GENEVA (Reuters) - Watched carefully by a coterie of ministers and aides, the plump teenager remained ensconced on the hard-padded sofa as I and other foreign journalists filed up one by one to meet Haiti’s new President-for-Life.
The handshake was limp, the palm pudgy and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, in gaudy tie but dark, buttoned-up double-breasted suit despite the heat, gazed vaguely into the distance, avoiding eye contact with his visitors.
It was April 1971, in the gilded reception room of the now wrecked Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, just 48 hours after the 19-year-old’s father, long-time dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, was officially declared dead.
This past weekend, after 15 years as Haiti’s official leader followed by 25 years in exile, “Baby Doc” returned to the earthquake-shattered Caribbean country saying he wanted to help in the reconstruction effort.
But human rights groups quickly called for Haiti to arrest and prosecute him for crimes against humanity.
Nearly 40 years ago, on April 21, 1971, Haitian radio began playing funereal music at 7 a.m., then at 8 a.m. it announced — with no mention of “Papa Doc” — that President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier had official functions to perform that day.
The night before, over a steak supper following a flight into Haiti via Miami from Mexico City where I was based at the time, I had been warned by a veteran Duvalier-watcher: “If the old man dies, dive under your bed and stay there.”
The “blood-in-the-streets” warning was repeated by the hotel owner as he fended off an American tourist who was demanding transport to take him to the famous chateau of 19th-century revolutionary figure Henri Christophe in the north.
“Nothing is moving today,” the young hotelier, whose father had been abducted and killed some years before by “Papa Doc”‘s very unsecret security squads, the Tontons Macoutes, told me.
But for a large fee a taxi driver agreed to drive to the telegraph office — no internet or mobile phones then — from where a call could be placed. The streets, at 10 a.m. on a weekday, were all but empty and the driver was silent.
“Nothing has happened,” was all he would say — a phrase repeated by the woman who booked my call to our Washington bureau, which came through promptly.
That was the common refrain, over the following days of ceremonies and speeches sealing Jean-Claude’s assumption to his father’s title, from a people cowed into abject fear by Papa Doc and the Tontons.
The old man’s ministers and his powerful widow Simone, stood around the stocky, crew-cut youth as he gave a listless news conference at which he took no questions, and was blessed by a bishop long excommunicated by the Vatican.
During that service, in the now also quake-wrecked Catholic cathedral, armed soldiers stood in the aisles and one with an automatic rifle on the ready watched from the pulpit.
But the only deaths linked to Papa Doc’s passing came after the religious service, when voodoo-worshipping crowds lining the street thought they saw his spirit in a small whirlwind of dust and fled in panic, many down open drains.
Even the Tontons, for whom he had been the incarnation of mythical voodoo overlord Baron Samedi, ran, shedding their shoes in the process. One, guarding foreign journalists, returned 10 minutes later declaring unconvincingly: “Nothing happened.”
During those days, young men proclaiming themselves old schoolfriends of Jean-Claude circulated among the reporters, insisting that he was a closet reformer who was going to turn Haiti into a tropical paradise, or at least a modern state.
The same role was performed by dapper and diminutive Haitian columnist Auberon Jolicoeur — “Petit Pierre” in Graham Greene’s novel on Papa Doc’s Haiti “The Comedians” and its film version.
When Baby Doc addressed the puppet parliament a week after his father died, he did declare an amnesty for political prisoners. How many actually got out of jail — the Tontons kept few prisoners alive for long — was never known.
Baby Doc did try to brighten Haiti’s dark reputation after the violent, despotic era of his father. For example, he renamed the Tontons “the volunteers for national security” — but did not dissolve the internationally condemned force of state thugs.
He was also dogged by perceptions of repressive rule, corruption and human rights abuses himself before he fled abroad from a groundswell of street protests and U.S. pressure in 1986.
Haiti-watchers had no doubt in April 1971 that real power remained with the group — both black and mulatto — Papa Doc had gathered around him after destroying the old mulatto elite that had ruled Haiti since independence from France in 1804.
The role of these people — including interior minister Luckner Cambronne and army chief Claude Raymond — became very clear as a U.S. warship appeared in coastal waters, obviously sparking fears of an invasion.
Foreign journalists having a farewell supper in the garden at Olofsson’s, the hotel made famous by Greene, were summoned in mid-meal to meet “important people.” The Tontons bringing the message left no doubt we were not expected to wait for dessert.
Whisked in some trepidation across town to a building where we found Cambronne, Raymond and company waiting, we soon realized with relief that we were not headed for jail but were to be given an important message to take with us next day.
“All is at peace here,” we were told in a dozen different ways in the course of a two-hour pep session. And, of course: “Nothing has happened. You must tell your readers that.”
Over the next 15 years in long-suffering Haiti, nothing very much did. (Robert Evans was Reuters bureau chief in Mexico City from 1970 to 1972). (Editing by Mark Heinrich)