When I read about the recent death of former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, I was transported back nearly four decades to my first and longest field trip to that beleaguered country. What stood out in my memory was the fact that I helped to promote a fledgling Haitian rock band inspired by the words of the young ruler. This recollection stood in contrast to the usual portrait of a maligned leader, and gave me pause to reflect on the man and my nuanced image of him.
Jean-Claude was the youngest head of state in modern times. And he was a ruthless dictator. Only 19 when his father, “Papa Doc” Francois Duvalier, died suddenly in 1971, he inherited a legacy infamous for its repression and brutality. However, hope abounded that the new leader would usher Haiti into a more progressive era of political and economic reform. Young people were particularly attracted to the new president, who in earlier years was often seen riding his motorcycle through the streets of Port-au-Prince. It took a while before people became fully disillusioned, but in the early days of Duvalier’s leadership there was heart-felt optimism in many quarters. Continue reading
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.
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. Continue reading