The Book of the Week is “Haiti (The First Inside Account), The Duvaliers and Their Legacy” by Elizabeth Abbott, published in 1988.
The nation of Haiti is on the western third of the island of Hispaniola, with neighbor Dominican Republic. Since the territory was named Haiti in 1804, the dark-skinned citizens there have rebelled against their enslavement by dictatorial rulers every few decades with little to show for it.
In the 1850’s, although blacks dominated militarily, the mulattoes led the country, owned the land, and controlled the economy. In the nineteen teens, when the United States occupied Haiti, it practiced segregation of the people by skin color. In the Dominican Republic and Cuba, slave labor was in demand for sugar cane harvesting. Haiti’s leaders through the decades sold their own dark-skinned citizens into lives of hard manual labor and extreme abuse because the citizens were tricked into believing their lives would improve if they left Haiti.
In the early 1920’s, “Papa Doc” Duvalier attended medical school in Haiti. During WWII, he generated goodwill among his people by saving the lives of countless yaws patients. During the war, when a black leader finally did come to power, he proved himself to be just as corrupt and greedy as the mulattoes, and was deposed.
Interesting Side Note: In 1947, Haiti’s United Nations vote tipped the balance in favor of establishing the State of Israel. As tokens of its appreciation, Israel sold Uzis to Duvalier’s government and translated his political writing, “The Class Problem Throughout the History of Haiti” into Hebrew.
In September 1957, the presidential election in Haiti was the opposite of free and fair. There was rampant cheating on both sides, with “… [ballot] boxes stuffed, stolen and miscounted.” Polling stations closed early, and numerous voters cast their ballots multiple times. Duvalier was the better cheater, so he was elected “president” of Haiti.
Duvalier and his successor– his son– were able to cajole economic aid from presidential administrations from Johnson through Reagan because “… the Americans were prepared to overlook torture, murder, and disappearances and listen with eager ears to reassuring speeches about democracy, human rights, and unmitigated anticommunism.” Duvalier used that last platform to his best advantage; he knew that the United States was phobic that Fidel Castro’s Cuba– Haiti’s Caribbean neighbor– would exert its evil political influence on Haiti.
The Tonton Macoutes were armed thugs responsible for violence under orders from Duvalier. They were like Mao Tse Tung’s “Red Guard” who killed people at their whim and kept Duvalier in power. To add insult to injury, the dictator named himself “President-For-Life” of Haiti. Additionally, he switched from being a medical doctor to a witch doctor– practicing voodoo to appeal to the Haitians of his generation.
In the spring of 1970, Duvalier died of various, serious health problems. His nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude, filled his position, but his widow and daughter were the true controllers of the new regime. His legacy consisted of a nation of “… millions of illiterate peasants on the edge of starvation and desperation.”
By the late 1970’s, the government’s economic policies had actually eased sufficiently to allow American businesses to physically locate factories in Haiti and exploit Haitian slave labor. Despite the continuing unspeakable human rights abuses in Haiti, loss of money and the Communist threat prompted even the Carter administration to provide financial assistance to the Duvaliers, anyway. For, all along, the money was lining the pockets of the first family, not the common people. The first family was treating the government treasury as their personal piggy bank. The leader called his political philosophy “Jeanclaudism.”
By 1980, Jeanclaudism had been shown to be an abject failure. The dictator “… presided over a nation of hopeless millions who tilled eroded soil, relied on capricious gods, and struggled against corruption, injustice and incompetence.” That same year, the dark-skinned Jean-Claude married a mulatto named Michele. Unsurprisingly, rebellion was on the horizon.
The author would have the reader believe that by 1986, the regime had devolved into the Jerry Springer Show: “…Michele was already in France, in New York, in Miami. Jean-Claude was going to divorce her for ruining his government, had only used her to cover up his homosexuality. But Michele didn’t care, the rumor-mongers declared, because she was a lesbian, smoked marijuana and had her eyes on…” someone else.
Read the book to learn more of the gruesome details of both father-and-son-Duvaliers’ leadership histories.