Duvalier Dictatorship (Haiti, 1957 – 1986)

François “Papa Doc” Duvalier
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier
One of the Western Hemisphere’s most repressive and brutal dictatorships, the successive regimes of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1907–71) and his son Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1951– ), ruled Haiti with an iron fist from 1957 to 1986, when Baby Doc was overthrown following widespread civil strife and massive street protests.

With the support of the nation’s security forces, its leading elite families, and a substantial proportion of its urban and rural poor, the elder Duvalier was elected president in 1957. A physician educated at the Haitian National University Medical School, and a reputed practitioner of voodoo (Vodun), Papa Doc created a cult of personality around his person, which he projected as the embodiment of the Haitian nation.

After violently suppressing all organized opposition to his rule, in 1964 he proclaimed himself “president for life,” as he remained until his death in 1971, when his son assumed his political mantle. 

Violent political oppression and grinding economic poverty for the country’s majority characterized the nearly three decades of Duvalier rule. Running the country as their personal fiefdom, the Duvaliers terrorized their political and personal foes through their infamous secret police, the Tontons Macoutes (“Bogeymen”), a state security apparatus responsible for mass imprisonment.

The roots of the Duvalier dictatorship stretch deep into Haitian history, from its independence in 1804, through a succession of dictatorial regimes, to the U.S. military intervention of 1915–34, which laid the groundwork for the modern Haitian state.

This included its armed forces, the gendarmerie—later the Garde d’Haïti, or Garde—which centralized the state’s violence-making capacities within a single institution, based in Port-auPrince. It was from within the structures of this U.S. created security apparatus that the two Duvaliers based their power after 1957.

Under Duvalier rule (Duvalierism), Haiti became a pariah state internationally, with the United States suspending diplomatic relations in May 1963, even as many U.S. and other foreign firms continued to do business in the country. From the 1960s to 1980s, Haiti emerged as a key assembly point for many U.S. manufacturers.

Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier
Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier

In 1966, 13 U.S. corporations owned assembly plants in Haiti; in 1981 the number had risen to 154. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Haitians remained mired in poverty. In 1986, the year of Baby Doc’s ouster, the poorest 60 percent of the country’s population earned an annual per capita income of $60, according to the World Bank.

Malnutrition, infant mortality, and other social indices marked Haiti as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. At the top of the social hierarchy a handful of economically and politically powerful families—most prominently the Brandt, Mevs, Accra, Bigio, and Behrmann families—controlled many of the island’s key industries, including sugar, textiles, construction materials, cooking oil, and others.

This combination of extreme poverty and severe political oppression largely explain the meteoric rise to power of the anti-Duvalier radical populist preacher Jean-Bertrand Aristide following Baby Doc’s overthrow in 1986.