married him and spread the country wide to the depredations of her dope-dealing family--the detail renews our fascination with a story that combines elements of "King Ubu" and "The Emperor Jones."

And finally Abbott sheds a special light on Gen. Henri Namphy, the nation's caretaker after the family left, who began with an apparent stolid integrity and then spoke with what she calls an unfamiliar cynicism, first installing his own candidate, after a bloody aborted election and a corrupt Namphy-sponsored one, and then throwing him out. As chief of state, Namphy seemed to be following the body-littered path of the Docs.

There is an astonishing subtext. Abbott, author of this unsparing account, is the sister-in-law of Henri Namphy, so recently a usurper, now usurped in his turn by Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril. In Haiti, the only vote that still seems to count is the army's.

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