When I read about the recent death of former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, I was transported back nearly four decades to my first and longest field trip to that beleaguered country. What stood out in my memory was the fact that I helped to promote a fledgling Haitian rock band inspired by the words of the young ruler. This recollection stood in contrast to the usual portrait of a maligned leader, and gave me pause to reflect on the man and my nuanced image of him.
Jean-Claude was the youngest head of state in modern times. And he was a ruthless dictator. Only 19 when his father, “Papa Doc” Francois Duvalier, died suddenly in 1971, he inherited a legacy infamous for its repression and brutality. However, hope abounded that the new leader would usher Haiti into a more progressive era of political and economic reform. Young people were particularly attracted to the new president, who in earlier years was often seen riding his motorcycle through the streets of Port-au-Prince. It took a while before people became fully disillusioned, but in the early days of Duvalier’s leadership there was heart-felt optimism in many quarters.
My impresario role began with the fact that I owned a tape recorder and was widely known to carry it around the Grande Anse region. At the time I was doing anthropological fieldwork for my dissertation in a remote mountain village, six years after Jean-Claude took the helm. My living situation was strained; I rented a room in a missionary convent and shared meals with three French Canadian nuns.
Festivities in Jeremie, the principal city of the Grand Anse, provided welcome relief from my somewhat depressing routine of questioning mothers about sick children. And what a big event the next one was going to be! Jean-Claude Duvalier, President for Life, was going to visit Jeremie, a historic first for a Haitian ruler. The fanfare, pomp and circumstance was bound to be over the top. There was a painful undercurrent to this visit, however, as local memories were still raw over the 1964 execution of rebellious merchants and leaders, along with their families, by Jean-Claude’s father.
As it turned out, I happened to be in Jeremie at the time of the visit after returning from Port-au-Prince, where I picked up a visiting friend at the airport. Sarah was a fellow graduate student who had come for a short stay to work on a separate study, and to give me moral support. Still dazed from initial culture shock, she was thrust into the turbulence of a VIP spectacle. A sense of the excitement surrounding Duvalier’s visit was captured in my journal:
Feb. 24, 1978 – The townspeople were wild with excitement. Sarah and I were staying at the hotel and had planned to head up to [the village] in early morning, but when we heard the news that the president was coming we decided to stay. He arrived around 10:00am, walking down the street with his mother and sister, both very attractive. Actually he flew over [from the capital city] in his private plane along with several reconnaissance helicopters and a barge carrying an assortment of vehicles. There were Haitian flags draped across all the downtown buildings, the guards were marching about in formation. All the important people were dressed up in their finest; the hospital patients were scrubbed and nestled between brand new, crispy white sheets. When the presidential entourage turned the corner of the cathedral, Sarah and I were standing about three bodies away from the front line, and I wormed my way through to the front in order to take some pictures. I got several good shots in a row and then the crowd swept me along and all I could do was follow the flow, and fortunately I stayed near the president and the soldiers guarding him so that I got to snap some more action shots of Jean-Claude, Simone and Denise. I felt like a journalist swept up in some intense mob scene.
At the church steps the guards attempted to stop the people from going inside the already-filled cathedral but I slinked through. Inside the religious brass had assembled for a high-powered benediction which was drowned out by the cheering and fanfare of the crowd perched atop pews and raised platforms. On the way out I also managed to be standing along the first row sidelines that then closed in on the family standing on the steps. I was just a few feet away and was thrilled to see them so close. Jean-Claude glanced at me a few times. I was the only white face in the immediate crowd. Then the family began walking around the square followed by a dense throng of fans holding onto hips and waists like the crowds do for Carnival. We thought the parade would pass down the main street so we ran back to the hotel to watch from the balcony. But they didn’t come. The president went up to the 2nd floor porch of the military headquarters to give a speech. We got in on the end of it. The crowd cheered each great promise such as a new road, schools, technical assistance, erosion control, etc. So many promises. Mama Simone was smiling regally at his right side, and next to her was sister Denise. Then they took off in a motorcade to Marfranc.
Meanwhile the radio station replayed the speech over and over. Sarah and I sat on the hotel porch and worked on our [study]. We really got into it and came up with some great ideas. About 3:30 we heard some fast-moving traffic and a few cheers, looked over the railing to see the presidential cars screeching down the main street, the occupants throwing out handfuls of 5-gourd, 1-gourd and silver money, as the street people scrambled and fought for the money. It was a rather pathetic sight, caused by a disgusting elitist gesture on the part of power holders who exploit the people constantly.
From the beginning of my work in Haiti, I had been intrigued by the young ruler. Born three months apart in 1951, we were both 26 when these events took place. He had a chubby, boyish face and a gentle demeanor that couldn’t have contrasted more with his father Francois’ menacing gaze. He had not yet married Michelle Bennett in a lavish ceremony. Jean-Claude was at the peak of his popularity, and support for “Jean-Claudism,” his reform agenda, was at an all-time high. His proposals were getting a positive response, and the tide of corruption and brutality seemed to be abating. So when I heard about a local rock band penning songs in praise of the little despot, my ears perked up.
The band was named Lionso (Little Lion). Made up of four young men from the village, the earnest musicians played three guitars and a drum set. So inspired were they by the promises of their leader for progress in the Grand Anse, about a month after his visit they decided to change the name of the band to “Organe du Jean-Claudisme,”or the Organ (ambassador) of Jean-Claudism. Even the nuns got a chuckle from the double entendre of the name. Word on the street was the band would be making its debut at a dance in Carrefour-Prince, so naturally I planned to go, backpack loaded with trusty cassette tapes. My next journal entry recorded my thoughts on the band:
Mar. 23, 1978 – Last night I recorded [the band’s] two best songs and these will be broadcast over Radio Grande Anse in Jeremie on Sunday to publicize the band and the dance. One of their songs is titled “Progrès du Jean-Claudisme,” in which they give their interpretation of how the president’s proposals for the Grande Anse region will be realized. This patriotism reflects the widespread popularity of the young president in this area, bolstered by his recent visit, especially among the youth.
My recordings of the songs were indeed broadcast on the radio, a rather long program since “Progrès de Jean-Claudisme” lasted over 10 minutes. The local villagers were thrilled to hear “their boys” playing on the radio for everyone to hear. And I was delighted to have used one of my few possessions to enable this coveted publicity (not to mention supporting indigenous rock music).
However, my promoter role did not come without discomfort, for after all, the music I recorded praised the work of a known torturer. Sure, he had promised to build nice roads, schools and clinics, but he also stole a fortune from his people. Moreover, his henchmen continued to control the countryside with an iron fist, and human rights abuses were rampant.
A few weeks after my arrival in the village, the local French pastor pulled me aside to warn me against saying anything controversial in my correspondence. A chill went up my spine thinking about what I might already have said that could offend “the regime.” In my diary I wrote:
Oct. 19, 1977 – This afternoon Père B. called me over to talk about the delicate nature of my research, advising me to be very discreet about what I write in my notes. He said my mail will most probably be read before it leaves the country so to be careful not to say anything controversial. He suggested not naming informants and not even mentioning [the village]. That would be rather difficult considering the kind of field notes I take. But I am sufficiently paranoid that I will not discuss anything even quasi-political. The only aspect I am a little anxious about is discussing things pertaining to voodoo. I can’t see how I can avoid this since it’s intrinsic to my research. Already I am sufficiently well-known in the area that some letters addressed only to Jeremie were forwarded here. In other words the people at the post office know me and where I am staying although I have never gone there personally to tell them what to do. I have a disquieting feeling I may run into trouble in this regard.
I did have a brush-up with a young, handsome tonton macoute who lived nearby. Everyone knew his family and he was a reputable guy, though one to be reckoned with. My freewheeling comings and goings must have seemed a bit audacious to him, and we had one tense conversation about my work, but living with the nuns, who were widely respected and feared, gave me cover.
Other than that minor skirmish, I managed to avoid getting into trouble, so I never had to use my emergency plane ticket with passport safely tucked into the waterproof pouch I wore under my clothes at all times. Unless you count the angry slur yelled at me at 2am on the docks of Port-au-Prince, after a late arrival of the passenger boat from Jeremie. A lone, white, young woman, walking on the dimly lit wharf at that hour could only be – no, not a prostitute – but a despicable “Lesbienne”! The aspersion startled me, but amazingly I was not afraid. In that era, one could walk the streets of Port-au-Prince at night and still feel safe. That is why, after Duvalier was overthrown in 1986 and the country fell into chaos, some lamented the good old days when Haiti was more peaceful and less dangerous (unless, of course, you opposed the ruling party).
My fieldwork ended without political incident, and I don’t recall if Organe du Jean-Claudisme enjoyed further radio time. I continued to do research and consulting projects in Haiti over the next 30 years. Both Jean-Claude and I married our spouses in 1980 and had two children. Shortly after completing my third project in Haiti, his regime collapsed in a popular uprising that ousted the thirty-five year old president in 1986. I clipped every newspaper article I could find on the coup, and I still keep them in a storage box. It felt like this hugely momentous turning point in Haitian history and I wanted to preserve every detail. I was appalled when France gave Duvalier temporary asylum, which eventually became permanent.
What ensued were years of instability, a succession of authoritarian regimes, and constant political unrest. For my work, the repercussions were mainly logistical. The U.S-imposed embargoes made access to Haiti problematic. No commercial American airlines serviced the capital. On some trips I had to fly on tiny planes owned by missionary groups, stopping to refuel in the Bahamas. Such inconveniences, of course, were nothing compared to the deprivations and suffering endured by the Haitian people under the embargoes of the 1990s.
Field trips were always tense and fraught with anxiety. When things got particularly dangerous, there were armed guards sitting in the jeep that picked me up at the airport. It was not uncommon to hear about someone you worked with being murdered. I was always relieved to get home safely.
Over the years I occasionally heard stories about Jean-Claude and his extravagant lifestyle on the French Riviera, his divorce from Michelle (a few years after mine), the charges against him at home. I wondered what his life was like so far away from his beloved Haiti. It came as no surprise to me when he returned in 2011, his health failing, and was later acquitted of crimes during his administration.
When I read of Duvalier’s death on Oct. 4, 2014, I was momentarily taken aback. But he’s so young, I thought. We are the same age. And then, I thought, what a stress life must have been for him. From teenage head of state to deposed dictator, living in exile, returning a sick man, wanting to spend his last days in Haiti. His obituaries recounted the arc of his career much as I had observed it from the distant niche of the long-term anthropologist. I remembered the exuberant enthusiasm of Lionso, as they played their hearts out in hopes of a new beginning for their troubled homeland. I thought of people being shot in a field at night. I thought of a baby-faced dictator who, at least for a time, inspired the hopes and dreams of a generation. And I saw my own mortality one day, having lived with “Haiti” in the background for much of it.
Read more about the Duvaliers in Gladys Mayard’s Commentary.