Commentary: Jean-Claude Duvalier

By Gladys Mayard

Haitian anthropologist, researcher, consultant and Director, Centre de Research et de Service Socio-Humanitaire (CRESHM). 

It was the Duvalier regime that produced Jean-Claudism, and in the end it simply became the Duvalier doctrine.  My views are based on having read and heard about these events, as well as having friends who had family members who were victims of the regime.  It is necessary to speak of this doctrine as a complex ideology and mentality.

As an ordinary physician Francois Duvalier knew quite well to install his doctrine little by little.  He began by involving himself with the rural population before his presidency in the eradication of yaws, and through this made many friends.  Once in power, he understood the importance of establishing a corps of supporters, the macoutes, recruited from the peasantry, the poor and the middle class.  He conferred titles and diplomas on people who could neither read nor write.  He gave the poor legitimacy by eliminating social barriers to education, power and wealth.  Very quickly he made allies everywhere, and a strong macoute force was installed at every socio-economic level.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The VSN in formation, Abricots, 1977

The brutal aspect of the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier was largely the work of the tonton macoutes, officially known as the VSN, Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale.  This unpaid militia resorted to ruthless and violent means to earn a living and to enforce the regime’s agenda.  Through them he eliminated the young intellectuals who opposed him.  When he realized that the families of the disappeared were working together and seeking ways to organize outside the country, he began monitoring all mail from outside.  My brother-in-law, one of the regime’s targets, had to speak in code even to close family members.

In order to placate the young student population, Jean-Claude fostered the notion that with a young president, the youth were in charge.  Thus emerged the slogans such as “With Jean-Claude Duvalier the young are in power.”  Several popular songs circulated about Jean-Claude being a brother to the young, and how his father was a beloved good father. These were merely illusions and false hope.  Everyone knew the regime had blood on its hands.

Son in uniform - corrected

Jean-Claude and young son were often seen in public wearing the uniform of the tonton macoutes

In the beginning, Jean-Claude did not govern; he knew nothing about politics.  It was the power-holders from his father’s administration that ran the country.  It was not until after his marriage to Michelle Bennett, whose father was politically savvy and part of the bourgeoisie, that he took an interest in his office.  It was at this juncture that the old guard of intellectuals and macoutes that his father had put in place began to splinter, and the conflict between the old allies and the Bennett family heralded the downfall of Jean-Claude.  However, his diminished power did not put an end to the brutal system in place or to Duvalierism, because the military and macoute network in place continued to uphold the old repressive system.

None of the subsequent leaders were able to change this entrenched system, and there remained a deeply engrained gratitude and loyalty to the Duvalier family.  Even to the current day, none of the presidents who followed the Duvaliers were successful in establishing a strong administration.  Even with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who gave hope to so many, it soon became clear that his leftist agenda of pitting the poor against the rich would not succeed.  It is said that only a united political front can erase the doctrine and mentality of Duvalierism in the subconscious of the Haitian people.

Fear continues still to guaranty impunity for torturers and silence victims in a society not yet freed from the sequela of state terrorism.  With the trial of Jean-Claude, we are beginning to speak loud and strong of what happened under Duvalier.  Now, beyond the needs of history and the thirst for justice, the nation needs to understand what happened.  Why hasn’t the country been able to discard old practices?   Why has Haiti visibly fallen so low since 1986?

Additional reading: 

Diederich, Bernard and Al Burt, Papa Doc, The Truth about Haiti Today, 1969.

Diederich, Bernard, The Price of Blood: Resistance of the Haitian People against Tyranny, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier 1957-1971.  

Pierre-Charles, Gerard.  Haiti: Radiografie de una Dictadura, 1969.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Haiti: State against Nation, Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism, 1990.

Manigat, Leslie, Status Quo in Haiti? From Duvalier to Another: Itinerary of a Fascism of Underdevelopment, 1971.

Sapene, Raymond, Proceso a Baby Doc: Duvalier Padre e Hijo, 1977. 

Ferguson, James, Papa Doc, Baby Doc: Haiti and the Duvaliers, 1987.

Neree, Bob, Duvalier: Le Pouvoir sur les Autres, de Pere en Fils, 1988. 

Abbott, Elizabeth, The Duvalierists after Duvalier, 1992.

Leconte, Frantz-Antoine (ed.), Growing Up Under Duvalier: The Agony of a Nation-State, 1999. 

Dorsinville, Max, The Shadow of Duvalier, 2007.