Biographies

Jean-Claude Duvalier

Name: Jean-Claude Duvalier
Bith Date: July, 1951
Death Date:
Place of Birth:
Nationality: Haitian
Gender: Male
Occupations: president

Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier (born 1951) succeeded his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, as president-for-life of Haiti in 1971. He ruled with less of his father's repression but was deposed February 7, 1986. Living in exile in France, he grew increasingly destitute, having mismanaged much of the wealth he allegedly took out of Haiti.

Born in July 1951, Jean-Claude Duvalier became president of Haiti at age 19, when his father, the feared and hated Dr. François (Papa Doc) Duvalier died suddenly in April of 1971. The elder Duvalier, who rose to power in the late 1950s, had proclaimed himself president-for-life in 1964 and declared his eldest son heir apparent in 1969. "Baby Doc" Duvalier, as he came to be known, was educated entirely in Haiti. He visited Europe as a teenager, but was reportedly more interested in the continent's hedonist diversions than its other treasures. On the eve of his ascendance to the presidency, visiting journalists described him as a buffoon; his school-days nickname, "Baskethead," had followed him into adulthood.

Within a year of the younger Duvalier's accession to power Haiti experienced a marked decrease in political tension. Guided by his mother and several aides of his late father, the young president relied somewhat less than his predecessor on a reign of terror backed by Haiti's brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. He also permitted limited press freedom and personal criticisms that were never tolerated by Papa Doc.

A Desperately Poor Nation

The younger Duvalier also moved closer to the United States, from whom his father had been estranged since 1961. Aid from the United States and from multilateral agencies began again. But there was no real attention, as many had hoped there would be, to the real ills of Haiti, long the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and the most ravaged by its rulers. The new President Duvalier--a pampered, portly playboy with a penchant for fast sports cars--had hardly been trained to succeed his enigmatic, ruthless father. Haiti had a per-capita income of $150 a year, literacy rates which hovered between five and ten percent of the population, infant mortality rates as high as 50 percent, a life expectancy of only 53 years, shrinking yields of coffee (the country's only cash crop), and a continued prevalence of tuberculosis. Moreover, Haiti's limited arable land area was shrinking dramatically every year due to deforestation, overgrazing, and violent erosion.

Nevertheless, Duvalier's first years in office offered hope. Soon more than 150 U.S. concerns were operating in Haiti, including a small chain of Holiday Inns. The sewing of baseballs, long a staple of low-wage Haiti, was expanded. New electronic assembly plants were developed. Another of the new businesses exported blood plasma, collected from the poor of Haiti's mean streets for $3 a quart, to the United States. For nearly two years, Hemo Caribbean made $5 a quart on sales of 4,000 quarts a month to hospitals and blood banks in the United States.

Political Instability

During the early years of the elder Duvalier presidency, exiled Haitians--some supported clandestinely by the United States--invaded their homeland in attempts to oust him, but all were repulsed. In late 1978 Baby Doc Duvalier's government was also threatened by an invasion in the northeast, at Cape St. Nicholas. Several dozen exiles came ashore from small boats. They proved no match for the Haitian army. A second invasion took place in 1982, when a small group of exiles led by a Miami garage owner landed on Tortuga, a small island off Haiti's northwest coast All of those who landed were imprisoned and shot.

A political crackdown on dissidents followed as a result of these two attempted coups. Senior United Nations officials complained about the all-pervasive atmosphere of family corruption. Caribbean political analysts asserted that Haiti's tobacco monopoly, among other enterprises, continued to be used as a family slush fund. The renewed authoritarianism deterred tourism and curtailed aid levels.

Island Spiraled into Crisis

When President Duvalier shortly thereafter permitted the formation of two opposition parties and publicly inaugurated a period of "liberalization," the United States and long-time opponents took cheer. The tame press was allowed to publish critical articles. By late 1979, however, the honeymoon was over. Men armed with clubs broke up Haiti's first human rights rally in Port-au-Prince. Diplomats were beaten, and hundreds were hurt. The press was again curbed. In 1980 Silvio Claude, founder of the Haitian Christian Democratic Party, was arrested and held incommunicado for two years. Gregoire Eugene, another party leader, and a number of journalists were subsequently arrested and flown out of Haiti on exit visas.

By mid-1981 Duvalier's new policies had transformed middle-class--and comparatively limited--migration of Haitians to the nearby United States into a wholesale exodus of impoverished peasants and landless laborers. In roughly made wooden sailboats, in rusty island freighters, in scows and anything that would float, 4,000 refugees a month began leaving Cap Haitien and Port de Paix secretly under the guidance of profiteering shippers for economic and political opportunity as refugees in Florida.

New Palace Power

In 1980 the president had married Michèle Bennett, the American-educated daughter of a well-to-do Haitian coffee merchant. At a cost of $3 million, the ceremony and festivities garnered infamy for its entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive wedding ever held. The same year a son, François-Nicholas, was born, Michèle Duvalier outmaneuvered her mother-in-law in 1983 and became First Lady of Haiti. By then it had become clear that the new first lady was the power behind, next to, and perhaps in front of the throne. She began making executive decisions whenever her husband was otherwise engaged driving racing cars or cruising in his presidential yacht.

In the 1984 election to Haiti's 59-seat National Assembly, no opposition candidates were permitted to contest the election. The only plausible leaders of contrary parties were specifically excluded. Gregoire Eugene, who had earlier been exiled to New York, was prevented from returning. Silvio Claude was again arrested and tortured. Sixty of his followers were also arrested or exiled. So few Haitians voted that the government refused to reveal the turnout. The few meetings called to protest the elections were broken up by thugs. Duvalier confined his own electioneering to throwing money from the window of his speeding car.

Denied political and most other freedoms and condemned to flee their country or remain illiterate, ill-housed, ill-fed, and prone to disease, Haitians were also condemned to renewed cycles of underdevelopment. The tourist industry was destroyed by the association of AIDS with Haiti, and the farmers in 1985 were producing only 50 percent of the coffee grown in the 1960s. The roads were still rough and limited, electricity supplies haphazard, and arbitrary official taxation and corruption remained ingrained.

Kicked Out of Own Country

In the first days of February 1986 a series of riots broke out across Haiti. This time the government's usual harsh repressive measures only worsened the massive unrest. Fearing for his life, Duvalier fled to France in a U.S. cargo plane with his family and 17 associates. France granted temporary asylum, but then asked the Duvalier party to find another place of refuge; yet no other country would accept them.

After a short period of democratic rule, a junta took over the government of Haiti; elections were held in late 1990 and a former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected. A military coup ousted him after only a few months in office, and only an economic blockade helped see him reinstated in 1993. Meanwhile, a very small group still loyal to Duvalier continued to agitate for his return.

Duvalier has said he would be happy to return to Haiti, but it would certainly require heavy security. Scenes of the frightened Duvaliers behind the windshield of their luxury German automobile as they arrived at the airport to flee the country in 1986 became one of the lasting images of the coup. It was said that Duvalier was reportedly worth $120 million, much of it looted from Haiti's resources in one way or another. Shortly after the arrival of the Duvaliers and their entourage on the French Riviera, the U.S. government froze the former leader's American-held assets, which included a yacht in Miami, a condominium in New York's posh Trump Tower, and three other Manhattan abodes.

In the south of France Duvalier and his family lived quite comfortably, and he and Michèle Duvalier continued to spend freely--supposedly with money stored in secret Swiss accounts. On one trip to Paris, they bought nearly a half-million dollars worth of jewelry. The Duvalier fortune took a turn for the worse, however, after the couple's 1990 divorce. With his ex-wife in Paris with their two children (a daughter, Anya, arrived three years after François-Nicholas), Duvalier moved to another Cote D'Azur villa in 1990. His new rented home in Vallauris cost $9,000 a month, but legal actions taken by the Haitian government to freeze his international assets in an attempt to recover some of the monies plundered were successful, and effectively impoverished Duvalier. By 1994 France Telecom disconnected his phone until its $14,000 balance was paid, and he was evicted from his villa for unpaid rent. He reportedly lives in a much smaller house in Vallauris, drives a humble Opel, and shares his home with his aged mother and five dogs.

Further Reading

  • The three books useful for the regime of the Duvaliers are Graham Greene, The Comedians (London, 1966), a novel which mirrored life in Haiti under the first Duvalier; Robert I. Rotberg, Haiti: The Politics of Squalor (1971); and David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier (1979). A post-coup analysis is found in Elizabeth Abbott, The Woeful Dynasty: The Duvaliers and their Legacy (1991). Updates on Duvalier's exile status appeared in People (August 22, 1994) and the Economist (October 22, 1994).

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