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Divided Haiti prepares national farewell to 'Baby Doc'

07 october 2014, 11:42
0

 Haiti is preparing an appropriate send-off for former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, but controversy over his funeral arrangements has stirred simmering political tensions, AFP reports.

The 63-year-old former strongman's passing, more than a quarter-of-a-century after he fled into exile, has not generated much public passion in an impoverished country still struggling to recover after a devastating 2010 earthquake.

But Duvalier's death has stirred Haiti's political classes -- already at odds over the organization of long-delayed legislative elections -- and has dismayed victims of his brutal rule searching for justice.

President Michel Martelly's government is seen as sympathetic to the Duvalier camp, and the manner in which it chooses to mark his death will set the tone during a difficult period in Haiti's already tragic story.

"It should be a national funeral, because that's what the protocol requires, as he was a head of state," Lucien Jura, spokesman for Martelly, told AFP on Monday.

"But what we don't yet know is whether there will be a decision to put flags at half-staff and declare a period of national mourning," he said, promising a decision later in the day.

Opposition figures reacted bitterly to the provisional plans to honor a man who took control of Haiti in 1971, after the death of his father Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Baby Doc came to power when he was just 19, later declaring himself president for life.

An estimated 30,000 people were killed during his reign and that of his father, as the family's feared Tonton Macoute militia targeted political opponents and acted as the enforcers for a greedy and corrupt elite.

   Dictator who did 'much harm' 

 "On the moral level, he has no right to a national funeral. He was a dictator who did much harm to the country," said former political prisoner and former Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul. "But if it's the law that he have one, so be it."

Duvalier supporters want Haiti to honor their hero's passing.

"He's a former president. He has the right to a special funeral," retired colonel Abel Jerome, a still influential former figure in the Duvalier regime, told AFP on Sunday

On the streets of Port-au-Prince ordinary Haitians were divided over Duvalier's legacy, but most thought it normal that a former national leader receive a state funeral.

Pierre Andre, a 40-year-old queueing with dozens of Haitians outside the Brazilian embassy, seeking a visa, said: "He was a thief, who ruined the country."

But he shrugged: "He was a man, he deserves a funeral. The other presidents who came after him did the same."

Around half of Haiti's estimated 10-million people are under 20 years old and even some of those who are older have only dim memories of a leader who fled in 1986.

"My parents said he wasn't such a bad president," said 28-year-old Guerda Cesar, while Vilbin Jean-Louis, 37 and unemployed, added: "Apparently, things weren't so tough then, economically."

Baby Doc ruled for 15 years before being driven into exile by protests, and only returned as a private citizen in 2011, a surprise move that he claimed represented a gesture of solidarity with his people a year after the quake killed more than 100,000.

His time in exile, mainly in France, was known at first for shameless luxury, although he was living relatively modestly in Paris just before his return.

While he has been seen in some of Port-au-Prince's top restaurants, he had been discreet since his return.

Rights activists and victim support groups seized upon his arrival to launch an attempt to prosecute him for crimes against humanity and corruption, even managing to get him to make a single begrudging appearance in court.

 

  Fate of rights cases unclear 

 

But the fate of the cases against him is now no longer clear, and a legal process that many in the international community hoped could serve as a basis for national reconciliation in still-wounded Haiti is in limbo.

The special representative in Haiti of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Sandra Honore, called for the process to continue, echoing declarations from the rights groups campaigning for an end to the country's tradition of impunity for political crimes.

"The return of the former president to Haiti in 2011 presented an opportunity for the country to comprehensively address the painful memories of its recent past through the required processes of accountability and of reconciliation, the pursuit of which should continue," she said.

In June, Martelly declared that Haiti would hold legislative and municipal elections on October 26 but there is little sign of practical preparations underway, and talks between political camps have failed to agree on a way forward.

The vote has been delayed for three years and many legislators are reaching the ends of their terms. If their mandates expire without an election being held, Martelly may have to rule by decree, an uncomfortable echo of the Duvalier era.


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