Storm clouds, like these photographed over the Chaine de la Selle mountain range in December 2007, always seem to loom on Haiti’s horizon. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)
The story on the front page of The New York Times on Easter Sunday was disturbing. A sign of the times, if you will.
A man who works in the National Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was lamenting the passage of time. “I’d rather have Papa Doc here than all those guys (currently in the presidential palace),” he was quoted as saying, referring to Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the dictator of Haiti from 1957-1971. Papa Doc was followed by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, from 1971-1986.
“I would have had a better life if they were still around.”
This nostalgia – a yearning for the “good old days” of Haiti, which, of course, were not good – is reportedly commonplace around the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
“It’s such an insult to the victims to praise the Duvaliers,” said a man appointed to a government position by current president Rene Préval. “There is nothing redeemable about them. We’re still paying for what they did to the country.”
Haiti has been paying for its sins since it sold its collective soul to the devil and used voodoo as a tool to overthrow the French and establish the world’s first black republic in 1804.
The country’s history is pitiable. Haiti (which means “mountainous land”) is rife with years of division, U.S. intervention, and ruthless rulers.
The Duvaliers epitomize everything wrong with Haiti’s infamous past. Papa Doc created the cagoulards, hooded thugs from the Port-au-Prince slums, and then the notorious Tontons Macoutes. The Tontons Macoutes were dubbed the Civilian Militia by Papa Doc, who later called them Volunteers for National Security (or VSN). The VSN outnumbered Haiti’s military by at least 2-to-1. In a country notorious for coups, the VSN was Papa Doc's private army.
The Tontons Macoutes original name derives from the Haitian folk story, Tonton Macoute (Uncle Knapsack), a bogeyman who carried off naughty children in his bag at night. These “bogeymen” wore uniforms based on the costume of Papa Zaca, the voodoo spirit of agriculture.
Papa Doc was a voodooist. He also was a blasphemer. He said, “I shall be lord and master” of Haiti. In 1964, after he changed the constitution so he could be elected president for life, he published the Duvalierist “Lord’s Prayer”: “Our Doc, who art in the National Palace for life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations. Thy will be done in Port-au-Prince and in the countryside. Give us this day our new Haiti, and never forgive the trespasses of those traitors who spit on our country each day. Lead them into temptation, and poisoned by their own venom, deliver them from no evil …”
Further constitutional revision enabled Baby Doc to succeed his father after Papa Doc died in 1971.
“People don’t know what the Duvalier regime truly represents,” Rene Préval told The Miami Herald late last year. Acknowledging that there was peace back then, he added that Haitians born after Baby Doc fled in 1986 — who make up the bulk of the country’s population of 8.5 million — “don’t know the price of that peace.”
Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. This fearful thought comes to mind when we consider the current state of Haiti.
Préval is pushing a plan to create a museum at the site of a former prison next to the palace, in which the Duvaliers’ henchmen tortured political prisoners. The site would be a reminder of that era’s horrors, he has said.
Haiti has a poor track record when it comes to preserving its past. A previous effort to restore another ignominious site (the Fort Dimanche prison) failed. The crumbling prison, where political executions once took place, is now home to squatters, some of who get by selling patties made from dirt to quell hunger pangs.
“To think that the children being raised today do not have the reference of what wrongs have been done in the past,” Wilson Laleau, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Haiti, told The New York Times. “It’s so frustrating. We don’t use history and memory to understand our present and build the future. We keep beginning again from scratch.”
The population of Haiti is impatient. The country, occupied by U.N. peacekeeping forces since Catholic priest-turned-corrupt-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster in 2001, is said to have made significant strides since Preval’s 2006 election. But the changes are not producing results fast enough for the down-and-out Haitians.
“It’s time to show people that democracy is not just about voting, but changing their real lives,” Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis told The New York Times.
No one knows that better than Eugene Thermilon, a 30-year-old Haitian day laborer who can no longer afford pasta to feed his wife and four children since the price nearly doubled to 57 cents a bag. Their only meal on a recent day was two cans of corn grits.
“Their stomachs were not even full,” Thermilon told The Associated Press as he walked toward his pink concrete house on the precipice of a garbage-filled ravine. By noon the next day, he still had nothing to feed them for dinner.
Their hunger has had a ripple effect. Haitian food vendor Fabiola Duran Estime, 31, has lost so many customers like Thermilon that she had to pull her daughter, Fyva, out of kindergarten because she can't afford the $20 monthly tuition.
Fyva was just beginning to read.
This is the state of Haiti: Its past is lost on its collective lost soul. Without repentance its future is further condemnation – a repeat of the not-so-good old days.
Posted March 26, 2008