Feb 10 2011

Duvalier = Aristide?

Equation of dictator with popular ex-president distorts Haitian history, reality

It was certainly surprising to see former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier return to the country on January 16. To say he has blood on his hands is an understatement: The Duvalier regimes were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and widespread torture (Human Rights Watch, 1/17/11), and stole half a billion dollars from the country (Miami Herald, 1/17/11).

Soon thereafter, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide announced his intention to return to his country from exile. Aristide, twice elected and twice overthrown by coups, remains a popular figure in Haitian politics. His first stint in office was remarkably peaceful (Extra!, 11-12/94); his second, during which he faced armed attacks that eventually succeeded in overthrowing his government, was scarcely more violent (Extra!, 7-8/06). But some media accounts are expressing concern about Aristide’s return, in effect equating him with the bloody Duvalier.

USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham wrote a piece on February 8 headlined “U.S. Meekly Allows Despots to Return to Haiti.” Wickham recounted some of the horrors of Duvalier’s reign of terror, but for some unfathomable reason decided that Aristide poses a comparable menace to Haiti: His return might “push Haiti closer to turmoil,” and the two of them are “old troublemakers…returning at a time when Haiti’s democracy is most vulnerable to the havoc they almost certainly will produce.”

Wickham seemed mostly concerned about democracy:

With another round of voting scheduled for March 20, the thing Haiti needs more than anything else now is a level of stability and calm. But what it’s likely to get once Aristide returns–and once he and Duvalier rally their old supporters to their side–will be a return to the bloody factionalism that punctuated their time at the helm of Haiti’s government.

It might be worth pointing out that Aristide’s Lavalas party–still enormously popular–was banned from participating in last year’s election, which as a result had the lowest turnout of any election held in the Western Hemisphere in the last 60 years (Sun Sentinel, 1/23/11).

The Duvalier = Aristide equation could be seen elsewhere. A New York Times report (2/9/11) by Damien Cave warned that “experts inside and outside Haiti fear that the presence of the two former leaders could further destabilize the country.” The Times went on to note that “members of the international community expressed concern that Mr. Aristide…could create widespread instability at a precarious moment.” The story does note that Aristide was “beloved by the poor but criticized by many.” Given that 80 percent of Haitians live under the poverty line (CIA World Factbook, 1/12/11), it’s hard to know what to make of that.

A short L.A. Times piece (2/8/11) conveyed a similar message: Aristide “has broad popular support but remains a polarizing figure in Haiti.” That article also equated Duvalier and Aristide, reporting that “the return of the two former leaders comes at an unsteady moment for the country.”

One would hope reporters could find a way to make a meaningful distinction between a ruthless, bloody dictator and a popular elected president. It’s absurd to lump them together as “two former leaders” or, as the USA Today headline put it, “despots.”