Elizabeth Abbott: The Ghosts of Duvalier

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Elizabeth Abbott is senior research associate at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and the author of Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, to be reissued in summer 2011 as Haiti Revisted: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy in a Shattered Land.]

Perhaps the best way to understand former Haitian dictator and would-be president-for-life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's quixotic return to his homeland after 25 years in exile in France is through William Faulkner's classic observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even the past."

What better proof than the stunning spectacle of the once porky, now gaunt 59-year-old shuffling from the airport after a perfunctory meeting with the cooperative immigration officials who accepted his expired diplomatic passport, and the police convoy that protected him on his route to his luxurious Karibe Hotel in a Port-au-Prince suburb, where he stood on the balcony and waved regally to beaming supporters and bemused journalists? A quarter-century earlier, this man had fled Haiti under military guard, reviled by his people and a pariah to the international community.

But Duvalier left behind Duvalierism, a system of government too profoundly entrenched to truly eradicate. And it's Duvalierism, with or without its figurehead, that explains, among other tragedies, the near paralysis of the René Préval government's response to the 2010 earthquake that killed nearly 300,000, decimated the civil service, smashed buildings, and obliterated the landscape. More recently, it explains the government's attempt to pervert the electoral process by engineering the victory of Jude Celestin, Préval's protégé.

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