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!