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Can Haiti keep alive memories of 'Baby Doc's' brutal dictatorship? (+video)

Victims and survivors of dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier say they fear the truth behind his violent reign are being forgotten in Haiti, where half the population wasn't even born by the time he was forced into exile.

Bobby Duval is not mourning Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former Haitian dictator who died of a heart attack last Saturday. Mr. Duval’s more inclined to grieve for the more than 180 people he says he saw perish during his eight months at Fort Dimanche – a notorious prison under the Duvalier dictatorship.

When Mr. Duvalier returned from exile in France three years ago, Duval testified against him, sharing memories of the 13-by-14 foot cell, crammed with dozens of naked men who were weak from disease, abuse, and near-starvation. Duval’s is among countless repugnant stories of a regime responsible for thousands of deaths, as well as torture, rape, and arbitrary incarceration in the 1970s and 1980s. 

But for Duval and other victims, what’s even worse than remembering these atrocities is seeing the country forget.

When Duvalier, the “president for life,” was exiled in 1986, people celebrated on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Then in 2011, crowds gathered at the airport to warmly greet his return. For Duval, it was even more jolting to find Duvalier dining at Haiti’s top restaurants and being invited to official functions by President Michel Martelly’s request.

After Duvalier’s death was announced on Saturday, President Martelly eulogized the former dictator via Twitter as “a true son of Haiti.”

Baby Doc wasn’t Haiti’s first violent dictator. Together, he and his father, Francois, ruled the Caribbean nation and killed an estimated 60,000 people between 1957 and 1986. But the majority of Haitians weren’t even born by the time Duvalier was forced into exile, and few are taught about the atrocities committed under the tag-team strongmen. As historic memory erodes, victims and survivors hope Duvalier’s death can make waves in how the nation remembers him.

“I’m very concerned [about people forgetting],” Duval says, “because I don’t think society as a whole has really gone through fundamental changes.”

'Duty of memory'

At the time of Duvalier’s death, two trials against him were in the works – one on charges of corruption, and another on human rights violations. Many hope the latter will continue against Duvalier’s collaborators, though victims like Duval are skeptical.

Activists and survivors are trying to ensure the realities of the Duvalier dictatorship are preserved in public memory. The first step was to protest a possible state funeral honoring Baby Doc.

Marie-Marguerite Clerié co-founded the victim’s group Devoir du Mémoire (Duty of Memory) last year in an effort to commemorate the deaths of Haitians under the Duvalier regime. She hopes their work can “prevent the same tyranny from happening again,” Ms. Clerié says.

Clerié was eight years old in 1963 when her father disappeared, last seen thrown in the trunk of a car by tonton macoutes, Duvalierist goons. She says when she heard of Jean-Claude’s death she was “submerged in emotion, all the human emotions… [and] a lot of lingering anger at the very idea of his being honored at a national funeral.”

Her group published an open letter in the newspaper of record Le Nouvelliste, protesting a state funeral. It was the most viewed page on the newspaper’s website Thursday morning. The Miami Herald reports that the Martelly administration has agreed not to hold a state funeral.

Still, a fear that Haiti’s history could be rewritten predates Duvalier’s death. The Devoir du Mémoire letter refers to “a campaign to trivialize” Duvalierist crimes since 2011, the year Martelly, a former pop singer, took power, and when his administration allowed Duvalier’s return.

Survivors say the current administration is made up of a number of former Duvalier collaborators, as well. “The Duvalierists are well positioned to erase the memory,” Clerié says.

For younger generations, 'everything is rumor'

What’s more, nearly 56 percent of Haitians are under the age of 25, which mean most weren’t even born when the Duvalier dictatorship ended in 1986. Official textbooks make little reference to the Duvaliers, and few citizens learn about this dark period in Haiti’s history.

In fact, some youth know the Jean-Claude Duvalier years as a time of order with less extreme poverty, and growth in manufacturing, construction, and tourism.

Educator Garry Délice, who was in school while Baby Doc was in power, remembers learning only good things about the elder Duvalier, and nothing about the son. Even after Baby Doc was flown into exile, Mr. Délice says, teachers feared giving lessons on the former dictators.

Today, that fear has largely dissipated, but Haitian history lessons still focus largely on national heroes and the founding fathers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

“It’s not normal that students don’t know the history [of the Duvaliers],” he says. “They’re not critical. Everything is rumor. There are people who say Duvalier was very good, and when Jean-Claude returned to Haiti it was a lot of young people who greeted him.”

Jean-Claude Duval (no relation to Bobby) was still in his mother’s womb when his father was jailed in Fort Dimanche. His dad was kept there for four years, and, unlike Bobby, he never made it out. “It was a regime of terror I grew up in,” Mr. Duval says. “I was always afraid.”

Duval hopes to write a book about his family, which was also targeted under Francois Duvalier. “The thing I can do [to make a difference] is to teach people, because you have young people who don’t know what happened, who see Duvalier as just a president.”

Editor's note: A line in the story was changed to clarify the status of Duvalier's legal proceedings.

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