Fran
çois Duvalier (1907-1971)

 

 

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1907, 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, as did the latent political power of the resentment of the incredibly poor black majority against the tiny, powerful Haitian elite.

Lucky enough to be schooled and literate in a country where all but a tiny handful were illiterate, François attended medical school and participated in a US funded public health campaign to eliminate yaws (a common bacterial disease that had crippled thousands). Parlaying his modest involvement into tales of his single handed eradication of the disease, Doctor Duvalier became more and more involved in the negritude (black pride) movement of Haitian author Dr. Jean Price Mars, and began an ethnological study of voudou, Haiti's native religion, that would later pay enormous political dividends.

When FDR withdrew the Marines, the puppet governments left in power by the Americans were quickly chased out of office as years of resentment from the populace exploded. The reigns of power shifted with dizzying speed, with the average President holding power for less than two years. Military brasshats came and went, as did senators and populist rabble rousers, but through it all, the "quiet country doctor" held his cards to his chest, seeking his foothold in Haitian politics. He finally got it when elections were held in 1957 to replace deposed military strongman Paul Magloire, and through hook and crook (not to mention outright election fraud by the Haitian army), François Duvalier was inaugurated as president of Haiti that same year.

No sooner had Duvalier assumed power when he made immediate moves to consolidate it. The formerly timid and passive appearing Doctor Duvalier (who had affectionately nicknamed himself Papa Doc, noting that "the peasants love their doctor, and I am their Papa Doc") transformed himself, to everyone's amazement, into a firebrand. He reformed the loosely controlled gang of thugs he'd utilised to annoy his opponents in the 1957 election into a tightly controlled secret police, nicknamed the Tontons Macoute after a mythical Haitian boogeyman that grabs people and makes them the disappear forever. Papa Doc's opposition was fractured and jockeying for their own share of government kickbacks and fraud. Papa Doc wasted no time in sending his enemies to the ghastly Fort Dimanche to be tortured to death. The country's leading newspaper editors and radio station owners were jailed for specious sedition charges, and it soon became clear that the good doctor would not simply be a transit ory authority figure as his predecessors had been. And being a friend of Papa Doc was not much safer than being an enemy, as Papa Doc quickly learned to dispose of his allies when he thought them too ambitious, including his dear friend and Tonton Macoute chief Clement Barbot.

Within the space of two years, Papa Doc had politically castrated the Haitian Army, which had traditionally been the largest threat to the power of the Haitian presidency, with his Tonton Macoutes and his draconian "Palace Guard", his own personal army. He also survived scattered invasions from exiled opponents, including the one that came closest to toppling his regime, an eight man invasion team half composed of Haitian exiles and sheriff's deputies from Dade County, Florida. He'd also deliberately terrified the uneducated peasantry by posing as Baron Samedi - the vodou loa (spirit) of the dead. And indeed, when wearing his top hat and tails, Papa Doc was the spitting image of the Baron, and wasted little time printing posters that suggested quite straightforwardly that Papa Doc was one with the loas, Jesus Christ, and God himself. His endless harangues broadcast on the radio built his bizarre personality cult in a similar fashion. His most famous propaganda image shows a standing Jesus Christ with his right hand on a seated Papa Doc's shoulder with the caption "I have chosen him".

On the international scene, Duvalier quickly attempted to warm his regional rivals over to his regime with bald faced insincere flattery, and his penchant for promising to fight communism in Haiti. He quickly found ways to deal with his cross border rival, the infamous Dominican dicator Rafael Trujillo Molinas, who had planned various political intruiges against Papa Doc until they reached an understanding that amounted to "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours". Papa Doc was no less adept in Cuba, awarding Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista Haiti's highest (and newly invented) medal of honour for a small $4 million loan which went straight into Papa Doc's pockets. When Batista was ousted by Fidel Castro, Papa Doc didn't skip a beat and quickly lionized Castro without a trace of irony. Latin American embassies in Port-au-Prince were filled to bursting with Papa Doc's political foes seeking asylum, yet the doctor and his cronies always placated outraged embassadors with yet more bald faced (and often incomprehensible) flattery until things quieted down.

However, all the backyard foreign diplomacy paled when compared to the way Papa Doc played Washington like a fiddle. Papa Doc shamelessly played the race card, chiding Washington for cozying up to Trujillo while leaving the "poor negro Republic out in the cold". When Washington stopped falling for that, Papa Doc then shifted to the fight against communism. When Castro and America were at loggerheads during the Cuban missile crisis, Papa Doc shifted into high gear, promising Washington everything short of his bank account to help depose Castro. After the crisis, incredibly, Papa Doc resumed to cozying up to Castro, letting Washington know in no uncertain terms that more aid money would probably warm him back up to Washington's foreign policy directives. Papa Doc extorted Washington in this fashion until the day he died.

On the domestic front, kleptocracy was the law of the land. Citizens and foreign businessmen alike were shaken down to the last dime for a bizarre project to ostensibly build a utopian town called "Duvalierville". Needless to say, nearly every cent stolen for Duvalierville went straight to Papa Doc himself. Papa Doc similarly cowed the Vatican by expelling almost all of Haiti's foreign born bishops in the name of nationalism and replacing them with his political allies, an act that got him excommunicated from the Catholic church. With his enemies cowed and the entire nation in fear of his secret police, Duvalier declared himself "president for life", and rewrote the constitution after a rigged election to pass power onto his hefty and dim-witted son Jean-Claude upon his death. Through it all, the Haitian GDP plummeted as did the living standards in Haiti. Intellectuals and college educated professionals fled Haiti in droves, creating a brain drain that exacerbated an already serious lack of doctors and teachers. Peasant land holdings had been confiscated and alotted to Tonton Macoute bigwigs, the miserable slums in Port-au-Prince swelled with the homeless and desperate country folk who had fled to the capital seeking meagre incomes to feed themselves. Malnutrition and famine had become endemic. Almost none of the aid money given to Haiti was appropriated properly. Instead, it fattened the bank accounts of Papa Doc and his small handful of cronies.

When Papa Doc finally died in 1971, he had managed to bring an already poor nation into unimaginable poverty and misery, as Haiti became the poorest nation in the Americas as a direct result of his wild kleptomania. His twin legacies, the 15 year rule of his son (deposed in 1986), and the creation of millions of political and economic refugees. It is fitting that his grandiose mausoleum in Port-au-Prince was demolished by angry mobs who had finally learned to stop fearing the quiet little country doctor, only 20 years after his death.