François Duvalier

François Duvalier (1907-1971) was Haitian president for life. Trained as a physician and known to his people as "Papa Doc," Duvalier dominated his country and its institutions as no other Haitian chief executive.

Little is known of the origins of François Duvalier. Though some of his ancestors came from Martinique, his parents were Haitians, and he was born in Petit-Goâve in southern Haiti. An early Haitian Africanist, he was one of the founders of the Haitian intellectual Griot movement of the 1930s, and he built a reputation as a scholar, ethnologist, and folklorist.

Duvalier graduated in 1934 from the Haitian National University Medical School. He was active in the U.S. Army—directed sanitary programs initiated in Haiti during World War II. In 1944-1945 he studied at the University of Michigan. After returning to Haiti, Duvalier became minister of health and labor in President Dumarsais Estimé's government. After opposing Paul Magloire's coup d'etat in 1950, Duvalier returned to the practice of medicine, especially the anti-yaws and malaria campaigns. In 1954 he abandoned medicine and went into hiding in the Haitian backcountry, until a Magloire amnesty granted to all political opponents in 1956 enabled him to emerge from hiding. He immediately declared his candidacy for the next elections.


Accession to Power

Duvalier had a solid base of support in the countryside and, like the campaigns of the other candidates, his was based on national reconciliation and reconstruction. He made various tactical alliances with one or more of the other candidates, won the army to his cause, and finally overwhelmed Louis Déjoie, his main opponent, in what turned out to be the quietest and most accurate election in Haiti's history.

In spite of this auspicious start, Duvalier's government was dogged by problems. The defeated candidates refused to cooperate with him and, from hiding, encouraged violence and disobedience. After Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba began to harbor various Haitian refugees, who had escaped the increasingly harsh Duvalier regime. Furthermore, Gen. Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic and archfoe of Castro, feared a Cuban invasion through Haiti, and this concern led to Dominican meddling in Haitian affairs.

It was during this period that Duvalier created an organization directly responsible to him, the tontonmacoutes (TTM), the Haitian version of a secret police. Through the late 1950s to the middle 1960s this force continued to grow and through brutality and terrorism helped to reduce elements which might oppose Duvalier.

In the 1961 Assembly elections Duvalier had his name placed on the top of the ballots. After the "election" he interpreted this impromptu act as a further mandate of 6 years. In the words of the New York Times of May 13, 1961, "Latin America has witnessed many fraudulent elections … but none will have been more outrageous than the one which has just taken place in Haiti."

After the 1961 elections the American government made it clear that the United States regarded those elections as fraudulent and that Duvalier's legal term should end in 1963. During 1962 the American AID Mission was withdrawn from Haiti, and by April 1963 an American fleet maneuvered close to Port-au-Prince. On May 15, to show its disapproval of Duvalier's continued presence, the United States suspended diplomatic relations. At the same time, with Haitian-Dominican relations at a low ebb, Duvalier's pledged ideological enemy, President Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic, was threatening to invade Haiti. Even the Organization of the American States (OAS) became involved, sending a fact-finding mission to Haiti. However, Duvalier remained firmly in control, the Dominicans backed down, and a few days later the American ambassador was withdrawn.


President for Life

After the election of 1961 and the "continuation" of 1963, it was only a matter of time before Duvalier moved to have himself installed for life as Haitian president. "Responding" to just such a request, Duvalier consented on April 1, 1964. Duvalier's rubber-stamp Legislative Chamber rewrote the 1957 Constitution, specifically altering Article 197 so that he could be declared president for life. A "referendum" was held, and on June 22, 1964, Duvalier was formally invested.

After that time Haitian political life was relatively anticlimactic. Having dominated his country and in the process thwarted the United States, the OAS, and the Dominican Republic, Duvalier was in complete control. During the 1960s he survived several disastrous hurricanes and several opéra-bouffe "invasions." A small, gray-haired man, Duvalier was suffering from chronic heart disease and diabetes. In January 1971 he induced the National Assembly to change the constitution to allow his son, Jean Claude Duvalier, to succeed him. Duvalier died on April 21, 1971, and his son succeeded him without difficulty.


Further Reading on François Duvalier

Useful works on Duvalier and his government include Leslie F. Manigat, Haiti of the Sixties (1964); Jean-Pierre O. Gingras, Duvalier: Caribbean Cyclone (1967); Al Burt and Bernard Diederich, Papa Doc (1969); and Robert I. Rotberg and Christopher K. Clague, Haiti: The Politics of Squalor (1971). Among the several excellent background books on Haiti are

Melville J. Herskovits's classic sociological study Life in a Haitian Valley (1937); Rayford W. Logan, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti, 1776-1891 (1941); Hugh B. Cave's delightful travelog, Haiti: Highroad to Adventure (1952); Seldon Rodman, Haiti: The Black Republic (1954; rev. ed. 1961); and James H. McCroklin's monographic work on the U.S. Marine occupation period, Garde d'Haiti, 1915-1934 (1956). An excellent source of information on anything Haitian is James G. Leyburn, The Haitian People (1941; rev. ed. 1966). This classic scholarly work presents an interpretive overview of the history, culture, and society of Haiti and is brought up to date with a new foreword by Sidney W. Mintz.