PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Hundreds of Haitians said farewell Saturday to former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a week after his death revived bitter divisions over his legacy.
The mourners, including powerful players from the 63-year-old’s former regime, gathered at the chapel of his former high school in Port-au-Prince to pay their respects at a family ceremony.
The family still commands respect among some in Haiti’s business and political elite, but Duvalier is remembered by rights activists and opposition figures as a corrupt and brutal autocrat.
“Duvalier is a criminal, he won’t go to heaven! Burn him, behead him,” cried a group of youthful protesters as a convoy of luxury SUVs arrived at the church.
Inside the ceremony, politicians, former military officers and churchmen paid tribute to a man who stood accused of having thousands of his opponents killed and presiding over an empire of graft. Several times the crowd rose in applause as former barons of his regime defended his 15-year reign. The late leader’s 31-year-old son Nicolas stood with his head bowed.
The family made no public statements.
The former dictator was driven from office in 1986 by a popular uprising and spent a quarter-of-a-century in exile before returning in 2011 – a year after an earthquake so devastating it overshadowed even the crimes of his era.
Despite his long absence, Duvalier’s record still divides Haiti, an impoverished Caribbean nation of around 10 million people plagued by unrest and an ongoing cholera epidemic blamed on the poor hygiene of UN peacekeepers.
President Michel Martelly’s government is seen as close to surviving members of the Duvalier camp, and critics warn that many of the networks of corruption he put in place are still operating today. On his death, Martelly tweeted in tribute that Duvalier was “an authentic son of Haiti,” and his spokesman later told AFP that a national funeral would be appropriate.
This triggered the fury of the opposition and human rights groups, worsening an already intractable political crisis and threatening long-postponed legislative elections, and the idea was abandoned.
But the divide running through Haitian society was on full display outside his private funeral.
“Duvalier was a great man in Haitian history!” one supporter cried as the coffin left the chapel covered in funeral wreaths. Another supporter lamented: “He had no time to give us our orders!”
Despite the ferment among the Haitian political classes – and foreign human rights advocates – since Duvalier’s death, there has been little sign of passion on the streets.