New Internationalist

Haiti - Keeping it in the family

September 1980

N.I. Issue No. 75: May 1979

‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ is a familiar French phrase that seems gruesomly appropriate in modernday Haiti. Under the quirky reign of 28year old, President-for-life Jean-Claude (‘Baby Doc’) Duvalier, the impoverished French-speaking half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola has lurched from bad to worse over the last seven years. When the elder Duvalier, the infamous ‘Papa Doc’, was in power the island was a pariah of the international community, a tropical backwater of greed, corruption and iron-fisted repression. With Baby Doc’s ascension the grip relaxed slightly. Overall Jean-Claude was reputed to be less of a tyrant than the ‘old man’. He was seen as a slightly dimwitted playboy given to flights of selfindulgence, but aware of his nation’s bad image. As a result Baby Doc has not garnered the same publicity. However he appears to be doing all he can to change that. Last May his $6 million wedding to a divorced member of Haiti’s mulatto elite attracted world-wide press and television. The irony of such a garish display of wealth and waste in Latin America’s poorest and hungriest country did not go unnoticed.

Far less attention was paid to the stinging criticism of the country’s human rights record released by the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission shortly before Baby Doe’s extravaganza. According to the report, political prisoners are treated just as badly today as during the rule of Papa Doc. One former prisoner in the notorious Fort Dimance prison gave the following description of conditions: ‘The cell usually measures three metres by three metres and holds up to 30 prisoners. At night the prisoners sleep in relays, they are eaten by vermin and mosquitos from the surrounding swamps. Illness is frequent, tuberculosis, dysentery, mental problems, diarrhoea and worms burrowing under the skin. To cure stomach problems, diarrhoea or malaria, the prisoner drinks urine. Contagion is extremely high because of overcrowding. The average survival time in Fort Dimance is rarely more than a year. Sometimes a dead body stays in a cell for hours, then prisoners carry it out to be buried.’

The nameless prisoner also quoted one of the Fort Dimanche jailers who admitted ‘we do not stop people dying. If you are tired, stick your head in the latrine bucket, commit suicide -outside they know you are already dead’.

This column was published in the September 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 091

New Internationalist Magazine issue 091
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