The Duvaliers


Haiti gains independent from France on 1 January 1804, becoming the world's first black republic. Haitian history then follows a pattern of violence and political instability, with a succession of rulers being either assassinated or overthrown by revolution.

The country is further burdened by the enormous reparations it is required to pay to France. By 1900 Haiti is spending about 80% of its national budget on repayments of loans taken to cover the debt. The reparations are not cleared until 1947.

At the start of the 20th Century the United States becomes involved in Haiti's internal affairs. US marines occupy Haiti from 1915-1934. Indirect US influence lasts to 1947. More background.

Mini biography

François Duvalier, Jean-Claude Duvalier

François Duvalier is born on 14 April 1907 in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. His father is a teacher and journalist. His mother works in a bakery. He is a descendant of African slaves.

François studies medicine at the University of Haiti. He graduates in 1934. Working as a doctor he is given the nickname Papa Doc by his patients.

While recognised as a humanitarian and intellectual, François also develops a deep interest in the African roots of Haitian culture, helping to found Le Groupe des Griots, a group of writers committed to black nationalism and voodoo mysticism.

Among the poor and the superstitious François gains a reputation as a practitioner of voodoo sorcery.

1939 - François marries Simone Ovide Faine, a nurse, on 27 December. The couple have four children, three daughters (Marie-Denise, Simone and Nicole) and a son (Jean-Claude).

1943 - François participates in a US-sponsored campaign to control the contagious tropical disease yaws, an infection of the skin, bones and joints.

1946 - François joins the government of President Dumarsais Estimé, becoming director general of the national public health service. In 1948 he is appointed as minister of public health and labour.

1950 - President Estimé is overthrown in a military coup on 10 May. François returns to his medical career. Behind the scenes he begins organising against the military regime. By 1954 he is the central opposition figure and goes underground, hiding in the interior.

1951 - Jean-Claude Duvalier is born on 3 July in Port-au-Prince. He is schooled in Haiti and Europe and completes his education at Haiti University.

1956 - The military relinquishes power in December. A general political amnesty allows François to come out of hiding. Six governments are formed in the following 10 months.

1957 - With army backing, François is elected president for a six year term on 22 September. He promises to end the privileges of the mixed-race (mulatto) elite and bring political and economic power to the black masses. However, the political climate remains unstable.

1958 - After an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow him in June, François takes steps to consolidate his position. Senior officers in the military are replaced with younger men, the size of the army is reduced, the military academy is closed, political parties are banned and curfews are introduced.

François also takes control of the Presidential Guard, turning it into the army's elite unit.

With chief aide Clément Barbot, François organises the Tonton Macoutes, a private militia estimated to number 9,000-15,000 that is used to terrorise and murder opponents. The name Tonton Macoutes translates to Uncle Gunnysack and refers to a folkloric bogeyman who kidnaps and kills children.

Recruits are initially drawn from the slums of Port-au-Prince. They receive no salary, relying instead on protection rackets and crime to support themselves. The Tonton Macoutes act as François' front-line security force and as a balance to the political power of the armed forces. Their chain of command leads directly to the president. In November 1962 the Tonton Macoutes are formally recognised as the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (Volunteers for National Security).

1959 - François suffers a heart attack in May. Barbot acts in his place but is promptly imprisoned when François recovers.

On 12 August a group of Cuban guerrillas and Haitian exiles lands on the southern most tip of Haiti in another attempt to overthrow François. They are defeated by the Haitian Army, with the aid of US marines.

1961 - François manipulates elections to have his term extended to 1967, winning the vote with an official tally of 1,320,748 votes to zero.

"Latin America has witnessed many fraudulent elections," the 'New York Times' reports on 13 May, "but none will have been more outrageous than the one which has just taken place in Haiti."

Following the election, the US raises concerns about the misappropriation of aid money by François. In 1962 US aid is suspended. The following year diplomatic relations are also suspended and the US ambassador withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Barbot is released from prison. He begins plotting to overthrow François but the attempt, which is to take place in July 1963, is uncovered at the last moment and Barbot is killed.

1963 - Attempts to depose François continue, reportedly with backing from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

François' leadership becomes more extreme. He fosters a personality cult, exploiting his reputation as a sorcerer and portraying himself as semidivine, the embodiment of the Haitian nation, a voodoo Jesus Christ.

"I am the Haitian flag," François proclaims, "He who is my enemy is the enemy of the fatherland."

Following a failed attempt to kidnap his son Jean-Claude from school, it is reported that François orders the execution of 100 people, including 65 army officers.

Corruption becomes endemic. The per capita annual income sinks to US$80, the lowest in the western hemisphere. The illiteracy rate remains at about 90%.

1964 - François has himself elected "president for life" in April. Haiti is now almost completely isolated. François' isolation is more profound. He is excommunicated by the Catholic Church for harassing the clergy and will not be readmitted until 1966.

Discontent with the regime continues to grow, despite the tight security imposed by the Tonton Macoutes. Conspiracies and dissent proliferate. François responds with a reign of terror and is able to stay in power longer than any of his predecessors.

1971 - The constitution is amended in January to permit François to name his son, Jean-Claude, as his successor. Jean-Claude comes to be known as Baby Doc, mimicking his father's nickname.

François dies on 21 April in Port-au-Prince. Power is immediately transferred to Jean-Claude, who, at the age of 19, becomes the youngest president in the world, inheriting the title "president for life" from his father.

Jean-Claude is not interested in the details of government and leaves much of the running of the country to his mother, Simone Ovid Duvalier, his older sister, Marie-Denise, and his dead father's cronies.

Bending to pressure from the US, and at home, Jean-Claude agrees to economic and judicial reforms. He also agrees to the reopening of the military academy, the release of some political prisoners and the easing of media censorship. But no political opposition is tolerated and the president retains the power to appoint officials and judges.

Though US aid is restored, Haiti remains diplomatically isolated. Corruption reaches new heights. The US Commerce Department reports misappropriation of 64% of Haiti's government revenues. Tens of millions of dollars are diverted from public funds for "extra-budgetary expenses", including deposits to Jean-Claude's Swiss bank accounts.

1973 - Jean-Claude creates a personal security force, the Corps des Léopards (Leopard Corps). The Leopards take over most of the functions of Haiti's police force.

1978 - In August the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visits Haiti. The commission finds evidence of widespread abuse of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture.

1979 - Changes to Haiti's laws make it a jailable crime to offend the "chief of state or the first lady of the republic" or to make "any attack against the integrity of the people's culture".

1980 - In May Jean-Claude marries Michéle Bennett, the daughter of a wealthy coffee merchant. The lavish wedding, estimated to cost US$3 million, alienates much of the population.

Bennett is a member of Haiti's Mixed-race (mulatto) elite. She is a young divorcee with a taste for the high life. Her family is implicated in corrupt business ventures, including drug running.

Bennett and Jean-Claude have two children, son Francois Nicolas and daughter Anya.

During the final months of the year, several hundred journalists, trade unionists and opponents of the regime are detained.

1983 - On a visit to Haiti in March Pope John Paul II declares that "something must change here".

1984 - All political activities and groups are banned, except "those of the president".

1985 - Jean-Claude gets 99% of the vote in a fraudulent election. Popular demonstrations against high unemployment, poor living conditions and the lack of political freedom break out late in the year and early in 1986, beginning in the provincial capital of Gonaives.

On 28 November 1985 soldiers in Gonaives chase demonstrators into a schoolyard and shoot and kill three schoolboys who were not involved in the protest. The incident leads to more demonstrations and riots.

1986 - With the Tonton Macoutes unable to repress the mounting social unrest and the military pressing for his resignation, Jean-Claude and his wife accept assistance from the US and flee the country for France on 7 February. They are joined by their two children and Jean-Claude's mother.

As the news that the Duvaliers have left spreads, crowds take to the streets. The Guardian newspaper reports that François Duvalier's tomb at the national cemetery is demolished and the remains of the dead dictator burned.

Jean-Claude leaves behind an impoverished and ruined country. Well over half of Haiti's workers are unemployed. Over 80% of Haitians are illiterate. Almost a third of Haitian children die before their fifth birthday. Life expectancy is 53 years. Per capita income is US$300 a year.

US$6 million held in a Duvalier family bank account in Switzerland is frozen.

The Duvaliers, nevertheless, continue their luxury lifestyle. The couple take up residence in a chateau outside Paris and a villa in Mougins, near Cannes. Over the following years they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on car, boats, jewels, clothes and art. It is alleged that Jean-Claude has up to US$500 million of misappropriated state funds stashed in various foreign bank accounts.

1990 - Jean-Claude and Michéle Bennett divorce. Bennett is granted custody of the two children. Jean-Claude is ordered to pay alimony. It is reported that the split strips Jean-Claude of much of his wealth.

1993 - Jean-Claude moves to Paris with his companion, Véronique Roy, the granddaughter of former Haitian president Paul Magloire.

1997 - Jean-Claude's mother, Simone Ovide, dies.

2002 - In a television interview broadcast in the US on 17 December Jean-Claude reveals that he would like to return to Haiti. "It is my firm intention as soon as conditions allow," he says, adding that he wants to take part in "rebuilding" Haiti.

According to Jean-Claude, there are no legal reasons for him not to return. He claims that Haiti has "gone backward by 50 years" since he fled the country.

When questioned about his alleged misappropriation of tens of millions of dollars of Haiti's state funds, Jean-Claude challenges his accusers to provide the evidence.

2003 - Jean-Claude tells the 'Wall Street Journal' that he neither stole state funds nor organised the murder of opponents. "If I were dictator, I would have done everything in my power to stay in power," he says.

"I laugh when I hear the amounts: $400 million, $800 million. It's a lot of blah, blah, blah. ... There were the children to care for, school expenses, other bills. ... We were not perfect. Perhaps I was too tolerant."

2004 - On 25 March the international anticorruption organisation Transparency International (TI) places Jean-Claude at number six on a list of the world's most corrupt political leaders of the past two decades.

According to TI, Jean-Claude is alleged to have embezzled between US$300 million and US$800 million from Haiti.

2007 - In September the Transparency International estimates are quoted in a report by the Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative, a joint venture of the World Bank and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

"According to the numbers ... Jean-Claude Duvalier allegedly stole the equivalent of 1.7 to 4.5 percent of Haitian GDP for every year he was in power," the report says. "The only other two kleptocrats to come close as a percentage of GDP were Ferdinand Marcos (of the Philippines) and Sani Abacha (of Nigeria)."

Despite the vast sums allegedly embezzled, Jean-Claude is reported to be living modestly in a one-bedroom flat in Paris, his money apparently gone.

2010 - On 12 January a massive earthquake rocks Haiti, killing over 200,000, destroying infrastructure and leaving more than one million homeless.

2011 - Jean-Claude unexpectedly returns to Haiti on 16 January, saying he has come back to help the country recover from the 2010 earthquake.

"I was waiting for this moment for a long time," he says. "When I first set foot on the ground, I felt great joy."

"I know the people are suffering. I wanted to show them my solidarity, to tell them that I am here, I am well disposed and determined to participate in the rebirth of Haiti."

Two days later a Haitian prosecutor formally charges Jean-Claude with corruption, embezzlement and other alleged crimes committed during his rule. Following an investigation into multiple criminal complaints, he is also indicted for crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, a new law allowing the Haitian Government to claim the US$6 million frozen in Jean-Claude's Swiss bank account since 1986 comes into effect in Switzerland. Some commentators speculate that Jean-Claude's return to Haiti was a last-bid attempt to access the funds before the law came into force.

In September, Amnesty International releases the report 'You cannot kill the truth': The case against Jean-Claude Duvalier. The report calls on the authorities in Haiti to bring Jean-Claude to justice for the human rights abuses committed under his regime.

"For 15 years, Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled Haiti with total disregard for the rights of the Haitian people," the reports concludes. "The grave human rights abuses perpetrated during those years still remain shrouded in absolute impunity. ... Torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions were state policy under Jean-Claude Duvalier."

Jean-Claude, meanwhile, is reported to be living comfortably in a private villa overlooking Port-au-Prince.

2012 - At the end of January the judge investigating the case against Jean-Claude recommends that the charges of crimes against humanity be dropped because a 10-year statute of limitations had expired.

The judge recommends that Jean-Claude only be prosecuted for financial corruption, a charge that would carry a maximum prison term of five years.

2013 - Jean-Claude attends an appeals court on 28 February for a pre-trail hearing to determine the charges he may have to face. It is the first time he has been questioned in court about his alleged crimes.

2014 - In February an appeals court rules that Jean-Claude can be charged with crimes against humanity, rejecting arguments that the statute of limitations had expired and that international law underpinning the charges did not apply. The court stops short of ordering a trial and calls for further investigation.

Jean-Claude Duvalier dies from a heart attack at the home of a friend in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, 4 October. His funeral, held the following Saturday, is attended by hundreds, including his partner Véronique Roy, his former wife Michéle Bennett, and their two children. Jean-Claude is denied a state funeral. He dies without facing justice.


François Duvalier's story mirrors the history of Haiti - a promising beginning completely despoiled by ambition and greed. On the one hand a humanitarian apparently committed to social justice metamorphoses into a corrupt dictator. On the other the world's first black republic turns on itself in an ongoing cycle of political and economic impoverishment that not even world superpowers seem able to halt. Under the kleptocratic regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier this cycle only seemed to become more intense. Both Duvaliers are now gone, but the legacy of their misrule and self-indulgence will plague Haiti for years and perhaps generations to come.

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