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Duvalier's death derails Haiti's hope to find closure

Baby Doc's passing closes chapter in country's history but thwarts Haiti from coming to terms with brutal legacy

Former Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier’s funeral will take place on Saturday, but the event is unlikely to provide closure to the many thousands traumatized during his 15-year reign of corruption and brutality. "Baby Doc," as he was known, died before he could be prosecuted on human rights charges — a fact that victims and experts said had cost Haiti an opportunity to reckon with its violent past. 

“It’s a shame that he died before his victims could bring him to trial," Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch who has helped prosecute human rights crimes in Haiti, told Al Jazeera. "His death really deprives Haiti and his victims of what could have been one of the most important trials in Haitian history."

The current government has decided that Duvalier will not receive a state-sponsored funeral. His lawyer confirmed to AFP on Thursday that instead the funeral will be organized by the ex-president's family in the chapel of his former Catholic high school in Port-au-Prince, devoid of the national days of mourning and lowering of flags to half-staff customary of a state affair.

The decision appears to be a reversal from last week, when current Haitian president Michel Martelly extended sympathies to the Duvalier family. On Monday, Martelly’s spokesman told AFP that Duvalier, who proclaimed himself “president for life,” should have a “national funeral” because “that’s what the protocol requires.”

But the strongman's legacy is bitterly contested in a country wracked by continuing social and political trauma, and a public outcry prompted the change. 

Martelly called Duvalier “an authentic son of Haiti” following his death Saturday in Port-au-Prince from a heart attack while eating cornflakes and milk. Martelly’s tweets made no mention of any human rights violations, something observers say may not be surprising given that Duvalier’s son is reportedly an adviser to Martelly’s government.

"Broadly speaking, Martelly has connections with people who had been part of the Duvalier regime," Haiti historian and Duke University professor Laurent Dubois told Al Jazeera.  

A painful legacy

Duvalier went into exile in France after leaving Haiti in 1986 following a popular uprising. In a surprise move, he returned 25 years later in 2011, when he was arrested on charges of corruption. But legal obstacles prevented the process from moving forward until February of this year, when a Haitian court ruled there was no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. While it is unclear whether Duvalier would have been jailed over the crimes, Brody said the case was progressing.

“There wasn’t a legal reason why the trial couldn’t have happened. There were enormous political difficulties as well as logistical difficulties, but thanks to the persistence of his victims, the case was moving forward,” he said.

Duvalier was 19 years old when he took power following the death of his father, Francois Duvalier. Though the younger Duvalier helped increase tourism and foreign aid to Haiti, activists say his administration — like his father’s — was fraught with abuse, diverting an estimated $500 million into his personal coffers.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), abuses committed under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime included the taking of hundreds of political prisoners who later died from maltreatment or were victims of extrajudicial killings.

The international community, particularly Western countries, have been accused of overlooking the human rights abuses of the Duvalier years largely because of threat of communism and “Cold War politics,” as Dubois put it, in an effort to keep Haiti from going the way of Cuba. 

Even after he returned in 2011 and efforts to put him on trial were ongoing, Brody said that Haiti was going at it alone. Unlike the U.N. calls for the prosecution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, former Liberian president Charles Taylor and others, there had been “a deafening silence from the international community” with respect to Duvalier’s case, according to Brody. 

HRW also accused Duvalier of torture and repression of the press through means of closing independent newspapers and radio stations and beating of journalists. All told, HRW says the father-son dictators ordered the killings of between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitian civilians, many of whom were killed by a paramilitary force known as the Tonton Macoutes. Others, meanwhile, fled the country, heading for the U.S. and Canada, where they settled in cities like New York, Montreal and Miami.

Reckoning with the past

But in a country where the median age is around 22 years old, many Haitians are too young to remember Duvalier’s rule. There are also Haitians, who despite what has happened in the past, are ready to put it behind them and focus on the present and the future.

But Dubois said there is a significant strand of the population that is “nostalgic for the Duvalier years” and the stability it provided them.

“If you didn't get yourself crossed up or in trouble with the Macoutes, you lived a peaceful life. The streets were clean, people could not litter as people litter now,” Port-au-Prince resident Ronel Labranche told Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher on Monday. 

But for victims and their families, Duvalier’s death doesn't make them yearn for the pastLugner Guiges said that his father was tortured under Duvalier's rule and the death of the former leader has brought him no sense of closure.  

Guiges said of Duvalier, “He died, I don't care [that] he died. He was supposed to be dying for so long, you know, I don't care about him.”

But even as Duvalier's death closes a chapter of Haitian history, some say for a country that has dealt with military coups, a U.S. intervention, natural disasters and political upheaval in the years since his and his father's reign, moving forward from their legacy requires coming to terms with the past.  

“So much of the present of Haiti is the result of these regimes that it’s difficult exactly how to progress if there’s not some serious reckoning with that past and what it’s done to the country,” Dubois said.

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