François Duvalier (French pronunciation: [fʁɑ̃swa dyvalje]; 14 April 1907 – 21 April 1971), also known as ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, was the President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. He opposed a military coup d’état in 1950 and was elected as President in 1957 on a populist and black nationalist platform. His rule, based on a purged military, a rural militia known as the Tonton Macoute, and the use of a personality cult and voodoo, resulted in the murder of an estimated 30,000 Haitians and the exile of many more.
Prior to his rule, Duvalier, who was a physician by profession, was known for successfully fighting diseases and acquired the nickname ‘Papa Doc’ (“Daddy Doctor” in French). He took the title of President for Life in 1964 and remained in power until he died in 1971. He was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude, who was nicknamed “Baby Doc”.
Early life and career
Duvalier was born in Port-au-Prince, the son of Duval Duvalier, a justice of the peace, and Ulyssia Abraham, a baker. He was largely raised by an aunt. He completed a degree in medicine from the University of Haiti in 1934. He served as staff physician at several local hospitals. He spent a year at the University of Michigan studying public health. In 1943, he became active in a United States-sponsored campaign to control the spread of contagious tropical diseases, helping the poor to fight typhus, yaws, malaria and other tropical diseases that ravaged Haiti for years.His patients affectionately called him “Papa Doc”, a moniker that he used throughout his life.Lucky enough to be schooled and literate in a country where few were educated, Duvalier witnessed the political turmoil of his country. The United States occupation of Haiti which began in 1915, left a powerful impression on the young Duvalier. He was also aware of the latent political power of the poor black majority and their resentment against the tiny mulatto elite. Duvalier became involved in the négritude movement of Haitian author Dr. Jean Price-Mars. He began an ethnological study of Vodou that later paid enormous political dividend. In 1938, Duvalier co-founded the journal Les Griots. In 1939, Duvalier married Simone Ovide, with whom he had four children: Marie Denise, Nicole, Simone and Jean-Claude.
In 1946, Duvalier aligned himself with President Dumarsais Estimé and was appointed Director General of the National Public Health Service. In 1949, Duvalier served as Minister of Health and Labour; but, when General Paul Magloire ousted President Estimé in a coup d’état, Duvalier left the government and was forced into hiding until 1956, when an amnesty was declared.
In December 1956, Magloire resigned and left Haiti to the rule of a succession of provisional governments. On 22 September 1957, presidential elections pitted Louis Déjoie, a mulatto land-owner and industrialist from the north of Haiti, against Duvalier, who was backed by the military. Duvalier campaigned as a populist, using a noiriste strategy of challenging the mulatto elite and appealing to the Afro-Haitian majority. He described his opponent as part of the ruling mulatto class that was making life difficult for the country’s rural black majority. The election resulted in Duvalier defeating Déjoie with 678,860 votes. Déjoie polled 264,830 votes and independent candidate Jumelle a mere percentage of the electorate. Duvalier’s only opponent among the black proletarians, Daniel Fignolé, had been forced into exile before the election, conveniently leaving Duvalier a path for a landslide.
Consolidation of power
After being sworn in on 22 October, Duvalier exiled most of the major supporters of Déjoie and had a new constitution adopted in 1957 .
President Duvalier promoted and patronised members of the black majority in the civil service and the army. In mid-1958, the army, which had supported Duvalier earlier, tried to oust him in another coup, but failed. In response, Duvalier replaced the chief-of-staff with a more reliable officer and then proceeded to create his
own power base within the army by turning the army’s Presidential Guard into an elite corps aimed at maintaining Duvalier’s power. After this, Duvalier dismissed the entire general staff and replaced it with officers owing their positions and their loyalty to him. In 1958 three exiled Haitians and five Americans landed in Haiti and tried to overthrow Duvalier; all of them were killed.
In 1959, Duvalier created a rural militia, the Milice Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (MVSN, English: National Security Volunteer Militia), commonly referred to as the Tonton Macoute after a Creole term for the bogeyman, to extend and bolster support for the regime in the countryside. The Macoute, which by 1961 had twice the numbers of the regular army, never developed into a real military force but still was more than a mere secret police.
In the early years of his rule, Duvalier was able to take advantage of strategic weaknesses of his powerful opponents, mostly from the Mulâtre elite. These weaknesses included the opponents’ inability to coordinate their actions against the government, that grew increasingly stronger.
In the name of nationalism, Duvalier expelled almost all of Haiti’s foreign-born bishops, an act that earned him excommunication from the Catholic Church. In 1966, Duvalier managed to persuade the Holy See to allow him one-time permission to nominate the Catholic hierarchy for Haiti. This action solidified the change to the status quo: no longer was Haiti under the grip of the minority rich mulattoes, protected by the military, and supported by the church. Duvalier now exercised even more power in Haiti.
Heart attack and Barbot affair
On 24 May 1959, Duvalier suffered a massive heart attack, possibly due to 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.
While recovering, Duvalier left power in the hands of Clément Barbot, leader of the Tonton Macoutes. Upon his return, Duvalier accused Barbot of trying to supplant him as president and had him imprisoned. In April 1963, Barbot was released and began plotting to remove Duvalier from office by kidnapping his children. The plot failed and Duvalier subsequently ordered a massive search for Barbot and his fellow conspirators. When during the search Duvalier was told that Barbot had transformed himself into a black dog, Duvalier ordered that all black dogs in Haiti be put to death. Barbot was later captured and shot by the Tonton Macoutes in July 1963. In other incidents, Duvalier ordered the head of an executed rebel packed in ice and brought to him so he could commune with the dead man’s spirit. Peep holes were carved into the walls of the interrogation chambers, through which Duvalier personally observed Haitian detainees being tortured and submerged in baths of sulfuric acid; sometimes, he was directly in the room during the tortures.
In 1961, he began violating the provisions of the 1957 constitution: first he replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral body. Then he called a new presidential election in which he was the sole candidate, though his term was to expire in 1963 and the constitution prohibited re-election. The election was flagrantly rigged; the official tally showed 1,320,748 voted yes to another term for Duvalier, with none opposed.Upon hearing the results, Duvalier proclaimed: “I accept the people’s will. As a revolutionary, I have no right to disregard the will of the people.” The New York Times commented: “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.” On 14 June 1964, a constitutional referendum made Duvalier “President for Life”, a title previously held by seven Haitian presidents. This referendum was also blatantly rigged; an implausible 99.9 percent voted in favour, and all ballots were premarked “yes.” The new document granted Duvalier—or “Le Souverain,” as he was called—absolute powers as well as the right to name his successor.
His relationship with the United States proved difficult. In his early years, Duvalier often rebuked the United States for its friendly relations with the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (killed in 1961), while ignoring Haiti. The Kennedy administration (1961–63) was particularly disturbed by Duvalier’s repressive and authoritarian rule and allegations that he misappropriated aid money, then a substantial part of the Haitian budget, and a Marine mission to train the Tonton Macoute. Acting on the charges, Washington cut off most of its economic assistance in mid-1962, pending stricter accounting procedures, which Duvalier refused. Duvalier publicly renounced all aid from Washington on nationalist grounds, portraying himself as a “…principled and lonely opponent of domination by a great power.
Duvalier misappropriated millions of US dollars of international aid, including 15 million US dollars annually from the United States.He transferred this money to personal accounts. Another of Duvalier’s methods to obtain foreign money was to gain foreign loans, including 4 million USD from Cuban president Fulgencio Batista.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963—which Duvalier later claimed resulted from a curse that he had placed on him—the U.S. eased its pressure on Duvalier, grudgingly accepting him as a bulwark against Communism. Duvalier attempted to exploit tensions between the United States and Cuba, emphasizing his anti-Communist 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.
After President Fulgencio Batista (a personal friend of Duvalier) was overthrown in the Cuban Revolution, Duvalier, worried that Fidel Castro would provide a safe haven for Haitian dissidents, attempted to win Castro over by recognizing his government, sending medicine, and pardoning several political prisoners, but to no avail; from the very start of his regime, Castro gave anti-Duvalier dissidents his full support.
Duvalier enraged Castro by voting against the country in an OAS 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.
Duvalier’s relationship with the neighbouring Dominican Republic was always tense: in his early years, Duvalier emphasised the differences between the two countries. In April 1963, relations were brought to the edge of war by the political enmity between Duvalier and the Dominican president Juan Bosch. Bosch, a left-leaning democrat, provided asylum and support to Haitian exiles who plotted against the Duvalier regime. Duvalier ordered his Presidential Guard to occupy the Dominican Embassy in Pétionville, aiming at apprehending an army officer believed to have been involved in Barbot’s plot to kidnap Duvalier’s children. The Dominican president reacted with outrage, publicly threatened to invade Haiti, and ordered army units to the frontier. However, as Dominican military commanders expressed little support for an invasion of Haiti, Bosch refrained from the invasion and settled for a mediation by the OAS.
Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia briefly visited Haiti in 1966 (he was the only head of state to visit the country during Duvalier’s presidency); during his visit, Duvalier awarded him the Necklace of the Order of Jean-Jacques Dessalines the Great, and Selassie, in turn, bestowed upon Duvalier the Great Necklace of the Order of the Queen of Saba. Duvalier also supported Pan-African ideals.
Duvalier’s government was soon accused of being one of the most repressive in the hemisphere. Within the country, Duvalier used both political murder and expulsion to suppress his opponents; estimates of those killed are as high as 30,000. Attacks on Duvalier from within the military were treated as especially serious. When bombs were detonated near the Presidential Palace in 1967, Duvalier had nineteen Presidential Guard officers shot in Fort Dimanche. A few days later Duvalier had a public speech during which he read the “attendance sheet” with names of all 19 officers killed. After each name he said “absent”. After reading the whole list, Duvalier remarked, “All were shot.”
Haitian communists and suspected communists, in particular, bore the brunt of the government’s repression. Duvalier targeted them both as a means to secure U.S. support as a bulwark against Communist Cuba (see below) and on principle: Duvalier had personally been exposed to communist and left-wing ideas early in his life and rejected them. On 28 April 1969, Duvalier instituted a campaign to rid Haiti of all communists, promulgating a law 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.
Social and economic policies
Duvalier employed intimidation, repression and patronage to supplant the old mulatto elites with a new elite of his own making. Corruption — in the form of government rake-offs of industries, bribery, extortion of domestic businesses, and stolen government funds — enriched the dictator’s closest supporters. Most of these supporters held sufficient power to enable them to intimidate the members of the old elite who were gradually co-opted or eliminated.
Many educated professionals fled Haiti for New York City, Miami, French-speaking Montreal, Paris, and several French-speaking African countries, exacerbating an already serious lack of doctors and teachers. Some of the highly skilled professionals joined the ranks of several UN agencies to work in development in newly independent nations such as Ivory Coast, and Congo.
The government confiscated peasant land holdings and allotted them to members of the militia who had no official salary and made their living through crime and extortion. The dispossessed swelled the slums by fleeing to the capital to seek meager incomes to feed themselves. Malnutrition and famine became endemic.
Nonetheless, 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. Duvalier also initiated the development of Mais Gate Airport, now known as Toussaint Louverture International Airport.
Personality cult and voodoo
Duvalier fostered a personality cult around himself, and claimed he was the physical embodiment of the island nation. He also started to revive the traditions of vodou, later on using them to consolidate his power as he claimed to be a houngan, or vodou priest himself. In an effort to make himself even more imposing, Duvalier deliberately modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi. He often donned sunglasses to hide his eyes and talked with the strong nasal tone associated with the loa. The Duvalier regime propaganda even 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”. There was even a Duvalierist variant of the Lord’s Prayer. Duvalier also held in his closet the head of his former opponent Blucher Philogenes, who tried to overthrow him in 1963.
Death and succession
Duvalier held Haiti in his grip until his death in early 1971. His 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier, nicknamed “Baby Doc”, succeeded him as president.