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Death of Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier prompts debate in Boston

Clennon L. King
Death of Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier prompts debate in Boston
Cambridge barber Pierre Joseph, right, listens as Georges Jean, left, voices support for a state funeral for Haiti’s late dictator.

The family of former ousted Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had to settle for a private mass.

But earlier last week, rumors of a state funeral fueled a raucous debate among Haitians at home and expatriates here in Boston.

At a broadcast studio, area restaurants and barbershops, Haitian nationals defended and attacked the idea of a state funeral, including the voices of some who suffered at the hand of the Duvalier regime.

“It’s a slap in the face for those seeking justice, and for the rule of law,” said Patrick Sylvain, 48, professor of Haitian language and culture at Brown University. “If you were to spend money and time to create a funeral for Baby Doc, it would undermine the whole notion of democracy.”

Duvalier died in Haiti Oct. 4. He had returned to the country in 2011, after fleeing a popular uprising there in 1986. The day after his return, he was arrested and ultimately charged with corruption and human rights violations. He pleaded not guilty to the charges during his trial, which began in Feb. 2013.

Sylvain blamed Duvalier’s regime for forcing his father and uncle into exile, and confiscating family property. He also lamented losing an older brother who worked as a detective in league with Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes, a civilian militia believed to be responsible for deaths, disappearances and detentions.

“Hundreds of thousands were killed by the father and the son,” said Sylvain.

But Cambridge barber Pierre Joseph, 54, felt state honors were due the dictator.

“He’s our ex-president. I think he deserves a state funeral,” said Joseph, who, at age 22, immigrated to Massachusetts, ranked third among states with the largest Haitian populations, behind Florida and New York.

“I don’t think he was a bad person. He just had bad people around him.”

On the heels of Duvalier’s fatal heart attack Oct. 4, Haiti president Michel Martelly paid homage on Twitter, calling him “a true son of Haiti.”

A spokesman for the president later said protocol dictated a state funeral for all former heads of state.

That triggered a week’s worth of public outcry by Haitians at home and abroad, including in Boston.

“A state funeral would have been an acknowledgment for bad behavior,” said human rights activist Josue Renaud, 57, as he sat in the studios of Radio Concorde 1580 AM above Mattapan Square, the epicenter of Boston’s Haitian community.

The radio show host recounted a haunting childhood memory where at age 12, a 24-year-old neighbor and family friend was taken away by the Macoutes in his hometown of Cap Haitien.

“Every day, we saw him walking by talking to us. And then one day, he disappeared,” said Renaud. “So, many men have disappeared.”

Community activist Jean-Claude Sanon, 55, who voiced support for a state funeral, said Boston was indeed full of Haitian families who suffered at the hands of the Duvalier regime.

“Yes, quite a few people have been put in jail for a long time and have disappeared,” said Sanon, adding he didn’t blame the local families offended by talk of a state funeral.

But Irlande Plancher of Hyde Park, 50, a colleague of Sanon’s, stressed since Duvalier was never convicted of any crime, he deserved his due.

“You have to understand he is the past president,” she said, “And you didn’t find him guilty of anything.”

Still, a private mass is the only thing planned as of Friday for the ex-president at his Catholic high school, according to Duvalier’s lawyer.

And while no official word has been issued by the Martelly administration or the Embassy of Haiti in Washington, DC, the Haitian diplomatic community in Boston did not mince words Thursday.

Gladys Joseph of Boston’s Consulate General of Haiti on Copley Square said by phone, “No state funeral will be planned.”

Duvalier became ‘president for life’ upon the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, at age 19 in 1971. He fled to France in 1986 after years of alleged corruption and abuse that triggered public uprising. Then, in January 2011, he returned to Haiti on the heels of the Earthquake, ultimately facing criminal charges that included crimes against humanity.

I don’t care what he did before,” said state funeral supporter Jean Gilles, as he walked along Blue Hill Avenue. “He’s not in the jail and they didn’t arrest him.”

Retiree Georges Jean, 69, made no secret he was a huge fan of Jean-Claude Duvalier as he sat in Haitian-owned Isaac’s Barber Shop on Cambridge Avenue in Cambridge.

“That’s my guy. That’s my guy,” he repeated in Haitian Creole, referring to the late president. “He did a good job for the country. There was mutual respect and everything was going well.”

But some Haitians living in the Greater Boston area feared speaking on the subject, pro or con, despite living more than 1,500 miles from Haiti’s shores.

Somerville restaurant patron Joel Esperiance, 64, politely declined comment.

“My appearance on television may show up in Haiti,” he said, at Highland Creole Cuisine, speaking in Creole. “I am afraid people will call my family and they will be threatened.”

Such intimidation is the legacy of the Duvalier regime, said Sylvain.

Equally crippling was the failure of young Haitians to know their history.

“You have generations of Haitians over the last 25 years, who do not know the hundreds of thousands who were killed by the father and the son.”

As a result, this demographic sees no harm in planning a state funeral.

Cambridge resident Renaud Vincent, 39, counted himself among those young people.

“I was pretty little when he was in power,” he said. “But grownups said, during Duvalier’s rule, Haiti was better, that there was a lot to eat and security was much better.”

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