How well I remember my first introduction to Haiti. Descending the steps from the airplane at the Maïs Gaté Airport, the very first sight that captured my attention was that of the feared Tonton Macoutes. The Macoutes were President Jean-Claude Duvalier’s private army. There they stood, a formidable sight with their blue jean uniforms, dark sunglasses, and Uzi submachine guns. Glimpses of their stone-cold faces struck fear into my heart. As naive as I was at the time, I knew they were evil and history would reveal my fears were warranted.
Prit and I never had any run-ins with Duvalier’s police. This brutal force kept the population in check and in some ways it worked towards our advantage. We could walk the streets at midnight with no fear whatsoever. No one wanted to come under the wrath of Duvalier’s henchmen. Horrendous stories were repeated, however, of their revenge upon many of Duvalier’s enemies. While things appeared calm on the surface and foreigners from all nationalities came to Port-au-Prince to visit, there was an undercurrent with which the Haitian people were all too familiar. People would suddenly drop out of sight and there was talk of firing squads conducted at night. It was a reign of terror. Actually, this horrific reign was initiated under Jean-Claude’s father, François Duvalier, better known as “Papa Doc.” Under François Duvalier, at least 30,000 Haitians were murdered and his devoted Macoutes faithfully carried out his orders of execution. The brutality continued under Jean-Claude, who at 19 years of age, was declared President for Life by his father.
Prit, John, and I were living in Port-au-Prince when Duvalier (the son) was exiled to France, but not before he looted millions of dollars from Haiti’s national treasury. John was just a year old at the time. All the pent-up rage of decades that stretched back to Papa Doc’s regime was finally unleashed after Jean-Claude and his wife, Michelle, flew out of Haiti with a whole entourage of elite friends. The Macoutes became fair game for the masses and the fury of an oppressed people was poured out on those who remained behind. During this time, we stayed close to home to avoid the gunfire that was going on all around us and crawled under windows lest any stray bullets came our way. A missionary friend told us he saw young Haitian men using the head of a Macoute as a soccer ball.
Jean-Claude returned to Haiti in 2011 bankrupt, divorced, and a very sick man. No one thought he would ever return to the nation which he had stripped bare of its riches. Such is the irony of living in Haiti. Yesterday morning Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) passed away at 63 years of age. It is the end of an era. The present generation here doesn’t even remember the old Duvalierist regime. Many of the youth in our churches don’t even remember the continued succession of failed leadership that plunged this little nation into despair.
After thirty-one years in Haiti, we’ve seen the suffering of our Haitian brethren up close. An all-time low came during the embargo of 1993-1994 . We learned that people in the countryside were eating cowhide and the bark off of trees just to have something in their stomachs. All the while, Duvalier enjoyed a life of opulent luxury in Paris.
While Haiti is far from being trouble-free, we do believe things are beginning to turn around for this little nation the size of Maryland. Wonderful things are taking place and hope is rising once again that the Haitian people will once again hold their heads up with dignity.
As for Duvalier and the Tonton Macoutes, they remain indelibly fixed in our minds. They were an integral part of our first years of life in Haiti.