“It is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer,” the former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier once said—and due to the contributions “Baby Doc” himself made to that destiny, his death on October 4 was not widely mourned. There were elements of Baby Doc’s story and of the American effort to displace him in the 1980s that went undiscussed in the international media following his passing. They are worth recounting before his name is deservedly consigned to the dustbin of history.
Jean-Claude Duvalier became Haiti’s leader upon the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. No one believed that Jean-Claude was up to the job, not even Baby Doc himself: He asked that it pass to his sister. But Papa Doc wanted his son and not his daughter to inherit the title. So in February 1971, realizing that his end was near, Papa Doc organized a referendum of sorts in which the people of Haiti were offered the glorious opportunity to approve Jean-Claude as his father’s successor with the title of President-for-Life. According to the government of Haiti, the people showed remarkable unanimity: In the official tally, the vote was 2,391,916 to 0. When Papa Doc finally passed from the scene on April 21, 1971, Jean-Claude took office. At 19 years of age, he was the world’s youngest head of state.
That Baby Doc held on for 15 years, until 1986, was the real surprise, given Haiti’s miserable condition and his lack of relevant talents. He may have been less brutal than his father, but he was also far less intelligent and canny. Papa Doc had been a much-feared voodoo practitioner as well, and at the center of his regime was a hard core of malevolence. Under his son, that center became a vacuum, surrounded by thieves and rogues. Baby Doc was initially helped by the fact that Haiti had a few somewhat decent years in the 1970s, with growth in both the tourism and light-manufacturing industries. And then the country began to decline, with an outbreak in 1978 of the African swine-fever virus, which became so widespread that by 1982 the United States demanded that every pig in Haiti be slaughtered. This had a disastrous impact on the economy as a whole and especially on the rural poor. Then, in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis ravaged tourism: Cruise ships stopped arriving, charter flights disappeared, and moneyed tourists abandoned the place entirely. Meanwhile, small textile manufacturers were finding better options in Mexico and Asia; employment in what was called the assembly sector peaked in 1980 and declined steadily afterwards. Haiti’s poverty became increasingly acute. Strikes and other protests began around 1985.
The Reagan administration watched Baby Doc preside passively over this growing mess: a ruler with no apparent skills or plans, and an increasingly desperate and restive populace. In July 1985, I became assistant secretary of state in ARA, the bureau covering Latin American and the Caribbean. The acronym stood for the bureau’s original name: American Republic Affairs, a lovely title redolent of the Monroe Doctrine. I began to warn Secretary of State George Shultz that we should dissociate ourselves from the regime. In the fall of 1985, we suspended foreign aid to Haiti because we could not state that there had been any progress on human rights there—a stern message to Duvalier that we would not support the use of force against protesters and a message to demonstrators and strikers that we were on their side.
On January 13, 1986, I raised the topic of Haiti with Shultz at our morning staff meeting—and, as Shultz says in his memoirs: “I doubt that Haiti had even been mentioned in such a meeting more than three or four times before in my term of office. Our embassy reported that the regime was in danger; widespread violence was threatened.” Shultz also mentions something that we’d noticed when flying over Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic: From the air it’s easy to see where the border lies. The Dominican side was all green foliage, but the Haitian side was brown—“dry and barren,” in Shultz’s words. Haiti’s abject poverty had led to deforestation: People were cutting down every tree they could find to use for firewood. Even from an altitude of 10,000 feet, it was plain to see that Haiti had become a disaster.
The question was this: Given the country’s level of poverty, shouldn’t we certify progress so that aid might flow? In a January 27 “small group” meeting (a kind of restricted-attendance senior-staff meeting), I argued to Shultz, “We cannot certify human-rights progress on Haiti. It would destroy our credibility on progress in Central America” and undermine our entire global human-rights policy. “People think we are keeping him in power,” I told Shultz, and “it’s not so.”
Shultz records that while I spoke for my Bureau formally, there were other voices making themselves heard in the ranks of the permanent State Department officials in the Foreign Service: “The reaction from others in the Latin America bureau was ‘Don’t sell Duvalier short.’” But Shultz did not buy that view. On February 3, he went on Good Morning America and, in essence, told Duvalier to go. Shultz had been deeply offended upon learning that Duvalier’s fortune, according to our estimates, was about $300 million—all of it stolen from a people to whose abject poverty Duvalier had been indifferent. On television, Shultz said the United States wanted to see a democratic government in Haiti, and Clay McManaway, our ambassador there, was telling everyone in Port-au-Prince the same thing. Shultz’s comments meant doom for Duvalier: In those days, the Reagan administration’s clout was considerable.
In my office in the State Department a few weeks earlier, I had delivered the same message to an envoy from Duvalier who had been described to me as one of the very key personnel in his government: his personal bag man. “What do you guys want?” he asked me. Look, I replied: “So far Duvalier is not a killer. To stay in power he’s going to have to start killing lots of people. In the end he won’t survive it, and there will be no way out. He should leave. That’s what we want. And that’s what’s best for him. If you’re his friend, tell him that.” The bag man nodded sagely and said he agreed with this advice; whether he truly did so was, of course, entirely unclear. Meanwhile, the Jamaicans under then-Prime Minister Edward Seaga, a true democrat and a staunch American ally, were delivering the same message: from the Jamaican ambassador to Duvalier, face to face.
Soon after Shultz’s TV appearance, we were told that Baby Doc had decided to leave. He had two conditions. First, the United States needed to find him asylum somewhere; and second, we, the United States, needed to get him out. These were not crazy demands: We were surely going to have more success getting a country to grant him asylum than he would as a down-on-his-luck dictator about to flee, and he was right to be worried about being killed on his way to the airport as he tried to board the plane. Rats deserting a sinking ship might not survive even long enough to get across town.
The latter condition was met on February 7, 1986, when a small motorcade of American soldiers led him and two dozen followers to the airport in Port-au-Prince and put them aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had wanted the CIA to sneak Duvalier out of Haiti, but Shultz had rightly refused this because it would have suggested Duvalier had been a CIA asset. He had not been one, and there was no reason to exfiltrate him covertly instead of proudly and openly flying him out.
The former condition (finding him a place to go) proved harder to meet—and it was Duvalier’s own fault. Instead of leaving the job to us, he had asked a dozen governments, perhaps more, to take him. As we began to canvas the countries in the list we drew up, we found that Duvalier had been in contact with them already—and had been turned down. (We never did find out how many times he had been asked for extravagant bribes to get a yes answer, and he had apparently refused to pay.) We tried capital after capital and never got a single yes, but early on February 6, Duvalier said he wanted to leave at midnight. So the French, whose ambassador had been actively engaged with our own in persuading Duvalier to leave, agreed he could stop in France temporarily while we found him a home. The U.S. Air Force flew him to Grenoble.
In the end, Duvalier stayed in France for 25 years. Truth be told, once Baby Doc was safely ensconced in the South of France, the task of finding him permanent asylum fell precipitously down on our agenda. Now it was France’s problem, we thought. (The French initially gave him a seven-day transit visa to find another place of exile, but after Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco, the Seychelles, and even Gabon passed on this opportunity, they gave it up and let him stay.) Perhaps our attitude did not represent the apogee of Franco-American cooperation, but we wanted to expend our energies thereafter on Haiti’s transition to democracy…or to something better than Baby Doc, anyway.
As we knew would happen, the army took over when Baby Doc left. General Henri Namphy became head of the “interim governing council” of six men, promising elections and reforms. The elections were to be held in the fall. General Namphy was in any event not a great fan of elections; indeed, we found that, like Baby Doc, he was not much of a politician himself. I met him in the spring of 1986, accompanying several other Americans into his office. He launched into a tirade against politicians: They are all—he said emphatically—all of them corrupt, seeking only power and money, belonging in jail, bastards, criminals! Unfortunately the general had not been briefed before the meeting: His listeners were (except for me) all members of the U.S. Congress, who appeared to take exception to these remarks about their chosen careers. An inauspicious start to new Haitian-American relations.
But in the interim period in 1986, Colonel Williams Regala came to Washington to see me about the elections that were then ostensibly being planned. He had been head of the secret police under Baby Doc and was then serving as Haiti’s interior minister. Regala was ushered into my office at the State Department wearing a beautifully cut uniform and dripping with gold: not only the gold braids of the epaulets atop his shoulders, but also the gold bracelets on both wrists and the gold Rolex that probably cost what the average Haitian might earn in a decade. He wanted to talk, alone, just the two of us, about those elections.
“Who do you want?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
He seemed surprised and said, “I mean, there are several candidates. Who do you want to win the election?”
Ah, I said, smiling at my guest. “I see the Colonel is trying to be accommodating to us in Washington, but we are for democracy in Haiti. As the secretary of state has said, we want a democratic process.”
“I understand,” Regala answered. “But I need to know who you want to see as president.”
“No, you don’t understand,” I told him. “What we want is a free election.”
Now there was a moment of silence as Colonel Regala stared at me and considered the implications of my remarks. Finally he smiled broadly, leaned forward in his chair, and said, “Oh, OK, I see. So let me just ask you, who do you want to win the free election?”
Our efforts to get that free election in Haiti were not immediately successful. Shultz visited in August 1986 and told the Haitians that “you are free at last” and that a “new era of democracy” had come. He was the first secretary of state to set foot in the place since Philander C. Knox, in 1912. But we were a bit premature in announcing the good news. The 1986 election was postponed amid a wave of violence and rescheduled for the following year. Then the 1987 election was also postponed after another wave of violence (almost certainly manufactured by the army) that included the murder of a presidential candidate named Yves Volel who had spent 15 years in exile teaching math at the Dalton School in Manhattan. Once again, we suspended American aid.
When the election was finally held on January 17, 1988, most of the candidates who had been running in 1987, and most voters, boycotted. The participation rate was about 4 percent. The winner in 1988, Leslie Manigat, dismissed General Namphy, who promptly overthrew him, and Namphy ruled again until September of that year, when other officers in turn overthrew him.
I had an inkling that our demands were not fully persuasive to the Haitian military during a visit to Port-au-Prince in 1987, when I met with several of the top officers at a fancy residence. Alighting from the car, I stepped over a few yards of dirt to reach the path to the front door. The meeting went quite well, I thought, so I departed an hour later in good spirits. But more powerful spirits appeared to be against me, as one of our CIA officers from the Port-au-Prince station told me later. The Haitian officers had ordered a voodoo practitioner to sacrifice a baby goat and bury it under my path to the door, and I had stepped over it. They believed these steps took the power out of my demands, he told me, and so they would pay no attention to them. Which, as it turned out, was exactly what they proceeded to do.
Haiti’s political and economic trajectory since those days has been checkered, to say the least: some years of democracy balanced by years of oppression under the military and under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the leftist priest whose personalized rule was reminiscent of the Duvalier days; some free elections balanced by several coups; and an American military intervention in 1994. The American imprint on Haiti is surprisingly weak, considering that we occupied it for 20 years: Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines in 1914, a maneuver led in large part by Franklin D. Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy, and they stayed until Roosevelt’s decision to withdraw in 1934. It is said that we built roads and installed a telephone system, but one fact ought to be the true measure of our lack of cultural dominance there: We ruled for two decades, but the Haitians never learned to play baseball.
Should we, then, have butted out in 1985 and 1986 and left Baby Doc to his own devices? That was not the view of the Reagan administration, which feared that Duvalier might undertake a bloody campaign of violence to suppress the growing unrest and stay in power. From Chile to Nicaragua and from South Korea to the Philippines, moreover, we wanted to be sure America was—and was seen to be—on the side of democracy. Whatever Ronald Reagan’s critics said about him and his foreign policy, Ferdinand Marcos took the point. Only 18 days after Duvalier fled under American pressure and in an American aircraft, Marcos left the Philippines in precisely the same way: taken to the airfield by American forces and then flown into exile on a U.S. Air Force plane. For once, Haiti had provided a model worth emulating.