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Brazilian investors buy Miami real estate. Haitian earthquake survivors attend South Florida schools. It's clear what happens in Latin America and the Caribbean has a profound effect on South Florida.WLRN’s coverage of the region is headed by Americas editor Tim Padgett, a 23-year veteran of TIME and Newsweek magazines.He joins a team of reporters and editors at the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and NPR to cover a region whose cultural wealth, environmental complexity, vast agricultural output and massive oil reserves offer no shortage of important and fascinating stories to tell.

The Baby Doc Divide: Why South Florida's Haitians Disagree On Duvalier

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Nadege Green
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WLRN

From Stalin in Russia to Pinochet in Chile, there’s at least one thing we’ve learned about dictators: Despite the terrible things they often do, people’s memories of them can be fond as well as frightening.

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier – who ruled from 1971 to 1986 and died on Saturday in Port-au-Prince at age 63 from a heart attack brought on in part by a tarantula bite – was no exception.

 WLRN spent the weekend listening to the divided opinion on Baby Doc in Miami’s Haitian community.

RELATED: Baby Doc Duvalier May Have Finally Helped Haiti - By Dying At The Right Time

Haitian prosecutors and international human rights groups call Duvalier a corrupt tyrant. He and his family allegedly stole almost a billion dollars from Haiti – the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country – from 1957 to 1986. And their henchmen, the paramilitary group known as the Tonton Macoutes, are said to have killed more than 30,000 Duvalier opponents.

But Taino Desheummes considers Baby Doc a hero.

When he learned of Duvalier’s death over the weekend, Desheummes was distraught.

“When I got the news, I lost my equilibrium,” he says. “Jean-Claude Duvalier was a good president.”

Desheummes himself was a member of the feared Tonton Macoutes – and he says he’s proud of it.

“I’ve done nothing wrong or illegal to be ashamed to say I’m a Macoute,” he says.

The militia was dreaded by Haitians, but Desheummes insists reports of rampant disappearances, torture and killings are exaggerated. If anything, he argues, the Tonton Macoutes maintained law and order.

There were no issues of property destruction or car jackings or a high murder rate under Duvalier. And the economy was stronger. –Taino Desheummes

“There were no issues of property destruction or car jackings or a high murder rate,” says Desheummes. “And the economy was stronger.”

From his pink home in Little Haiti, Desheummes acknowledged there may have been some rogue Macoutes who committed crimes. But the majority like him, he insists, were good men.

“A lot of people don’t want to admit they’re Duvalierists,” he says. “What did Jean-Claude Duvalier do? He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Ednerd Maxilus would beg to differ.

Standing outside the Notre Dame d’Haiti Roman Catholic Church in Little Haiti on Sunday, the 75-year-old Maxilus recalled how he fled Haiti in 1974 because he worried the Tonton Macoutes might be after him.

For many Haitian exiles of Maxilus’ generation, it’s a common story.

“I was a businessman,” says Maxilus, now a retired widower in Little Haiti. “I [had] a little shop in Port-au-Prince.”

But Maxilus was also a school teacher. And he didn’t agree with the Duvalier dictatorship’s policy of rounding up young students for mass rallies where they were taught to worship Baby Doc.

BIG BROTHER

When Maxilus refused to go along, he found out Baby Doc was also Big Brother.

“If you don’t do what they [want] you to do,” Maxilus recalls, “you got a problem.”

And Maxilus had one: Tonton Macoutes members noticed his lack of political ardor for Baby Doc and started suggesting to him that, well, sometimes bad things happen to people’s businesses in Haiti. Or their owners.

Maxilus read between the lines.

“They’d have to kill you. You have to die.”

He had, in fact, seen it happen to others who didn’t obey Baby Doc – and especially Baby Doc’s even more iron-fisted father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who took power in 1957 and died in 1971. Some of Maxilus’ own friends had been arrested and tortured.

Maxilus didn’t wait around for that. He came to Miami.

But Maxilus feels Baby Doc’s thievery was just as bad as his thuggery.

“He was corrupt, Jean-Claude Duvalier,” he says. “The power, they [took] for themselves, nobody else. The money, they spend between them, not the people.”

All of which is why fed-up Haitians sent Baby Doc into exile in France in 1986. And why, after returning to Haiti three years ago, he was facing a corruption trial and possibly human rights charges when he died.

“He didn’t do anything good for Haiti,” says Maxilus.

Unfortunately, he adds, he doesn’t think anyone has done much good for Haiti since Baby Doc, either.

And that’s made it all the easier for Haitians like Desheummes – and current Haitian President Michel Martelly, an unabashed Duvalier admirer – to remember Baby Doc’s reign as a belle époque instead of a brutal era. 

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.