François Duvalier Biography

François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the 32nd President of Haiti, ruled with an iron fist for 14 years, suppressing political dissent and causing thousands of deaths. Despite the brutality of his regime, Haiti experienced a level of political stability never seen before. Prior to his presidency, Duvalier was a respected medical practitioner, earning him the nickname “Papa Doc.” He rose to power after opposing the military junta that unseated President Dumarsais Estimé, eventually becoming President himself in 1957. Duvalier’s reign was characterized by the creation of the notorious paramilitary force, Tonton Macoute, which instilled fear in the population and silenced any form of dissent. In 1964, he declared himself President for Life, and upon his death, his son Jean Claude succeeded him as President.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Papa Doc
  • Died At Age: 64
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Simone Duvalier
    • Children: Jean-Claude Duvalier
  • Born Country: Haiti
  • Occupation: Physicians, Presidents
  • Died on: April 21, 1971
  • Place of Death: Port-au-Prince
  • City: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • More Facts:
    • Education: University of Haiti, University of Michigan

Childhood & Early Life

François Duvalier was born on April 14, 1907, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Duval Duvalier and Ulyssia Abraham. His father was a justice of peace and his mother was a baker. He was brought up by his aunt.

He attended the University of Haiti and earned a degree in medicine in 1934. He remained involved as a staff physician at many local hospitals. He studied public health at the University of Michigan for a year. The journal Les Griots was co-founded by him in 1938. He became actively involved in the US sponsored anti-yaws campaign in 1943.

Early Political Career

Duvalier started supporting President Dumarsais Estimé in 1946 and was inducted Director General of the National Public Health Service. He held office as Undersecretary of Labor from November 26, 1948 to October 14, 1949; and as Minister of Public Health and Labor from October 14, 1949 to May 10, 1950. He left the government and returned to medical practice after opposing the 1950 coup d’état of Paul Magloire.

In a turn of events, Duvalier started organising opposition against Magloire, left medical practice and went underground. As the Magloire government started to collapse, in 1956, Duvalier announced his presidential candidature while still remaining underground. He came out from the hiding after an amnesty was issued by 1956. Magloire acknowledged his defeat on December 12 that year.

President of Haiti

Duvalier, a National Unity Party candidate, won the presidential election defeating Louis Déjoie during the 1957 Haitian general elections. Déjoie and his supporters went into exile in Cuba to escape repression from supporters of Duvalier. Duvalier assumed office as the 32nd President of Haiti on October 22, 1957 and adopted a new constitution that year.

In an attempt to consolidate power, Duvalier elevated and inducted people of the black community in both the army and civil service. A 28–29 July 1958 military coup d’état led by three exiled Haitian army officers as also five American soldiers of fortune to overthrow Duvalier was thwarted by his loyal troops. The incident however led him to lose trust in the army and paved way for a more totalitarian and despotic regime of Duvalier. He not only replaced several staff of the army with the ones he believed to be more loyal to him but also created the secret government death squad, Tonton Macoute in 1959.

Duvalier included elements of Haitian mythology into a personality cult in pursuit of bolstering his regime. After he came to power, Vodou gained prominence and greatly influenced Tonton Macoute, some of the prominent members of which were Vodou leaders. Duvalier himself claimed to be a Vodou priest and intentionally modelled his image like one of the loa of Haitian Vodou, Baron Samedi. According to propaganda during his regime, Duvalier was one with the loa, Jesus Christ and God himself. A catechism was published by him in 1964 where the Lord’s Prayer was rewritten to pay him tribute instead of God.

He gave power to Tonton Macoute to carry out systematic violence and abuse of human rights to curb any kind of political opposition against him. The death squad committed several murders and rapes, stoned and burned people alive, resorted to corruption and extortion, displayed corpses of victims as warning for opposing Duvalier’s rule. This unrestricted state terrorism rose to such extent that the Haitians were horrified to even express their dissent in private.

Meanwhile after he suffered a massive heart attack on May 24, 1959, Duvalier named one of his top aides and first leader of the Tonton Macoute, Clément Barbot as his proxy. Following his recovery, Duvalier imprisoned Barbot accusing that the latter tried to usurp him as President. Barbot was released in April 1963, following which he along with his brother Harry and a small group plotted to unseat Duvalier by kidnapping his children in Port-au-Prince. The plot however failed and a nationwide search was conducted for Barbot and his fellow conspirators. Believing that Barbot transformed himself into a black dog, Duvalier directed his militia to kill all black dogs in Haiti. Barbot was later captured and killed in July that year.

He started disregarding the provisions of the 1957 constitution in 1961. He dissolved the Parliament while the Senate was abolished thus making the Chamber of Deputies a unicameral body, replacing the bicameral legislature. On April 30 that year, a presidential referendum was called together with the parliamentary elections, though Duvalier’s presidential term was to expire in 1963 and re-election was prohibited by the constitution. Duvalier won the presidential election (widely considered to be rigged) uncontested with a total of 1,320,748 “yes” votes and none against.

On June 14, 1964, a constitutional referendum was held together with the parliamentary elections. It was also considered to be flagrantly rigged. The new constitution made him President for Life, giving him absolute power as also right to name his successor.

US Relations and Legacy

The US administration under presidency of John F. Kennedy was not happy with the repressive and totalitarian rule of Duvalier as also with allegations that Duvalier misappropriated aid money given by the US as economic assistance to Haiti. According to estimates of several economists, at least 50% of annual income of Haiti was stolen by Duvalier and his companions. The US however, to some extent reluctantly, eased pressure from over Duvalier in 1962 to restrict him from becoming friendly with Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

Meanwhile tensions between Haiti and Dominican Republic started brewing up and reached almost to the point of war in 1963. Internal political power struggles in the Dominican Republic as also mediation by the Organization of American States (OAS) however prevented the war from happening.

Throughout his regime Duvalier garnered support of most of the black rural population of the nation. His government aided in creating a considerable black middle class in Haiti. In 1965, the François Duvalier International Airport was opened that is presently called Toussaint Louverture International Airport.

Duvalier went on to expel nearly all foreign-born bishops of Haiti for which he faced excommunication from the Catholic Church. He convinced the Holy See in 1966 to let him nominate the Catholic hierarchy for his country.

Family & Personal Life

He was married to Simone Duvalier (née Ovide) from December 27, 1939 till his death. Together they had four children, namely Marie Denise, Jean Claude, Simone and Nicole.

Duvalier succumbed to heart disease and diabetes on April 21, 1971 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Jean Claude succeeded him as the 33rd President of Haiti.

Media Representations

Several books were written on Duvalier’s rule and situation of Haiti during his regime. These include the novel ‘The Comedians’ (1966) by Graham Greene which was dismissed by Duvalier. Greene was declared persona non grata by the Haiti government and prohibited from entering the nation. A film based on the book starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was released on October 31, 1967.

Other books on Duvalier and his regime includes ‘Papa Doc: Haiti and its Dictator’ (1969) by Al Burt and Bernard Diederich; ‘Fort Dimanche: Dungeon of Death’ (1996) by Patrick Lemoine; and ‘Papa Doc: Portrait of a Haitian Tyrant’ (2007) by John Marquis.

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