Baby Doc Succeeds Papa Doc in Haiti Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jean-Claude Duvalier assumed the presidency of Haiti upon his father’s death, continuing the Duvalier family’s dictatorship of Haiti for the next fifteen years. This period destroyed Haiti both economically and socially as “Baby Doc” looted the country while brutally crushing any challenges to his regime until his overthrow in February, 1986.

Summary of Event

When Haitian president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier died on April 21, 1971, after a lengthy illness, his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude, was suddenly elevated to the office of “president for life” of Haiti. A playboy at heart, Jean-Claude, nicknamed “Baby Doc,” was ill prepared for this responsibility, and Haiti was plunged into fifteen years of economic turmoil and brutal repression. Jean-Claude continued his father’s revolution in Haiti, killing opponents while spiriting millions of dollars out of the country and spending lavishly to support his opulent lifestyle. Jean-Claude ruled the nation by terror and fear, and well into the twenty-first century Haiti would struggle from the grinding poverty and violence that were the legacy of his regime. Haiti;government Human rights abuses;Haiti [kw]Baby Doc Succeeds Papa Doc in Haiti (Apr. 21, 1971) [kw]Papa Doc in Haiti, Baby Doc Succeeds (Apr. 21, 1971) [kw]Haiti, Baby Doc Succeeds Papa Doc in (Apr. 21, 1971) Haiti;government Human rights abuses;Haiti [g]West Indies;Apr. 21, 1971: Baby Doc Succeeds Papa Doc in Haiti[00280] [g]Haiti;Apr. 21, 1971: Baby Doc Succeeds Papa Doc in Haiti[00280] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 21, 1971: Baby Doc Succeeds Papa Doc in Haiti[00280] Duvalier, Jean-Claude Duvalier, François Duvalier, Simone Duvalier, Michèle Bennett

The rule of Jean-Claude Duvalier can be broken into two periods: the time before his marriage to Michèle Bennett and the time after. Before his marriage, Jean-Claude’s mother, Simone Duvalier, performed most of the duties of governing Haiti, duties that her son detested. During this early period of his rule, Jean-Claude was well liked by the Haitian people because there was a seeming relaxation of the repression that Haiti had experienced under his father, but this honeymoon was not to last. Jean-Claude loved nothing more than using Haitian government funds as his personal bank account to buy cars, throw parties, and go hunting with his friends. He performed only those functions of government that required his personal attention, leaving everything else in his mother’s hands. Simone ran the government with the old Duvalierists who had worked under her husband, known as the “Dinosaurs.” They continued most of the senior Duvalier’s policies, enriching themselves at the expense of the Haitian people.

During this period, a charade of liberalization gave the impression that the Haitian government was becoming more open and democratic in order to attract foreign aid. The Tontons Macoutes—the private army of Papa Doc Duvalier, which had kept the populace in line through brutal, repressive tactics—was disbanded. However, Jean-Claude wanted to eliminate any challenges to his power and created a personal army, essentially replacing the Tontons Macoutes with an army loyal to only him. This “Leopard Battalion” controlled the country, taking what they wanted and beating any who dared to challenge Jean-Claude. People were thrown in jail for little or no reason, and thousands died from the treatment they received in these political prisons.

Haitian president François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier poses with his son, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, in late February, 1971. When Duvalier died two months later, his son succeeded him as president.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Haiti entered a new era of even deeper poverty and repression with Jean-Claude’s marriage to Michèle Bennett on May 27, 1980. Once she became First Lady of Haiti, the full-scale looting of Haiti began in earnest. Simone Duvalier was pushed out of power, and most of the Dinosaurs quickly followed, to be replaced by people loyal to Michèle. Michèle’s family used her position as Jean-Claude’s wife to exploit the Haitian people, running drugs and committing graft like the public officials. The government became Michèle’s personal bank account, from which she withdrew millions to spend on trips overseas, clothes, jewelry, furs, and other luxuries. Michèle became the object of the Haitian people’s intense hatred as their standard of living degenerated even further.

After many years of continuing poverty and repression under Jean-Claude and Michèle, Jean-Claude’s grip on power began to slip in the early 1980’s, when the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic became associated with Haitians. The tourist industry declined, resulting in an even more impoverished economy. Most historians agree that the event that finally ended Jean-Claude’s rule was the visit of Pope John Paul II John Paul II to Haiti on March 9, 1983. The pope spoke of how conditions in Haiti must improve, giving a voice to the people who did not support the government and effectively censuring the Duvalier family’s regime. The Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church;Haiti among other institutions, agitated for changes in the government and more help for the poor and needy, a majority of the population. After a period of open protest against the government, a coup, headed by General Henri Namphy, deposed Jean-Claude, and the Duvaliers were sent into exile in France.


The three decades during which the Duvaliers ruled Haiti was a time of tragedy for the Caribbean nation. Both father and son brought economic devastation to the country and a level of violent repression that destroyed Haitian society. Haiti has never fully recovered from what Baby Doc and his wife did to the nation. Poverty and starvation would remain their legacy well into the twenty-first century. Piled on this economic devastation was the Duvalier regime’s social repression: Human rights had no place in Haiti as thousands were imprisoned, tortured, mutilated, and killed.

While the Duvalier regime imposed stability on the country by force, Baby Doc was able to convince nations like the United States that he wanted to help his nation. As a result, foreign aid money continued to flow in, diverted to his and his wife’s lifestyle. While there are many examples of dictators that bleed their countries dry, the reign of Jean-Claude Duvalier was one of the most egregious. Haiti;government Human rights abuses;Haiti

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abbot, Elizabeth. Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Well-written book about the Duvalier regime, with many interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chirot, Daniel. Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age. New York: Free Press, 1994. Provides analysis of dictatorships from around the world, including Jean-Claude’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geggus, David P. Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Examines various revolutions in Haitian history, including the overthrow of Baby Doc.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gold, Herbert. Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2001. Autobiographical account of life under the Duvalier family’s regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McAlister, Elizabeth. Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Discusses the place of Voodoo in Haitian society and how Baby Doc’s belief in the religion affected his rule.

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Categories: History