The imported granite was smashed. The giant cupola was toppled. The grave of François Duvalier, the longtime dictator, is a wreck, much like the country he left behind.
But Victor Planess, who works at the National Cemetery here, has a soft spot for Mr. Duvalier, the man known as Papa Doc. Standing graveside the other day, Mr. Planess reminisced about what he considered the good old days of Mr. Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, who together ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986.
“I’d rather have Papa Doc here than all those guys,” Mr. Planess said, gesturing toward the presidential palace down the street. “I would have had a better life if they were still around.”
Mr. Planess, 53, who complains that hunger has become so much a part of his life that his stomach does not even growl anymore, is not alone in his nostalgia for Haiti’s dictatorial past. Other Haitians speak longingly of the security that existed then as well as the lack of garbage in the streets, the lower food prices and the scholarships for overseas study.
Haiti may have made significant strides since President René Préval, elected in 2006, became the latest leader to pass through the revolving door of Haitian politics. But the changes he has pushed have been incremental, not fast enough for many down-and-out Haitians.
“It’s time to show people that democracy is not just about voting but changing their real lives,” said Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis, who survived a no-confidence vote in February pushed by critics of his handling of the economy.
Jean-Claude Duvalier, now in exile in France, sought recently to take advantage of the discontent by raising the possibility of a return to Haiti. In a radio address in September, he offered a tentative apology for his acts, saying, “If, during my presidential mandate, the government caused any physical, moral or economic wrongs to others, I solemnly take the historical responsibility.”
Mr. Duvalier’s remarks, in which he also asked for “forgiveness from the people,” together with the nostalgia one hears on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital, these days provoke fury among present-day leaders.
They say they cannot believe that Mr. Duvalier’s National Unity Party is attracting followers, and that a giant photograph of the elder Mr. Duvalier hangs from the party’s headquarters.
They wonder who is buying copies of a sympathetic new book about François Duvalier called “The Misunderstood” by Jean-Claude Duvalier’s former information minister, Rony Gilot.
Even François Duvalier’s grave has received some sprucing up, and the talk at the cemetery is that supporters plan to rebuild it to its former glory.
“It’s such an insult to the victims to praise the Duvaliers,” said Patrick Elie, whom Mr. Préval recently appointed to head a commission to look into whether the army disbanded under the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide ought to be rebuilt. “There is nothing redeemable about them. We’re still paying for what they did to the country.”
Mr. Elie, who was a minister in Mr. Aristide’s government, calls the praise of the Duvaliers a “conspiracy of amnesia” that makes his blood boil.
“If you say François Duvalier was good, I feel like coming over and slamming my beer bottle in your face,” Mr. Elie said, sipping from a bottle of Prestige beer one recent evening. “There is a limit to tolerance. It becomes complicity with butchery. If you do that, I am going to go ballistic.”
Mr. Préval has acknowledged the Duvalier nostalgia and says he is working to counter it.
“People don’t know what the Duvalier regime truly represents,” Mr. Préval told The Miami Herald late last year. Acknowledging that there was peace back then, he added that Haitians born after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled in 1986 — who make up the bulk of the country’s population of 8.5 million — “don’t know the price of that peace.”
Mr. Préval has sought to recover some of the tens of millions of dollars that the younger Mr. Duvalier has stashed in foreign banks, funds the president says were looted from Haiti. Mr. Préval is also is pushing a plan to create a museum at the site of a former prison next to the palace, in which the Duvaliers’ henchmen tortured political prisoners. The site would be a reminder of that era’s horrors, he has said.
Haiti has a poor track record when it comes to preserving its past. A previous effort to restore another ignominious site, the Fort Dimanche prison, failed. The crumbling prison, where political executions once took place, is now home to squatters, some of whom get by selling patties made from dirt to quell hunger pangs.
“To think that the children being raised today do not have the reference of what wrongs have been done in the past,” said Wilson Laleau, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Haiti. “It’s so frustrating. We don’t use history and memory to understand our present and build the future. We keep beginning again from scratch.”
Mr. Laleau, an economist, said the economic growth that Haiti experienced in recent years was not really growth at all but a burst to catch up to where the economy was decades ago. “The economy was not as weak back then,” he said of the Duvalier era.
The old days come up in Haiti’s debate about whether to recreate the army. Mr. Préval’s commission is leaning against a traditional army, but it is grappling with how to control the rise of drug trafficking and what sort of force is needed to monitor the border that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
“I know that the higher level of insecurity has made people nostalgic for the strong hand,” said Mr. Elie, the commission’s leader. “They think the army is going to bring back what they call ‘the good old days.’ We don’t want people to fall for that nostalgic trap.”
Those old days, Mr. Elie said, were a time in which Haiti’s elite lived lives on the backs of the suffering masses. Creating a more equitable society, he said, is a long-term struggle that inevitably makes many uncomfortable.
“The idea of recreating that monster that was the army is preposterous and unacceptable,” he said. “One thing they did well was taking .50-caliber weapons and shooting into shanty towns. They are going to have to step over my dead body if that’s the kind of army they want.”
A United Nations peacekeeping force is now in charge of Haiti’s security. It has battled the gangs that used to control the slums in the capital and restored a semblance of normality in the poorest neighborhoods. The United Nations force, a mixture of soldiers and police officers, has also trained Haitian police officers, who are increasingly visible on the streets. The police force is being vetted to rid it of officers who are themselves criminals.
But the judicial system is a shambles, ill equipped to prosecute law breakers. Some gang leaders arrested last year have already been released and are stirring up trouble again.
Moreover, kidnapping has become a new money-making opportunity for Haiti’s poor, with no one — babies, old people, rich or poor — safe from being grabbed from the streets for ransom.
The situation in Haiti remains tenuous. “All of this remains very fragile,” said Hédi Annabi, a Tunisian who leads the peacekeeping force. “It’s not irreversible. If we were to leave or downsize now or in the immediate future, we would leave a vacuum, which would be filled by the bad guys.”
Mr. Duvalier is not the only former leader with dreams of a comeback. In a New Year’s message, Mr. Aristide, now in exile in South Africa, declared in Haitian Creole, “We are waiting to meet again, face to face on Haitian soil.” About a thousand of his supporters took to the streets last July to celebrate his birthday and call for his return from exile.
The political establishment in Haiti considers the likelihood that either Mr. Duvalier or Mr. Aristide will return to the presidential palace to be remote. But the two men have devoted followings and play the role of spoilers in the country’s volatile politics.
One of those who heard Mr. Duvalier’s radio address was Bobby Duval, who remembered shaking his head as he listened to the former dictator.
“I heard his apology, but it’s a little late for that,” said Mr. Duval, who served 17 months in jail in the mid-1970s, a result of one of Mr. Duvalier’s crackdowns on critics. “He destroyed this country. He left our psyche completely destroyed. Since 1986, we’ve been suffering the aftereffects of what happened back then.”
Mr. Duval said he would welcome Mr. Duvalier back, but only to experience what so many Haitians did during his rule.
“If he comes back, he ought to go to prison to reflect on what he did,” Mr. Duval said. “Anything else would be spitting on all those who died under him.”