It was 25 years ago, shy a couple of weeks, that Jean-Claude “Bebe Doc’’ Duvalier, Haiti’s last President-for-Life, fled the island nation that he and his father before him had plundered and terrorized for decades.
He promised U.S. officials that he would never return, but he’s back in the island nation.
Shortly before 4 am on Friday Feb. 7, 1986, Jean-Claude, his gorgeous and glitzy wife Michèle Bennet, their two young children, at least one mistress, and about 20 close friends and servants loaded aboard a huge U.S. Air Force jet and headed for France.
Trunks of designer clothing, priceless art, jewels and a “hell of a lot of the gold” were loaded on to the C-141 jet in a light drizzle that morning at Francois Duvalier International Airport, as a military adviser assigned to the U.S. embassy at the time described.
The Haitian people were robbed again. They awoke to marshal music and taped messages on radio stations in Port-au-Prince from Jean-Claude saying he had left for the good of the country.
By mid-morning some at the U.S. embassy were failing to conceal their anger at their country’s involvement in facilitating the escape, with much of Haiti’s treasury, of “basketball head,” the nickname triggered by Jean-Claude’s large, round head and his blubbery physique.
The rationale quietly shared with the few foreign reporters who remained in the country was “he promised to never come back. Never.” And “Haiti will be better off without any Duvaliers.”
Jean-Claude was appointed as president at age 19 under a provision in the Haitian constitution that allowed his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier” to names baby doc the next president-for-life when the ruthless senior dictator, Francois, died in 1971.
The brutal oppression ordered inflicted on his subjects by Jean-Claude’s secret police, the pilfering of the treasury as tens of thousands starved and the anticipated international charges of human rights violations led to rare popular protests and prompted him to plan his departure, U.S. embassy officials said at the time.
As word of his escape spread, emotions in the capital exploded. In Cité Soleil, a seaside, tin-roofed, shantytown of open sewers, Warf Jeremie and other packed slums, the impoverished raced through the streets cursing the Duvaliers, who had killed and imprisoned so many. From other nearby towns people crammed into gaudy colored Tap-Taps, the tiny local buses, to join the bumper-to-bumper procession along Route 202 to join the celebration in Port-au-Prince.
Statutes and paintings of Francois Duvalier and Baby Doc (or “bebe doc in Creole) his son were demolished and gutted.
Papa Doc’s crypt in the city’s central cemetery – above-ground like all because of high water table – was destroyed bit-by-bit, by scores of sweating men and woman hammering away with hand tools, until the marble and granite shattered and the bones within were removed.
The Tonton Macoute, the Duvalier family’s 5,000-man militia, enforcers, collector of bribes and kickbacks, torturers, assassins and stiflers of all dissent, were prize targets if they could be found. Throughout the city pieces of their uniforms and their iconic, fear-inducing silver-mirrored sunglasses could be found tossed in alleys and trash cans.
Outside the cities, Haitians had an easier time finding the macoute, which in Haitian Creole means bogyman. In the countryside, Duvalier sanctioned goons acted like little emperors, raping and killing at will and often tormenting the same village for years.
Two days after Jean-Claude fled, on a road about 22 miles from Port-au-Prince, a taxi carrying a foreign journalist was surrounded by 40 or 50 people, laughing, cheering and screaming, banging on the vehicle, urging the American to follow them up the hill.
Ten or 15 feet below the top of the small knoll, a rivulet of red flowed downward through the dust. At the top, a frail-looking, gray-haired woman held a bloodied machete in one hand and the head of a man in the other.
A young man wearing a Tulane tee-shirt told the reporter not to “think harshly” of the woman and explained the man whose head she held – the local Tonton Macoute – had raped both her daughter and granddaughter and killed one of her grandsons.
The Tulane med student who had come home for a funeral, explained that his town – as well as most others – was terrorized day and night by Duvalier’s macoutes. And this was a time for pay back and prayers for a more peaceful life.
The young man said soon after taking office, Baby Doc renamed the Macoutes – many who were well paid or could keep what they stole – “National Security Volunteers” but the were still murderous thugs.
In the hilltop enclaves overlooking the capital, hunkered down within the high-walled, bougainvillea-covered estates, the wealthy in Pétionville and Juvenat, hidden from view behind their private guard forces and worried about their future without a Duvalier.
Many knew but ignored that Jean-Claude’s wife had spent millions from the country’s coffers – needed for schools, hospitals and roads – for jewels, clothing, drugs.
But some of their private chefs and others from some of the better hotels and the posh restaurants headed for two of Jean-Clude’s mansion high in the hills. The gates at both were open and unguarded and the cooks rushed to the fleeing president’s legendary larders. Pry bars were used to force open huge freezers and pantries. Chicken, lobster, shrimp, sausages, beef, pork, mushrooms, exotic vegetables and spices – all flown in from the U.S. or Europe – were tossed into at least 14 20-gallon cook pots set atop portable gas burners. Rice and beans boiled away in other pots. Chefs who normally competed for elite clientele worked side-by-side outside the mansion to concoct a stew of the like the slum-dwellers had never eaten.
At the gingerbread-gothic style Hotel Oloffson, the basis of Graham Green’s novel about Duvalierist Haiti, The Comedians – the bar was packed before the sun was high with reporters lined up to file their stories and photos. In this era long before cell phones and the internet, the only reliable communication was the teletypes and telephones either the embassies or the Oloffson.
Almost 200 international journalists had crowded Port-au-Prince for days waiting for the anticipated evacuation of the ruthless dictator. As days past and nothing happened their numbers dwindled and the reporters, photographers and TV crews chalked it up to yet another of Haiti’s never-ending coup predictions.
Now, almost a quarter-of-a-century later, Jean-Claude is back, at least for a few days, and the journalists are again rushing to the island.
I filed a longer version of this story today on AOL News.
Note: I was in Haiti when Jean-Claude fled working on another story at the time with Mary Pat Flaherty, a talented colleague from The Pittsburgh Press. We were in Haiti chasing a story on the Tonton Macoute-controlled illegal seizing and selling of human organs.