I’ve been watching two stories develop over the weekend: the liberation of Tunisia from its long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the return of Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier to the Haiti that he fled a quarter of a century ago after a similar overthrow. The two dictators were very different men ruling very different countries. By any rational measure Baby Doc was the worst of the two; he murdered thousands, tortured indiscriminately, and robbed his country blind. However, Ben Ali also jailed his opponents, allowed his family and friends to steal on a massive scale, and denied his countrymen their freedom. I would not have wanted to live in either country under either of these men.
So why has Haiti allowed its hated dictator to return? One word — desperation. Under Duvalier, most Haitians were starving, living hand-to-mouth, and saw nothing better ahead for their children. Finally, in desperation, they rose up and threw out their ruler. Since then, Haiti has suffered twenty-five years of a barely functioning economy, a barely functioning government, and (for most Haitians) a constant struggle to survive.
The thing is, people who are constantly struggling to survive lack the energy or resources to look beyond the next meal. And a generation after Duvalier was thrown out, most Haitians are still starving, living hand-to-mouth, and see nothing better ahead for their children.
Most Tunisians are not in such desperate straits, but they were suffering poverty and high rates of unemployment under their old government. That appears to have played a major role in convincing the people of Tunisia to throw out their ruler. The scale of misery might have been different, but by all accounts Tunisians acted because they were unhappy with their lives and did not see things getting better for their children. If their lives improve measurably and they receive the freedom that they have been promised, in twenty-five they may look back on the past month with pride and joy. If this does not happen, they may forget this week, or even come to regret it.
Tunisia’s new government, its people, and its neighbors should take note.