Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Sunday, February 2, 1986
The government of Jean-Claude Duvalier established its roots 28 years ago when his father, Francois Duvalier, became president in an election that followed a turbulent period of military coups and civil strife.
An American-educated country doctor widely called “Papa Doc,” Francois Duvalier was the champion of the the nation’s blacks -- 95 percent of the population -- and the avowed enemy of the lighter-skinned mulattos, who formed the country’s economic and social elite.
From the outset, he ruthlessly used the military and a cut- throat army of thugs called the Ton Ton Macoute (translated from Creole as “bogeymen”) to exert power in the poverty- wracked, backward nation. He also was adept at manipulating the peasants’ belief in voodoo -- convincing them, for example, that he could take the form of any animal he desired -- to rule the country.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Francois Duvalier resolved to break the mulattos’ control over Haiti’s politics and economic life, which had been solidified during the U.S. military occupation of 1915-34. He also moved to eliminate any potential threats to his own tenure, especially from the Roman Catholic Church and rival political parties.
Use of bloodshed
He largely succeeded through the use of bloodshed, which became a part of the fabric of life. Swaggering Ton-tons in dark glasses regularly grabbed dissidents, many of whom were tortured and murdered.
At one point, the bloodied corpses of alleged anti-Duvalier plotters were displayed in public as a lesson to others.
When one political enemy died leading an attempted coup, Duvalier had the man’s head cut off and brought to him in a bucket of ice.
Early in his dictatorship, Duvalier eliminated the most significant political threat to his rule by systematically executing some 3,000 supporters of Daniel Fignole, a rival politician who led a movement of peasant workers.
With liberal use of such violence, Duvalier succeeded over the next decade in consolidating his power, although at the cost of driving tens of thousands of the best-educated Haitians into exile and of isolating Haiti from virtually all its neighbors.
In 1964, Papa Doc certified his control by amending the Constitution to declare himself “president-for-life.” Papa Doc liked to portray himself as a simple country doctor called to office by patriotic necessity, but he reveled in titles. He once had the rubber-stamp legislature declare him the “Incorruptible Leader of the Great Majority of Haitian People, Renovator of the Republic, Chief of the Revolution and Spiritual Father of the Nation.”
Duvalier’s name and image loomed over Haitians from monuments and roadside billboards. He had schoolchildren recite a version of the Lord’s Prayer beginning with the words: “Our Doc, who art in the National Palace . . .”
In the late 1960s, Duvalier became increasingly sick from diabetes and heart disease. Sensing that death was closing in on him, he proposed another constitutional amendment in January 1971 that allowed him to name his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, his successor as president-for-life.
When the amendment was submitted to the nation in an election in February, the vote was 2,391,916 in favor and none opposed. Three months later, Francois Duvalier died and power passed to his obese son, a law student and fan of fast cars and fast women.
The 15-year-tenure of Jean-Claude Duvalier has been marked by increased liberalization, a marked decrease in bloodshed and an absence of the racial hatred preached by his father. Indeed, most of Jean-Claude’s most trusted advisers as well as his glamorous wife, Michele, come from the mulatto class that his father despised.
After a brief period of unrest following his succession, Jean-Claude (he despised the nickname “Baby Doc”) eased political tensions by allowing local and national elections, and permitted a somewhat independent press to be established. He formally abolished the brutal Ton Ton Macoutes, replacing them with a national militia that helped carry out some of the same functions, including acting as a counterbalance to the power of the regular army.
Jean-Claude, too, craved the affection of the people. He would take trips into the countryside and distribute money to the peasant children.
In 1979, Duvalier allowed elections to the National Assembly. While those elections were marked by government fraud, they established a precedent for political activity that would continue to grow.
In 1983, he also permitted the first municipal elections since 1957. During recent years, Duvalier appeared to become sensitive to the criticism of outside governments and forces, including Amnesty International, the United Nations and -- most of all -- Pope John Paul II, who visited the country briefly in March 1983 and chided him for stifling the press and muzzling the clergy.
The pope also ordered an end to a century-old arrangement between Haiti and the church that, in retrospect, could mark a turning point in the history of the Duvaliers. Since 1860, the Roman Catholic clergy in Haiti had been supported financially by the government. Papa Doc used this arrangement to secure his power, rewarding loyal priests with bishoprics and other high church offices.
After Pope John Paul ended this practice, many priests -- especially those from Belgium and France sent to Haiti as missionaries -- became vocal critics of Duvalier. The church established the Creole-language Radio Soleil, which regularly broadcast sermons attacking Duvalier’s failure to alleviate the ignorance and abject poverty of the country.
Despite this progress, Duvalier remained either unable or unwilling to eradicate the corruption and ineptitude that characterized the government and repelled potential foreign investors.
Ultimately, it has been Duvalier’s inability to deal with the county’s economic problem, not his inability to handle dissent, that is behind his political problems.
In the last several months, as the opposition became increasingly bold, particularly among the young, Duvalier seemed to waver between cracking down on dissent, or relaxing symbols of oppression in the hope that the public would look with favor on him.
Last July, Duvalier clumsily tried to silence criticism by expelling three Belgian priests, one of whom ran the radio station. But that action seemed only to heighten the level of dissent.
At the same time, however, he sponsored another constitutional change that, for the first time, allowed opposition political parties to form as long as they recognized his tenure as president-for-life.
The amendments passed in a sham election with 99.48 percent of the ballots in favor.
Ultimately, however, it was the desire for bread and jobs, not the ballot, that eroded Duvalier’s power. When several cities erupted in rioting over food and gasoline shortages, the government exacerbated the crisis by sending in troops to fire on demonstrators.
Deaths from that crackdown enraged and emboldened others, triggering new rounds of anti-government demonstrations.
In recent days, the situation spun further away from Duvalier’s grasp as he would alternately send in police to quell violence, then order some bureaucratic change in his government in an effort to show good intentions.