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Death of U.S.-Backed Ex-Dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier Won’t End Haitian Victims’ Quest for Justice

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The former U.S.-backed dictator of Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc,” has died at 63. Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986, taking power after the death of his father who had ruled since 1957. Baby Doc’s death came just months after a Haitian court ruled that he could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law, and that he could also be held responsible for abuses by the army and paramilitary forces under his rule. Under his regime, hundreds of political prisoners held in a network of prisons died from their extraordinarily cruel treatment. Baby Doc’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten, in some cases tortured, jailed and forced to leave the country. Despite his human rights record, Baby Doc was a close ally of the United States. After years of exile in France, he returned to Haiti in 2011 and became an ally of Haiti’s current president Michel Martelly. We are joined by Haitian activist and writer Jean Saint-Vil and journalist Amy Wilentz, author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier has died at the age of 63. Known as Baby Doc, Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986. He took power after the death of his father, who had ruled since 1957. His death came just months after a Haitian court ruled that he could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law and that he could also be held responsible for abuses by the army and paramilitary forces under his rule. According to Human Rights Watch, Baby Doc’s rule was marked by systematic human rights violations. Hundreds of political prisoners, held in a network of jails, died from their extraordinarily cruel treatment. Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten; in some cases, tortured, jailed and forced to leave the country. One of his most vocal critics in the 1980s was a priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who would later become Haiti’s first democratically elected president.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite his human rights record, Jean-Claude Duvalier was a close ally of the United States. After years of exile in France, Baby Doc returned to Haiti in 2011 and became an ally of Haiti’s current president, Michel Martelly. In messages posted on Twitter Sunday, Martelly called Baby Doc, quote, “an authentic son of Haiti.” There is now talk about a possible state funeral for Duvalier. Many victims of his regime have spoken out against the idea. Robert Duval was a political prisoner who was jailed for 17 months during Duvalier’s rule.

ROBERT DUVAL: You know it is a crime against humanity. It’s like the—you’re talking about torture. You’re talking about disappearances. You’re talking about summary executions. You’re talking about starving people in jail. You’re talking about genocide. You know, whole families have gone, even to the point of having children two years old be thrown in the air and come down in bayonet. This is the type of crime that his regime has committed. And he was the head of it for 15 years, under the regime of Duvalier. It’s very well known and very well documented. More than 50,000 to 60,000 people have perished under those conditions I told you about. So, to give this man a national funeral, that would be a slap to all of the victims and to the nation in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Duval. To talk more about Baby Doc’s legacy, we’re joined now by two guests. Jean Saint-Vil is an Ottawa-based Haitian writer, radio host and activist. His website is He’s joining us from Ottawa. Amy Wilentz is also with us, an award-winning writer and journalist. She’s the author of several books on Haiti, including Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, which was published last year and received the National Book [Critics Circle] Award. She’s also the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier. She teaches in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine, joining us from Los Angeles.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Jean Saint-Vil. Your response to the death of Jean-Claude Duvalier and his significance in Haitian history?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Well, I think the first thing that came to mind is that if some people are saddened by this, they should send their condolences to the CIA and to the French government, because they are the ones who supported Duvalier over all the years of that dictatorship, both the father and the son. And, of course, it proves also that the regime we currently have in Haiti, where there is a puppet government that is pretending to be running the country, is not one where you can have justice. Duvalier returned in January 2011, and he did so because he knew that it was safe for him to return to the country, where you had 7,000 U.N. troops occupying the country, and that the regime that was going to be elected was one of the Duvalier supporters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about that return? What was the reason, from what you can tell, of his coming back after being out of the country for so long? And what impact did it have on the local political situation in Haiti?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Well, I don’t think it really had an impact on the political situation, because the elections that were being organized in 2010, 2011, were all controlled by the United States and the Organization of American States, and they had already established that the most popular party could not participate, Fanmi Lavalas of Aristide. So, there were only two right-wing candidates who were allowed to go into the second round of elections by Hillary Clinton, who went in Haiti personally to decide who can go into the second round.

However, the return of Duvalier, for him, meant that he was going to be able to continue to live a lavish life, because he had spent all of his money in Europe with his European supporters. When he divorced Michèle Duvalier, a lot of that money was transferred to his wife, the money that he stole from Haiti when he left in 1986. So, you even have some of his supporters who were reporting that taxi drivers in Paris were collecting money to support him, and he was running away because he couldn’t pay his bills, because of the type of lifestyle he was living there. So, he returned because he was broke, in essence. When Duvalier was rich, he was protected by the French government, and he spent his money into the French economy. And once he was broke, they returned him to Haiti.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re also joined by Amy Wilentz. Amy, could you—your reaction upon hearing of the death of Baby Doc?

AMY WILENTZ: Well, my initial reaction was that it was terribly sad for the Haitian people, who are now going to be denied their time to see him brought to justice for the crimes he committed against humanity and against individual Haitians. So that saddened me, and I’m still concerned. When I hear that the president wants to offer Duvalier a possible state funeral, that’s scary, because what I was hoping for was actually that even though the man who ran the government that was so cruel and brutal was dead, at least perhaps there could be a moment in court where the victims of Duvalier could say what had been done to them, could offer testimony to what they had to bear during his regime, so that at least the Haitian people would have a chance to hear that and understand their history. A lot of Haitians are too young to remember Duvalier, but Duvalier still is a very important person and Duvalierism a very important kind of political philosophy, if that’s not glorifying it too much, in their lives, even though they don’t know it.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the trial, whether or not it will go forward. I wanted to turn to comments made by Pierre Espérance, the head of the National Human Rights Defense Network in Haiti. He said he hoped the trial against Duvalier would still go on without him.

PIERRE ESPÉRANCE: [translated] Jean-Claude Duvalier is dead. It’s true that he died; however, the case against him continues, because the victims had a case not only against Jean-Claude Duvalier, but against all who were involved, from far or near, in torture, execution, disappearance, rape and plundered public funds. Jean-Claude Duvalier is dead. We all regret the fact that the dictator died at 63 years. He could have lived longer and allowed the Haitian people to discover the truth about the Duvalier regime. Now we’re waiting to see if the power in place, Martelly government, will give a national funeral to an old dictator. Don’t forget that anywhere in the world where there were dictators, they don’t benefit from that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pierre Espérance, the head of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network. Amy Wilentz, the possibility of this trial happening even with Baby Doc Duvalier dead?

AMY WILENTZ: Well, it’s unlikely, isn’t it? I mean, Michel Martelly did everything in his power to make sure that trial would not go forward while Baby Doc was alive. I don’t see him, you know, standing up like a patriot and saying, “No, we have to have this moment of closure. We have to look at the other people who were behind Duvalier doing his bidding or acting on their own during the Duvalierist years.” I don’t see Martelly being that kind of a patriot in Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’re going to play a short clip of Killing the Dream, a documentary about the Duvaliers, and also find out about another former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was just put under house arrest, and what this means, and talk about Haiti today. Our guests are Amy Wilentz, the award-winning journalist, author of a number of books, including The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, and Jean Saint-Vil, who is a Haitian writer, radio host and activist. He’s with us from Ottawa. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Dear Mr. Man” by Cornel West, featuring Prince. Cornel West will be joining us to talk about Black Prophetic Fire after we finish our discussion on Haiti. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to an excerpt from the 1992 documentary Haiti: Killing the Dream, produced by Hart and Dana Perry of Crowing Rooster Productions and narrated by Ossie Davis. This clip focuses on the successive Duvalier regimes and the notorious work of the Tontons Macoutes.

OSSIE DAVIS: In 1957, the United States propped up the regime of Haiti’s most feared president, François Duvalier. Known as “Papa Doc,” he was a country doctor who became a despot. To ensure he would not be overthrown by the army like his predecessors, Papa Doc built up his own vigilante militia, the infamous Tontons Macoutes. Volunteers for the Macoutes were paid by having free license to steal and extort from the people they tortured, raped and murdered.

Toward the end of his life, Duvalier cemented his ties to Washington and arranged for his son, Jean-Claude, to succeed him. After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, 19-year-old Baby Doc took over as president for life. Baby Doc plundered the national treasury and, with army support, turned Haiti into a major drug transshipment stop.

In 1986, a popular uprising ended the three decades of Duvalier dictatorship. Baby Doc was flown into exile aboard a U.S. government jet, taking a vast fortune and leaving behind a devastated, but relieved, country. After years of living in fear, the Haitian people exploded, taking revenge on the most abusive Tontons Macoutes—the dechoukaj, or uprooting, of the Duvalier oppression. Some Macoutes who committed capital crimes suffered the popular justice called “Père Lebrun,” or necklacing: A tire, filled with gasoline, was placed around their bodies and burned.

AMY GOODMAN: Haiti: Killing the Dream, produced by Hart and Dana Perry of Crowing Rooster Productions, narrated by Ossie Davis. The film was written actually by Juan González of Democracy Now! and the New York Daily News and who also spent lots of time in Haiti. Our guests are Jean Saint-Vil, Haitian writer, radio host and activist in Ottawa, and Amy Wilentz, the award-winning journalist who has written extensively about Haiti. Among her books, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier. Jean Saint-Vil, you’ve just listened to this excerpt of the documentary. If there were a state funeral, your response?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Well, it would definitely be an outrage, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And I think what’s missing in this discussion so far is the explanation of why Duvalier was able to survive and oppress the Haitian people for so many years. And, for instance, in that excerpt you played in Haiti: Killing the Dream, they mentioned the Tontons Macoutes, but the Tontons Macoutes were trained by U.S. marines, who went into Haiti and trained them. And this is not speculation. I hear, for instance, people are speculating as to who has trained ISIS in Syria. In the case of Haiti, there is no confusion about that: It is the U.S. Marines that went and created the Tontons Macoutes, equipped them. There are no weapons produced in Haiti. All of their weapons came from the United States. And when the transition happened with Jean-Claude Duvalier taking over from his deceased father, they created another group called the Leopards. And this is again the CIA that had a subcontract with a company called Aerotrade, that went into Haiti, and it’s the people who participated, the president of Aerotrade, who gave an interview explaining how they went into Haiti to train those groups.

Of course, so, today, if you were to have a funeral, a state funeral for Jean-Claude Duvalier, it would make sense, because whereas a lot of people were surprised to find out that Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti in January 2011, one year later, the second anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, some of us were shocked to watch TV, and we saw on the podium Jean-Claude Duvalier with Michel Martelly, the puppet president, and Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president. I mean, Amy, you know how protocol functions. Bill Clinton cannot claim that he didn’t know that Jean-Claude Duvalier was going to be there. It was a clear signal from the current U.S. government that they are standing with Jean-Claude Duvalier.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy Wilentz, this news now that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, twice deposed after being democratically elected in Haiti, with support of the United States, has been placed under house arrest, your reaction to that news?

AMY WILENTZ: Well, it’s just astounding. I mean, it proves that Duvalierism is long-lived. To have men with hoods over their heads come screaming up in their pickup trucks and surround the ex-president’s house and to put him under what is in Haiti illegal house arrest, it’s very shocking. And I fear that he’s very vulnerable right now, because—because of the fall of—the death of Duvalier, in a sense, there’s a protection moved away from Aristide, because in not going after Duvalier, they couldn’t very well go after Aristide, even though they’d been trying a little bit, but now that Duvalier isn’t there and Duvalier isn’t vulnerable, I’m afraid that that will unleash the anger of this Duvalierist government against Aristide, who really is the national hero who helped coalesce the movements against Duvalier.

AMY GOODMAN: In March of 2011, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his family were flown by the South African government back to their home in Haiti after Aristide was in exile in South Africa for seven years. He had been flown out of Haiti on a U.S. military jet to the Central African Republic, but then a small group of activists and congresspeople—Congressmember Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, the former founder of TransAfrica, Randall Robinson, as well as others—flew to the Central African Republic to pick him and the first lady of Haiti up, Mildred Aristide. I accompanied them on that flight, covering it. We traveled with Aristide also when he flew back from South Africa to Haiti, and I asked him on the plane about the 2004 coup that led to his ouster.

JEAN-BERTRAND ARISTIDE: The past seven years gave an opportunity to everyone to see the truth, and it became obvious what happened, and everyone who wants to know can see the truth. Those who refuse to see it, I cannot oblige them to see it. When you make a mistake, it’s a mistake. If you decide to continue making the same mistake, then it’s worse. A mistake was made, that was that coup.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on the plane. Now, Jean Saint-Vil, can you talk about these two ousters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide—the first one right after he was elected, within a year of his first election, this fiery priest becoming the first democratically elected president of Haiti, and then the second one, in 2000—in 2004?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Yes. First of all, let me say that I was born and raised in Haiti. In fact, I left Haiti just for the first time three years before the fall of Duvalier, in 1983. And so, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president in 1990, I was astounded by the fact that for the first time in my life I saw Haitians go to the polls and choose their own president, which is something that was amazing to us in terms of the ability of the marginalized population to finally have their say against the oligarchy that controls things in Haiti. So, I was among the thousands of Haitians who returned to Haiti in 1991. So that first coup happened while I was in Haiti. In fact, I was so proud, that my university degree, that I studied in Canada, was received in Haiti, because our dream was to live in our country. And there were Haitians coming from all over the planet. People who were in Africa for years, in Europe, were returning to Haiti. Everybody were thinking that everything is possible now.

And only seven months after he swore in, the military conducted that coup, again, with a full U.S. support, and so Aristide was overthrown. A lot of people were killed, especially in the impoverished neighborhoods, where there is this group called FRAPH, that was organized as a paramilitary to basically make sure that as soon as they conduct the coup, to murder a whole lot of people, basically his base, especially in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. So, that coup, of course, led to a lot of the people who had returned to Haiti to now go back to Europe, to North America and other places.

And so, when Aristide was able to return to Haiti and compete again, it was no surprise that he was going to win the elections in 2000. But even before he swore in, we were receiving threats that if Aristide becomes president, he is not going to be able to complete his mandate. And that came to me in a very personal way. On December 31st, 2003, I was in Haiti, the eve of the bicentennial of the celebration of Haiti’s independence, the end of racial slavery. At Hotel Montana, I was confronted by the head of the Organization of American States, Luigi Einaudi, who said—and I quote—”The real problem with Haiti is that the international community is so screwed up and divided that they’re actually letting Haitians run Haiti.” And three days after he said that—sorry, less than two months after he said that, the coup of 2004 took place. So, it’s a tragedy that what we are observing here is that they are trivializing electoral democracy, in making an equivalence between someone who has been elected by the people with a dictator who basically woke up one day—he was 19 years old—and was named president for life. It’s an aberration. And unfortunately, this is the type of world that we live in today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. Again, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who did take power when he was 19 years old, has died at the age of 63 in Haiti without trial. I want to thank Jean Saint-Vil for joining us, Haitian writer, radio host and activist, speaking to us from Ottawa. His website is And Amy Wilentz, an award-winning writer and journalist, author of a number of books, including Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, which was published last year and received the National Book Critics Circle Award. She’s also the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, teaching literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine. When we come back, Professor Cornel West.

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