By Michael Deibert
I was sitting in my study in New Orleans working on a book about the Democratic Republic of Congo when I heard the news that Jean-Claude Bajeux had passed. Bajeux, co-founder of the Centre Oecuménique des Droits de l'Homme (CEDH), former Minister of Culture, militant for human rights and democracy and great Haitian patriot, was 79.
Since I started visiting Haiti in 1997, I got to know Bajeux and his wife, Sylvie, over the years, both of a generation that fought hard against the 1957-1986 Duvalier family (father François and son Jean-Claude) dictatorship and the military juntas that followed. Subsequently supportive of the candidacy of Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the head of a broad democratic movement, Bajeux endured Haiti’s 1991 coup until Aristide’s return by a United States-led multinational military force in 1994, at which point he served as Minister of Culture. At one point, like Aristide himself, Bajeux was a priest who later left his role in the church, and he would become among Aristide’s foremost critics as the latter veered towards a particular brand of corrupt and violent anarcho-populism that reminded many like Bajeux of the elder Duvalier.
Bajeux, who received a PhD from Princeton University in the United States, lived and taught in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the past, and in recent years, the CEDH did important work in helping to draw attention to the plight of Haitians deported from the United States, often for very minor infractions, back to Haiti.
Well into his later years, I would see Bajeux bravely march in demonstrations at times when it was physically dangerous to do so in cities like Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and Cap-Haïtien in the country’s north.
Both the younger Duvalier and Aristide are now back living freely in Haiti, having never been held to account for the terrible suffering that they subjected the Haitian people to. I imagine that it must have been a difficult pill to swallow for someone such as Bajeux, who worked all his life to try and make Haiti’s political system more responsive and accountable to its people.
Likewise, the game-playing and politicking of Haiti’s political class, which recently rejected the second nominee of Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, for the post of Prime Minister, has never seemed more irresponsible or indifferent to the lives of the country’s citizens, who lived in dire poverty and dislocation even before Haiti’s devastating January 2010 earthquake.
In Haitian Creole there is an expression upon the passing of a great figure that “a great mapou has fallen.” Mapous are the massive, sturdy trees that one finds in the Haitian countryside, and great spiritual signifiers to the country’s vodou faithful, as well.
In recent years, the older generation of Haiti’s democratic activists that opposed the Duvalier regime, like those they once opposed, have begun to pass away, secure in their energies and convictions but unable to outrun what Andrew Marvell called “time’s winged chariot.”
One must remain hopeful that a younger generation will now pick up the legacy of collective struggles and personal sacrifices that men like Jean-Claude Bajeux left them and try and forge a more equitable and just future for Bajeux’s beloved country. There could be no better tribute.
Domi byen, JC.
New Orleans, August 2011