François Duvalier, 1957-71

Francois Duvalier "Papa Doc"

Francois Duvalier was known as “Papa Doc”

Like many Haitian leaders, Duvalier produced a constitution to solidify his power. In 1961 he proceeded to violate the provisions of that constitution, which had gone into effect in 1957. He replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral body and decreed presidential and legislative elections. Despite a 1957 prohibition against presidential reelection, Duvalier ran for office and won with an official tally of 1,320,748 votes to zero. Not content with this sham display of democracy, he went on in 1964 to declare himself president for life. For Duvalier, the move was a matter of political tradition; seven heads of state before him had claimed the same title.

An ill-conceived coup attempt in July 1958 spurred Duvalier to act on his conviction that Haiti’s independent military threatened the security of his presidency. In December the president sacked the armed forces chief of staff and replaced him with a more reliable officer. This action helped him to expand a Presidential Palace army unit into the Presidential Guard. The Guard became the elite corps of the Haitian army, and its sole purpose was to maintain Duvalier’s power. After having established his own power base within the military, Duvalier dismissed the entire general staff and replaced aging Marinetrained officers with younger men who owed their positions, and presumably their loyalty, to Duvalier.

Duvalier also blunted the power of the army through a rural militia formally named the Volunteers for National Security (Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale–VSN), but more commonly referred to as the tonton makouts (derived from the Creole term for a mythological bogeyman). In 1961, only two years afterDuvalier had established the group, the tonton makouts had more than twice the power of the army. Over time, the group gained even more power. While the Presidential Guard secured Duvalier against his enemies in the capital, the tonton makouts expanded his authority into rural areas. The tonton makouts never became a true militia, but they were more than a mere secret police force. The group’s pervasive influence throughout the countryside bolstered recruitment, mobilization, and patronage for the regime.

After Duvalier had displaced the established military with his own security force, he employed corruption and intimidation to create his own elite. 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 (the luckier ones were allowed to emigrate).

Duvalier was an astute observer of Haitian life and a student of his country’s history. Although he had been reared in Port-au- Prince, his medical experiences in the provinces had acquainted him with the everyday concerns of the people, their predisposition toward paternalistic authority (his patients referred to him as “Papa Doc,” a sobriquet that he relished and often applied to himself), the ease with which their allegiance could be bought, and the central role of voodoo in their lives. Duvalier exploited all of these points, especially voodoo. He studied voodoo practices and beliefs and was rumored to be a houngan. He related effectively to houngan and bokò (voodoo sorcerers) throughout the country and incorporated many of them into his intelligence network and the ranks of the tonton makouts. His public recognition of voodoo and its practitioners and his private adherence to voodoo ritual, combined with his reputed practice of magic and sorcery, enhanced his popular persona among the common people (who hesitated to trifle with a leader who had such dark forces at his command) and served as a peculiar form of legitimization of his rapacious and ignoble rule.

Duvalier weathered a series of foreign-policy crises early in his tenure that ultimately enhanced his power and contributed to his megalomaniacal conviction that he was, in his words, the “personification of the Haitian fatherland.” Duvalier’s repressive and authoritarian rule seriously disturbed United States president John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy administration registered particular concern over allegations that Duvalier had blatantly misappropriated aid money and that he intended to employ a Marine Corps mission to Haiti not to train the regular army but to strengthen the tonton makouts. Washington acted on these charges and suspended aid in mid-1962. Duvalier refused to accept United States demands for strict accounting procedures as a precondition of aid renewal. Duvalier, claiming to be motivated by nationalism, renounced all aid from Washington. At that time, aid from the United States constituted a substantial portion of the Haitian national budget. The move had little direct impact on the Haitian people because most of the aid had been siphoned off by Duvalierist cronies anyway. Renouncing the aid, however, allowed the incipient dictator to portray himself as a principled and lonely opponent of domination by a great power. Duvalier continued to receive multilateral contributions. After Kennedy’s death in November 1963, pressure on Duvalier eased, and the United States adopted a policy of grudging acceptance of the Haitian regime because of the country’s strategic location near communist Cuba.

A more tense and confrontational situation developed in April 1963 between Duvalier and Dominican Republic president Juan Bosch Gaviño. Duvalier and Bosch were confirmed adversaries; the Dominican president provided asylum and direct support to Haitian exiles who plotted against the Duvalier regime. Duvalier ordered the Presidential Guard to occupy the Dominican chancery in Pétionville in an effort to apprehend an army officer believed to have been involved in an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap the dictator’s son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, and daughter, Simone Duvalier. The Dominican Republic reacted with outrage and indignation. Bosch publicly threatened to invade Haiti, and he ordered army units to the frontier. Although observers throughout the world anticipated military action that would lead to Duvalier’s downfall, they saw events turn in the Haitian tyrant’s favor. Dominican military commanders, who found Bosch’s political leanings too far to the left, expressed little support for an invasion of Haiti. Bosch, because he could not count on his military, decided to let go of his dream to overthrow the neighboring dictatorship. Instead, he allowed the matter to be settled by emissaries of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Resistant to both domestic and foreign challenges, Duvalier entrenched his rule through terror (an estimated 30,000 Haitians were killed for political reasons during his tenure), emigration (which removed the more activist elements of the population along with thousands of purely economic migrants), and limited patronage. At the time of his death in 1971, François Duvalier designated his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, as Haiti’s new leader. To the Haitian elite, who still dominated the economy, the continuation of Duvalierism without “Papa Doc” offered financial gain and a possibility for recapturing some of the political influence lost under the dictatorship.

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