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The dictatorship of the Duvalier family in Haiti

Info: 2470 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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In 1804, Haiti, a small island in the Caribbean gained its independence from a long lasting ownership of France. Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave and leader of the Haitian uprising, demonstrated a desire to instill in his supporters the idea that Blacks could be as strong, if not stronger than their White counterparts. The success of the uprising against the ever-powerful French implanted in Haitians the belief that Africans could succeed once harnessing their efforts in a system of brotherhood. Through a new society where people of all colors were allowed freedom and citizenship, the Haitian Revolution changed the world (Dubois). This newfound sense of fraternity where African power and success was something conceivable, Haiti should have been led on a path of accomplishment and advancement. However, years of corruption, economic and political instability slowly broke down the countrymen’s morale. Francois Duvalier, the Haitian doctor turned politician, who served as the president of Haiti from 1957 until 1971, initially preached a desire to uphold what Toussaint L’Ouverture lived for-Black empowerment.

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As the economic situation in Haiti became increasingly unstable, Duvalier, who was also known as Papa Doc, engaged in corrupt dealings and slowly turned his back away from his people. Papa Doc did whatever he could to rid the country of anything that went against his vision of a strong black nation, causing the fleeing of many mulattoes, who made up a majority of the intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and teachers in the country. As Papa Doc became increasingly unpopular in Haiti, he became weary and paranoid of those around him, fearing for his life and the safety of his family. Francois Duvalier created a militia called the Tonton Macoutes who were the rebel force in the country, terrorizing and killing anyone who opposed the “President for Life’s” ideals (Burt). The Tonton Macountes were a staple in the country putting Papa Doc’s opponents in their place.

Papa Doc’s son Jean-Claude Duvalier, also known as Baby Doc, took over the presidency after the death of his father in 1971, maintaining Papa Doc’s belief system, until he was ousted in a public revolt in 1986. Both Papa Doc and Baby Doc took steps during their presidencies to end any form of democracy that was ever present. Papa Doc’s political agenda was tainted by a yearning to gain as much popularity and riches as he could from his growing personality cult.

Even though most supporters of the Duvalier regime have been killed or hide their encouragement for the dictatorship, conclusions can still be determined by analyzing various resources and studying the evolution of politics in the country. Although much information has been lost due to the exiled and fleeing Haitians, the corruption during the Duvalier regime in many ways speaks for itself.

Who was the Duvalier family?

Francois Duvalier was born in Port au Prince on April 14, 1907 and from an early age began to show a vested interest in medicine. As Duvalier continued in his studies he graduated from the University of Haiti gaining a degree in the medical field. After having graduated from the university, he pursued his career by working in small hospitals and even healing the locals. Through the course of his time as a doctor, which is when he gained the nickname “Papa Doc,” Duvalier became increasingly interested in the area of public health devoting more time to finding prevention methods to stop the spread of tropical diseases which had ravaged Haiti for years. In 1939, Francois married Simone Ovide who bore him four children, Simone, Nicole, Marie-Denise and his future successor and only son, Jean-Claude.

From an early age, Francois Duvalier was subjected to the instability of the Haitian government along with continued demonstrations of its inferiority to other countries such as the United States-who took it upon themselves to place rulers in the country. Having witnessed the United States’ invasion and brief occupation of his country as a young child, Papa Doc had an innate desire to prove his country was better and stronger than it had been portrayed in the past. Being subjected to as much political turmoil as Francois Duvalier was at such a young age undoubtedly had lasting effects on him, explaining why he chose to rule the country in the ruthless and cruel way that he did.

Francois Duvalier’s unyielding belief of African superiority pushed him to support Voodoo, a Caribbean religion that originated from African principles and ideologies. Although the prevailing religion of the time was Catholicism, Papa Doc did his best to infiltrate the beliefs of Voodoo into the Catholic Church, even going as far to have his police, the Tonton Macoutes, also known as “bogeymen,” terrorize members of the Church and pillaging churches. The most drastic and shocking action Papa Doc took was expelling the Jesuits from the country and limiting their interactions with members of the Church based in Haiti.

After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, his son Jean Claude Duvalier, nicknamed “Baby Doc,” took over the presidency becoming the world’s youngest at the age of 19. Initially, Baby Doc began demonstrating a leniency that the people of Haiti had not seen with his father with Baby Doc allowing milder laws for the press and releasing some prisoners. Although these few changes gave hope to the people for a better future, their desire to live in a country that allowed them freedoms and opportunities for advancement were short lived.


Both Francois and Jean Claude shared the ideological principle of impeding any form of opposition to their political regimes. The importance of black superiority and suppression of the mulatto’s power was not as vivid in Baby Doc as it was in his father. Further proving Baby Doc’s impartiality to the issue of Black superiority was his marriage to his wife, Michele Bennett, a mulatto woman from a wealthy family. The advancements in Black superiority that Papa Doc had fostered throughout his time as president were seen as a mockery once Baby Doc formed such an alliance with a woman who represented the antithesis of the Haitian belief. After Baby Doc’s marriage to a light skinned woman the Haitian people no longer felt as though they were fighting for anything as she, being a mulatto, had made it farther than they had. Although they differed in slight ways, both Papa Doc and Baby Doc succeeded in fostering a regime founded of fear and people’s distrust of their government. Tension among the Haitian populace and disgust for the way the Duvalier family went about terrorizing the people with unfathomable amount of rapes, killings and pillaging are major factors that come into play when analyzing why the Haitian people are so skeptical to trust or support a government and political system that has brought them more harm than good. 

What was the religious climate like in Haiti?

Having worked in the city during his time as a doctor, Francois Duvalier was able to experience firsthand the various ideologies and religions that the people of Haiti clung to especially in times of desperation. Although Roman Catholicism was and remains to be the most popular religion in Haiti, Duvalier noticed the function of voodoo in many of the Haitian people’s lives. Duvalier found that voodoo had a way of bringing together aspects of spirituality, religion and most importantly black empowerment.  The more appealing aspect to Papa Doc was the fact that voodoo had been started by the slaves brought to Haiti from Africa in the late 15th centuries. Duvalier although not particularly against Roman Catholicism did not favor it either, believing that it was of no direct importance. Duvalier tried his best to promote voodoo among his followers and even tried to force methods of voodoo worship to non-believers. Due to Papa Doc’s studies and voodoo traditions it was believed that he was a “houngan,” who is someone of high stature who uses their devotion to voodoo as a means to acquire money and con others out of their riches also. As Papa Doc continued his time as president he was able to effectively appoint other voodoo wizards into not only his immediate circle but also into various ranks of the government and the police, the Tonton Macoutes. The simple fact that Papa Doc had these “houngan” working with him and receiving high positions in government is enough to understand why he became so distrusted among Haitians.

As Papa Doc became more involved in voodoo, his toleration for the Catholic Church began to wane; even going as far as to force out the Haitian Archbishop, the Jesuit order and thousands upon thousands of priests. Despite the majority of Haitians opposing Papa Doc’s decision to diminish the role of the Catholic Church in the country, many were too frightened to speak out or reject the ideals that were practically being forced upon them. Those that were not afraid to speak out had been in a sense brainwashed by their ruler, believing that the mulattoes were their only sworn enemies and anything stemming from European influence, as was the Catholic church, was bad. As demonstrated throughout his time as president, the importance of voodoo was only another means of promoting the Black supremacist society. 

The personality cult that emerged around Francois Duvalier was shocking and became astonishingly powerful. Papa Doc’s public acknowledgment of the benefits he believed came from voodoo, with his devotion to voodoo ceremonies, along with his rituals of magic only served as a means to control the Haitian people more. Papa Doc’s blatant promotions of such a dark influence instilled fear in the people who were afraid that his powers were much more potent than anything they could do to try and stop him.

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What was the political situation like in Haiti during the Duvalier reign?

Before Francois Duvalier came into power as Haiti’s 38th president, the country had already been through its share of untrustworthy presidents and open ended promises. Haiti had experienced dictatorships at the hands of various presidents but none as severe or merciless as during the Duvalier regime. A dictatorship, or form of government where the ruler has absolute power, could have brought about positive changes the country and many had hoped that it would have, however their desire to see the Duvalier’s use their total power for the good of the people was not made into a reality.

One must not think that the situation in haiti was much better before the arrival of Francois Duvalier. On the contrary, Haiti had weathered problems since the beginning of the century. The united states’ intervention in the country in 1915 lasted only four years, leaving behind any hope that the American government could have changed the major problems that plagued the country and its people. the American military controlled the country until 1934 and following their departure, Haiti underwent several “coup d’etats” and riots. The final political disturbance before Duvalier’s arrival into power occurred when the general, Paul Magloire, was subjected to a political uprising being forced to resign his post on December 6, 1956 and that is when Francois Duvalier presented himself as a candidate and was elected in September of 1957.

In 1957, eight years after the former president Dumarsais Estimé had been overthrown, the presidential elections consisted of Francois Duvalier, who was already supported and protected by the Haitian military, against a mulatto man named Louis Déjoie. Duvalier used his belief of black supremacy to appeal the Haitian people to not vote for his opponent Déjoie. By accusing Déjoie of being part of the group of mulattoes that were suppressing the already suffering country’s black population, he was able to secure much more votes in his favor and create a negative portrayal Déjoie. The other candidates that were part of the election slowly began to fade away, resulting in Duvalier defeating all the others with nearly 680,000 votes.

This former doctor who used to heal the sick in the Hospital of Port au Prince rapidly established an extremely repressive dictatorship. Duvalier’s regime forced the country to endure an intense period of absolutism and subjected the people to terror that disturbed their everyday lives.



The program that the new president defended was very eye-catching for the majority of the Haitian populace and the fact that he was elected democratically brought about a lot of hope for the future of the country. Duvalier advocated an extreme nationalism in favor of “blackening Haiti”. He glorified the importance of Negro advancement and tried to base his political viewpoints on the standpoint of helping Blacks gain power.



Duvalier’s strong regime of an absolutist nation where all control was in his hands and his opponents suffered the consequences of beating, rapes and most commonly death would continue on until his death in 1971. Even with the his son succeeding him as president, the Haitian people would not get a break from the Duvalier dictatorship until Baby Doc was forced into exile in 1986 following a revolt, leaving Haiti to have suffered almost thirty years under the same rigid laws of dictatorship and oppression.





With the unpublicized support of the bourgeoisie, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his dreaded macoutes killed an estimated 50,000 poor blacks during his rule. His son, Jean-Claude, took up where his father left off. Even after Jean Claude’s expulsion from the country in February 1986, the slaughter of the pro-democracy black poor continued unabated.”


o   He was also aware of the latent political power of the poor black majority and their resentment against the tiny mulatto elite.[6] Duvalier became involved in the négritude movement of Haitian author Dr. Jean Price-Mars. He began an ethnological study of Vodou, Haiti’s native religion, that would later pay enormous political dividends.[6]HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/François_Duvalier#cite_note-6″[7] In 1938, Duvalier co-founded the journal Les Griots.

Social and economic effects on the Haitian populace











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