Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former dictator of Haiti once known as Baby Doc, returned to his native land last week, looking wide-eyed and frail. He read a statement in which he expressed ‘deep sorrow for all those who say they were victims of my government’ and promised that he hadn’t come home to cause trouble, but to help rebuild his country.
Should we believe him? The press think that he wants to clear his name in order to get access to $6 million in frozen Swiss bank accounts; Haiti’s socialist leaders worry that he has returned to seize power; many people living in dugouts beneath scraps of corrugated iron might secretly hope that he has and — although it seems a shocking thing to say — perhaps we should too. The return of the notorious Baby D could be just the thing Haiti needs.
Since Duvalier fled the country in 1986, Haiti has been in a terrible mess. It has suffered two military juntas, two US-led invasions, political violence and food shortages. An earthquake in 2010 levelled the capital and killed upwards of 300,000. Roughly a million Haitians are homeless. The relief effort was generous but incompetent. Enough money was donated to give each displaced family a cheque for $37,000, but only a fraction of the aid has been released. The socialist government has been defunded: there’s no GDP left to redistribute. Haiti is a failed state and what it needs is stability and capital investment. Jean-Claude Duvalier could help bring back both.
The pudgy playboy inherited the country’s presidency from his father, Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc), in 1971 and it’s true that Haiti under Jean-Claude was no utopia. Order was kept by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, a private police force named after a voodoo bogeyman who kidnaps children and eats them for breakfast. While ordinary Haitians were paid the lowest average income in the western hemisphere, the Duvalier clan grew fat on kickbacks and looted foreign aid.
But if we want what’s best for Haiti, we have to remember that before the Duvaliers came to power, Haitian society was stratified by skin colour. The mixed-race bourgeoisie operated a petty apartheid that denied jobs and political advancement to the poor black majority. Even parks were segregated. Through graft and tourism, Papa and Baby Doc created a new black middle-class. Fearing the violent resentment of the disenfranchised elite, they demolished the army and handed out guns and money to the Tonton Macoutes instead. Justice and welfare were provided by an invisible empire of voodoo priests. The Duvaliers sat at the top of a vast network of personal relationships sustained by fear, corruption, superstition and occasional acts of kindness — but they kept the peace.
Jean-Claude’s succession in 1971 was the first tranquil political transition in 30 years, and under his rule Haiti experienced something that is remembered as ‘les bons temps’. Roads were paved and foreign-owned factories churned out electronic goods. The Duvaliers passed the Haitian acid test of good government: at no point in their rule was the country occupied by the United States. In fact, Jean-Claude lost power only because of bad luck. A swine fever outbreak destroyed agriculture and Aids wrecked the tourism industry. But he left behind him a country that had taken the first few haltering steps towards economic development.
So if reason triumphs over emotion, Duvalier’s return could help revive some of the more positive aspects of his rule. Nostalgia and name recognition make him the only viable conservative opposition to a socialist president who himself is accused of fixing elections. And Duvalier understands that Haiti needs to join the globalisation free-for-all if she is to rebuild. The international press, buzzing with outrage that Baby Doc dared even show his face, overlooked the fact that he was accompanied home by a small group of conservative American lawyers and businessmen. One of them was Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman and presidential candidate. Their presence was a vote of confidence in Duvalier by the American right. For attracting US investment and staking a claim for strategic importance, this is a very useful thing to have. A Duvalier presidency is unlikely. But if some accommodation could be struck between the Haitian authorities and the social force of black capitalism that Duvalier represents, then the West should encourage it. We don’t have to forgive Baby Doc his past sins, but sometimes it is better not to do what is just, but to do what works.