Papa Doc: The Tyrant of Haiti

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The modern history of Haiti has been wracked by tyranny, instability and poverty due to abuses by Western powers. However, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Haiti seemed to be progressing economically and politically; it was the iron-fisted rule of François Duvalier from 1957 to 1971 that halted this advancement.

In order to understand Duvalier, one needs an awareness of the historical context of Haiti. A former French slave colony, Haiti seized its independence through revolution in 1804, yet France and other Western powers (including Britain) refused to recognise Haitian independence and instead isolated it economically. In 1825, Haiti, still an international pariah, was forced to pay an indemnity of 150 million Francs to the French government for her loss of slaves and territory. Such was the size of the indemnity that it was not paid off in full until 1947.

This debt crippled Haitian economic growth, in turn leading to constant political instability. Tensions were politically acute between the ruling, wealthy elite – the so-called gens de couleur (who were mixed-race) – and the descendants of former slaves, the vast majority of the nation.

Over a century after its independence, Haiti remained economically beholden to Western powers, and in 1915 was heavily indebted to France, Germany and the United States. The National City Bank of New York, which itself owned a large stake in the Banque Nationale de la République d’Haiti (Haitian national bank), thus petitioned Woodrow Wilson to invade Haiti to protect their commercial interests. Wilson – the same man who in his Fourteen Points emphasised the importance of self-determination – saw no issues with this overriding of Haitian sovereignty. Haiti was able to offer little resistance and the American occupation began.

The Americans forced Haitians to work in a slave-like system of compulsory labour known as the corvée, which dates back to feudal France. By the time the Americans left in 1934, Haiti had grown desperately poor and deeply resentful of foreign influence, leading to the development of a nationalist ideology (noirisme) which advocated for the majority black population to take control of national politics.

It was in this febrile political climate that François Duvalier first rose to power. Duvalier was born into a bourgeois family in 1907 and was raised by his aunt, Madame Forestal. He trained as a doctor at the University of Haiti and later the University of Michigan, developing a pride in his African heritage. He was particularly interested in Haitian Voodoo – a religion which mixes traditional African and Catholic rituals and believes in Ioa (spirts) that act as the conduit between humanity and Bondyé (the supreme creator deity). He would later weaponize Voodooism to develop his cult of personality.

As a doctor in the 1930s and 1940s, he gained a reputation as a selfless defender of the poor, gaining the affectionate nickname ‘Papa Doc’. Nonetheless, he held obvious political ambitions. In 1946, his former schoolmaster and friend, Dumarsais Estimé, was elected President of Haiti. Duvalier was thus appointed Director General of the National Public Health Service and later Minister for Health and Labour. In this capacity, he supported Estimé’s progressive social reforms, including raising the minimum wage and combating illiteracy.

Estimé’s Presidency was a high point in the move towards a fairer and more egalitarian Haiti. However, his progressive political reforms were seen as too radical by the army and he was overthrown in a coup led by Paul Magloire in 1950. Whilst Estimé was forced into exile in France, ‘Papa Doc’ stayed in Haiti, becoming a dissident against the new regime.

However, Magloire’s military junta was short-lived, collapsing in 1956 due to a lack of popular support. A quasi-democratic election followed in 1957, in which Duvalier, ironically supported by the army, beat Louis Déjoie, a wealthy industrialist.

Although Duvalier was nominally President, power still rested in the hands of the military who could simply overthrow Duvalier if they grew disillusioned with him. Papa Doc was therefore keen to spread his influence across the highest levels of government and began by purging the judiciary, legislature and civil service and installing loyalists in key posts. He also set up a secret police force under the command of his friend, Clément Barbot. In doing so, he created a powerful bulwark against the military, securing his rule in the short-term. This new powerbase allowed Duvalier to take bolder action against the army, dismissing senior officers and reducing the military’s size on the pretext that they had abused their powers.

Duvalier had in effect become the sole dictator of Haiti. To secure this position, he set up the Tonton Macoutes, another militia again commanded by Barbot. These 10,000 or so ‘gangsters’ were hideously brutal and tortured and maimed opponents of the regime with Duvalier’s authority. The Macoutes were typically unpaid and so they used their positions to steal and extort, creating a climate of lawlessness and fear.

Having demonstrated his dominance over the army, Papa Doc took aim at another enemy, Catholicism, which lost its position as the official religion of Haiti and was replaced by Voodooism. Duvalier was particularly obsessed with one Ioa (spirit): he reportedly dressed up as Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead – a chilling metaphor for the lethality of his reign. In retaliation, Duvalier was excommunicated by the Catholic Church.

The use of Houngans – Voodoo priests – as government spies suggests that the promotion of Voodoo was a political tool for Duvalier as much as a genuine belief, allowing him to consolidate his personal power authority and remove the external authority of the Vatican.

In May 1959, Duvalier suffered a near-fatal heart attack and so his grip on power became more and more tenuous. His rule was openly questioned in the legislature and during his convalescence, power rested in the hands of Barbot. Once recovered, Papa Doc responded as one would expect of a dictator: he denounced his enemies as communists, arrested Barbot and hunted down his enemies with the Macoutes. 

Whilst he would face other challenges during his further 12 years in office, Duvalier never came so close to losing his power as in 1959, and the experience motivated him to become even more autocratic and strengthen his cult of personality. For the inauguration of his second President term on 22 May 1961, Duvalier had the Macoutes herd thousands of Haitians into Port-au-Prince (the capital) and pay homage to a man now officially hailed as the “defender of revolution, the chosen apostle of Christ and President for Life.”

Such tokenistic proclamations failed to mask the very real financial issues which threatened Haiti. Almost half of government expenditure was funded by US aid, yet by 1965, the Americans, concerned about Duvalier’s democratic abuses, had dried up their funding. Previously flourishing industries, notably tourism, had declined due to rampant crime, and corruption pervaded every level of government. 65% of state funds were allocated to the security services, leading to a complete neglect of basic public services. Educated professionals simply left the country, many emigrating to the United States.

Duvalier was largely unconcerned by this worsening situation and refused to change his policies. Instead, he sought to project himself as an elderly, respected statesman. He welcomed Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia to Haiti in 1966 and presented himself as a spiritual leader of the black world. He rebuilt his relationship with the West too (and particularly America) in the late 1960s as he presented himself, and was seen, as a necessary (although distasteful) bulwark against communism and Cuba.

These foreign policy successes allowed Duvalier to avoid any further major challenges to his rule. He died of a heart attack in April 1971, three months after he had named his son – Baby Doc – as his successor. He was honoured with an elaborate state funeral and interred in a grand mausoleum.

Papa Doc’s rule was one marked by violence, brutality and repression yet he proved remarkably successful in maintaining popular support. Unlike so many other dictators – Hitler, Ceauşescu, Caesar – whose hubris brought their eventual downfall, Duvalier never found his rule truly threatened (except perhaps in 1959). He had no ideology to which he appealed and generally failed to improve the lives of his citizens, yet he was loved by the country’s rural black majority simply because he was ‘one of them’ who had stood up to the ruling elite.

Moreover, the lack of viable alternatives to his rule ensured the success of his dictatorship. His purging of enemies through the Macoutes meant that he was unlikely to face an internal coup and America, the dominant superpower in the Caribbean region, had no desire to overthrow an anti-communist leader in the midst of the Cold War.

Duvalier is certainly not one of the best-known of the 20th Century tyrants, but his dictatorship is crucial to understanding modern Haiti. That the country today is wracked by crime and poverty can perhaps be partially attributed to the failure of Duvalier to continue Estimé’s reforms and instead embark upon 14 years of corruption, bribery and decline.

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Dikötter, F., 2019. How To Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. Bloomsbury.

Remy, A., “The Duvalier Phenomenon.” Caribbean Studies 14, no. 2 (1974): 38–65.