Francois Duvalier was a Haitian politician who served as president from 1957 to 1971. He was elected president in 1957 under a black nationalist platform. At a point during his tenure, he changed for the worse. This was the period after he discovered and averted a military coup in 1958. After this, he became heavy-handed on the people he was meant to serve. He incorporated an undercover death squad called the “Tonton Macoute. “
Francois Duvalier was born in 1907 to the family of Duval Duvalier, a Justice. He bagged a degree in Medicine from the University of Haiti in 1934. This in itself was no small achievement considering the challenges of education in Haiti at the time. However, from 1931, education in Haiti started to improve. Maurice Dartigue was named Director of Rural Education, and important changes were made.
Francois Duvalier also served as a staff physician at several local hospitals. He also studied Public Health at the University of Michigan. In 1943, he participated in a campaign to control the spread of contagious diseases. In the process, he helped the poor to fight malaria and other tropical diseases.
Occupation of Haiti
The United States occupation of Haiti left an indelible impression on Duvalier. He became aware of the power that the poor black majority wielded. He also knew that they resented the Mulatto elite.
Francois Duvalier stood for Pan-African ideals. He identified with the negritude movement of Price-Mars. This informed his advocacy of Haitian Vodou. In 1939, Duvalier married Simone Duvalier, and they had four children.
In 1946, Duvalier made friends with President Dumarsais Estime. He was appointed Director-General of the public health service. In 1949, he became the minister of Health and Labor. In 1950, he left public service and returned to actively practicing medicine. In his practice, he participated in campaigns to prevent yaws and other diseases.
In 1954, he became a fugitive, hiding from the Magloire regime. In 1956, while in exile, he announced his candidacy to replace Magloire as President. The Magloire government at this time was failing, and the people grew in discontent.
By December 1956, he was issued amnesty and returned from exile, and the ruling president conceded to hand over power to the winner of the election. The two frontrunners in that election were Duvalier and Louis Dejoie, an industrialist from the north. In September 1957, Duvalier was elected president.
Consolidation of Power
After winning the election, Francois Duvalier exiled most of his opponent’s supporters. He also adopted a new constitution. Duvalier promoted and installed members of the black majority in the Civil service and the to reform the civil service and the military army.
In July 1958, three exiled Haitian army officers colluded with American soldiers and attempted to oust Francois Duvalier. They were apprehended and executed. Following this incident, Duvalier lost the last ounce of trust he had in the army. This was an important institution over which he had no control. In the light of this, he reshuffled the army leadership. He replaced the chief-of-staff with a loyal officer and created his own power base within the army. He completely revamped the army and dismissed most of the officers.
In 1959, Francois Duvalier created a rural Militia to bolster support for his regime in the countryside. The militia developed into a real military force, with a size almost double that of the army. This action enabled Duvalier to take advantage of the weaknesses of his opponents, namely the Mulatto Elite.
Furthermore, Duvalier expelled most of Haiti’s foreign-born bishops. As a result, he was excommunicated from the catholic church. This punishment was short-lived because he got the Holy See’s consent to nominate a new Catholic Hierarchy in Haiti.
In May 1959, Duvalier suffered a heart attack. He had battled with diabetes from early adulthood and also suffered from heart disease. He was unconscious for long hours and was thought to have suffered neurological damage. This could have led to his impaired decision-making in subsequent months.
While he was recuperating, Clement Barbot was placed in charge of affairs. Barbot was the leader of the Tonton Macoute. When Duvalier recovered, he imprisoned Barbot on charges of attempting to overthrow him. In 1963, Barbot was released from prison and plotted unsuccessfully to oust Duvalier. He was eventually captured and killed in the same year.
President for life
In 1961, Duvalier violated the provisions of the constitution. He called for an election with himself as the only candidate. He also changed the legislature to a unicameral body. Again, his tenure was billed to end in 1963. However, he altered the constitution and ensured that there would be no re-election. He rigged the election in his favor to the extent that there was no vote against him out of a total of 1,320,748 votes.
In 1964, a constitutional referendum made Francois Duvalier “President for life.” He also gave himself the exclusive right to name his successor. Incidentally, the title had been previously held by seven Haitian presidents.
Francois Duvalier’s relationship with the United States was far from cordial. He accused the U.S. of friendly relations with Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic at Haiti’s expense. The Kennedy administration was particularly displeased with Duvalier’s lack of regard for the rule of law. He also diverted funds meant for international aid and US Marine Corps missions to train the militia group he incorporated. This made the U.S. temporarily stop all forms of financial aid to Haiti until the Haitian government properly accounted for those initially disbursed.
Rather than comply with the financial aid conditions, Francois Duvalier publicly renounced all aid from Washington on nationalist grounds. Duvalier misappropriated international aid to the tune of millions of dollars, including an annual $15 million from the United States. He diverted this to personal accounts. He also secured foreign loans, including $4 million from Cuba.
After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the U.S. eased sanctions on Haiti. They accepted him as a bulwark against communism.
Duvalier attempted to exploit the strained relationship between the U.S. and Cuba to his benefit. He elaborated on Cuba’s communist agenda.
After Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in the Cuban Revolution, Francois Duvalier became worried that Fidel Castro, the new leader, would support Haitian dissidents. He attempted to manipulate Fidel Castro into friendship. However, his efforts proved abortive as Fidel Castro threw his weight behind Haitian dissidents.
The relationship between Francois Duvalier and Fidel Castro grew worse after he voted against Cuba in a meeting organized by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations. The result of this was a trade embargo on Cuba. Fidel Castro responded by breaking all diplomatic ties with Haiti. These actions led to estranged relations with Cuba for no less than 38 years. Both countries reconciled only in 1997.
In the same vein, Francois Duvalier’s relationship with the Dominican Republic was also tense. Juan Bosch, the president of the Dominican Republic, identified with left-wing political views. He supported Haitian exiles who had plotted against the Duvalier regime.
Duvalier gave orders to the presidential guard to occupy the Dominican Republic’s embassy in Haiti. He wanted to arrest the Army officer alleged to have been involved in a plot to kidnap his children. The Dominican Republic was outraged and threatened to invade Haiti. However, Bosch refrained from invading Haiti, resorting to meditation through the OAS.
Personality cult and Vodou
Duvalier advanced his cult of personality and boasted that he was the embodiment of the Island nation. He revived the ancient traditions of Vodou. To make himself fearful, he modeled himself after one of the priests of Haitian Vodou. He often wore dark sunglasses that covered his eyes and spoke with a strong nasal tone. He claimed that God chose him to be the ruler of Haiti.
Francois Duvalier also kept the head of former opponent Blucher Philogenes in his closet. Philogenes attempted to overthrow him in 1963. He also believed that Clement Barbot had the ability to transform into a black dog at will. He, therefore, killed all black dogs in the Haitian capital.
Death and succession
Francois Duvalier died on 21st April 1971, six days after he turned 64. He died of heart disease and diabetes. His son took over as President after his demise.
Books and Movies
Many books have been written, and movies have been made about Francois Duvalier’s rule in Haiti. The most popular book on this is a novel written by Graham Greene titled “The Comedians.” The book was later made into a movie. The writer of the book Graham Greene was declared unwelcome and banned from stepping into Haitian soil.
Also, Alan Whicker had an interview with Duvalier in 1969. The resulting documentary reveals a lot about Duvalier’s character and Haiti’s political and economic state in 1969.
Duvalier applied intimidation, repression, and patronage to suppress Haiti’s elites and replaced them with his loyalists. Corruption, bribery, extortion of domestic businesses enriched his closest allies.
This made many professionals leave for U.S., Canada, and French-speaking African countries. This already added to the already existing lack of doctors and teachers.
The government also took lands and properties and awarded them to members of the militia. They had no official salary and made their living through extortion. The dispossessed citizens moved to the slums of the capital, where they could earn meager incomes to feed themselves. As a result, malnutrition and famine became endemic.