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Former Time bureau chief Bernard Diederich dies in Haiti

Last updated on 23/09/2020

Bernard Diederich in Makara Beach, New Zealand, where he grew up.

Bernard Diederich in Makara Beach, New Zealand, where he grew up.

He was so enamored with Haiti that he wrote several books about the country and its repressive politics, built his first home in the capital and was honored with the dedication in “The Comedians,” one of the most famous novels ever written about the place.

Bernard “Bernie” Diederich, a New Zealand-born journalist, photographer, author and historian who fell in love with Haiti after landing here on his boat more than five decades ago — and became a witness to many historical events in the country as well as the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America — died Tuesday of natural causes, his son JB Diederich told the Miami Herald. He was 93.

“My father is not to be mourned, but to be celebrated,” the younger Diederich, 56, said. “He lived his life on his terms and died in his own home in my mom’s arms, the love of his life….He lived an amazing life.”

Juan O. Tamayo, a former foreign editor at the Herald, who often lunched with Diederich and the Herald’s longtime Latin American editor, the late Don Bohning, said he will be missed. Diederich and Bohning, who passed away in 2015, were colleagues, collaborators and also the best of friends.

“Bernie was the journalist to read and heed on Haiti during some very difficult times,” Tamayo said. “He knew everyone and everything about the country — and loved every part of it deeply.”

Juan Vasquez, another former Herald editor, concurred. He first met the elder Diederich in Mexico.

“His knowledge of Haiti was encyclopedic. He knew its history, its geography and, above all, its people — from whomever was in the presidential seat to the beggar by the side of the road,” Vasquez said. “He talked to everyone, and they were always glad to see him.”

Despite his deep love for his adopted home, Diederich’s knowledge and adventures extended beyond Haiti. He began covering the region as a freelancer for a number of media including The Associated Press and later became Mexico bureau chief for Time magazine, covering the country as well as the rest of Central America and the entire Caribbean, including Cuba.

“He knew an amazing amount about every country from far-off Grenada to Tijuana on the U.S. border, and generously shared his knowledge with the rest of us,” Vasquez said. “He was a friend, colleague and resource for all of us.”

Diederich was considered the “doyen,” dean of the Haitian press. He arrived in the country in December 1949 with friends aboard his own boat after picking up some cargo in Coconut Grove. In Haiti, his camera got stolen from aboard the boat, and after coming into town to look for it, he became so enchanted with the country, his son said, that he waved his friends off and stayed.

Months later, he started his own newspaper, the Haiti Sun, an English-language publication. It would exist for 14 years.

One of Diederich’s first stories was of a woman who started a small hatchery and ended up with a chicken farm. The story led him to his future wife, Ginette Dreysfuss, the sister of the woman featured in the hatchery story. The couple married and were together for 57 years.

Like other journalists who covered Haiti during the nearly 30-year, tumultuous father-son Duvalier dictatorship, Diederich would be jailed, threatened and even thrown out of the country.

JB Diederich said he was only 40 days old when his father had one of his first stints with exile. The elder Diederich had just returned from transmitting a story in the Port-au-Prince cable office about an attempted kidnapping of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier when he was a kid. In the early hours of the morning, members of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s secret police, the TonTon Macoutes, showed up, arrested Diederich and took him to jail.

After 24 hours in jail, Francois Duvalier had Diederich escorted to the airport and put on an airplane to the Dominican Republic. He made him purchase the ticket with his own money. His family was booted out separately after the British Embassy stepped in because New Zealand did not have any representation in the country.

“We were very lucky that we weren’t killed, my mother and I,” JB Diederich said.

Bernard Diederich would not go back to Haiti until long after the death of Papa Doc.

After years in the Dominican Republic, Diederich and his family eventually ended up in Mexico via Puerto Rico after the U.S. troops landed in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

From there, he would cover the U.S. invasion of Grenada, getting to the eastern Caribbean nation before American troops arrived. He also documented the rise and fall of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza DeBayle.

Years later, when he was older and working with his dad as a photographer, JB Diederich got to witness why Bernard Diederich was so revered by journalists.

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had recently fled into exile in France. Tensions were high in Haiti, and the two were out reporting in Port-au-Prince when they ran into security forces beating a man with their batons.

As the duo came across the group of soldiers, JB Diederich grabbed his wide angle camera, jumped out of the vehicle and started snapping photos. The soldiers soon noticed and approached. They wanted the film and grabbed JB Diederich by the arm.

Bernard Diederich quickly jumped out of the car.

Bernard Diederich.JPG
Bernard Diederich, journalist, photographer, author and historian. Courtesy / JB Diederich

In his booming voice, he demanded that they let go of the young man. When the soldiers refused, Bernard Diederich said, “I just saw the general and he said you cannot hold this man.”

“Needless to say these soldiers were completely perplexed, looking at this tall white man with a beard, white guayabera and a hat speaking to them in Creole,” JB Diederich recalled. “As he had done with many other journalists and photographers from all over the world and throughout his life, he pulled me out of that situation.”

During the back and forth, the man who was being beaten by the soldiers took off and they started shooting after him. Father and son used the distraction to make their getaway.

“It was fantastic, we had such a wonderful time,” JB Diederich said about their working relationship. “He would say, ‘Nothing can happen to you because if something happens to you how do I explain it to your mom?’ ”

Diederich left New Zealand at the age of 16 during World War II on one of the last tall sailing ships. He sailed on the ship for 18 months, mostly traveling around the Pacific before boarding an American tanker in the Middle East with U.S. merchant marines. After the war, he went to England.

Eventually, Bernard Diederich, always the adventurer, would buy a boat and set sail with friends. His goal: to see the world and photograph American military bases. After visiting New York, he pulled into Coconut Grove’s Dinner Key, and from there took off for Haiti.

“It was a leap of faith, and this week the story ends with his choice of being buried in the country he loved so much,” JB Diederich said. “He just had this way about him, very gentle but he had this authority. He had a presence.”

In his travels and work as a journalist Bernard Diederich would meet many people and report on many events. One of those friends was Graham Greene, the novelist who would write the book, “The Comedians.” Set in Haiti during “Papa Doc,” the book explores the country’s political suppression and terrorism through an English hotel owner. The novel would later become a film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Diederich and Greene met in the early 50s. Their friendship and travels led to Diederich writing “The Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene’s Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954–1983.”

Diederich later wrote about the assassination of Dominican dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina in “Trujillo: Death of the Goat” in 1978. He was also the one who broke the story of Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 to the world.

In 1976, Diederich was awarded the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Gold Medal from Columbia University in New York. It is the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

Diederich published 22 books and before his health began to fail, he wanted to write one more.

“He was always writing books. He felt the people of Haiti needed information, they needed to know how they got to where they are; what had gone wrong, what had gone right and who the people were,” said his son. “It was very important to him to educate people about their country.”

In addition to his son and wife, Diederich is survived by son Phillippe, daughter Natalie, six grandchildren and a host of grateful journalists.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.