From the age of 19, Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled Haiti with an iron fist. Numerous writers, journalists, and dissidents were jailed or executed by his regime. After 15 years of brutal rule, he fled to France amidst popular uprisings, and lived in exile for 25 years on some $300 million he allegedly looted from state coffers. Duvalier unexpectedly returned to the island in 2011 after the devastating earthquake that captured the world’s attention. In turn, international human rights groups sought to hold him accountable for the excesses that occurred under his reign, while he paraded around the island with his entourage. But he would never stand trial. Duvalier died of a heart attack earlier this month. 

Below, Jean-Euphèle Milcé—president of PEN Haiti and founder of la Résidence Georges Anglade, a unique writing house in Thomassin, Haiti—reflects on the impact of Duvalier’s life and death on the future of Haiti. The original French text follows.


“AUGUSTERE, cell 1, Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, poet, journalist, arrested in January 1971, freed in December 1972, arrested again in January 1973, dead in 1975 from diarrhea.” – Marc RomulusThe Dungeons of Duvalier

You can pluck out many writers, journalists, and intellectuals among the three thousand victims who died in the prisons of the Duvalier regime, not counting those forced into exile.

And, since October 4, 2014, the dictator is dead. Peacefully. In his bed and in the company of his loved ones. In his lifetime, he never experienced prison. Yet the first official statements to the nation are attempts to lionize his legacy.

There is an urgency today to contemplate the memory of the dictatorship, so that today’s generation and future generations remember and take part in the process of justice.

It is impossible to build a state based on the rule of law while killing thousands of members of the opposition and calling their executioners good citizens. With the death of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, it is no more desirable to try and forget that the man was deserving of contempt.

« AUGUSTERE, cellule 1, Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, poète, joumaliste, arrêté en janvier 1971, libéré en décembre 1972, arrêté de nouveau en janvier 1973, mort en 1975 de diarrhée. »

On aurait pu égrener les noms de trois mille victimes, dont des écrivains, des journalistes et des intellectuels dans les prisons du régime, sans compter les départs forcés en exil.

Et… depuis le 4 octobre 2014, le dictateur est mort. Paisiblement. Dans son lit et dans l’affection de ses proches. De son vivant, il n’a jamais connu la prison et les premières déclarations qui engagent la nation et son avenir tentent de le réhabiliter.

Il y a urgence, aujourd’hui, de poser la question de la mémoire de la dictature. Pour que les générations actuelles et futures s’en souviennent et prennent parti pour la justice.

Il est impossible de construire un état de droit en tuant des milliers d’opposants et en transformant les bourreaux en citoyens authentiques. Il n’est pas non plus souhaitable de faire semblant d’oublier en opposant à la mort du dictateur Jean-Claude Duvalier un simple mépris.


Translated from the French by Deji Bryce Olukotun and Alice Donahue