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François Duvalier

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Dr. François Duvalier, known as "Papa Doc" (April 14, 1907 – April 21, 1971[1]), was the President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. In 1964 he announced himself President for Life. He ruled until his death in 1971 in a regime marked by autocracy, corruption and state-sponsored terrorism through his private militia known as Tonton Macoutes. It has been estimated that he was responsible for 30,000 deaths and the exile of thousands more.

Early life

Born in the city Port-au-Prince, Duvalier was the son of Duval Duvalier (a justice of the peace) and Ulyssia Abraham, a mentally unstable woman who worked in a bakery. She lived in an asylum until she died in 1921. Largely raised by an aunt, Duvalier completed a degree in medicine from the University of Haiti in 1934. He served as staff physician at several local hospitals until 1943, when he became active in a US-sponsored campaign to control the spread of contagious tropical diseases.[2] He spent a year at the University of Michigan studying public health and won acclaim for helping the poor fight yaws, malaria and other tropical diseases that ravaged Haiti for years.[3]

François Duvalier had a front seat for an era of Latin American political turmoil. The invasion of US Marines on Haitian soil in 1915, followed by incessant violent repressions of political dissent, and American-installed puppet rulers, left a powerful impression on the young Duvalier. He was also aware of the latent political power of the resentment of the terribly poor black majority against the tiny but powerful Haitian elite class of mulatto or mixed-race peoples.[4]

Lucky enough to be schooled and literate in a country where all but a tiny handful were uneducated, Doctor Duvalier became involved in the négritude (black pride) movement of Haitian author Dr. Jean Price-Mars. He began an ethnological study of Vodou, Haiti's native religion, that would later pay enormous political dividends.[4]

In 1939 Duvalier married Simone Ovide. They had four children: Marie Denise, Nicole, Simone and Jean-Claude, their only son.[3] He became director general of the National Public Health Service in 1946. In 1949, Duvalier served as minister of both health and labour. Having opposed the coup d'état of Paul Magloire, he left the government and was forced into hiding in 1954 until an amnesty was declared in 1956.[5]

1956 elections

Magloire resigned the presidency in December, 1956, leaving Haiti to be ruled by a succession of provisional governments. Through an election viewed as rigged by the Army (FADH), Duvalier won the presidency in September, 1957. His opponent was Louis Dejoie, a mulatto industrialist from the North of Haiti who had dozens of farms and some factories. He described Louis Dejoie as part of the ruling mulatto class that was making life difficult for the country's rural black majority. He had campaigned as a populist leader, using a noiriste strategy of challenging the mulatto elite, who had created a class structure that divided the country, and appealing to the Afro-Haitian majority. He exiled most of the major supporters of Louis Dejois once he had become president.[3] After being sworn in on October 22, 1957, Duvalier revived the traditions of vodou. Later he used them to consolidate his power as he claimed to be a houngan, or vodou priest himself.

Duvalier deliberately modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi in an effort to make himself even more imposing. He often donned sunglasses to hide his eyes and talked with the strong nasal tone associated with the loa. Duvalier regime propaganda candidly stated that "Papa Doc: was one with the loas, Jesus Christ, and God himself. The most celebrated image from the time shows a standing Jesus Christ with hand on a seated Papa Doc's shoulder with the caption "I have chosen him".[6] There was even a Duvalierist variant of the Lord's Prayer.[7]

Consolidation of power

After surviving an attempted coup in mid-1958, Duvalier curtailed the power of the army through a rural militia, the Milice Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (MVSN, National Security Volunteers). Commonly referred to as the Tonton Macoutes, which derived from the Creole term for a fabled bogeyman, they were patterned after the paramilitary blackshirts of Mussolini's Italy. The Macoutes had no official salary and made their living through crime and extortion.[8]

On May 24, 1959, "Papa Doc" Duvalier suffered a massive heart attack, possibly as a result of an insulin overdose; he had been a diabetic since early adulthood and also suffered from heart disease and associated circulatory problems. During this heart attack he was unconscious for nine hours; many associates believed that he suffered neurological damage during these events that affected his mental health and made him paranoid and irrational.[9] While recovering, Duvalier left power in the hands of the leader of the Tonton Macoutes, Clement Barbot. Upon his recovery, Duvalier accused Barbot of trying to supplant him as president and ordered him imprisoned.

By 1961 the Tonton Macoutes had more power than the army. Extraordinarily loyal to Duvalier, the group terrorized, tortured, and murdered those who seemed in any way to oppose the Duvalier regime. These threats were often aimed at social aid or community organizations without explicit political affiliations. The Tonton Macoutes' influence throughout the country created and bolstered support for and loyalty to Duvalier and later his son.[8]

Internationally, Duvalier's government was known to be rife with corruption. In 1961 the United States cut off most of its economic assistance to the country. Duvalier responded by rewriting the constitution and then staging a single-candidate sham election two years before his term had been scheduled to end. The official count was 1,320,748 votes for Duvalier and none against.[5][10] Upon hearing the results of the election, Duvalier proclaimed: "I accept the people's will. As a revolutionary, I have no right to disregard the will of the people."[10] A New York Times editorial was not as charitable: "Latin America has witnessed many fraudulent elections throughout its history but none has been more outrageous than the one which has just taken place in Haiti."[10]

In April, 1963, he released Barbot from prison. Barbot started on a plot to remove Duvalier from office by kidnapping his children. The plot did not succeed, and Duvalier subsequently ordered a massive search for Barbot and his fellow conspirators. During the search, Duvalier received information that Barbot had transformed himself into a black dog. Duvalier then ordered that all black dogs in Haiti be put to death. Barbot was later captured, and was shot to death by the Tonton Macoutes in July, 1963. In other incidents, Duvalier ordered the head of an executed rebel to be packed in ice and brought to him to allow him to commune with the dead man's spirit.[11]

On June 14, 1964, a referendum was held on whether Duvalier should be made President for Life; 2.8 million people voted "yes," and only 3,234 voted "no."[12] His regime soon grew to be one of the most repressive in the hemisphere.[13]

Papa Doc expelled almost all of Haiti's foreign-born bishops in the name of nationalism and replaced them with his political allies, an act that earned him excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. But in 1966, Duvalier managed to persuade the Vatican to allow him to nominate the Catholic hierarchy for Haiti. On an ideological level, this perpetuated the notion of black nationalism by allowing the country to appoint its own bishops. It also allowed Duvalier to expand his control to encompass religious institutions. With his enemies cowed and the entire nation in fear of the Tonton Macoutes, who increasingly assumed the character of a secret police force, Duvalier ruled Haiti as an uncrowned and nearly absolute monarch.

Educated professionals fled Haiti in droves for New York City, Florida, French-speaking Montreal, Paris, and several French-speaking African countries. Some of the highly skilled professionals joined the ranks of several UN agencies to work in development in newly independent French speaking African countries such as Ivory Coast and Congo. The exodus created a brain drain that exacerbated an already serious lack of doctors and teachers; the country has never recovered. Duvalier's government confiscated peasant land holdings to be allotted to members of the Tonton Macoutes; the dispossessed swelled the slums by fleeing to the capital to seek meagre incomes to feed themselves. Malnutrition and famine became endemic. Most of the aid money given to Haiti was spent improperly.[4] Under the reign of Francois Duvalier,he initiated the development of airfield strip that became known as Mais Gate Airport, now known as Toussaint Louverture International Airport.

Duvalier enjoyed significant support among Haiti's majority black rural population who saw in him a champion of their claims against the historically dominant mulatto élite. During his fourteen years in power, he created a substantial black middle class, chiefly through government patronage.[8]

Foreign relations

Papa Doc often rebuked the United States for its friendly relations with the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo while leaving the "poor negro Republic out in the cold." Duvalier's repression often provoked an unfavorable response from the Kennedy administration. The United States attempted to seek a moderate alternative in hopes of preventing another Cuban-style revolution. U.S. pressure and sanctions against Haiti eased in 1962, as the administration grudgingly accepted Duvalier as a bulwark against communism in the Caribbean. He enraged Fidel Castro of Cuba by voting against the country in a OAS annual meeting and subsequently at the UN where a trade embargo was imposed on Cuba. Cuba answered by breaking off diplomatic relations, and Duvalier subsequently instituted a campaign to rid Haiti of communists (kamokin) by exile, death, or imprisonment.[6] On April 28, 1969, a law was promulgated stipulating that "Communist activities, no matter what their form, are hereby declared crimes against the security of the State," and prescribing the death penalty for individuals prosecuted under this law.[14] Duvalier himself skillfully exploited tensions between the United States and Cuba and emphasized his anticommunist credentials and Haiti's strategic location as a means of winning U.S. support: "Communism has established centres of infection...No area in the world is as vital to American security as the Caribbean...We need a massive injection of money to reset the country on its feet, and this injection can come only from our great, capable friend and neighbor the United States."[15] Even so, Duvalier's anticommunist rhetoric was more than just tactical: He himself had personally been exposed to communist and leftist ideas, and rejected them.[16]

Duvalier later claimed Kennedy's assassination resulted from a curse that he had placed on him.[17]

In April 1963, Haiti was almost attacked by the Dominican Republic. However, a lack of senior military support for Dominican president Juan Bosch prevented the invasion. Francois Duvalier had mobilized his forces after some coup plotters in his government went into the Dominican Embassy in Port-au-Prince to hide, and the Dominican government subsequently refused to turn them over, his forces stormed the embassy. The conflict was mediated by the OAS.[18]

Reign of terror

In addition to his pervasive control over Haitian life, Duvalier also fostered an extensive personality cult around himself, and claimed to be the physical embodiment of the island nation. He even nationalized all media companies to help propagate this idea, so much that even TV stations could not produce any original programming unless it was about him.[19] Haitian communists and suspected communists, in particular, bore the brunt of the government's repression.[16] Within the country, Duvalier used both political murder and expulsion to suppress his opponents; estimates of those killed are as high as 30,000.[19]

Attacks on Duvalier from within the military were treated as especially serious; in 1967 the fact that bombs were detonated near the Presidential Palace led to his execution of twenty Presidential Guard officers.[20]

Such tactics kept the country in Duvalier's grip until his death in early 1971. His 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier followed him as president.[21]

In literature

The Comedians, a 1966 novel by Graham Greene is set in Haiti during the reign of "Papa Doc". Its portrayal of Haiti as a country falling into barbarism enraged Duvalier so much that he attacked the novel personally in the press and also made his Ministry of Foreign Affairs publish a brochure "Graham Greene Demasqué" (Graham Greene, Finally Exposed). The book was nevertheless successful.[22]


  1. François Duvalier
  2. Heroes & Killers of the 20th Century
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 [Abbott, Elizabeth Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988 ISBN 0-07-046029-9]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier
  5. 5.0 5.1 François Duvalier - Haitian President
  6. 6.0 6.1 Polymernotes François Duvalier (1907-1971)
  7. Abbott, Elizabeth (1988). Haiti: An insider's history of the rise and fall of the Duvaliers. Simon & Schuster. p. 133 ISBN 0-671-68620-8
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 History of Haiti
  9. Abbott, Elizabeth (1988). Haiti: An insider's history of the rise and fall of the Duvaliers. Simon & Schuster. p. 97-98 ISBN 0-671-68620-8
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Abbott, Elizabeth (1988). Haiti: An insider's history of the rise and fall of the Duvaliers. Simon & Schuster. p. 103 ISBN 0-671-68620-8
  11. Lentz, Harris M., III. Heads of State and Governments, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 1994. ISBN 0899509266.
  12. Abbott, Elizabeth (1988). Haiti: An insider's history of the rise and fall of the Duvaliers. Simon & Schuster. p. 120 ISBN 0-671-68620-8
  13. Important dates in Haiti's History
  14. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. REPORT ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN HAITI. Chapter IV. December 13, 1979. Accessed on October 29, 2009.
  15. Abbott, Elizabeth (1988). Haiti: An insider's history of the rise and fall of the Duvaliers. Simon & Schuster. p. 101 ISBN 0-671-68620-8
  16. 16.0 16.1 Abbott, Elizabeth (1988). Haiti: An insider's history of the rise and fall of the Duvaliers. Simon & Schuster. p. 148 ISBN 0-671-68620-8
  17. Francois Duvalier, Dictator of the Month May 2002
  18. The Duvalier Dynasty 1957-1986
  19. 19.0 19.1 François Duvalier, 1957–1971
  20. Haiti - National Security Index
  21. Duvalier, François (1907-1971)
  22. Graham Greene about The Comedians
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at François Duvalier. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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