Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

François Duvalier established an authoritarian regime in Haiti, building it on a pattern and legacy of violence, corruption, and underdevelopment.

Summary of Event

On October 22, 1957, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier was inaugurated as the president of Haiti. This story neither begins nor ends on this date. Duvalier inaugurated one of the most brutal authoritarian systems of the twentieth century, but the tendency toward dictatorship was already firmly rooted in the history and political culture of Haiti. The unique aspect of Duvalierism was that the system which evolved was so resilient and far-reaching in its impact on Haitian society. Presidency, Haitian Presidential elections, Haitian [kw]Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti (Oct. 22, 1957) [kw]Haiti, Duvalier Takes Power in (Oct. 22, 1957) Presidency, Haitian Presidential elections, Haitian [g]Caribbean;Oct. 22, 1957: Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti[05650] [g]West Indies;Oct. 22, 1957: Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti[05650] [g]Haiti;Oct. 22, 1957: Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti[05650] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 22, 1957: Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti[05650] [c]Human rights;Oct. 22, 1957: Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti[05650] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 22, 1957: Duvalier Takes Power in Haiti[05650] Duvalier, François Estimé, Dumarsais [p]Estimé, Dumarsais Dejoie, Louis Barbot, Clement Jumelle, Clément Fignolé, Daniel Toussaint Louverture Dessalines, Jean-Jacques

The former French colony of Haiti Postcolonialism;Haiti was the first land in the Caribbean or Latin America to achieve political independence. Haiti emerged from a plantation-based slave society in 1804, led by revolutionaries Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. From the outset, Haiti was beset by problems created by its unique circumstances. To begin with, the revolution was one of national independence, but it also had definite racial overtones. Not only was there an emphasis on black culture but also differences between black and mulatto (mixed ancestry) society in Haiti became immediately apparent. Moreover, the traditional folk religion of Voodoo played a prominent role in Haitian politics from the time of the independence movement until Papa Doc Duvalier’s obvious manipulation of it in his own regime. Finally, Haiti was very poor because of semifeudal land distribution practices, illiteracy, and outright corruption among elites.

Such conditions were prevalent long before Duvalier’s rise to power but were instrumental in his election and in the style and character of his regime. Duvalier espoused black nationalism, a reverence for Voodoo, and populist sympathies reminiscent of his revered predecessor Dumarsais Estimé. In truth, he fulfilled none of the promise his 1957 campaign embodied.

The years preceding the election of François Duvalier were marked by chronic political and economic instability. Haiti had been one of the richest colonies in the New World, largely based on sugar exportation. Independence had destroyed the plantation system and brought a pattern of redivision of the land among individual small holders. Each generation reduced the size of these lands among its heirs. Land-use practices and management deteriorated with the increasing parcelization of land holdings. In time, the countryside was left in poverty. Soil erosion, loss of profitability, and a host of other problems left the people in the countryside on subsistence farms or as sharecroppers, and living in poor and unsanitary conditions.

The problems of the countryside were evidence also of the increasing gulf between the provinces and the cities, especially the capital, Port-au-Prince. The cities were the political centers. Because of the narrow base of the economy, there emerged few tracks to upward mobility. To be successful in Haitian society, one needed to be born of great wealth, educated in a profession, or lucky in a political career. In fact, a political career was a key to advancement and personal enrichment. Graft and corruption became endemic to Haitian political culture.

The poor conditions in the countryside and the gulf between it and city culture were exacerbated by class competition based on race. Mulatto elites competed bitterly with the black majority but were often excluded from the mainstream in terms of wealth and status. Moreover, as opportunity declined in the provinces, people migrated to the cities. Teeming slums developed, underscoring both class and racial divisions in Haitian cities and increasing the squalor and instability of the nation.





Populist appeals to the poor and black culture in Haiti were commonplace, but the result of plans to benefit them seemed always to enrich a narrow band of elites instead. Haiti had a series of in-and-out presidents from the time of Dessalines to the election of Duvalier. Of twenty-eight presidents since 1843, the average term in office was just over three years. The key factor in the term of a Haitian president was the support of the army. Haiti has been the victim of foreign intervention and was occupied by the United States Marines from 1915 to 1934. A president of Haiti was required to promise economic reforms, conquer multiple social and racial cleavages, gain the support of the United States but also stand up to it, be sensitive to Voodoo and folk culture, respect the Roman Catholic Church, and hold the support of a factionalized military machine. This enormous task was hampered by the fact that the major incentive to be president of Haiti was personal gain.

A chaotic political environment prevailed in Haiti in 1957. François Duvalier was a medical doctor known for his involvement in the treatment of yaws, a contagious tropical disease. He entered politics as a follower of Daniel Fignolé’s party and was named director of public health under the presidency of Dumarsais Estimé. When Paul Eugene Magloire Magloire, Paul Eugene succeeded Estimé as president, Duvalier’s star declined. For a time, he was forced into hiding and is said to have read voraciously. His favorite book was The Prince (1640), by Niccolò Machiavelli.

Magloire had been moderately successful and popular, but as time approached for him to step down for elections, he stubbornly resisted. It was necessary for a military junta to force Magloire out before the 1957 elections. Duvalier found himself running for president with the support of Estimé. His three opponents were Fignolé, Clément Jumelle, and Louis Dejoie. Although the others were better known, Duvalier received key support from a powerful faction of the military led by General Antonio Kebreau Kebreau, Antonio .

In an atmosphere of violence and internecine squabbling, Duvalier presented the image of a docile, dull doctor. He spoke of government honesty and a new deal for the rural masses, and he reminded the people of his humanitarian work in eradication of yaws. Duvalier was widely known as a follower of Voodoo. He claimed the support of the United States and promised to follow in the footsteps of Estimé. Even so, the truly decisive element was the support of a barely organized group of paramilitary thugs who later became the Tontons Macoutes Tontons Macoutes .

In 1957, a premium was placed on the faction which could control the polls. Mobilizing the electors included intimidation, tampering, and an array of power plays among the many political factions. Each candidate had his mob supporters, but the Duvalierists went further, using provocative and disruptive acts of terror to undermine the other candidates. Clement Barbot arose as a leader in these endeavors, in which the overriding goal was to make sure that Duvalier could not be personally blamed. Duvalier played the role of befuddled but committed doctor while his thugs terrorized electors and opponents. François Duvalier achieved the presidency in October, 1957, but his hold on power appeared as tenuous as that of many of his predecessors.


François Duvalier did not wait for his people to give him a title. He chose to be called “Papa Doc.” This was the first of a series of unique characteristics of his leadership that gave Duvalierism its longevity in an unstable political world. Even before his inauguration, Duvalier survived several attempts to knock him out of power. He realized that to remain president he would need specialized support.

Duvalier was never an efficient manager nor particularly creative, but he assembled the institutional support necessary to destroy his enemies. In effect, he modernized his authoritarianism and became more than a petty dictator. Duvalier institutionalized a terror apparatus which neutralized political opposition and atomized the Haitian masses. Many observers have likened Duvalierism to a form of fascist totalitarianism.

Duvalier enhanced the strength of his palace guards and politicized elements of the army as protectors of his national security state. This project was facilitated by the Cold War Cold War;Haiti environment. Although Duvalier had a stormy relationship with the United States, he was able to manipulate several U.S. administrations as an opponent of communism. In the Cold War worldview of American foreign policy, Duvalier’s dictatorship was preferable to communist insurgency. Hence, the United States became an implicit accomplice in supporting his regime and helped legitimize domestic terror against the Haitian people.

Duvalier’s greatest innovation was an auxiliary structure of secret police, or death squads, known as the Tontons Macoutes. This organization was put together by Barbot after the 1957 election. The name epitomized Duvalier’s emphasis on the dark side of Voodoo. Tontons Macoutes is the plural form of Tonton Macoute, literally “Uncle Knapsack.” In Voodoo legend, Uncle Knapsack goes about at night stuffing naughty little boys into his pack and whisks them away. This was virtually the task of the Tontons Macoutes: to make people disappear. The arbitrary nature of the terror made it more effective. Ironically, Barbot, leader of the Tontons Macoutes, eventually lost his position and was himself killed in 1963 in an abortive attempt to assassinate Duvalier.

The Tontons Macoutes generated an antipolitical culture. Anyone suspected of opposition was brutally repressed. For example, the bodies of murdered suspects were often put on public display. In one case, a family was made to walk down a street stripped naked as Tontons Macoutes shot the children from the arms of their mothers. Women and children were often hacked to death with machetes in the presence of their husbands. Executions by firing squad were transmitted by radio and television, broadcast like football games. Even the friends of a son-in-law were executed, to impress the young man entering the Duvalier family. No one may ever know the extent of the carnage, but Haitian society was stigmatized by a pathological pattern of violence.

Duvalier institutionalized the politics of violence. Total violence becomes antipolitics and destroys the ability of people to think and act politically. The Duvalier regime became a classic kleptocracy, or rule of the “rip-off” artist, yet it utilized some of the most modern instruments of repression. These instruments were the key to the longevity of Duvalier’s system. Presidency, Haitian Presidential elections, Haitian

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick. Haiti: The Breached Citadel. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. This text provides an excellent study of Haiti. History and culture are carefully analyzed to characterize the context of Haitian development and underdevelopment. The role of vodun or voodoo and the pattern of autocracy are examined as integral to understanding Haiti.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diederich, Bernard, and Al Burt. Papa Doc: Haiti and Its Dictator. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1991. This book is an excellent and engrossing depiction of the rise to power and first ten years of dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier. The authors are journalists who saw at first hand the predatory nature of the regime. The account is written in exacting detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dupuy, Alex. Haiti in the World Economy: Class, Race, and Underdevelopment Since 1700. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. The value of this text lies in its careful analysis of the connection between the patterns of Haitian economic development to race and nationalism in Haitian political history. The text charts Haitian development from French colonialism and slave society to current patterns of black nationalism and U.S. economic intervention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fass, Simon M. Political Economy in Haiti: The Drama of Survival. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1988. The author analyzes the economic and social exigencies of living in Haiti and provides the reader with concrete evaluations of the living conditions, including food, water, housing, schooling, international credit, and the domestic market in contemporary Haiti.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heinl, Robert Debs, and Nancy G. Heinl. Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1942-1995. 3d ed., rev. and expanded. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Considered the definitive history of Haiti, this new edition is expanded to include updated information. Includes several helpful research tools; glossary, bibliography, appendixes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Logan, Rayford W. Haiti and the Dominican Republic. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Although somewhat dated, this book is a helpful country study and comparison of the two nations which share the island of Hispaniola. It capably compares the histories and relations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic from colonial times to the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholls, David. From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti. Rev. ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Thorough history of Haiti with a chapter on the “culture and tyranny” of the years from 1957-1971. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990. Trouillot presents an absolutely indispensable analysis of the long-term political effects, both economic and structural, of the Duvalier regime on the politics and culture of Haiti. The author defines Duvalierism as a form of totalitarianism.

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Categories: History