Writer Edwidge Danticat Responds to Jean-Claude Duvalier’s Return to Haiti
Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat was four when her parents fled the repressive government of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. On January 16, 2011, Duvalier returned to the country he ruled from 1971-1986 and was greeted with cheers and applause from supporters at the Port-au-Prince airport. “I was very shocked to see him return,” Danticat said via email. “I was also shocked at the reception by some people who would rather wash out the severity of his crimes,” she added.
Danticat is the author of two novels, two collections of short stories, and two works of non-fiction, including Brother, I’m Dying, which was nominated for a National Book Award. She is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
Duvalier claimed he was there as a humanitarian—to help his country still struggling to recover form last year’s devastating earthquake. Some feared he had returned to make a power grab; Duvalier arrived the day of a scheduled run-off in the disputed presidential election. The run-off was delayed due to international pressure alleging vote-rigging in favor of the ruling party’s candidate. (That candidate has since dropped out of the race.)
Others are speculating Duvalier’s motives are monetary. During his dictatorship, Duvalier had maintained a lavish lifestyle as his country plunged into poverty, netting millions from the drug trade and by selling Haitian cadavers to foreign medical schools. When he left Haiti in 1986 under pressure from the American government, he took some $300 million looted from the nation’s coffers. He has since spent most of the money. $6 million remains frozen in a Swiss bank account. Switzerland has recently passed law—called the Duvalier law—to make it easier for countries to reclaim funds embezzled by corrupt officials. The law goes into effect on February 1st. Human rights activists speculate Duvalier has returned in an attempt to recover the money before the law goes into effect.
Duvalier taken out of his hotel by police in Port-au-Prince
Photo by: Espinosa/AP
If that is the case, his plans have backfired. On January 18, he was arrested on charged of embezzlement and corruption. Meanwhile, a handful of people have filed individual claims alleging they were tortured under Duvalier’s orders.
Here Danticat talks about her hopes for justice and how the memory of Duvalier’s crimes has been nearly erased from history.
Bobby Duval, the soccer player who spent 17 months in jail during Jean-Claude Duvalier’s presidency, said “A country that has no memory will repeat its same mistakes.” Duvalier returned to a cheering crowd. What does that say about Haiti’s memory of his brutal reign?
There are plenty of people who remember, however, there have been so many other disasters since—political, natural, environmental—that the Duvalier disaster has somehow faded into the past. This might also have something with the fact that half of Haiti’s population is under twenty-five, and Haitian history books have not been updated since Duvalier’s father took power in the 1950s. There have also been no acts of preservation, no preserved testimonies, no museums, no memorials to those killed by the Duvaliers, both father and son.
What do you hope to will happen now that Duvalier has been arrested?
I hope he will be fully persecuted and brought to justice. He should at least spend the rest of his uncertain life in jail, just as so many were forced to during his regime. Even his so-called explanation/apology speech was cocky. He came back certain that nothing would happen to him. He has friends in high places, in both the financial and political elites of Haiti, but the people who suffered most under him and his father can no longer speak. They are dead. Thank God there are some victims who have survived and can speak out: Bobby Duval, and the former radio journalists Michele Montas and Liliane Pierre Paul, among others.
Read a longer interview with Danticat on her new book Create Dangerously on Tuesday, February 1st.
Read Elizabeth’s bio.