Haiti’s Duvalier Nightmare

Updated on September 18, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, misruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971. His son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc, carried on with his father’s governing style for another 15 years. The most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere has still not recovered from the depredations of the Duvaliers.

Haitian children pleading for help sums up the state of the country.
Haitian children pleading for help sums up the state of the country. | Source

Unlucky Haiti

The country was dealt a very poor hand by nature. It sits astride the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates, so earthquakes, such as the devastating one that hit in 2010, are always a possibility. In addition, the northern hemisphere’s hurricanes frequently pass over the land.

As if these natural disasters were not enough, the country has suffered horribly at the hands of its rulers. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann says it’s people have endured “slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation, and violence.” And the worst of its human-made misfortunes have come from the Duvalier family.


Rise of the Duvaliers

There were coups, military rule, and dictatorships and then an election in 1957. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier won handily amid reports of vote tampering and fraud. He campaigned against the lighter-skinned Haitian mixed-race elites who controlled the country’s wealth. He portrayed himself as the champion of the oppressed black masses.

A deeply superstitious man, Duvalier exploited the voodoo beliefs of the population. He dressed in a black coat and wore dark glasses in imitation of the voodoo spirit Baron Samedi.

Papa Doc Duvalier.
Papa Doc Duvalier. | Source

He created his own brutish militia called the Tonton Macoutes. These were mostly illiterate men who were believed by many to be zombies that Duvalier had raised from the dead. They were essentially lawless thugs who took care of any threats, perceived or real, that entered Duvalier’s fearful mind.

It’s estimated that the Tonton Macoutes killed between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians. Countless others were beaten, tortured, and raped. Those who were killed were often left hanging from trees in order to send a message to any would-be dissenters.

In Haitian belief the Tonton Macoute is a mythical bogeyman feared by naughty children because he ate them for breakfast

And, while opponents were killed, terrorized into silence, or driven into exile, Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and their cronies looted the country’s treasury. It’s believed that Baby Doc stole between $600 and $800 million from his impoverished citizens.

Historian von Tunzelmann has estimated that the Duvaliers were diverting 80 percent of the foreign aid the country received into their own offshore bank accounts.

One small example of how they ruined the country financially was the Port-au-Prince to Verrettes railway. The 145 km line was completed in the early 20th century. In 1972, labourers started lifting the track of the publicly owned railway. Papa Doc and his pals had sold the rails for personal profit.

Another project involved the construction of Duvalierville.

A New Capital for Haiti

As a monument to his own imagined magnificence Papa Doc started to build a new city that was to rival Brazil’s Brasilia. This was going to replace Port-au-Prince as the country’s capital.

About 30 kilometres from Port-au-Prince is the community of Cabaret. In 1961, Papa Doc changed its name to Duvalierville and announced this was to be the site of Haiti’s wonderful new capital. The plans were grand; the prestige project was going to be a Utopian city and a tribute to the genius of the country’s leader. There was going to be a stadium dedicated to cockfighting.

But, the construction money disappeared and the swindled contractors left the site. The place is now run down and has retaken its original name of Cabaret. Ironically, it turns out to be a testament to the corrupt and brutal rule of one of humanity’s worst examples.

Supported by the West

Everybody knew that Papa Doc Duvalier was a very brutal crook, but Western governments held their noses and supported him anyway. Papa Doc had cleverly played the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend card.

Washington believed that Duvalier was a foe of nearby Communist Cuba and, therefore, was a valuable asset in the region.

The National Post (Canada) notes that during the Nixon administration “It is shocking — revolting — to learn that while the U.S. was encouraging the downfall of a democratically elected socialist regime in Chile, it was raising aid to Haiti tenfold. Most of that money was relocated to accounts in Switzerland. In 1980, the IMF gave Haiti $22 million — and $20 million vanished.”

Cité Soleil is a large slum in Port-au-Prince.
Cité Soleil is a large slum in Port-au-Prince. | Source

The Final Downfall

Baby Doc was a dissolute young man with expensive tastes and a fondness for orgies. He was described by The Guardian as “gormless [and] a poor student.” The Tonton Macoutes had been disbanded in an attempt to put a smiley face on the regime.

Then, Jean Claude married a light-skinned lady of dubious reputation and he lost his base of support among blacks. The riots began. In 1986, Baby Doc and his wife Michèle fled the country to live in luxury on the French Riviera.

Baby Doc and his wife Michèle head for Haiti's airport in their Mercedes as they flee the country.
Baby Doc and his wife Michèle head for Haiti's airport in their Mercedes as they flee the country. | Source

What with Ferraris, yachts, first class accommodation, jewellery, and haute couture, even hundreds of millions can vanish surprisingly quickly. Then, the divorce punched an enormous hole in Baby Doc’s portfolio. As his obituary in The Guardian noted, “he lived for a time in a shed at the bottom of his father-in-law’s suburban Paris garden.”

There was a comeback of sorts when, through American influence, an old Duvalier supporter became President of Haiti. Jean Claude returned to his home country and enjoyed the best restaurants and night life that Port-au-Prince had to offer until his death from a heart attack in 2014 at the age of 63.

Haiti Today

The country the Duvaliers left behind them is still a horrible mess.

  • Rank by the United Nations Development Index in desirability of a place to live: 168th
  • Life expectancy: 63.6
  • Percentage of population living in poverty: 50.7
  • International corruption rank: 161st
  • Freedom House ranking: 41 out of 100
  • And, Human Rights Watch reports that “Political instability continued in 2018 to hinder the Haitian government’s ability to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve long-standing human rights problems, or address humanitarian crises.”

The worst natural disaster in Haiti’s history was the January 2010 earthquake that killed about 250,000 people.
The worst natural disaster in Haiti’s history was the January 2010 earthquake that killed about 250,000 people. | Source

Bonus Factoids

  • Clément Barbot became an opponent of François Duvalier in the early 1960s. The President believed a myth that Barbot was a shape-shifter who could turn himself into a black dog. Duvalier issued an order that all black dogs in Haiti were to be shot and killed on sight.
  • Papa Doc was a trained physician who was steeped in voodoo law. He believed that voodoo spirits gave him special protection on the 22nd of every month. So, it was only on that day that he left the security of his presidential palace.


  • “How the Duvalier Dynasty Ruined Haiti.” Tim Stanley, National Post, October 5, 2015.
  • “Haiti: a Long Descent to Hell.” Jon Henley, The Guardian, January 14, 2010.
  • “Jean-Claude Duvalier Obituary.” Greg Chamberlain, The Guardian, October 5, 2014.
  • “Haiti Name Changed : Now, Life in Duvalierville Is a Cabaret.” Dan Williams, Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1986.
  • “The Death and Legacy of Papa Doc Duvalier.” Time, January 17, 2011.
  • “Duvalierville: Relic of a Ruined Reign.” Vincent J. Schodolski, Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1986.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


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