The death of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in Port-au-Prince on October 4 garnered world-wide attention. However, despite the justly deserved focus on the legacy of Duvalier (aka Baby Doc), too much about current Haitian politics was left out of that brief round of media coverage.
Duvalier's father Francois, nicknamed Papa Doc, died in 1971 after years of brutal repression of anyone not in Duvalier Senior's inner circle. When Papa Doc died in 1971, his 19-year- old son was soon declared the new President for Life. The elder Duvalier had maintained power in no small part by successfully currying power with Washington, and Baby Doc did an even more impressive job of winning essential economic, political, and military support from the U.S. In his essential volume Damming the Flood, historian Peter Hallward explains that in return for that backing, Duvalier “...[provided] the sort of investment climate his patrons had come to expect – minimal taxes, a virtual ban on trade unions, the preservation of starvation wages, the removal of any restrictions on the repatriation of profits.”
But Duvalier's iron-fisted rule, in which many thousands of people were slaughtered, broke down in the face of a courageous popular uprising of the downtrodden poor masses. This grassroots opposition was largely nurtured by community-based church groups, called ti legliz in Haitian kreyol, which were inspired by liberation theology and its focus on a “preferential option for the poor.”
With the help of the U.S. government, Duvalier and his wife fled with hundreds of millions of dollars for exile in Paris.
Duvalier's return to Haiti in 2011 was met with gasps of horror from most of the populace but celebrated by his friends in the ruling elite, including the current president Michel Martelly. Duvalier retained a passionate hatred for Lavalas, the movement of the poor majority. Lavalas (which means “flood” in kreyol) was and still is led by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It was created to help the poor rise “from misery to poverty with dignity.” Aristide was elected president twice by large majorities but forced from office by U.S.-orchestrated coups in both 1991 and 2004. After a seven year global campaign of pressure combined with sustained grassroots activity in Haiti, Aristide and his family returned to their homeland in March of 2011.
Unlike the chill that greeted Baby Doc's return, Aristide arrived home to throngs of many thousands of jubilant supporters who lined the road from the airport to his house and filled its courtyard, singing and chanting for hours. Though frequently described in the corporate press as inactive, since 2011 Aristide has thrown himself into promoting education, a key priority of his two presidencies. He has overseen the reopening and expansion of the University of the Aristide Foundation (UNIFA), which welcomed another group of incoming students this week. UNIFA includes a medical school, a nursing school, a law school, and a school of physical therapy (designed to assist victims of the 2010 earthquake).
Though Duvalier has died, his influence remains strong in Haiti. It extends into the current government of Michel Martelly, which came to power in a flawed U.S.-backed election in which fewer than 20% of Haitians turned out to vote. After Duvalier's death, Martelly eulogized him as “a true son of Haiti.” Duvalier's son Nicolas is an adviser to Martelly. Other Duvalier supporters include the Interior Minister and the Public Works Secretary of State. True to its orgins, the Martelly government is currently engaged in a series of attacks on Aristide which have raised concerns in Haiti and throughout the world.
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A recent open letter initiated by the Haiti Action Committee and Global Women's Strike and signed by hundreds of individuals and organizations denounced these attacks: “On Aug. 21, Haitian police wearing black masks and carrying heavy arms appeared in front of the home of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a Haitian judge issued calls to arrest him. Hundreds of people courageously surrounded the house to protect him.
“One week before, President Aristide was summoned to court on false corruption charges. This is the fourth time since his return to Haiti in 2011 that he has been the target of a politically motivated legal case. (Previous charges were dropped before he could even challenge them in court.) The judge in this case, Lamarre Bélizaire, has been suspended for ten years from practicing the law by the Port-au-Prince Bar Association for using the court to persecute opponents of the present regime. His suspension is due to begin once he steps down as judge.” Representatives Maxine Waters and Luis Gutierrez have also written open letters to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing their grave concern for Aristide's safety.
President Aristide's lawyer, Ira Kurzban, has warned, “The escalation of events against President Aristide are viewed as efforts to see how far Martelly can push without response from the international community. If a loud chorus of disapproval is not heard against the tactics of the Martelly government, both Aristide’s life and the future of democracy in Haiti are at risk.”
To that end activists throughout Haiti demonstrated on Tuesday, September 30 in support of Aristide's right to continue his work without harassment from the Martelly regime. Thousands marched in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien. In the Port-au-Prince demonstration, police cracked down on peaceful protestors. As Maxine Waters pointed out in an October 2 letter to Kerry, police used water hoses and tear gas on the thousands of marchers who were attempting to walk to Aristide's home. Waters wrote, “These confrontational tactics were used despite reports that the demonstrators were peaceful. It has also been reported that police blocked the route along which the demonstrators had planned to march.”
Speaking to me at a San Francisco rally in support of the marches in Haiti, Robert Roth, co- founder of the Haiti Action Committee, noted: “Despite all the attacks against President Aristide and the Lavalas movement, the UNIFA opened its doors once again this week to 1,000 students. And the people took to the streets in large numbers to let it be known that they will defend the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history and that they will defend their movement.”
Roth continued, “Little of this has been covered in the U.S. press, so it’s important that we get the word out. If a demonstrator is attacked in Hong Kong, the New York Times runs a front page story. If a demonstrator protesting the Martelly government is attacked by water hoses in Haiti, it doesn’t even make the news. If you read the mainstream press, it never happened. The police tactics being used right now in Haiti harken back to the days of Duvalier. That's why we have to raise our voices and expose the dangerous level of repression in Haiti right now.”