5 reasons why Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier is infamous

Outside the posh hotel where Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has lodged since unexpectedly returning to Haiti on Jan. 16, supporters of the former dictator have gathered in a show of support, some of them yelling: “The revolution is going to start!”

They seemed drawn by nostalgia and embellished memories of the Duvalier era, which lasted for nearly 30 years. “Baby Doc” Duvalier became the successor to the regime in 1971 when at the age of 19 he took over from his father, "Papa Doc" François Duvalier (indeed, he started off as a physician). As the following five slides attest, Baby Doc's infamy precedes him.

1.Tonton Macoutes

When he took over the leadership of Haiti in 1971, "Baby Doc" Duvalier also became head of the feared paramilitary force that his father created in 1959. Known as the "Tonton Macoutes," which is the name of a Haitian Creole mythological character who kidnaps children and eats them for breakfast, the denim-wearing and machete-wielding private militia was mostly comprised of uneducated fanatics fiercely local to Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

Vodou leaders were also members, giving what came to be called the Militia of National Security Volunteers (known as MVSN, for its French acronym) an almost-religious aura. Opponents were killed in the night and their bodies were often placed on public display. "The Duvaliers are estimated to have ordered the deaths of between twenty and thirty thousand Haitian civilians," Human Rights Watch said in a statement this week.

Employing vodou leaders and illiterate peasants was integral to the Duvalier's method of overseeing the torture and murder of political opponents and robbed public funds, biographer Elizabeth Abbott writes in Foreign Policy. “Duvalier's genius lay in how he designed their hierarchical structure, chose their (usually humble) social origins, and included priests (voodoon and Christian) and rural section chiefs who ruled their fiefdoms with iron fists and reported personally to him any subversive activity or even thought.”

Even after Baby Doc fled in 1986 and the Tonton Macoutes disbanded, citizens remained on guard. The following year, as The Christian Science Monitor noted during its election coverage at the time, thousands of peasant supporters of presidential candidate Louis Dejoie II chanted: "Tonton Macoutes can throw stones; we don't care. When Louis comes, the earth will tremble."


In the late 1980s, at the behest of the Haitian government, a US accounting firm studied the government’s books and determined Duvalier stole at least $300 million. “That was a conservative estimate,” Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told the Monitor this week. “Nobody knows for sure how much he took. We know it was hundreds of millions."

How did he get all that money? "Duvalierism fed on the people's poverty, which he showcased to the international world to attract aid and loans that rarely reached their intended beneficiaries," biographer Elizabeth Abbott writes in Foreign Policy.

Other estimates put the amount stolen at up to $900 million, which Duvalier himself has denied. "I laugh when I hear the amounts: $400 million, $800 million. It's a lot of blah, blah, blah," he told The Wall Street Journal in a 2003 interview.

Of whatever amount he whisked away from Haiti, only some $6 million remains, though it is frozen in a Swiss bank account. In fact, speculation swirls that Duvalier returned this week in an attempt to recover those last dollars before they could be seized by the Haitian government.

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3.Luxury on the French Riviera

After Baby Doc Duvalier's ouster from Haiti in 1986, it seems the party began. He landed in France and immediately enjoyed the life of a wealthy celebrity, says Elizabeth Abbott, author of “Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy.” She told the Monitor this week that, “He lived lavishly, like a really wealthy person, spending thousands for meals and clothes and other things."

Duvalier reportedly had a residence outside Paris, a villa on the French Riviera, speedboats, and sports cars in his first years in France. The Wall Street Journal, in a 2003 article that interviews a – by then – down-and-out Duvalier, details the lavish life that he lived until losing much of his fortune in a 1993 divorce to his wife, Michele. "Home was a villa in Mougins in the hills above Cannes. He and his family drove through the French Riviera in a BMW and a Ferrari Testarossa and shopped at expensive boutiques. They owned a chateau outside Paris and two apartments in the city."

After the divorce, Duvalier reportedly failed to pay rents, ran up a massive hotel bill, and moved to a modest two-bedroom Paris apartment paid for by loyal Duvalierists. “He burned through most of it, and then the judgment froze the rest,” Ms. Abbott says. “He’s been living very modestly for several years now.”

4.Violent ouster

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier's spectacular fall from power in 1986 placed his family's near 30-year-rule in stark relief. With aid from international donor funds, he and his father had ruled for decades while brutally suppressing opponents through a private militia known as the Tontons Macoutes. Baby Doc had brazenly embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from national coffers. And these actions might have all been eventually brushed under the rug if Duvalier had not fallen out of favor with the international community and failed to squelch a popular uprising.

In 1986, amid massive unrest after antigovernment demonstrators clashed with security forces and his private militia, Baby Doc was flown out of Haiti on a US military jet to France. Before boarding the plane, Duvalier declared: “We are as firm as a monkey tail.” The reality had still not set in days later when France balked at his request for asylum: "If I had believed that the only country in the world which I feel close to would not welcome me, then I would never have given up power," The New York Times quoted him saying.

5.Legacy of Duvalierism

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier's legacy in Haiti still hampers the country today, says Elizabeth Abbott, author of “Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy,” in an essay for Foreign Policy.

“Duvalier left behind Duvalierism, a system of government too profoundly entrenched to truly eradicate,” she writes, describing a system of kleptomania, unchecked environmental degradation, and exploitation of poverty. "By the time he was forced to flee in 1986 under U.S. pressure amid uprisings throughout Haiti, Jean-Claude's Duvalierism had bankrupted the Haitian state and enshrined corruption and incompetence in the government and civil service.”

Rampant corruption persists. Haiti ranked 142 out of 178 nations on Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, a slight improvement from placing 177 out of 180 two years earlier. The World Bank has described the government thus: "Haiti has dysfunctional budgetary, financial or procurement systems, making financial and aid management impossible."