// archives


This tag is associated with 5 posts

The Return of the Dictators

6 April 2014

The Return of the Dictators

“I prefer death to surrender,” said Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf,  on 1 April to the special court that is trying him on five counts of high treason, but it’s a reasonable guess that he’d prefer exile to either of those options. The real puzzle is why he ever left his comfortable exile in England in the first place.

In theory Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in 1999 and finally gave it up under great pressure in 2007, could face the death penalty if he is found guilty, but in practice he is protected by the Important Persons Act, an unwritten law that operates in almost every country. High political office is a club, and the members look after one another.

Nevertheless, Musharraf is being greatly inconvenienced by the trial, and last week the Taliban nearly got him with a roadside bomb near Islamabad. Doubtless he missed Pakistan, but what bizarre calculation could have led him to go home and put himself in the hands of his many enemies?

Musharraf said he was coming home to run in the 2013 election, which was delusional in the extreme. There was little reason to believe that many Pakistanis would want to vote for him after living under his arbitrary rule for eight years. There was no reason at all to think that he would not be disqualified from running in the election and put on trial for grave crimes.

Yet Musharraf is not alone. Other ex-dictators, far nastier than him, have succumbed to the same delusion and gone home convinced that they would be welcomed back. Another recent case is Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who took over as Haiti’s dictator at 19 when his father “Papa Doc” died in 1971 and ruled it until he was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1986.

Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere when he took power, and still the poorest when he lost it, but he took an alleged $120 million with him into exile in France. His dreaded Tonton Macoute militia murdered thousands and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, and many of them were massacred in the revolution that ended his rule, but he lived on in Paris in great luxury.

Eventually Duvalier’s spendthrift ways and an expensive divorce got him into financial difficulties, but just going back to Haiti was not going to fix that. Yet he went home in 2011, after a quarter-century in exile. He said he was “just coming to help,” whatever that meant, but he arrived just as the recently elected president was facing charges of election-rigging, which led some to speculate that Duvalier still had political ambitions.

He was arrested and charged with embezzlement, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. Three years later the courts are still pursuing him on those charges, but in the meantime he is frequently seen lunching in the bistros of Petionville, and has even been welcomed at the same events as the current president, Michel Martelly. It’s safe to say that he will not die in jail.

And then there was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, president of the Central African Republic, later known as Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Empire. He was a brutal soldier who had served in the French colonial army, and seized power from his country’s first president (a cousin) in 1966. For the next thirteen years he ruled the country with great violence and practically bankrupted it.

The mass murder of schoolchildren and rumours of cannibalism finally moved the French to intervene militarily and overthrow Bokassa in 1979 while he was travelling abroad. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1980 for the murder of many political rivals – but he returned from exile in Paris in 1986, seemingly confident that he would be welcomed with open arms.

He was put on trial and sentenced to death again – in person, this time. But the following year his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and in 1993 he was set free. In 2010, President François Bozizé issued a decree rehabilitating Bokassa and calling him “a son of the nation recognised by all as a great builder.”

Two things are odd about this phenomenon of ex-dictators confidently returning to the scene of the crime. One, obviously, is their belief that they are still loved (as if they ever really were). But that is less strange than it seems, for during their time in power very few people dared to tell them anything else.

What’s much more curious is the fact that the countries they misruled eventually find it necessary to forgive them. They do this not so much out of sympathy for the man who committed the crimes, but rather out of a need for the nation’s history not to be merely a meaningless catalogue of blunders and misdeeds.

Musharraf may have come back a bit too early to benefit from instant forgiveness, for some of the people he hurt have not yet retired. But he will not face really serious jail time or the death penalty, because Pakistan’s army would not permit it. And he will be forgiven by Pakistan’s historians and myth-makers in the end, because somehow or other the history has to make sense.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“And then…builder”)

The Haitian Follies

21 January 2011

The Haitian Follies

By Gwynne Dyer

A confidential 2006 cable from the US embassy in Haiti, subsequently made public by Wikileaks, said that the United States viewed the possible return of either of the two exiled Haitian ex-presidents, Jean-Bertrand Aristide or Jean-Claude Duvalier, as “unhelpful”. But one of them, former president-for-life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, is already back in Haiti, probably with Washington’s approval.

“Baby Doc” took over the dictatorship from his dying father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, at the age of nineteen in 1971, and ruled with same brutality and greed as his father until he was driven from power and into exile in 1986. What can have made him think it was a good idea to come back now?

If you believe the headlines, he has made a dreadful mistake. On 18 January, only two days after his return, “Baby Doc” was brought before a court in Port-au-Prince and charged with official corruption, embezzlement of funds, money laundering and assassination. But things are not always what they seem.

First, there is the fact that both the United States and France, where Duvalier was living in exile, would have been keeping track of him, and must have known of his intention to return. Indeed, they probably put him up to it: he was travelling on a long-expired diplomatic passport, and would never have been allowed to board the plane to Haiti if Washington and Paris had not quietly blessed his trip.

Secondly, he may never see the inside of a jail. He was set free after the court hearing without even having to post bail, and the chief magistrate has ninety days to decide whether there is enough evidence to bring him to trial. A lot can happen in ninety days.

Thirdly, “Baby Doc” has some support in Haiti, as witness the crowds chanting support for him outside the court. It’s 25 years since he left power, and most of the ten million Haitians are under 25. They don’t remember the kidnappings, torture and murder of opponents of the Duvaliers, father and son, by the regime’s militia, the Tonton Macoute.

They do remember their parents saying that Haitians lived better under the Duvaliers, and unfortunately, it is true. Since then they have seen some intervals of democracy, punctuated by military coups and foreign interventions, but living standards had declined steeply even before the huge earthquake last year that killed 3 percent of the population.

So “Baby Doc” is not just a deluded no-hoper, although he is unlikely ever to be president again. His presence in Haiti will frighten the outgoing president, Rene Preval, and his chosen successor, Jude Celestin – as it was doubtless intended to do.

Haiti has been in a protracted political crisis since the presidential election last November, with accusations of fraud flying in all directions. The outside powers that have effectively run the country since 2004, the United States, Canada and France, didn’t want Preval’s candidate to win, and they are making sure he doesn’t.

Preval was a little too independent-minded for their taste, though nobody would accuse him of being a raving leftist. They must have feared that Celestin would also have a mind of his own, because they altered the outcome of the recent election to make sure that he wasn’t in the run-off.

It was not very subtly done. Celestin came second in the election, and since no candidate had won 50 percent of the vote he should have been a candidate in the run-off second round. But then the “expert verification mission” – six of whose seven “experts” come from the United States, Canada or France – changed the results.

They disqualified a lot of pro-Celestin votes, pushing him down to third place, but they didn’t actually do a recount. They just arbitrarily threw out 234 tally sheets, mostly from areas that were pro-Celestin. They didn’t even examine more than 90 percent of the ballot sheets.

The man now facing front-runner Mirlande Manigat in the run-off, according to those “experts”, is Haiti’s best-known pop musician, Michel Martelly, who is as reliably pro-Washington as she is. If that decision stands, Celestin falls. But Rene Preval’s government is still resisting that decision, so it was time to frighten him into submission. Enter “Baby Doc”.

Or at least, that’s probably what’s happening, though it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why not? Because what happens in Haiti doesn’t really matter in the least to the United States, Canada or France.

Haitian politics are convoluted and turbulent because the major players have no loyalty beyond their own self-interest, but so long as the other exiled ex-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, doesn’t come back, the game is of no importance to the outside powers. Aristide, currently living in South Africa, could play a role in the Caribbean similar to that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela if he regained power, but that is not currently on the cards.

What is going on in Haiti at the moment is actually just Brownian motion. The outside powers have nothing important at stake, but the music goes on playing so they feel that they have to dance. Foolish and futile, but perfectly normal.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“They do…population”; and “They disqualified…sheets”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Senegal and Haiti

18 January 2010

Senegal and Haiti

 By Gwynne Dyer

Is it megalomania or just a political stunt? Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade may not even know the answer himself, but his offer to let quake-stricken Haitians resettle in his West African country certainly qualifies as the most flamboyant response to the tragedy in Haiti.

“The repeated calamities that befall Haiti prompt me to propose a radical solution: to take measures to create, somewhere in Africa, the conditions for Haitians to return,” the 83-year-old Senegalese president said on Saturday. “They did not choose to go to that island. It is our duty to recognise their right to come back to the land of their ancestors.”

Well, some of their ancestors, anyway. The slave populations of all the Caribbean islands were deliberately drawn from different parts of the west African coast, so that they would speak a variety of languages and find it harder to rebel. But the vocabulary of Haitian Creole suggests that there were many Wolof-speakers (the most widely used indigenous language in Senegal) among the slaves of Haiti.

Educated Haitians also speak French, of course, as do educated Senegalese, so it’s not as though Turkey or Sri Lanka were to offer a new home to Haitians. But it is nevertheless mighty peculiar: just where does Abdoulaye Wade propose to put them all?

He does sound serious about his offer, and he says that large numbers would be welcome. His spokesman, Mamadou Bemba Ndiaye, explained that “The president is offering voluntary repatriation to any Haitian that wants to return to their origin. If it’s just a few individuals, then we will likely offer them housing or small pieces of land. If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region.”

Now, it’s true that 90 percent of Haitians would leap at the chance to leave their country, the poorest in all the Americas, but the destination they have in mind is Miami or Montreal. Senegal is one of the best-run and most democratic countries of Africa (though both qualities have been badly damaged during the ten-year rule of Abdoulaye Wade), but it does not feature prominently on Haitian wish-lists.

It is also true that most Senegalese feel that their country is quite full enough without a large influx of Haitians. There are fourteen million people in Senegal, and the population is still growing fast. There are ten million people in Haiti, and its population is growing fast too. Moving a million Haitians to Senegal would relieve the intolerable pressure on Haiti’s badly degraded land for less than a decade – and it would cause chaos in Senegal.

“If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region,” said the president’s spokesman, adding that it would be in a fertile part of the country rather than in its parched deserts. But there is no fertile region of Senegal that is not already fully populated by people whose families have lived there for many generations. Where is the president planning to put them?

So yes, it is a stunt, not a real offer, and what gives the game away is the fact that Senegal is offering “voluntary repatriation” to Haitians, not assisted passage. They are welcome to come to Senegal if they can find the money for the airline tickets – but how many Haitians can do that?

Abdoulaye Wade is big on stunts and dramatic gestures. His last one, now nearing completion, is an enormous bronze statue overlooking the capital, Dakar, that is higher than the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. It is called the African Renaissance Monument, but it is being built by North Koreans. It actually looks like one of those Socialist Realist groupings of statuary, all windswept hair and eyes fixed confidently on the future, that littered the old Soviet Union. Only bigger.

Maybe he should build one overlooking Port-au-Prince too. It would be about as much use to Haitians as his offer of new homes for them in Senegal. Abdoulaye Wade is showing more and more signs of the “Big Man” syndrome that has wrecked so many African countries that once had quite functional governments. From Sudan to Zimbabwe and from Sierra Leone to Somalia, we have watched them fall into tyranny and chaos. Senegal may be next.

And what of Haiti? As hard as you might look for signs of hope amid the ruins, you will not find any. The earthquake is a dramatic interlude of natural disaster in a long history of tragedy whose sources were mostly human. What has devastated Haiti is politics, much of it imposed from outside by foreign governments: the French in the 19th century, the United States in the 20th and 21st. No honest and competent Haitian government has ever survived more than a couple of years.

The denuded land, the runaway population growth, the unskilled and illiterate population, the universal corruption: all these are due to failures of policy, not to some fundamental flaw in the character of Haitian people. But by now there have been generations of despair and neglect, and it is getting harder and harder to see how Haitians might turn it all around. No wonder most of them want to leave. But most of them never will.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Abdoulaye…next”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Haiti: No Easy Way Out

2 January 2006

Haiti: No Easy Way Out

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are not going to participate (in the election) without Aristide,” said Father Gérard Jean-Juste, whom many Haitians see as the natural successor to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest-president who was overthrown by the United States in 2004. “It’s going to be like the election in Iraq. It will be futile.”

That was last February, and as part of the process of trying to break Aristide’s support among the Haitian poor, the “interim government” installed by the US, France and Canada jailed Jean-Juste in July on the implausible charge that he murdered a journalist. But the elections that might finally give the foreign intervention some legitimacy have just been postponed for the FOURTH time.

They said they were cancelling the vote on 8 January because of problems with the new electronic voting system, but the real problem is that they still don’t control a lot of the country. In particular, they still don’t control Cité Soleil, the seething shanty-town that dominates Port-au-Prince, the ramshackle capital where a third of the 8.5 million Haitians live.

In Cité Soleil, Aristide is still the president. When United Nation troops in Haiti conducted a pre-dawn raid there last July, it turned into a five-hour firefight. The UN troops killed the five “gang members” they were allegedly after, but local residents saw the dead men as martyrs for Aristide and placed photos of the exiled president on their bodies. They did the same for the twenty other residents of the slum who they claim were killed by the “blue helmets” — and since then, UN troops have rarely dared to enter Cité Soleil.

In fact, all foreigners associated with the military intervention in Haiti are potential targets. In the last ten days of December, three Chilean UN soldiers were wounded in the northern town of Plaisance, a Jordanian soldier was killed in Cité Soleil, and a Canadian soldier was shot dead near a checkpoint just outside the slum. On 30 December, two employees of the Organisation of American States, one Peruvian and the other Guatemalan, were kidnapped while driving near Cité Soleil.

Haiti is responding badly to foreign intervention because it is a real country with a tragic history. Haitians may have no money, little education and few prospects, but they actually know who they are.

They are a whole country descended from people who were kidnapped from Africa, heirs of the greatest slave rebellion in history two centuries ago. They are the survivors of an attempted genocide by Napoleon, whose strategy for reconquering France’s richest colony involved exterminating every black over 12 and restocking Haiti with more docile slaves imported from Africa. They are also the victims of the long, sad aftermath of Haiti’s victory and independence.

With all the whites dead or fled, the enslaved former peasants from Africa inevitably ended up being dominated in independent Haiti by the so-called “mulattos,” locally born ex-slaves, many of them mixed-race, who spoke good French and understood how business, government and diplomacy worked. The new mulatto elite created an army, recruited mostly from the black majority, whose main job was to keep other blacks under control, and generation after generation they cooperated with foreigners to exploit their own fellow-countrymen.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest nurtured on liberation theology, became the hero of the poor black masses because he promised to end all that. He was elected president by a landslide in Haiti’s first free election in1990, after the reigning dictator, “Baby Doc” Duvalier, was forced into exile, but the unreformed army overthrew him the next year with the warm approval of the elder Bush administration, which saw him as a dangerous Marxist.

The Clinton administration used 24,000 American troops to put Aristide back in power in 1994, but discovered too late that he was a real revolutionary. He disbanded the army on his return, and when the old elite started using gangs of ex-soldiers to defend their privileges, he used similar gangs recruited from amongst the poor to cow them. His policies were incoherent, he was more a demagogue than a democrat, and Haiti remained the poorest country in the Americas — but the poor still loved him. Especially after the US overthrew him again.

The Republican-controlled Congress cut off US aid to Aristide’s government in 2000, and the younger Bush administration revived US links with the mulatto elite and their ex-military gangs afer 2001. In early 2004, gangs of ex-soldiers launched a revolt that advanced to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince — and a US official arrived at the presidential palace with a group of heavily armed Marines to escort Aristide to the airport.

Washington got diplomatic cover by persuading Canada and France to go along with the operation (they both felt the need to give Bush something after refusing to help him invade Iraq), and it got a 7,400-strong “peacekeeping force” out of the United Nations (which also felt the need to look helpful). But Caricom, the association of Caribbean countries, still refuses to accept the US-backed coup, and most poorer Haitians see the “interim government” as a US puppet and the UN troops as an occupying army.

Aristide, in exile in South Africa, still sees himself as the legitimate president of Haiti, and so do a lot of Haitians. They will not be allowed to vote for him even if the “interim government” does eventually manage to stage an election, but that means that nothing will be settled and the violence will not abate. Aristide may never return, but the old order cannot be restored.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and . (“In fact…Soleil”; and “Washington…army”)