Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s return to Haiti last Sunday — after 25 years in exile — has prompted strong reactions from Boston’s Haitian community and their elected leaders. Many have called for his arrest and prosecution for the numerous crimes committed and millions in public funds stolen under his regime from 1971-1986.
Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was not available to comment today personally, but offered comment through a spokesman.
“The Senator’s following the situation very closely and is deeply concerned that Duvalier’s return will aggravate the already-serious tensions, particularly at the moment that the electoral council reportedly has rejected the OAS’s proposed solution to the impasse over who will be in the runoff,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Kerry’s office. “The situation is fluid and dangerous, and the Senator is working hard to support the Administration’s efforts to promote a fair political resolution and help Haiti get back to the task of national rebuilding.”
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-California) issued a statement today calling for Duvalier’s prosecution.
“The Duvalier dictatorship was absolutely brutal, and there is extensive documentation of the human rights violations suffered by the Haitian people during his reign,” Waters said. “I was pleased to hear that the authorities had taken him into custody, and I urge that he be tried for his crimes.”
The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a human rights group, was one of the first to respond to Duvalier’s return, calling for an “immediate issuance and execution of an arrest warrant.”
State Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American who represents Massachusetts’ 12th Suffolk District, called the charges against Duvalier “severe’ and said “he should be ready to face the consequences.”
“It’s really unfortunate, given all the challenges Haiti currently faces, that he’s come back. I think it's selfish for him to come at this time,” Forry said. “The Haitian government and its partners — the US, the international community— cannot be sidetracked by his return from the great needs facing the Haitian people. We need to focus on the 1.5 million homeless survivors, the spread of cholera that needs to be contained, and free and fair elections.”
Forry said that the Haitian government “needs to deal with him – but it needs to happen simultaneously. We should deal with this, but remain focused on the major challenges.”
Alix Cantave, the Associate Director of the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, said he was surprised by Duvalier’s return.
“Haiti has a number of unfinished businesses that have made it hard for the country to move forward. Dealing with Duvalier is one of them. This could be an opportunity to put something to closure,” Cantave said. “He should have been put on trial 25 years ago. I don’t think anyone can deny the crimes committed under his regime. It’s important to remember it was a whole regime – there were many people involved in those crimes. However, the justice system is not functioning.”
“Now, if they let him go, what does that mean? A man who should be put to trial for crimes against humanity would be set free. And where would he go? Haiti has to deal with this and so does France and the United States. If he’s allowed to get back on a plane – to leave – it would be an insult to people murdered under his regime,” Cantave said.
Marjorie Salvodon, an Associate Professor of French at Suffolk University and Roxbury resident was pleased with Duvalier’s detention on Tuesday, but frustrated by what followed.
“ I am concerned that he was released after just a few hours of questioning,” Salvodon said. “At this historical juncture, it is especially difficult to watch the spectacle of Duvalier's return to the country. Haiti needs healing not grandstanding, self-interested gestures from one of its former dictators. The Haitian people deserve sound leadership on a range of serious issues, including the second round of presidential elections and the rebuilding effort. The memory of our ancestors invokes us to pursue justice for Haiti and Haitians.”
Nancy Rousseau, a Mattapan resident who co-organized one of the largest relief efforts for Haiti last January, was similarly concerned that Duvalier’s spectacle would distract officials from more immediate needs in the country.
“It’s very concerning to me that Haiti might not be able to do anything substantive with him [Duvalier], given how fragile and flawed the justice system is. Also, it will be interesting to observe how this situation plays out, especially now, with so many young people who did not live through his regime. I hope and pray that the people have not forgotten what Duvalier put that country through.”
Elie St. Brice, a social worker who lives in Boston resident, said he had mixed feelings about Duvalier’s return.
“My feelings might not sit well with many, but I think there was order when he governed, even though it was through fear. There’s no order in Haiti now - people are acting crazy,” St. Brice said. “[However,] I do think he should be arrested. I’m for justice and those who’ve committed crimes to be brought to justice through the legal system. I don’t think his return means anything [though]. In terms of the politics, what’s already set in motion will play out.” St. Brice believes that larger powers were behind Duvalier’s return. “I don’t think he brought himself to Haiti – he was brought there for a reason.”
Adler Eliacin, the newly elected treasurer of the NAACP Boston Branch and a Roxbury resident, said he is “more concerned to know of the individuals that arranged his sudden appearance to Haiti and its purpose.”
“Jean-Claude “Baby Doc’’ Duvalier should not be allowed to be involved and any type of political activities or be allowed to show support to any of the current political candidates,” Eliacin said. “I'm concerned that his voice can further complicate the efforts to push for political succession and begin the economic rebuilding of Haiti.”
Stephanie Pierre, a student at Tufts University, wonders exactly what Duvalier’s return will mean to a new generation of Haitians. “For my generation, many born long after Duvalier's departure from Haiti, and those who were very young during the Duvalier's reign, this has presented a learning moment and encouraged some assessment of the impact and significance of his rule, a difficult task of memory and history,” Pierre said. “Moreover, I think reassessing the Haitian course of history and the meaning of this apparent full circle perhaps will be a part of "’building back better.’”
Pierre hopes that Haiti “can use Duvalier's return as an opportunity to heal past wounds and reflect over a long tradition of governance. Now, I hope there will be an interview of Duvalier, where he will answer the many still unanswered questions about aspects of his rule, in hindsight, their impact, and his intentions.”
Carline Desire, who runs the Dorchester-based Association of Haitian Women in Boston (AFAB), worries that Duvalier’s return is part of a “bigger” scheme to destabilize the country.
“It’s shocking – in the way he returned – at the time he returned,” Desire said. “Why did Preval give him the authority to return? We need to have deeper reflections about this. This is a major distraction. You see, we’re not talking about the elections – we’re talking about Duvalier. And why did he return knowing that he’d probably be arrested?”
One Mattapan resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said Duvalier’s sudden appearance and potential prosecution may be overblown.
“As surprising as his return is, he is a non-entity, a non-issue. He’s not a charismatic leader who can mobilize [people],” he said. “As I look at his pictures, he appears to be sick. And if he’s returning to spend his last days in his homeland - even in shame - then that’s more honorable than dying in exile.”