Duvalier, François ‘Papa Doc’ (Haiti)

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François Duvalier, better known as Papa Doc, was Haiti’s dictator between 1957 and 1971, an extraordinarily long term in Haiti’s variable political climate. Espousing black nationalism and voodoo practices, he modelled himself as a spiritual, as well as political, leader. Supported by the Tonton Macoutes (The Bogeymen), a private militia, his reign was characterized by oppression, corruption and the violent removal of his opponents.

Early Life

François Duvalier was born in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, on 14 April 1907 to Duval Duvalier, a teacher and journalist, and Uritia Abraham, who worked in a bakery. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Duvalier graduated in medicine from the University of Haiti and worked as a physician in a hospital. In 1939 he married Simone Ovide Faine, with whom he had four children. By 1943 he was heavily involved in a US-backed project to fight yaws (an aggressive skin disease) and 3 years later he was appointed Director General of the National Health Service by President Estimé. In 1948 he became Underminister of Labour and then Minister of Public Health and Labour, 1949–50.

Following Estimé’s overthrow in 1950, Duvalier worked for the American Sanitary Mission and was prominent in the resistance to the military dictator, Paul E. Magloire. In 1954 Duvalier went underground and concentrated full-time on his resistance activities. Magloire stood down from power in the same year. In Dec. 1956. In Sept. of the following year, having campaigned on reform and black nationalist issues, Duvalier was elected President with a large majority.

Career Peak

Assisted by his close ally, Clément Barbot, Duvalier set about reducing army influence and replacing them with the Tonton Macoutes, a volunteer force devoted to Duvalier which facilitated his reign of terror among the population. Countless political opponents were hounded into exile or murdered, with their bodies often put on public display.

In addition, Duvalier undertook to create an image of himself as a demi-god. Graffiti campaigns, thought to have been instigated by him, proclaimed that ‘Duvalier is a god’ early on in his reign. He dressed himself in a black top hat and coat in the style of a feared voodoo spirit, Baron Samedi. The Tonton Macoutes in turn wore blue denim and red neckties in the style of the voodoo spirit of agriculture and Duvalier appointed voodoo elders into various prominent positions. For a religious and superstitious populace, attracted by Duvalier’s black nationalist policies anyway, it was a very powerful image.

By means of the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier challenged the authority of the Catholic Church (who excommunicated him for his abuse of clergymen), the military powers and the influential mulatto business elite. The 1956 elections allowed him one unrenewable 6 year term, but he influenced the elections of 1961 so that he could stay on longer and in 1964 he proclaimed himself lifelong president. In 1963 Barbot, Duvalier’s former right hand man, led an unsuccessful insurrection that resulted in his murder. By this stage, Duvalier had alienated virtually every government in the world, losing financial aid from the US and overseeing the worsening of relations with the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s only land neighbour. During his reign the country’s economy, already one of the weakest in the Americas, continued its decline and educational standards remained low so that illiteracy stood at around 90%.

Despite a number of insurrections and international isolation, Duvalier managed to retain power through his private army and the force of his personality. It is estimated that between 20,000–50,000 Haitians died and up to a fifth of the country went into exile. However, his long reign led to an element of national stability that saw the emergence of a black middle class, and he retained support from large swathes of the black population throughout. He died in Port-au-Prince on 21 April 1971, having decreed that his son, Jean-Claude (known as Baby Doc) would succeed him for life.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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