The rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1907–1971), president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, was marked by autocracy and violence. He passed on his position to his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (b. 1951), who moderated the violence of the regime but tolerated gross corruption. Jean-Claude was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986.
When François Duvalier was born, Haiti was dominated by an elite of mixed racial origins, called in Haitian Creole mulat. The black majority suffered under discrimination and was often excluded from education, jobs, and public places. Duvalier was black, the child of one of Haiti’s very small black middle class. He managed to go to college and became a physician, and was the director of a successful program to eradicate yaws, a dangerous communicable disease that was common in Haiti’s countryside. From the country people he worked with, he came to appreciate Haiti’s traditional folktales and religion, and he became a practitioner of Haitian vaudou. He also was a leading member of Haiti’s Ethnographic Society, where he came in contact with Jean Price-Mars, one of the most important figures in the philosophical movement of noirisme, or black consciousness. François and Simone Duvalier married in 1939 and had three children, two daughters and a son, Jean-Claude.
Duvalier became involved in politics, supporting the noiriste political leader Dumarsais Estimé (1900-1953). When Estimé became president in 1946, Duvalier became minister of health. When Estimé was overthrown in 1950, Duvalier went into hiding. During this period, he became friendly with junior officers in the military. When the military permitted elections in 1956, Duvalier ran, and was successful thanks to his military allies. After a chaotic election process that saw three heads of state inaugurated in less than a year, Duvalier finally took office in 1957. At first he governed with the support of the military, but he formed a private militia, the Volunteers for National Security (VSN), also known as the tontons macoutes. With the support of the VSN, Duvalier dismissed the military high command and brought the Haitian armed forces under civilian control. He used his militia to extend his control over all aspects of Haitian society, ruthlessly killing or exiling political opponents. Many of the Haitian ruling class, both mulat commercial elites and darker-skinned military men, were his victims. Duvalier also had opponents outside the country, most notably the Kennedy administration in the United States, but in the end the United States gave him grudging support in response to his unwavering opposition to communism. In 1964 he declared himself president for life. Duvalier did open up opportunities for some blacks to rise in Haitian society, but he brooked no dissent, and there was no semblance of democracy in Haiti.
When Duvalier died in 1971 his son, Jean-Claude, then just nineteen years old, succeeded him. At first, Jean Claude was happy to be a figurehead while his mother and his father’s old advisers ran the country for him. But in 1974 he married Michele Bennet, a light-skinned divorcée several years his senior, whose father had been in prison for financial irregularities under François Duvalier. Michele enjoyed the privileges of rank, including a lavish wedding and regular shopping trips to Paris, but she also craved power for her husband and for her own family. There was a power struggle between the old Duvalierists and the supporters of Jean-Claude and Michele that ended with the retirement of Simone and many of the old hard-liners. Jean-Claude made some ineffective political reforms, and stole huge amounts of money from the Haitian state and foreign development programs. In 1983 Pope John Paul II visited the country and told the president and the Haitian people that “something needs to change here.” Priests and Catholic lay workers, motivated by liberation theology, began to work against the government. A street protest in Gonaives in 1985 turned violent, and VSN gunmen killed a dozen students. Protests broke out across the country, reacting to news carried on the Catholic Church radio station, Radio Soleil. Under pressure from the U.S. government and his own military, Duvalier agreed to step down, and he fled the country on February 7, 1986. He took with him billions of dollars of stolen money.
A transitional military government took power and promised to hold elections, but instead Haiti plunged into political chaos from which it is now only beginning to emerge. Jean-Claude and Michele lived together in exile in France for some time, plotting his return to power and fomenting disorder, but they divorced in 2000. She got most of the remaining money and remains active in Haitian politics, while he lives in modest circumstances.
SEE ALSO Coup d’Etat; Dictatorship; Vodou
Diederich, Bernard, and Al Burt. 2005. Papa Doc and the Tontons Macoutes. 2nd ed. New York: Markus Weiner.
Greene, Graham.  1991. The Comedians. New York: Penguin Classics.
Stewart R. King