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Americas

Haiti's former dictator 'Baby Doc' Duvalier dies at 63

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-10-04

Haiti's former dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, has died at the age of 63, Haitian Health Minister Florence Guillaume Duperval announced on Saturday.

Duvalier died of a heart attack at home, according to his lawyer, Reynold Georges.

The man known as "Baby Doc" came to power when he was just 19 years old after the death of his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and ruled the impoverished Caribbean nation from 1971 until his 1986 ouster.

Like his father, he came to rule the nation with an iron fist – banning opposition, clamping down on dissidents, rubber-stamping his own laws and pocketing government revenue.

He also made liberal use of his father's dreaded Tonton Macoutes, a secret police force loyal to the Duvalier family.

The Tonton Macoutes were accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing up to 30,000 suspected political opponents during the reign of the two Duvaliers in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2007 Duvalier called on Haitians to forgive him for the "mistakes" he committed during his long rule, even as the government in power at the time insisted he face trial.

A majority of Haitians are now too young to have lived under the Duvaliers but many still recall the government’s nightmarish prisons and stories of the crimes committed by the secret police.

'Noirisme' and revolution

Duvalier's father was a medical doctor-turned-dictator who promoted a concept known as “Noirisme”, which sought to emphasise Haiti’s African roots over its European ones and unite the black majority against the mulatto elite in a country divided by class and color.

As president, the younger Duvalier married the daughter of a wealthy coffee merchant, Michèle Bennett, in 1980. The engagement caused a scandal among old Duvalierists, for she was a mulatto and the arrangement ran counter to the Noirisme movement his father espoused.

The wedding was a lavish affair, complete with imported champagne, flowers and fireworks. The ceremony – reported to have cost $5 million – was carried live on television in the impoverished nation.

Under Duvalier’s rule, Haiti saw widespread demographic changes. Peasants moved to the capital in search of work as factories popped up to meet the growing demand for cheap labour. Meanwhile, thousands of Haitian professionals fled the climate of repression for cities such as New York, Miami and Montreal.

Aid began to flow in from the United States, as well as agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the tourists soon followed.

But it was corruption and human rights abuses that defined Duvalier rule.

The National Palace became known for opulent parties, and the first lady took overseas shopping sprees to decorate or to collect fur coats. Duvalier reportedly relished taking his presidential yacht out for a spin and racing about in sports cars.

Under mounting pressure from then US president Jimmy Carter, Duvalier made a pretense of improving the country’s human rights record by releasing political prisoners. Still, journalists and activists were often jailed or exiled. Haitians without visas or money left by boarding flimsy boats in a desperate effort to reach Florida shores.

A popular uprising swept across Haiti in 1986, and Duvalier and his wife boarded a US-government C-141 bound for France.

While living in exile, mainly in Paris and Cannes, Duvalier was never known to hold a job. He occasionally made public statements about his eagerness to return to Haiti. Supporters periodically marched on his behalf in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

The Duvaliers divorced in 1993 and Baby Doc later became involved with Véronique Roy, who was by his side when he returned to Haiti.

Prosecution falters

Duvalier described his 2011 return to a Haiti leveled by a devastating earthquake the year before – and still facing grinding poverty and widespread social turmoil – as a gesture of solidarity with his stricken nation.

Many suspected he came back in an effort to reclaim money he had allegedly stashed. Others said he merely wanted to die in his homeland.

More than 20 victims of his rule stepped forward at the time to file charges that ranged from false imprisonment to torture. Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that, while Duvalier may not have directly participated in the torture and killings under his regime, there was enough evidence to prosecute him.

A Haitian judge in 2012 said that Duvalier should face charges for his alleged misuse of public funds but not for the human rights abuses committed during his reign, saying the statute of limitations had expired.

Efforts to prosecute him continued in fits and starts. Duvalier stunned human rights observers and alleged victims of his regime in 2013 when he testified about his rule before an investigating judge. A year later, a judge overturned the earlier court decision and ruled that Duvalier could face crimes against humanity charges.

But in the end his legal case stalled because officials did little to pursue it.

Despite the occasional hospital stay, Duvalier seemed to enjoy his new life back home and was free to roam the capital. He was frequently spotted attending government ceremonies and dining with friends in high-end restaurants.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

 

Date created : 2014-10-04

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