DATELINE: HAITI

The uncertain perils in a dictator’s track

Peter Lewis May 17 1982
DATELINE: HAITI

The uncertain perils in a dictator’s track

Peter Lewis May 17 1982

The uncertain perils in a dictator’s track

DATELINE: HAITI

Peter Lewis

The mighty armada counted but two boats while the invasion force it prepared to hurl at the enemy’s throat numbered all of 16 mercenaries who looked as if they’d be more at home fishing than storming a beachhead. In fact, fishing was what the sorry group of mercenaries was pretending to do when the U.S. Coast Guard cutters drew alongside their boats off the Florida shore in mid-March. But after three days afloat in heaving seas, the freebooters were too seasick to hold their rods convincingly, much less to resist, when they were handcuffed in irons and towed to Miami.

The seizure put an end to yet another grandiose scheme to invade Haiti in order to rid that hapless Caribbean republic of its dictator, JeanClaude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. But as would-be Haiti invasions go, this one took the cream puff.

According to investigators, the 16 were recruited by Roland Magloire, the nephew of a former Haitian president, through a vaguely worded ad in the Miami Herald. (Magloire is known to have organized at least two previous invasion attacks by Haitian exiles.) Sbme of the 10 gung-ho Americans in the group were sufficiently vague about the country they planned to overrun to imagine they would be “taking on Commies.” And the weapons they carried—semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pistols—amid crates of bourbon and copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine—were as suited to an invasion as a popgun is for assaulting a tank.

The madcap adventure ended on a happier note for the would-be invaders than did the last known assault on Baby

Doc’s bastion. In January, three members of an advance party for another tiny invasion force—it numbered 25 in all—were captured and sent to the infamous Dessalines barracks in Port-auPrince, the Haitian capital, where they

promptly “died of their wounds.” Their comrades fled in a 14-m launch and, before Haitian patrol boats could catch them, they managed to send a distress signal and were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In fact, the coast guard did the mercenaries a favor by taking them into custody, for Baby Doc’s security forces had been tipped off, and the police force and the entire Haitian army—a total of more than 8,000 men—were ready to greet the invaders.

Few ordinary Haitians, however,

were aware that anything was afoot. Even when the truth surfaced in Portau-Prince, it raised scarcely a shrug. A visitor might have concluded that invasion and coup scares in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, were too common to merit attention. The truth, however, was that the six million people living in the “nightmare republic,” as Graham Greene described Haiti, were too apathetic to care.

To be sure, indifference to politics seems to run strong among all but the boldest Haitians, being seen as a cardinal virtue in a land where poking one’s nose in intrigue still frequently means sudden death. For Haiti’s poor—70 per cent of the population lives below the World Bank’s “absolute poverty” line of $135 a year—Duvalier family members are creatures of near-mythical dimension. A docile, easygoing folk, Haitians endure their president-for-life as they did Papa Doc in the past and—say the pessimists—as they will other dictators to come. But that doesn’t mean they enjoy the burden. It is said that when Duvalier speeds through the capital in his limousine, many of his more superstitious subjects avert their eyes for fear the mere sight of him will turn them to stone.

Yet Baby Doc is not thought to be the monster his father was. While Papa Doc murdered and maimed thousands of Haitians during his gory 14-year reign, young Duvalier has mainly contented himself with robbing the country blind. It has been estimated that a full 40 per cent of Haiti’s export earnings somehow indirectly find their way into Baby Doc’s coffers, as does an important cut of the official tax on gambling. When rich Haitians grease an official’s palm to avoid paying income tax or import duties on cars, they know that a good part goes toward swelling Baby Doc’s overseas bank accounts or to paying for his racing cars, his presidential yacht or the odd lordly festivity—Duvalier’s marriage in 1980 to his wife, Michelle, cost $1 million. To thank the gods for it all, Baby Doc drives through Port-au-Prince on New Year’s Day flinging pennies to the poor.

Some Haitians rather admire his goals. “He’s corrupt and lazy, but he’s got class compared to Papa Doc, who was a miserable runt,” says Port-auPrince resident Aubelin Duchêne. “At least Jean-Claude is making an effort to improve the lot of Haitians.” That Baby Doc may indeed be doing, if only to ensure the bonanza lasts for him: early this year he appointed Marc Bazin, a respected Haitian economist who worked with the World Bank, as finance minister with a mandate to revamp the country’s fiscal, budget, farming and industrial systems. Bazin’s opening shot was to declare war on tax evasion and

corruption and to take urgent measures to revive Haiti’s sagging coffee, sugar and bauxite industries. (Last year coffee exports were down 50 per cent from 1980.)

Yet many Haitians are convinced Bazin’s reforms will be halted in their tracks by the country’s all-powerful bourgeoisie once it sinks in that, in mending the economy, he may also curb their privileges. And the more cynical see his appointment as window dressing to satisfy the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. government that Haiti is putting its house in order.

(The IMF is currently pondering whether or not to release $60 million in suspended standby credits to Haiti, and Washington recently promised to boost aid to Port-au-Prince from $30 million to $50 million this year.)

The major rub to the rich in Bazin’s plan is the notion of income tax. Until now companies and wealthy individuals—some 4,000 people in Haiti are said to have annual incomes of more than $90,000—have paid only peanuts to the state. In fact, in a land where 80 per cent of the population is illiterate and one child out of three dies before

reaching the age of 4, the rich do not see why they should pay taxes. “It’s not my fault they are poor,” says restaurant owner Edwige Kenn de Balinthazy. “What Haiti needs from the rich western nations are fewer sermons on human rights and more money. Send us a billion dollars [to save the country from communism] and we’ll build the country properly,” she explains.

The bogey of communism has been constantly employed by Baby Doc to justify repression and hold back on reforms. In many ways modern Haiti under Duvalier is a capitalist’s paradise reminiscent of pre-Castro Cuba. There are more gambling shops in Port-auPrince than grocery stores (the favorite local flutter is a legal numbers racket called La Borlette). The prettiest daughters of the poor take to prostitution, seeking out customers in the rough, wild-West atmosphere of Portau-Prince’s bars. Boys earn a few dollars buying dope for tourists. Those too proud—or slow-witted—to hustle find rare work carting vegetables in the Port-au-Prince market or cutting sugar

When Duvalier speeds byf his more superstitious subjects avert their eyes for fear siyht of him will turn them to stone

cane under a boiling sun for the princely wage of $3 a day.

While millions suffer, big business is transacted over their heads: an American gambling syndicate from Reno, Nev., is reported to be currently negotiating to purchase such famous hotels as the El Rancho in suburban Pétionville with the intention of turning them into huge casinos to receive U.S. high rollers on weekends. No doubt Baby Doc will get his cut.

It was Magloire’s dream when he unleashed his mercenaries on Haiti in March to see the invasion force helped upon landing by local commanders and frustrated peasants who—in pure Fidel Castro-style—would proceed to blow up power plants, cut communication lines and start on a triumphant march to Port-au-Prince to impose democracy. It didn’t happen that way. Few people in Haiti think that they would have mustered much backing had they safely arrived. Given the state of Duvalier’s Haiti, where fewer than 6,000 privileged rule over six million, other invasion attempts or coups against the regime can be expected. And the harder Baby Doc turns the screws, the more likely it is that, ultimately, one will succeed.