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Papa Doc Duvalier : Biography

Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was born in 1907 in Haiti, the first slave colony in the Caribbean to become a free nation. But in 1915 when he was 8 years old, Haiti became occupied by another foreign power, American, until 1934. 


Duvalier completed his medical training but also took up an interest in Noirism which advocated return of the state apparatus to black representatives, and nationalist politics. With this awakening of identity he also became interested in the popular local Voodoo religion which had been brought over from West Africa. It is said that in Haiti 70% of people are Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Voodoo. 


In 1944 Duvalier won a scholarship to study public health medicine at the University of Michigan. On return he dedicated himself to eradicating Yaws, a chronic skin condition with sores and boils caused by Treponema bacterium. He visited remote and inaccessible areas often by foot bringing penicillin to the indigent. He developed a reputation as a good man and earned the avuncular nickname ‘Papa Doc’. To the largely illiterate population being served they believed that it was not just the medicine that was saving them but that Papa Doc had some intrinsic supernatural power as well.


In 1946 Duvalier became the island’s Minister of Health under President Estime. But four years later Estime was overthrown by the Haitian Army, ousting Duvalier as well. 


He went into hiding until 1956 when the Army Colonel was forced out of power by his army and elections were called. 


Duvalier announced his intention to run, appealing to the masses, he won by a landslide in 1957.


Duvalier however could not feel secure. Out of twenty two Presidents of Haiti between 1843 and 1915 only one completed their full term. Two were dismembered in the streets. With this in mind, one of his first actions as President was to sack all of the top army officers. But despite this, a few months after his inauguration a small coup was attempted by eight disgruntled army rebels but quickly quashed . Papa Doc Duvalier responded by creating a private militia, the Volunteers for National Security body that would answer only to him. They became known as the Tonton Macoute - a name meaning ogre in folklore. He recruited  criminals from the prison system for the task. One of their signature identifiers was to wear sunglasses in public. But he needed money to keep his security viable. 


When Cuba became communist in 1959 Papa Doc Duvalier cleverly positioned himself as staunchly anti-communist but needing financial aid from America to remain so. The United States sent millions of dollars in financial aid and provided training for his paramilitary.


Then in May 24 1959 Duvalier had a near death experience which seemed to adversely alter him. Duvalier was diabetic and collapsed into a diabetic coma for 9 hours until he was found and resuscitated. Oddly, on regaining consciousness he began to call himself Baron Samedi incarnate, one of the most powerful voodoo gods of the dead. He began dressing in black at all times with a Homburg hat as Baron Samedi was portrayed. He also affected a lisping voice also attributed to the demon.


In 1961 Papa Doc called elections with only his name on the ballot and reported that he won by 1.3 million votes to 0.


He and his cronies pocketed millions of dollars in foreign aid while his population spiraled into increasing poverty and despair.


Under President Kennedy a decision was made to cut financial aid to Duvalier and look for ways to oust him. But on November 22nd, 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated. Papa Doc took credit for this and said he had cast a spell on the President. He claimed that he was elected on September 22nd, inaugurated on October 22nd, and that it was his Voodoo that killed Kennedy on November 22nd. 


Meanwhile Papa Docs’ Tonton Macoute infiltrated and terrorized every facet of Haitian life coercing the population into absolute submission. At one point 13 Haitian students from New York arrived secretly and tried to ignite a revolution inspired by Castro's success in Cuba. The uprising was easily quashed but when Papa Doc discovered that most of the agitators were from the Haitian town of Jeremie he sent his Tonton Macoute to make an example. Children's and wives were killed first in front of their husbands before the men were murdered. Thousands died in this one  macabre spectacle. 


In 1965 with no opposition left, and making no more pretensions, Papa Doc Duvalier declared himself President for life. He also began to make increasingly ludicrous public claims such as that bullets could not harm him, and claimed to have retrieved malicious spirits from a cave which he kept in the basement of his palace. He began asking for the heads of enemies and would sit in the bath with his top hat on and consult with them. 


By the 1970s many Haitians believed in his supernatural power. So much so some people were even afraid to think bad thoughts of him.


On April 21, 1971 Papa Doc died in his bed, succeeded by his eldest son Baby Doc.. 

Over 30,000 people had been killed by Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoute.

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