In February of 2013, I stood in a sweaty, overcrowded Port-au-Prince courtroom and watched as Jean-Claude Duvalier answered questions about hundreds of his political opponents being arrested, imprisoned, and killed during his tenure as Haiti’s “President for Life.”
Many of Duvalier’s rivals were held in the notorious three prisons known collectively as the “Triangle of Death”—Casernes Dessalines, Fort Dimanche, and the National Penitentiary. One political prisoner held in the Casernes Dessalines recalls being placed in a cell underneath the grounds of the National Palace, where Duvalier lived. The prisoner was led to an area so dark he could not see, but a guard’s torchlight revealed the man was locked in a room amid the skeletons of former prisoners.
At the court hearing I attended, Duvalier ducked responsibility, saying that the killing and oppression was done without his knowledge.
Then he walked out of that courtroom a free man, which is how he died earlier this month, at age 63. Court rulings were still pending at his death, but the process was moving at a glacial pace and several of the interim decisions had been in Duvalier’s favor. Meanwhile, Duvalier met with Haitian and international political leaders, was acknowledged on the dais at public events, and was often spotted dining at expensive restaurants.
In researching a book on the struggle for human rights in Haiti, I spoke with Human Rights Watch’s Reed Brody about the Duvalier situation. “Can you imagine any other country where a former dictator accused of political murders and leaving people to rot and die in prison is allowed to just walk back into his country and remain free?” Brody asked. But he also said that the Haitian government did not bear sole responsibility for seeing that justice is done. “Part of this is the fault of the international community. Where is the outrage we would have if the brutal leaders of Iraq or Serbia were walking around free? We would not allow this anywhere else.”
But it was allowed to happen in Haiti, largely because of the studied indifference of the U.S. government. Shortly after Duvalier’s surprising 2011 return to Haiti from exile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff made it clear that any prosecution was a matter solely for the Haitian government to handle.
The U.S. taking a hands-off approach to another country’s human rights issues would be more defensible if our hands were not so bloodied by the tragedy in question. For decades, the U.S. provided money, weapons, and troops to sustain the Duvalier regime in Haiti, even after human rights abuses were well known. Jean-Claude Duvalier’s father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, even used USAID trucks to carry supporters to his political rallies. More recently, Secretary Clinton successfully pushed the candidacy of current Haitian president Michel Martelly, who opposed the prosecution of Jean-Claude Duvalier and welcomed Duvalier’s son into his administration.
The determined Duvalier victims and tireless human rights advocates won a key victory in the prosecution last February, when the Haitian Court of Appeals ruled that Duvalier could be tried for his human rights crimes. But there was still a long road ahead when Duvalier died, a road that could have been traveled years ago if the U.S. had stepped up. The U.S. could have provided diplomatic cables and other evidence from the Duvalier era that would have helped make the prosecution’s case. The U.S. could have assisted in ensuring the safety of Duvalier victims fearful of testifying against him. And the U.S. could have used its bully pulpit and status as Haiti’s chief source of aid to push for prosecution. Instead, the Obama administration, likely wary of a trial destined to expose embarrassing evidence of U.S. complicity in Duvalier’s crimes, did nothing.
As a result, the Haitian people lost out. On a previous visit to Haiti, I interviewed Raymond Davius, who still carries the physical and psychological scars from being imprisoned and tortured for daring to join a political party that opposed Duvalier. “The problem is not as much about Duvalier himself as it is what he represents,” Davius said. “If Haiti does not judge Duvalier, we have lost the opportunity to send a message to Haitian leaders who think they can kill whoever they want and steal whatever they want, and not be judged.”
Instead, the message after Duvalier’s death continues to be one of impunity in Haiti, if you are rich enough and powerful enough. From his cradle in the National Palace run by his despotic father to his grave, where the latest U.S.-backed Haitian president called for a salute to an “authentic son of Haiti,” Jean-Claude Duvalier enjoyed U.S. protection.
I ended my column on the February, 2013 court hearing with this sentence: “The U.S. has enormous influence here, and most observers feel Duvalier will be held accountable for his crimes only if the U.S. speaks up.”
We didn’t, and he wasn’t.
Fran Quigley is a clinical professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and the author of How Human Rights Can Build Haiti (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014.)