Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who inherited Haiti's presidency from his father in 1971 at age 19 and relinquished it amid protests at age 34, died Saturday in Port-au-Prince. He was 63. Together, Jean-Claude and his father François—known as "Papa Doc" for his pre-politics career as a physician—ruled Haiti for 28 years beginning in 1957, a period that saw the murder or disappearance of tens of thousands of Haitians, as well as the country's slide into the worst poverty in the Western hemisphere.  

"The Duvaliers zombified Haiti," Haitian-American journalist Garry Pierre-Pierre told The New York Times last year.

One way they did so was through a paramilitary organization François Duvalier founded to consolidate his hold on power. In a uniform of "straw hats, blue denim shirts, dark glasses, and machetes," in the words of the Washington, D.C.-based research organization the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the militia known as the Tonton Macoutes was "the main tool for the maintenance of the regime's grasp on power."

Although this organization no longer formally exists, its legacy of paramilitary violence and sheer brutality still contorts Haitian modern political and economic cultures. ... The Haitians nicknamed this warlord-led goon squad the “Tonton Macoutes,” after the Creole translation of a common myth, about an “uncle” (Tonton) who kidnaps and punishes obstreperous kids by snaring them in a gunnysack (Macoute) and carrying them off to be consumed at breakfast.

"I remember those days, and I shudder," said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a professor emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who fled Haiti with his family in 1964, at age 16. "It was absolutely brutal." He recalled classmates disappearing—mere teenagers taken preemptively before they could become adults who would oppose the regime. Observing Haiti after the elder Duvalier's death, Bellegarde-Smith was not hopeful conditions in the country would get better. The best that could be said of Baby Doc, he told me, was that "there were fewer murders under his reign."

But the brutality continued for 15 years, until Duvalier fled Haiti for France in 1986 in the face of a popular uprising. In 2011, he came back, declaring "I came to help my country" after a devastating earthquake and a chaotic presidential election. Human-rights groups were hopeful his return was an opportunity to put him on trial. After landing at the airport he referred to as Duvalier International Airport—it had shed his name almost immediately after he fled—he hinted at an apology, saying: "I want to take this opportunity to express, one more time, my deep sadness to those countrymen who feel, rightly, that they were victims of my government."

He was promptly arrested and charged with embezzlement of public funds. Amnesty International and other organizations at the time called for him to be tried on charges of crimes against humanity, but in 2012, a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on Duvalier's alleged human-rights abuses, though not on the corruption charges he faced.

Human-rights groups and victims appealed that decision, and last February, after repeatedly failing to show up to hearings on the matter, Duvalier had his day in court. He shared what The New York Times called "a muggy, packed courtroom" with some who said they were his victims. One, Robert Duval, told the Times he couldn't be sure "if I'm alive or if it's a dream," while Duvalier, for his part, told the judge in his defense that "deaths exist in all countries. I didn't intervene in the activities of the police."

In the end, the effort to try him ran aground in a series of motions and appeals. In a press release, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who helped build the case against Duvalier, lamented that Duvalier died before he could ever go to trial. “A Haitian proverb says ‘He who gives the blow forgets; he who carries the scar remembers,’” Brody said. “Duvalier may have forgotten the blows he gave to the Haitian people, but his victims remember.”

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