Amy Wilentz: The Dechoukaj in Haiti This Time





I first stepped onto the broad central square that was the heart of the Haitian government on the morning of Feb. 7, 1986. Just hours earlier, when it was still night, I’d seen Jean-Claude Duvalier, heir to his father’s dictatorship, flee the country with his wife, children and mother, driving a BMW sedan down the airport road and taking it onto a United States cargo plane bound for France. He’d left so late that I was exhausted when dawn came, but still we all descended on the sprawling plaza to see what the new day would bring. Haiti’s experiment with democracy had begun, sort of....

The Haitians hadn’t just gotten rid of Baby Doc, after all. They’d also begun to expunge the legacy of his father, François Duvalier, a far more important historical figure than Jean-Claude. Papa Doc, who died in 1971 and bequeathed the country to his feckless 19-year-old son, had ruled for 14 long years as an old-fashioned dictator. He used the apparatus of the state to sweep away his enemies, to spy on opposition leaders and to murder perceived and actual rivals, their families, their maids, their dogs. He left corpses on street corners to rot, burned down houses, sometimes with the residents locked inside, lied without shame to foreign officials and the press and shut down all speech at home. He patrolled the countryside with a network of underlings and thugs.

With his ultraviolent rule, Papa Doc set a tone for Haitian governance that has been copied since, but never quite duplicated. Still, his regime was based not just on violence but also on ideology. He’d come to power as a noiriste, an advocate for black power in a country where black power had a singular meaning: to end the rule of Haiti’s mulatto elite, which had been in control of the country’s economy and cosmopolitan life for more than a century, and whose hegemony had been strengthened by the United States during its military occupation from 1915 to 1934.

Papa Doc wanted what the elite had, literally (houses, bank accounts, businesses, land, status), and black power was the ideology he used to justify his depredations. He was the Midas of corruption, though, and noirisme in Haiti was undone by his rule. Although the dark-skinned middle class was empowered during his regime, by the time his son was overthrown (taking his light-skinned and controversial wife with him), most of that class was also eager to see the end of Duvalierism. The family’s rigid kleptocracy had further impoverished and isolated Haiti, and everyone wanted out. (And the story continues: Last week, a Swiss court agreed to release more than $4 million in no doubt ill-gotten gains to Jean-Claude Duvalier.)...

Dechoukaj could rip apart cement and exhume the dead, but it could never quite uproot Duvalierism. Duvalierism, it turned out, was a political state of mind, not a phenomenon arising from a single figure. In a land utterly impoverished by its historical and geopolitical heritage, no dechoukaj could fully uproot the longstanding political culture: the desire for a strong leader to make things better single-handedly; the reflexive populist recourse to a cult of personality; the autocratic tendencies of the political class....

So while Haiti moved forward in its experiment with democracy, it was with a halting step. In 1990, Haitians elected a former Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a kind of political dechoukeur himself, in the first free and fair elections in the country’s history. But coups, a mistrustful elite, foreign meddling and his own little-d Duvalierist tendencies conspired to destroy Mr. Aristide’s presidency....

There is no strongman now, no juntas, no Duvalier to tell the people what to do. (No President Aristide, either, who, from his exile in South Africa, is weeping over the earthquake in front of the cameras, and hoping to come home.) Instead, the Haitian people themselves have marched into the dechouked field and set about rebuilding the country....

Maybe utter destruction concentrates the mind. In these conditions, do-it-yourself democracy simply works best. The quiet president, operating behind the scenes with the international community, instead of strutting before the foreign press and claiming he’ll fix everything, is perhaps at this moment not such a bad leader for Haitian democracy, after all.



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