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Reviews of Bon Papa: Haiti’s Golden Years

“Bernard Diederich first came to Haiti in 1949, on a sailing trip heading to the South Pacific. He did not expect to stay in the country, but his stop-over corresponded with an international exposition celebrating the bicentennial of Port-au-Prince. The city was full of artists, dancers and tourists, and Diederich, like many others, was soon drawn in by Haitian culture. He retrospectively describes this using a familiar trope in travel narratives set in Haiti, which often cast Vodou in particular and Haitian culture more broadly as seductive: ‘Looking back to that night in December 1949, I like to think that the drums’ hypnotic beat was beckoning me to Haiti’ (p. 10). By his own report, it was easy enough to meet powerful foreigners who were able to help him procure the necessary documents to live and work in Port-au-Prince. He first took up a job at a casino (one of many newly opened establishments linked to U.S. capital, and possibly the mafia), then moved on to journalism, running the English-language weekly paper, Haiti Sun 

“Bon Papa: Haiti’s Golden Years … is written as a memoir, with all the shifts in tone and voice, time and place that accompany that genre. Diederich is here interested in the period just before François Duvalier came to power, specifically the 1950 – 1956 presidency of Paul E. Magloire. It is perhaps not surprising that he characterises this as the ‘golden years’ of the country. This is the period between his own romantic arrival and his subsequent departure in 1963, after imprisonment then exile by the Duvalier regime. As a personal reflection on the past, steeped in nostalgia, it may be possible to see the years before the Duvalier regime in such terms. As an analytic position, it is untenable. This was not a peaceful or democratic period, nor was it a period of real economic growth. It was yet another moment in which the various strategic alliances between the Haitian elite and foreign powers held a looming crisis at bay, albeit only for a while. … The book remains a captivating document of the time … Compiled from Diederich’s memories and primary documents culled from his days at the Haiti Sun, it offers an archive of an important and understudied period of Haitian history. ”
— Greg Beckett, University of Chicago, Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 31, no. 2

“The journalist Bernard Diederich, best known for Papa Doc: The Truth About Haiti Today, has written a new book chronicling the founding and reporting of his newsweekly, Haiti Sun, during the 1950s. Published in English, Haiti Sun had a limited audience. Diederich’s connections to the foreign (especially American) press gave him, however, significant journalistic influence. Moreover, by covering glamorous social events and the lifestyle of the rich and famous, the Haiti Sun attracted the attention of the elite and expatriate community. The paper did not just highlight frivolities of the well-off; it also featured a column entitled ‘Personality of the Week’ that recognized ‘persons, big and small, who had made a contribution to the republic or made news that week’ (p. 91). In addition, the Haiti Sun prided itself on defending free speech and being politically independent. This generated the occasional harassment and threat from the government, culminating in the Sun’s forced closure by Papa Doc Duvalier in 1963.

“Bon Papa: Haiti’s Golden Years covers mostly the 1950s, the period which was dominated by the presidency of General Paul Magloire and which Diederich describes as a ‘magical time’ (p. 9) in Haiti’s history. The country seemed to be poised to ‘take off.’ It was relatively prosperous and peaceful with the capacity to attract foreign investments, tourism, and celebrities. This is not to say that Haiti’s so-called ‘golden years’ had no major flaws or problems. In fact, Diederich recognizes the great material and cultural chasm between the rural majority and the small well-off urban minority. He acknowledges not only the divisions of color and class that plagued Haitian society, but also the caudillismo of Magloire’s authoritarian rule. These ‘golden years’ therefore had severe limitations, but they compare well to the ensuing five decades of persistent crisis and decay which are in Diederich’s view a story of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ (p. 10).

“Paradoxically, this story of man’s inhumanity to man was rooted in Magloire’s own failings and determination to remain in power illegally for the longue durée. In May 1950 Magloire himself headed a three-member military junta that overthrew then-president Dumarsais Estimé for seeking to keep his position beyond the limits of his term. Magloire suffered the same fate for similar sins when he was forced into exile in December 1956. As Diederich explains, ‘it was that old and seemingly endemic malady of Haitian chiefs of state, endeavoring to prolong their sojourn in the National Palace, which had inflamed passions once again’ (p. 205). Indeed, historically, Haitian politics has been characterized by the recurring emergence of charismatic leaders with seemingly good intentions who inevitably descend into a personal quest for unlimited power and life-presidencies. Magloire’s excesses were therefore not an exception, but rather the typical follies of Haitian rulers.

“Similarly, when Magloire decided that he had to ascend to the presidency he engineered his own election by funding his opposition and maneuvering to run as the candidate of a party that he would ultimately ban! The election of October 1950 constituted ‘Haiti’s first popular vote for president.’ Previously, presidents had been selected by the legislature, but now all adult males were allowed to vote. In reality, the election was in Diederich’s words a ‘ritual’ and the outcome was predetermined. Magloire won, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority, gaining 25,679 votes, with his opponent Fenelon Alphonse receiving an insignificant 7. While the introduction of universal suffrage for males was a small positive step in democratizing Haitian politics, it did little to shake the privileged power structure. Magloire’s election ultimately depended on the tacit agreement and support of this power structure. As Diederich puts it: ‘Magloire had the backing of the forces that mattered in Haitian politics: the Army, U.S. embassy, Roman Catholic Church, local hierarchy, Haiti’s economic elite, and even Haiti’s neighbor dictator Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo. However, the majority of Haitians remained spectators of their fate’ (p. 33).

“In spite of the social and material marginalization of most Haitians, Diederich maintains that the country was not ‘rife with poverty and other forms of deprivation,’ but rather was ‘alive and vibrant’ (p. 28) in 1950. Haiti was full of promise as Magloire’s image as a ‘Bon Papa’ taking care of the poor and feasting with the well-off gave the impression that he could bridge the divide between class and color and bring about social reconciliation. Magloire, however, was the typical presidential monarch whose paternalism ingratiated him with the masses so long as he delivered to them a modicum of welfare. Not surprisingly, they sang: He gives us jobs and money – oh! oh! oh! He can stay in the palace as long as he wants! (p. 126)

“Once Magloire turned into an authoritarian leader presiding over an increasingly corrupt administration his ‘love affair’ with Haitians ended abruptly. Alienating both the power structure and the average Haitian, Magloire, like many of his predecessors and successors, was compelled to fly into exile.

“Haitian history was repeating itself, only this time the descent into dictatorship would be more precipitous and devastating than in earlier periods. Magloire’s travails created the conditions for the tyrannical rule of François Duvalier. To this extent Diederich’s chronicling of the Magloire period is full of a nostalgia that belies the increasing social tensions and contradictions that Diederich himself exposes. It is true that there was a veneer of seemingly tranquil times which allowed for the gilded life of the elite, but underneath it all were forces that would exploit these tensions and contradictions to mount a despotic challenge to the existing power structure.

“Bon Papa: Haiti’s Golden Years is not an academic book. It is, however, an easy and informative read that describes with Panglossian lenses the Haiti of the 1950s prior to Duvalier’s ascendancy. It is clear that Diederich, who hails from New Zealand, has an abiding love for Haiti’s culture, people, and history. It is unfortunate, however, that the book has neither bibliography nor index. ”
— Robert Fatton, Jr., New West Indian Guide, vol. 85 no. 1 & 2