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The Perils of Dictatorship Nostalgia in Haiti

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Maybe the fear is the first thing people forget as time passes. That would help explain the outbursts of dictatorship nostalgia we are witnessing, whether in the old Soviet Union, in Iraq or now -- maybe -- in Haiti, with the dramatic re-entrance of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier into its already tortured politics. But as a native of Haiti, I remember the fear under Baby Doc, and I wonder if those who remember will speak up and quickly end the illusion.

In the midst of chaos, people develop a craving for order. We've heard it from Russians after the breakup of the Soviet Union -- a sentiment well exploited by Vladimir Putin -- and from Iraqis who pine for Saddam Hussein. Some Haitians, now plagued by home invasions, carjackings and kidnappings for ransom, wax nostalgic for the days when, as they say half jokingly, only the government committed crimes.

The initially modest turnout for the former dictator after 25 years in exile may be a reason for optimism, but in a country where half the population is too young to remember the world according to Baby Doc, Haitians must come forward quickly to remind us what it was really like.

Baby Doc was named President for Life at age 19, after his father, the fierce and ruthless François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, died. My parents would never let me return to Haiti, the land of my birth, while the older Duvalier was alive. His regime was arbitrary, brutal and highly suspicious of Haitian Americans like me. A fender bender, a glance that caused offense or the fact that your hair was in an Afro or a little too long was enough to get you arrested, beaten and thrown into Fort Dimanche, the dreaded hilltop prison.

I lived in Haiti for much of 1975, four years into Baby Doc's rule. At first his regime seemed to be "Duvalier light." He was more interested in motorcycles and women than in governing. He and his friends staged bike races in downtown Port-au-Prince or along the main highway leading north out of the capital.

Clubs and bars stayed open until the wee hours, and some of his followers mixed easily with the adventurous tourists who had started coming back to Haiti. His ministers seemed bent on making money. One got caught up buying blood from poor Haitians and selling it to U.S. blood banks. Others forced local businessmen to give them a "share" of their profits.

But the security apparatus set up by his father remained. The blue-jeaned Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, commonly known as "Tonton Macoutes" or bogeymen, strutted around Port-au-Prince with large pistols stuck in their waistbands and signature sunglasses shielding their eyes. Whenever a Haitian arrived from abroad, the security men at the airport would open large ledger books and look for his name. I was on leave from the Washington Post and living in a cul-de-sac behind a notorious Macoute station in Pétionville. I nodded or smiled as I went by each day, but the "volunteers" at the station just stared back, expressionless.

I did a jazz show on Radio Haiti Inter, the station owned by Jean Dominique, a courageous journalist who was constantly pushing the limits of free speech. "You have to get up in the morning," he would say, "smell the air and figure out how far you can go." But he regularly got called to the National Palace for a "discussion" and would come back shaken. He was twice exiled by the government. A fierce advocate of democracy in Haiti, Dominique was killed during René Préval's first term in office.

All of my letters were slit open, read, crudely resealed with tape and stamped "Received in this condition." I often heard men walking outside my house late at night. They circled all the way around, once or twice, their footsteps crunching in the gravel, before walking off. When a friend arrived from the U.S. ahead of the telegram she had sent, the security men at the airport asked whom she was going to see. When she named me, they said, "We know where he lives," and drove her directly to my door.

In his harrowing book, Fort Dimanche, Dungeon of Death, Patrick Lemoine describes his arbitrary arrest for reasons never explained and his year in the prison during Baby Doc's rule. His cell was so crowded, the men took turns sleeping in shifts while the rest stood. Most prisoners in his group were not executed; they were simply allowed to die from dysentery and other diseases. Of 23 men in Lemoine's cell, he and one other man survived. He was released after U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young made a powerful speech about human rights in Haiti during the Carter administration. Human Rights Watch has estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the 30 years that Duvalier father and son ruled.

For most Haitians, contact with the regime was peripheral -- but always tinged in fear. On my first trips back, I noticed that relatives dropped their voices to a whisper when they spoke about politics -- and they changed the conversation completely if someone came into the room they didn't know or trust. I recall a conversation on the porch of an uncle's house (now destroyed); several older men -- doctors, lawyers, civil servants -- sat and praised the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier. It took me a while to realize they were being deeply ironic.

Haitians born after 1986, when Baby Doc and his mercenary wife, Michelle, hastily left the country, do not know what it was like. Haitian politics has become full-throated, heavily debated, with little or no restraint on what people think. Those old enough to remember the old days have a duty to dispel the nostalgia, to inform and remind the rest of their countrymen what it was really like in those days -- to live in fear of arrest, reprisal, disappearance.

Haiti has its share of problems now. It doesn't need to add a return to oppression to that list.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root and a native of Haiti.

This article originally appeared on The Root.