© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Root: Hunting Down Baby Doc

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier arrives at the courthouse with a police escort in Port-au-Prince. After 25 years in exile, Baby Doc returned to Haiti last week.
Hector Retamal
AFP/Getty Images
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier arrives at the courthouse with a police escort in Port-au-Prince. After 25 years in exile, Baby Doc returned to Haiti last week.

Marjorie Valbrun is a Haitian-American journalist and a frequent contributor toThe Root .

When I met Jean-Claude Duvalier in 2003, it was the culmination of a long-held personal and professional goal. I had spent years trying to interview him, obsessed with wanting to understand and deconstruct the mythology that surrounded him and his infamous father and made it possible for them to rule Haiti for nearly three decades in a milieu of unmitigated fear.

Until our meeting, Duvalier had been adeptly elusive. I reached out to his friends, called on political supporters and other intermediaries, and even wrote pleading letters to his lawyers. Duvalier was having none of it. He wanted nothing to do with me or any other reporter. The fact that I was Haitian American didn't help.

He was widely vilified by the majority of Haitians in Haiti and the United States, and American reporters had not been kind in their coverage of him. His undemocratic governing style, his abuse of human rights and press freedoms, and his own and his then-wife's profligate spending habits and looting of the Haitian treasury had not exactly made him a media darling. To him, talking to me risked doubly negative press coverage.

During his presidency, which ended in 1986, and in the early years of his exile, Duvalier was the subject of journalistic scrutiny reserved for the most notorious of dictators. This was due in part to his being named president a vie — president for life — at the tender age of 19 and his continuation of the governing practices (with the guidance of his mother and his late father's political cronies) perfected by his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier: politically motivated killings, forced exiles, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trials, jailhouse tortures, disappearances and other atrocities.

Together, father and son were labeled among the Western Hemisphere's most brutal 20th-century dictators, a hard-earned reputation that was entirely deserved. Their role in modern Haitian history is unparalleled. As a little girl in Haiti, and later in the U.S., I grew up hearing frightening stories about the Duvaliers and learning, above all, to fear them.

His timing could not have been worse. He arrived just when earthquake-weary Haitians were trying to refocus the international community's attention on rebuilding their battered nation. Now his arrival has turned the media's attention to his political fate in Haiti. Most Haitians believed that Duvalierism was long behind them, and now they find that the past is very much present.

Meeting Up With an Exile in Paris

I could have never imagined such developments when Duvalier finally agreed to meet me in 2003 after one of his friends called him in Paris and put us on the phone. By then I was a national correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, and I was at the friend's home in Queens, N.Y.

I would later learn that he agreed to the interview because he was considering a return to Haiti and a re-entry into politics. He believed that the time was right and that the Journal was a good forum to make the case for his return. He relished the opportunity to reach a large audience in an influential American newspaper, one whose editorial pages had criticized the man who was then running Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

A longtime political enemy of Duvalier's, Aristide was forced into exile almost exactly a year after I met with Duvalier. Duvalier made no secret of the fact that he despised Aristide. Having spent some time with Aristide during his presidency, I knew that the feeling was mutual.

Weeks later, I found myself in Paris having coffee with Duvalier and his companion, Veronique Roy, at a lounge in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel on the Champs-Élysées. He was soft-spoken and exceedingly cordial, and he made a point of telling me how proud he was to see a young Haitian woman working at such a respected American newspaper. It was all very surreal. I was nervous and, surprisingly, scared. The stories that I had heard about him as a child were in the back of my mind. Sweat poured down my back.

I struggled with the question of how to address him. People who greeted him in the lobby called him monsieur le president, but given that he was never elected president, that title didn't sit right with me. I settled for "Mr. Duvalier."

I had prepared a long list of questions, but I decided to hold off during that first meeting and let Duvalier and Roy get comfortable with me. Roy took the lead and directed the conversation. During a two-week period of long, recorded interviews over breakfast, lunch or dinner, I got to know le fils("the son"), as Haitian immigrants living in Paris reverentially referred to him. He introduced me to friends and political supporters, took me to homey Haitian restaurants in modest immigrant neighborhoods, told me stories about his childhood and reminisced nostalgically about his father.

A Proud Son and Father

He said that he was heartbroken when his father told him he was dying, and that he initially refused to succeed Papa Doc as president. "I told my father I didn't want to be president," he said, smiling from the memory. "I told him I didn't agree with that idea." But his father persisted, and eventually Jean-Claude agreed. "He had to do a lot of arguing to convince me," he said.

Duvalier spoke proudly and lovingly of his two young adult children but refused to introduce them to me. He talked about his divorce from his controversial ex-wife, Michele Bennett — reviled in Haiti and blamed by many for precipitating Jean-Claude's downfall — but did not go into details. He did note, however, that they were not on speaking terms. (Bennett made it abundantly clear through her lawyers that she would not be granting me any interviews. She also noted that she found my written questions about the funds that she and her family members illegally appropriated from the Haitian treasury and hid in various secret bank accounts "aggressive and rude.")

He also spoke sadly about his mother, who died in exile in Paris. My story in the Journal would recount a sad and humiliating episode when he was living with her in a cheap hotel, and they were arrested because he could not pay the bill. It was just one of many examples in an article that chronicled how far his fortunes had fallen. The millions that the Haitian, American and French governments say that Duvalier and his former wife stole were gone, squandered on an extravagant lifestyle. Now that the funds were depleted, there were no means to replenish them.

Baby Doc was broke and depending on the largesse of friends. His high-living ways were over, and his large entourage of sycophantic friends was gone. His newer friends whom I met in Paris were ordinary working folks, Haitians he would not likely have befriended in Haiti, where he lived like a king.

Duvalier gave me impromptu Haitian-history lessons and even told me a few Haitian jokes. Roy rarely left his side and was an integral part of almost all our conversations. She suggested people I should talk to and those to avoid; those whose opinions about Duvalier mattered and those whose views should be dismissed. They tried very much to influence my reporting in an effort to control the story I would write.

Roy was a petite but forceful presence and maintained an air of mystery. She told me that she was part French and part Italian and had never lived in Haiti. Yet she spoke Creole better than I — along with many of my Haitian-American friends who were born in Haiti — did. Several sources say that she is, in fact, Haitian. She said she gained her expert Creole skills by practicing with Jean-Claude.

She also had an impressive knowledge of Haitian history, which she said came from reading books about Haiti, including those written by François Duvalier. She told me that she met Baby Doc at a party in 1990. His friends say she had been his secretary in Paris. When I met them, they were not married, and I'm unsure of their status today. Recent news stories have variously described her as either his wife or his companion.

The three of us shared an easy rapport and spoke mostly in Haitian Creole. Duvalier's English was as limited as my French; Creole was a comfortable middle ground.

In the course of our daily meetings, Duvalier and I developed a fast familiarity with each other. Within days he nicknamed me "Ti Landan," a Creole term for a chatty and nosy little person. We had hours-long discussions that sometimes stretched late into the evenings, during which I asked him painfully personal questions and he responded with defensive denials and disingenuous explanations.

You can read the rest of Marjorie Valbrun's article at The Root.

Copyright 2020 The Root. To see more, visit .

Marjorie Valbrun