TIME world affairs

Sean Penn: The Time I Met ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier

Former Exiled Dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier Holds News Conference
Former leader of Haiti Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier waves from a balcony following a press conference at his house in Petionville January 21, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lee Celano—Getty Images

Sean Penn is an Academy Award-winning actor, Founder and CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization and an Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti.

"Haiti had re-absorbed their son of shame and excess with dignified indifference"

I was an 11-year-old kid in the United States when I first heard the name Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier; the boy dictator of an impoverished island nation, somewhere south of our southeast shores. I associated his name among the notorious Heads of State. Indiscriminate killings and disappearances of so many Haitians of conscience.

Like his father’s regime before him, “Baby Doc’s” maintained control, seemingly with a homicidal whimsy. The MVSN (formerly Tonton Macoute) army served at the pleasure of the President and his advisors, as the boogeymen of the voodoo night. Names like Duvalier and Aristide, lived in my head upon my own arrival in Port-au-Prince in 2010, as relics of a Haitian past; their faces of Rushmore, that Rush-ed “less” for their people.

Until his death last week at age 63, it had not occurred to me that he’d been only nine years my senior when he took office.

“Well, at least he was a great orator,” is an old joke made of Hitler. And likewise, one can find Haitians who take nostalgic pride in the “infrastructure” of Duvalier’s time, harkening praise of pharaohs whose pyramids were built on the backs of tortured slaves.

In the wake of Duvalier’s exile came a reactionary Constitution. So preoccupied with guarding against another presidential dictatorship, it has inadvertently condemned the country to authoritarian swings, plundering by the moneyed elite and the maneuvering of an often unruly Parliament.

But the people of Haiti have not allowed the news to be all bad. In spite of systemic injustices and structural limitations, they have forced extraordinary advances in democracy and repeatedly demonstrated their otherworldly capacity for forgiveness.

So when I crossed through a Port-au-Prince restaurant one night in 2012, it should have come as no surprise to me, hearing the voice of a friendly acquaintance calling out, “Hey Sean, come meet my friend, JC!”

And there he was, “Baby Doc” had returned from exile, and before me, I saw his extended hand. The light security detail I’d noticed in the street upon entering the restaurant, and the little to none inside around him, evidenced a Haiti that had re-absorbed their son of shame and excess with dignified indifference. I tried to do the same. I took his hand and shook it. We sat and spoke for a while. His stroke-ridden face, sad, even pathetic. His intelligence low. There was no call to wish him ill, or for that matter, to wish him anything at all. There was just a reminder of Haiti’s trying past, the weakness of abusers, and the great promise of Haiti’s extraordinary days to come.

Sean Penn is an Academy Award-winning actor, Founder and CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization and an Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Haiti

Ousted Haitian Dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier Dies

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier
The late Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc," attends his hearing at court in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 28, 2013. Dieu Nalio Chery—AP

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Jean-Claude-Duvalier, the self-proclaimed “president for life” of Haiti whose corrupt and brutal regime sparked a popular uprising that sent him into a 25-year exile, died Saturday of a heart attack, his attorney said.

Reynold George said the 63-year-old ex-leader died at his home. He was 63.

Duvalier, looking somewhat frail, made a surprise return to Haiti in 2011, allowing victims of his regime to pursue legal claims against him and prompting some old allies to rally around him. Neither side gained much support, and the once-feared dictator known as “Baby Doc” spent his late years in relative obscurity in the leafy hills above the Haitian capital.

Duvalier was the son of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a medical doctor-turned-dictator who promoted “Noirisme,” a movement that sought to highlight Haiti’s African roots over its European ones while uniting the black majority against a mulatto elite in a country divided by class and color.

The regimes of both leaders tortured and killed political opponents and relied on a dreaded civilian militia known as the Tonton Macoutes.

In 1971, Francois Duvalier suddenly died of an illness and named his son to succeed him. At 19, Jean-Claude Duvalier became the world’s youngest president.

The son was regarded as a lackluster student at a prestigious private Catholic school in the capital but his teachers gave him passing grades anyway to avoid fury from the National Palace, according to “Written in Blood” a history of the country by Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl.

Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled for 15 years, his administration seen as less violent and repressive than his father’s. Echoes of press freedom and personal criticism, never tolerated under his father, emerged — sporadically — because of international pressure. Still, human rights groups documented abuses and political persecution. A trio of prisons known as the “Triangle of Death,” which included the much-feared Fort Dimanche for long-term inmates, symbolized the brutality of his regime.

As president, he married the daughter of a wealthy coffee merchant, Michele Bennett, in 1980. The engagement caused a scandal among old Duvalierists, for she was a mulatto and the arrangement ran counter to the Noirisme movement Duvalier’s father espoused. The wedding was a lavish affair, complete with imported champagne, flowers and fireworks. The ceremony, reported to have cost $5 million, was carried live on television to the impoverished nation. After they exchanged vows, Michele ordered her tubby husband to go on a diet.

Under Duvalier’s rule, Haiti saw widespread demographic changes. Peasants moved to the capital in search of work as factories popped up to meet the growing demand for cheap labor. Thousands of professionals fled a climate of repression for cities such as New York, Miami and Montreal.

And aid began to flow from the United States and agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The tourists followed, some in search of a form of tropical hedonism that included booze, prostitution and Voodoo ceremonies for which the country became legendary. Tourism collapsed in the early 1980s after Florida doctors noted that an unusual number of AIDS cases were coming from Haitian emigres, even though the disease was believed to have been brought from the U.S.

But it was corruption and human rights abuses that defined Duvalier rule.

The National Palace became known for opulent parties as Michele took overseas shopping sprees to decorate and collect fur coats. Duvalier relished taking his presidential yacht out for a spin and racing about in sports cars.

Under mounting pressure from the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Duvalier made pretenses of improving the country’s human rights record by releasing political prisoners. Still, journalists and activists were jailed or exiled. Haitians without visas or money left by boarding flimsy boats in a desperate effort to reach Florida shores.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that up to 30,000 Haitians were killed, many by execution, under the regime of the two Duvaliers.

As Haiti’s living conditions deteriorated, Pope John-Paul II made a visit in 1983 and famously declared: “Things must change.”

Three years later, they did. A popular uprising swept across Haiti, and Duvalier and his wife boarded a U.S.-government C-141 for France.

The couple divorced in 1993. Duvalier later became involved with Veronique Roy, who accompanied him on his 2011 return to Haiti.

While in exile in France, Duvalier was never known to hold a job. He occasionally made public statements about his eagerness to return to Haiti. Supporters periodically marched on his behalf in the Haitian capital.

On Jan. 16, 2011, Duvalier made his surprise return. He said he wanted to help in the reconstruction of Haiti, whose capital and outlying cities were heavily damaged in a magnitude-7.0 earthquake the year before. But many suspected he came back in an effort to reclaim money he had allegedly stashed. Others said he merely wanted to die in his homeland.

More than 20 victims of his rule stepped forward to file charges that ranged from false imprisonment to torture. Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that Duvalier may not have directly participated in the torture and killings under his regime, but that there was enough evidence to prosecute him.

Despite the occasional stay in the hospital, Duvalier seemed to enjoy his new life back home and was free to roam the capital. He was spotted attending government ceremonies, dining with friends in several high-end restaurants and avoided jail time. In 2013 he began renovating an old house that Roy said had been destroyed in the wake of his 1986 ouster.

The efforts to prosecute him stumbled along. Duvalier stunned human rights observers and alleged victims of his regime in 2013 when he testified about his rule before an investigating judge. A year later, a judge overturned an earlier court decision and ruled that Duvalier could face crimes against humanity charges.

But in the end the case stalled because officials did little to move it along.

Duvalier and his wife Michele had two children, son Francois Nicolas “Nico” Duvalier and a daughter, Anya.


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TIME Haiti

Shipwreck off Haiti May Be Columbus’ Long-Lost Flagship

Underwater explorers believe they have found the shipwreck of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria. The vessel sank in 1492, and its disappearance has remained a mystery for centuries

Divers may have found the wreckage of Christopher Columbus’ flagship off the northern coast of Haiti.

If the remains turn out to be the Italian explorer’s Santa Maria, the location of which has remained a mystery since it sank more than five centuries ago, it will prove one of the most monumental archaeological discoveries from the seabed of all time.

“It is the Mount Everest of shipwrecks for me,” Barry Clifford, the world-renowned underwater treasure hunter who found the wreck, told CNN.

Clifford believes the iconic vessel sank during a Caribbean storm in 1492, causing Columbus to return to Spain with just the two smaller ships of his expedition.

“Every single piece fits. Now, of course, we have to go through the whole archeological process, and we plan to do that within the next few months, but I feel very confident that we’ve discovered the site.”

Clifford is working with the Haitian government to preserve the remains.

TIME Books

REVIEW: Roxane Gay’s Riveting Debut Novel An Untamed State

Roxane Gay, 'An Untamed State'
Roxane Gay, An Untamed State Grove Atlantic

Roxane Gay's impressive first novel is a story of trauma and its terrifying aftermath

Pop culture has no shortage of tales about tragedy, but rarely does it offer anything more than a glimpse of the trauma that lingers and haunts its survivors. Roxane Gay’s riveting debut, An Untamed State, captivates from its opening sentence and doesn’t let go — even after the novel’s harrowing nightmare appears to be over.

An Untamed State is told mostly from the perspective of Mireille Duval Jameson, a stubborn, quick-tempered daughter of Haitian immigrants who’s a mother to a baby boy and wife to a handsome, all-American husband. One ordinary morning, while visiting her wealthy parents’ home back in their native Haiti, she is kidnapped and held for ransom — an unfortunately all-too-common occurrence in country marked by staggering inequality. But despite his vast, self-made fortune, Mireille’s proud father refuses to pay her captors, who spend the next thirteen days subjecting her to gruesome acts of sexual violence and torture.

Gay writes a lot about the human body and its capacity for survival, but just as heartbreaking are the mental places Mireille must go to in order to endure. The ordeal, which draws from Gay’s own experience with rape, cleaves Mireille’s life into two halves — the Before, and the After — and leaves no relationship untouched. Flashbacks to her rocky courtship with husband Michael are excellently plotted alongside her imprisonment, providing the novel’s few moments of levity and some of its greatest suspense as Mireille struggles to return to normalcy. Her conflicted feelings toward Haiti get messier, too, as she tries to make sense of its many contradictions. “We loved Haiti. We hated Haiti,” Gay writes. “We did not understand Haiti or know Haiti. Years later, I still did not understand Haiti, but I longed for the Haiti of my childhood. When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti again.”

Gay’s writing is simple and direct, but never cold or sterile. She directly confronts complex issues of identity and privilege, but it’s always accessible and insightful. That will come as no surprise to fans of her writings about race, gender and culture that grace sites such as Salon, The Nation, BuzzFeed and (full disclosure) TIME — and it will only make the wait for her first book of essays (Bad Feminist, due in August) all the more trying. So let this be the year of Roxane Gay: You’ll tear through An Untamed State, but ponder it for long after.


Rahul Singh: First Responder for the World

Toronto paramedic Rahul Singh made the TIME 100 list in 2010 for his work saving lives in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Now, his global team of first responders at GlobalMedic treat thousands in Syria, the Philippines and other disaster zones.

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