Memories of Chaos: Reflecting on Dictatorship

There’s something very disturbing to me about witnessing 20,000 armed soldiers in the U.S. Capitol building.

Why? Perhaps this story might explain why. At least partially.

I lived on an island in the Caribbean – Haiti – for nearly three years. My husband Mike worked with a USAID-sponsored farming-systems project, surveying Haiti’s agricultural infrastructure by actually walking mountainous segments and talking to people on the ground. That data would provide governmental and aid planners with information they could use to better assist the farmers of the country and possibly go a long way to alleviate food insecurity.

But before I ever stepped foot on the island, I read Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians, later made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Although fictional, the story contained many truths about life under a dictatorship, in this case that of the Duvalier family.

And that is why I’m sharing the following experience.

The sight of soldiers lining up on the streets of Washington D.C., sleeping on the floor of the U.S. Capitol building, brought it all back.

I flashed on Port-au-Prince, Haiti in February 1986. Chaos reigned after the downfall of dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. The U.S. Embassy evacuated all non-essential personnel after helping him to flee to France aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. And so our son and I spent three weeks in the U.S., while my husband stayed.

I was terrified for him.

After several days of anxious waiting, we got the official all-clear to go back to Haiti. As we approached Port-au-Prince, our plane circled the François Duvalier airport for over an hour. Something was obviously not right. The pilot offered no explanation for the delay. Finally the plane landed, pirouetting first over the blue waters of the Gulf of Gonâve, then dipping close to the treeless mountains looming above the city.

Thousands of people had tried to abort the landing by lying down on the tarmac, because Baby Doc’s head torturer had been spotted attempting to escape dressed as a nun, intending to board our plane on its return to the U.S. The crowd succeeded in preventing him from leaving. Meanwhile, all the passengers were let off our flight. Walking into the customs area, I spotted Embassy spooks with their shortwave radios, babbling furiously with disembodied voices. They rushed us out of Customs as fast as possible.

Outside, everything was even more chaotic, with those thousands of people scrambling to get out of there. Mike towered over a small group of shouting women in colorful head scarves, shoving his way toward us, and yelling that he’d parked about a half mile away, the closest he could get to the terminal. He grabbed our son and yelled again, that he’d be back with the truck, for me to stay there with the heavy suitcases. Heavy, yes, they were, loaded down with all the things I couldn’t buy in Haiti.

Footage from 1986 (NBC Archives)

So I stayed, hemmed in by running people, until the Haitian army loaded soldiers onto open-bed trucks and ordered them to fire over the heads of the crowd, to get them moving away faster. I hunkered between those two enormous blue suitcases, all the saliva in my mouth gone, terrified. Gunfire went on for what seemed like forever. Two young men spotted me and said they’d help me for x amount of money. Shaking, I said yes, pointing them to where I needed to go to find Mike. Off we went, running like the Devil was chasing us.

Everything worked out in the end, but tonight I remembered. Hence this post.

In the way of postscript, the people of Haiti ousted a brutal and corrupt dictatorship that year. Lacking weapons, they used their bare hands to lay their claim to freedom, tearing apart Duvalier’s mansion in Kenscoff. However, the supporters of that dictatorship continued to oppose that change with everything they could muster. The 20,000 troops in our nation’s capitol face a different mission than those soldiers I encountered on that sunny February day in Port-au-Prince. But with a flip of a coin, it could all go sideways.

Democracy is precious. And, as we’ve seen for some time now, quite fragile.

Our system’s lasted a few centuries plus change. It’s not perfect, and never has been. But that we need 20,000 troops to protect our system of government from domestic terrorists is a sad sight indeed.

U.S. Capitol, West Side