The sight of Jean-Claude Duvalier returning to Haiti after a quarter century of exile in France recalled an earlier era when dictators blatantly ruled with impunity.
Bebe Doc, as Jean-Claude was known during his 15-year rule over Haiti, continued the oligarchical control of his father Papa Doc Duvalier over the poverty and deprivation of this island nation until 1986.
The stability they enforced with paramilitaries, like the infamous Tonton Macoute, managed to extract wealth from the misery of the vast majority of Haitians while profiting just a small elite percentage of the population and their international backers.
This pattern repeated itself throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Ideological struggles trumped human rights.
Remember Rafael Trujillo who ruled the neighbouring Dominican Republic for over three decades? The United States had groomed Trujillo and for the most part tolerated the repression on the eastern half of the island of Santo Domingo because of that dictator’s staunch anti-communist stand.
The Somoza family rule in Nicaragua paralleled the others in their four-decade-long reign. Like them, the Somozas ran Nicaragua as a kleptocracy amassing personal fortunes at the expense of the welfare of the majority their citizens.
President Franklin Roosevelt purportedly first uttered the phrase, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” when referring to Anastasio Somoza Sr.
The Somoza family dynasty managed to leverage US backing of its harsh dictatorship up to the Carter presidency on the basis its avowed anti-communism.
My memories of travelling in Nicaragua during the Somoza era still provoke a chill.
I recall a pervasive, almost palpable atmosphere of repression. Walking the streets of the capital amidst the post-1972 earthquake ruins of Managua you couldn’t escape a sense of always being watched.
The famous “bastard” phrase has been attributed to other US presidents and officials in relation to a host of less than savory rulers from Venezuela’s General Perez Jimenez to Panama’s Manuel Noriega to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. Geopolitical concerns along with macro-economic interests have continually perverted publicly espoused dedication to principles of democracy and self determination.
Notions of empire, power and greed blind world leaders to basic principles as much today as in Duvalier’s generation. This continues to play into the hands of petty dictators and authoritarian regimes from Tunisia to Kazakhstan.
As Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese opposition leader has said, “It is often in the name of cultural integrity as well as social stability and national security that democratic reforms based on human rights are resisted by authoritarian governments.”
To believe that true society-building stability can actually be fostered by looking down the barrel of a gun is a false and dangerous delusion. A forced stability that maintains an inequitable status quo leads inevitably towards greater suffering. However, understanding and embracing the human rights revolution of the last century puts one on a path towards the changes that ensure the social and economic stability that come from striving towards a just, democratic social order.
Looking back to the religious prophets of old, did Moses or Muhammad come so that things would stay the same?
They didn’t come to maintain an unjust social structure. They came to call people out of their bondage towards a new way of living too.
On Sunday, January 23rd the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will conclude with an ecumenical service at Sacred Heart Cathedral at 4th and Steele beginning at 4 p.m. A potluck supper will follow in CYO Hall. All are welcome.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.