As Haiti’s national police director from 1996 to 2002, Pierre Denize had a mission: to help the country’s fledgling democracy build a more professional and humane justice system.
Denize had seen too much of the polar opposite in his youth – especially when his parents were jailed, brutalized and exiled during the three-decade-long reign of cruelty and corruption known as the Duvalier dynasty.
“What [the Duvaliers] did to Haiti was absolutely horrendous,” says Denize, whose surgeon father was an early Duvalier health minister until he broke with the regime because of its brutality. “It was unacceptable. Inhumane.”
The dictatorship’s patriarch, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971. By the time Haitians tossed his feckless dictator son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, into exile in 1986, the family had allegedly robbed almost a billion dollars from the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Their murderous militia, the Tonton Macoutes, allegedly killed more than 30,000 opponents.
So now – after Baby Doc Duvalier’s sudden death last Saturday in Port-au-Prince at age 63 from a heart attack brought on in part by a tarantula bite – Denize and the rest of Haitian Nation are asking:
If Baby Doc had lived longer, would the Haitian justice system have eventually convicted and jailed him for his alleged and epic crimes?
It’s the sort of question Haiti has to confront if it wants to move beyond its poverty and dysfunction, but Denize says the answer is far from certain.
“Our country,” says Denize, “has a very advanced cancer of impunity.”
If so, the Baby Doc case might have been – and still could be – a sort of national chemotherapy.
When Duvalier returned to Haiti three years ago, he was in fact indicted for corruption. (He pleaded not guilty.) But his pending trial was being held up by procedural issues, such as whether a statute of limitations applied.
Still, legal observers were confident Baby Doc would eventually be tried. And Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, says the evidence certainly would have convicted him.
“Oh, it’s boxes and boxes,” says Concannon. “Things like checks written from public hospitals that were written directly to him for $50,000 or $100,000. And he took no effort to hide it.”
Haitian officials at first balked at charging Duvalier with human rights crimes – despite the grim parade of Tonton Macoutes victims and their families who’ve come forward to testify.
But earlier this year a Haitian court ruled that Baby Doc could be indicted for the political atrocities. And Concannon thinks Duvalier might have faced formal charges as early as year's end. His lawyers would have argued that the Tonton Macoutes were his father’s creation, not his; but by all accounts it was a monster Baby Doc not only inherited but embraced.
“It’s fairly clear,” says Concannon, “that he oversaw this repressive regime for 15 years that was killing people and was going after journalists and other political dissidents in a very systematic way.”
What may well have derailed the prosecution in the end, however, wasn’t law but politics. Current Haitian President Michel Martelly is an admitted Duvalier admirer – and his government had urged prosecutors to drop the Baby Doc cases.
But many Haiti experts believe the legal proceedings that were underway when Duvalier died set a positive precedent for Haiti. The focus now will be on prosecuting surviving Duvalier loyalists who allegedly took part in the crimes.
“Duvalierism was a system,” says Concannon. “Jean-Claude Duvalier was the head of it, but he’s not the only person involved. I’m hearing loud and clear from the victims in Haiti that they want to continue this fight.”
The buzz in recent days is that Baby Doc cheated justice by dying. But Denize, the reform-minded ex-police chief who is now retired in Miami, says Haiti doesn’t yet deserve that assumption – and won’t until it gets serious about creating a more credible justice system.
“My contention is that we don’t yet have a justice system,” says Denize. “The whole question of justice now has very little to do with Baby Doc and so much more to do with Haiti and Haitians.
“Haitians have cheated and continue to cheat themselves out of justice.”
And they can only hope now that they bury that problem along with Duvalier.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.