The Perils of the Philanthropist President in Haiti

News Abroad

Ms. Jean, a native of Haiti, is a PhD candidate at Yale University.

The editors of the New York Times must suffer from collective amnesia!  That is what I kept repeating to myself as I watched their latest report on the aftermath of the devastating January 12th earthquake in Haiti.  I relish reading the reports on Haiti for a variety of reasons.  It’s my way to keep hope for my country amid the devastation that the earthquake has brought on an already devastated land.  On March 20th, the online edition of the New York Times published a mini-documentary entitled “The Doctor who would be President, Dr. Guy Theodore.”  The title was intriguing and, as announced, the piece detailed the work of Guy Theodore, a U.S.-educated medical doctor, who returned to Haiti to set up a hospital that provides needed medical care to the needy at no cost.  Dr. Theodore seems to be doing wonderful charitable work in Haiti and filling in one of the many gaps for basic care in Haiti.  Since the January 12th earthquake, survivors have fled the destroyed capital of Port-au-Prince to seek medical care in Dr. Theodore’s hospital in the northern city of Pignon. 
The New York Times documentary matter of factly described Dr. Theodore’s political ambitions to become the president of Haiti based on his outstanding charitable work.  He traveled throughout the countryside prior to the earthquake to spread his program of national regeneration to the poor who have, without any doubt, benefited greatly from his efforts.  It seems acceptable and rational that a good humanitarian would transform, better than anyone, into a good, even a great, president.  Dr. Theodore has stopped campaigning since the earthquake and devoted most of his time to curing the ills, connecting bones, and serving as a mentor to the children of Pignon.  The New York Times article seems to present him as perhaps the hope of Haiti, a president who would immediately bring material wellness to the poor based on a prior record of sharing their plight.

Dr. Theodore’s political ambitions are nothing new to anyone who knows a little bit about the past five decades of Haitian history.  Another name came to my mind once I saw Dr. Theodore traveling across rural areas to gather support for his political campaign.  Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier!  There was a strange sense of déja vu watching him play with small children, bellowing that politics should be a matter of faith, and that the current government was failing to help the people fulfill their basic needs.  I won’t go as far as saying that Dr. Theodore’s advanced age somewhat brings Duvalier back to life on my computer’s screen.  Although one could argue this similarity as well, this particular detail remains irrelevant.  The similarities between Dr. Theodore and Duvalier were in the substance.

Francois Duvalier was a doctor who had gone to the country side to help the poor.  He had done postgraduate studies at the University of Michigan focusing on public health.  He returned to Haiti in 1943 to participate in a U.S. sponsored public health campaign in the countryside to eradicate yaws, typhus, malaria and other tropical diseases that plagued the poor.  The people loved Duvalier, and that is why they called him “Papa Doc.” Duvalier was a savior, a “daddy-doctor” before he became the ruthless leader that terrorized Haiti.  He was elected on a populist agenda and had the experience of working with the poor and identifying with their plight.  The rest is history.  Duvalier and Duvalierism evolved into the worst caricature of populist leadership ever seen in Haiti.  Duvalierism became anti-populist in that the people were mere appendages in his web of political rule without dissent.

I was born in 1977.  I didn’t grow up during the worst phase of the Duvalier regime.  He died in 1971.  I was but nine years old when his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was forced out of the country in 1986, taking with him whatever was left in the national bank.  I remember the joy and elation of the people.  I remember the genuine feeling that we could start anew for a better Haiti.  I remember the burnt bodies of the macoutes on the streets and the rage of decades of political oppression breaking free from the populace.  For a nine year old girl, this was a compressed moment of political consciousness and awakening.  When adults who have been muzzled suddenly get the opportunity to speak freely, it is the time for the younger generation to become immersed in recent history where memory and testimonies are reenacted in an incessant flow of information.  Unfortunately, Duvalierism proved to be too entrenched for Haiti to overcome in just two decades.

Should Dr. Theodore resume his political campaign and succeeds, Dr. Theodore may prove to be the best president that Haiti ever knows.  I just hope that the people of Haiti remember what got us Duvaliers since the New York Times cannot bother with such an insignificant detail.  I hope that we Haitians, rich and especially the poor, shift our perception of the political leader away from the image of a savior.  It is typical in Haiti, where there are so many needs to be filled, for well-meaning individuals to help the people and then expect the prize of the presidency as if a good philanthropist makes a great leader.

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