Assessing Baby Doc's Return To Haiti

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier returned home Sunday for the first time since he was forced to flee in Haiti in 1986. Writer Amy Wilentz was in Port-au-Prince when Duvalier fled the nation. She discusses what his return means.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Back in 1986 when Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced to flee Haiti, the writer Amy Wilentz was there in Port-au-Prince, and her reporting in the tumultuous years that followed turned into a book titled "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier."

Amy Wilentz has just returned from a trip to Haiti. She joins us from Los Angeles.

And, Amy, what was your reaction when you heard that Baby Doc was back?

Ms. AMY WILENTZ (Author, "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier"): Well, it's like a recurring nightmare for me. I mean, I thought that was the one thing we could be sure of - was that he was gone. Although there were always hints throughout the years that he wanted to come back to Haiti, both because he loves his country - I'm sure, as so many of us do - and because he was a political figure. But I was really shocked, and I thought, oh, this is not the right moment. Haven't we had enough earthquakes without having him return?

BLOCK: Take me back to 1986 and those days leading up to the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier. What was going on?

Ms. WILENTZ: Well, there was unrest in the streets. His human rights abuse record is really not a pretty one. This is not a man who should be whitewashed. He was better than his father, who was a really bloody dictator, but he was not a decent leader for any country, and there was a lot of unrest in the streets.

His police force, the Tonton Macoutes, were particularly brutal as they realized their regime was coming to an end. And then, the international community got together along with the Haitian civil society and finally said, okay, this is enough. You have to go.

And then, he left on a U.S. cargo plane driving his BMW with his wife and all his trunks right into the plane, and they went to France.

BLOCK: It's really quite something to think about, that he was just 19 years old when he became president for life, when his father, Papa Doc, died...

Ms. WILENTZ: That's right.

BLOCK: ...and was still a very young man when he left the country the first time.

Ms. WILENTZ: Right. I think he was about 35 when he left, and he was basically knighted by his father. His father put his hand on Jean-Claude's shoulder and said, you know, he will follow me. So he took the reins of what was a fairly pharaonic dictatorship, and he was too young for it. And so his father's advisers really ran him as if he were a dauphin in France, you know?

BLOCK: You described him as less brutal, perhaps, than his father. Why don't you talk about the level of brutality and corruption during his time in Haiti?

Ms. WILENTZ: His father was like a very vivid nightmare dictator, you know, very bloody, very vicious and violent, and felt that if he showed a certain level of violence, you could then rule without question. Baby Doc came into power at a different time. In the world's history, he couldn't really do that kind of thing, so it was a little more temperate, yet he imprisoned people who disagreed with him. He brooked also no political dissent. There was no freedom of the press. His elections were utterly false.

BLOCK: Well, how do you explain that Baby Doc has been allowed back into Haiti now?

Ms. WILENTZ: It's hard to explain. I think it may have taken some people by surprise. And then once it was a fact on the ground, I think it was a little bit difficult to understand what to do immediately.

But I think that he stepped into a political vacuum where everybody is so freaked out anyway by the earthquake and the cholera epidemic and then the elections that are sort of semi-failed elections that they're not really thinking about him, and they weren't thinking about him. And then suddenly, there he is.

BLOCK: There would be, Amy, a whole generation of Haitians now with no memory of the Duvalier regime, right?

Ms. WILENTZ: That's right. I would say 35 years old and younger, which is, I think, more than 50 percent of the Haitian population, would have very little idea of who he is or what he really represents. Their parents may have told them or not, and they only know the upheaval of the sort of trudge to democracy that Haiti has been on since Duvalier left. So maybe in some way, he looks reassuring or fatherly to them. He certainly didn't look that way when he left Haiti.

BLOCK: I've been talking with writer Amy Wilentz, author of the book "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier."

Amy, thank you very much.

Ms. WILENTZ: Thanks so much, Melissa.

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