NEW YORK — A week ago Friday, this hemisphere's only remaining hereditary dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, president-for-life of the Republic of Haiti, was spirited away by his U.S. chaperons. Mercifully, the forced departure of this ubiquitous symbol of a system that has institutionalized brutality and misery did halt the current bloodletting by his Tonton Macoutes. But it did not necessarily mark the end of Duvalierism nor any necessary enlightenment in the foreign policy of the United States.
The general and three colonels who control the recently formed Provisional Junta were also the most powerful military officials of "Baby Doc" Duvalier, and they are currently governing by edict under a state of siege that Duvalier conveniently declared just before fleeing.
The Haitian people have unambiguously demanded an end to a political system that exerted control by terrorizing the population into submission and by perpetuating misery and ignorance. It is far too early to assert that these officers have now been converted to respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights, and an end to the massive corruption that has previously sustained the Haitian elite.
Yet something is indeed promising to blossom in Haiti, and the buds are being carried by the courageous and continuing protests about the disenfranchised Haitian people. Two members of the provisional government also command the widest international respect: Gerard Gourgues, law professor and president of the Haitian League for Human Rights, has been named as interim minister of justice; educator Rosney Desroches has been named minister of education.
For years Gourgues has championed the cause of the legions of human-rights victims of Duvalier's secret police and the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes. His inclusion in the transition government will prove a most positive sign if his ideals and scrupulous respect for the rule of law are actually embraced by the military officers and former Duvalier ministers now dominating the government. Some within Haiti believe that Gourgues was tapped only to bring temporary legitimacy to the junta, that he cannot act as an effective counterweight to its hard-line members--including two ministers who are known to have engaged in massive corruption throughout the Duvalier era.
Last week the Provisional Junta demonstrated that hopes for democratization were indeed plausible when it announced that the Tonton Macoutes would be disarmed and dissolved and that elections would be held within a year. To understand how such a profound transformation could emerge from the shell of the old regime--and why it may not--Haiti's recent history must be examined.
In a nation of 6 million people, fewer than 800 families possess a stranglehold on virtually all economic and political power. In contrast to this extreme of fabulous wealth, 90% of the population "exists" on less than $180 a year. The political elite expanded by the "Duvalier revolution" does not itself possess considerable wealth from industry or agriculture, but has relied rather on its monopolization of a government bureaucracy and government contracts to sustain its privileges. Repeated promises of curbs on official corruption have been largely unsuccessful; until Duvalier's downfall, huge sums were still being diverted from public revenues for private purposes.
For a majority of the 28 years of Duvalier family rule in Haiti, these elite families were content to protect their privilege and status by letting the Duvaliers and their Macoutes do as they wished. After the regime was solidified, members of the elite couldn't have stopped the killings if they had tried. Through a variety of official actions, the Duvalier era eliminated all institutions representing meaningful political pluralism in Haiti: political parties, a free press and trade unions.
The regime's security forces institutionalized the practice of incommunicado detentions without benefit of legal procedure for those perceived to be political opponents. These detentions often included torture during interrogation and sometimes political killings. The Duvaliers completely abolished the rule of law and eliminated any independence in the judiciary. Just recently, security forces conducted a campaign of intimidation against the Catholic Church; religious workers have been tortured.
Such abuses have been excused and even encouraged by the regular annual U.S. certification that Haiti was making human-rights progress. Certification then warranted increased economic assistance and the more general umbrella of diplomatic support. Justification for endorsement of this dreadful system has either been that no alternative to Duvalier was known to us or that Cold War tensions required supporting anyone who supported us.