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.

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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.

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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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