Of all the wrenching scenes I have witnessed in several visits to Haiti—and there are many—the one that haunts me to this day is the one I witnessed in Fort Dimanche.
Residents of the neighborhood around the former prison offered a grim tour of the old prison where the Tonton Macoutes, the brutal paramilitary force established under Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, tortured political opponents of the Haitian regime. Some of the tiny cement cells still showed the evidence of torture, although imprisonment in the hellish conditions was surely torture enough.
Midway through the first decade of the 21st century, the cells were still being used—not by captors, but by the poorest of the poor, who endured the filth, the disease, and the terrifying memories to use the former cells as places to sleep. Outside the squatters’ quarters, women mixed the food: a combination of water, dirt, and butter, which they fashioned into mud pies to dry in the sun. That was all the new residents of Fort Dimanche could afford to eat.
Since then, Haiti has endured even more hardship, including a devastating hurricane, an even more damaging earthquake, a current cholera outbreak, and a political crisis that threatens to imperil any hope the sad nation has for progress. [See photos of the Haiti earthquake damage.]
It didn’t seem like things could get much worse. And then, in a move so brazenly insulting that it seemed a deliberate effort to mock Haiti and those who love it, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who succeeded "Papa Doc's" rule, returned to his native land, claiming to want to help Haiti.
At another time, the younger Duvalier—whose rule was marked by corruption and human rights abuses—might not have made it out of the airport alive. But younger Haitians, who are desperate for any change, any kind of hope for the future, don’t have a memory of the Duvalier years. And some Haitians, alarmingly, cheered the former despot as he went to a hotel in Petionville, a relatively wealthy town up the mountain from the capital of Port-au-Prince. Life in Petionville is safer and cleaner than in the capital, in part because when it rains, the garbage, quite literally, is washed from the wealthier neighborhood into the slums of Port-au-Prince at the bottom on the mountain. [The year in pictures: 2010.]
Duvalier, appropriately, was immediately charged with corruption and crimes against humanity. There is local speculation that "Baby Doc’s" return is a deliberate effort to muddy the political scene at a time when international observers are making charges of election fraud. And it’s true that Haiti, notorious for the failings of its political class, must answer those charges. But the biggest fraud of all is Duvalier, whom Haitians must not allow to have any kind of power.