The Death and Legacy of Papa Doc Duvalier

  • At two-minute intervals, a cannon fired a booming salute in Port-au-Prince last week. Thousands of mourners filed through a spacious salon in the white Presidential Palace. There, dressed in a black frock coat and resting in a glass-topped, silk-lined coffin, lay the remains of one of history's most malevolent dictators. He was Francois Duvalier, who liked to be called Papa Doc. For 14 years he had held the wretchedly poor black republic of Haiti in a spell of fear. Now the spell was broken. At 64, weakened by heart attacks and chronic diabetes. Papa Doc died. His son. roly-poly Jean-Claude. 19, whom Duvalier had designated as his successor last January, was immediately sworn in as President.

    Voodoo Spirits. Papa Doc cast his spell through the artful use of voodoo, which in effect is Haiti's national religion. Duvalier affected the staring gaze, whispered speech and hyperslow movements recognized by Haitians as signs that a person is close to the voodoo spirits. He solicited the allegiance of voo doo priests in the countryside, often bringing them to Port-au-Prince for a presidential audience, and he encouraged rumors that he possessed supernatural powers. "My enemies cannot get me!" he used to exult to his followers. "I am already an immaterial being."

    Reign of Terror. The son of an impoverished Port-au-Prince schoolteacher, Duvalier studied at the University of Haiti medical school. A member of a U.S.-sponsored medical team in the Haitian interior during the 1940s, he became aware of the grip that voodoo holds on the rural masses. After turning to politics, he was elected President of Haiti in 1957, with the army's backing. He had promised that he would do something for the country's poor black majority, who for years have been exploited by a small clique of mulattoes. Instead, Duvalier, who was very dark, immediately imposed a reign of terror on a nation whose slave origins made it no stranger to brutality. His secret policemen, the Tontons Macoutes (Creole for "bogeymen"), murdered and tortured his opponents, sometimes leaving a victim's severed head on display in a marketplace as a warning to others. They also collected unofficial taxes and tribute from cowed Haitian businessmen and peasants.

    At first, Duvalier was able to parlay his anti-Communist credentials into sizable aid grants from the U.S. But he squandered much of the funds on grandiose prestige projects like the model city of Duvalierville, now a collection of decaying buildings overgrown by jungle. The U.S. finally cut all but a trickle of aid in the early 1960s. Under Duvalier, Haiti's per capita income of less than $75 remained the hemisphere's lowest, and the country was still racked by disease and hunger.

    In 1964, Duvalier declared himself President for Life. He held on to power by playing off one faction against another. With terrifying regularity, he sent his aides from palace to prison, and from there often to either foreign exile or execution. After a kidnaping attempt on two of his children, Papa Doc ordered 65 officers summarily shot. On another occasion, he personally commanded the firing squad that dispatched 19 of his closest followers, whom he suspected—probably without justification —of plotting against him.

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