While no direct action from the current Haitian administration seems to be moving this direction, many Haitian activists in the past have suggested making April a month of commemoration for the Duvalier era, and more especially, a month to remember gross human rights abuses orchestrated by state actors. Groups such as the Le Comité de commémoration du 26 avril 1963 (established in 2013) and the Collectif contre l’impunité (established in 2011 by former victims of the Duvalier regime) have all advocated for the need of a “devoir de mémoire“(duty or responsibility to remember) crimes associated with the father and son dictatorships.

As a history student, I find the Duvalier era fascinating. While I tremble at the very idea that mass murder, forced detainment, disappearance, rape and torture could have occurred in all impunity, my interests has less to do with the Duvaliers themselves than with the memory of Duvalierism in Haiti and amongst Haitians. If, in the past few years, there has been a multiplication of public and private parties producing impressive lists of victims and assembling primary documents regarding evidence of state sponsored terrorism (see the Collectif contre l’impunité on this respect), most Haitians today remain absolutely polarized in their assessment of the 29 year period.  Although some believe that Haiti was “much better then,” many remain skeptical of such evaluation. As a history student, I find it difficult to disregard personal accounts of violence and piles of documents strongly suggestions a state structure which favoured and facilitated violence. Yet — also as a history student — I cannot ignore the very romantic tone in which individuals involved closely (or by far) with the two regimes have tended to remember the Duvalier days. I feel forced to accept that the memory of Duvalierism is very much divided.

This idea of a “divided memory” is precisely what I would like to explore (if time permits it) on this blog for the month of April. Even for those not familiar with Haitian history or with this specific period, I believe analyzing this era permits a very insightful discussions about the interacting between History and Memory. Also, I think it helps reflect on the complexity of speaking of a “collective memory” when there exists many different memories constantly re-negotiated to fit ideological and/or present day sensibilities.

The question of memory and Duvalierism touches more than just Haitians. While many Western governments were quick to denounce the Duvaliers publicly, what they did privately suggests very little commitment to questions of human rights abuses (or at least as they unfolded in Haiti). More particularly, while historians still debate Washington’s exact involvement in supporting both François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, it seems impossible that these regimes could have survived so long without crucial moral and financial help from the State Department. Bearing this in mind, I believe replacing the Duvalier era in the context of the Cold War is essential to any analysis of American entanglement in Haiti but also for a discussion on the larger implications of U.S. foreign policy coupled with the ‘acceptation’ human rights violations.

At any rate, while the goal of this month’s long reflection is not to provide some “final” analysis or commentary on the overlaying questions of memory, dictatorship, violence, Western accountability and so on, I think we would wish to create an initial dialogue for considering what are indeed very difficult questions.

On a happier note, we wish you a very Happy Easter!

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5 thoughts on “Memory and History: April as a month of remembrance

  1. Greeting,

    This is an interesting topic. I left Haiti in January 28, 1984 at the age of 12. I can honestly say that as a kid, I always felt this great fear of the unknown in Haiti. At the time, I didn’t have the knowledge and understanding to understand the gravity of the dictatorship in Haiti and how it impact everyone Haitian. However, I can remember this phenomenon called “Congo” this was the soul crushing experience Haitian peasants faced in Croix-Des Bouquets trying to get on a yellow bus to go to “Santo Domingo” the Dominican Republic. Words can’t express the cruelty and savagery of this immoral condition in Haiti during baby doc era. I was a school kid at the time and I hated to see the condition of these poor Haitian peasants. They would turn Croix Des Bouquets into the valley of the shadow of death. The “Tonton Macout” would beat these poor souls senseless with their gory lash. Oh how I remember they would cry under such pain. They use to line them up like slaves ready to embark on the slave ship. Only one who has experienced this horrid condition can understand the gravity of the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. This phenomenon is only the tip of the iceberg of what was happening in Haiti during the Duvalier Era. I can go on and one. I hope you will be able to glean the gold from the shaft in what I am saying here.

    Dr. R

    1. Hello, thank you for your comment.
      Yes, this feeling of helplessness and anger really captures what a lot of people I have meet who were of age during the Duvalier era have described. I think it goes on to show how normalize state violence had become and how a real “conspiracy of silence” existed as a way to “protect” children (and adults alike, I suppose) from the intensity of this violence.

      Yet, despite all this, some Haitians continue to defend both François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, while others simply make it seem as this affair was all very banal in the end. My friend and I were even severely criticized (and even called names) by Tumblr users for mentioning human rights abuses during the Duvalier era. Although I have no real answers to provide, I am very interested in this whole phenomenon and the politics of memory.

      1. Greeting,

        I totally understand the mind frame that would lead a Haitian person to “severely criticize” you and your friend via Tumblr. These were the Haitians that were able to eat a piece of bread during that error. They would sale their brothers and sisters for rice and beans.

      2. I totally understand the mind frame that would lead a Haitian person to “severely criticize” you and your friend via Tumblr. These were the Haitians that were able to eat a piece of bread during that era. They would sale their brothers and sisters for rice and beans.

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