Francois Duvalier
Francois Duvalier; drawing by David Levine

In Haiti, as Nassau Senior once remarked of Ireland under English rule, almost all the moral objects are painful. For generations tourists and diplomats used their impressions as proof that a Black Republic must fail. In 1780 the richest colony in the world, where Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du village was a great favorite, independent Haiti had become by 1958 the country with the lowest national income, highest illiteracy rate, and the worst government in the Western hemisphere. Papa Doc looked like the culmination of a century and a half of negro ineptitude.

James Leyburn sought, in his now outdated classic, first published in 1941, a deeper explanation of this failure in the divisive social structure that grew out of independence and in the international isolation that followed it: Washington, as a Southern senator remarked, would not welcome a black ambassador who might give “fellow blacks proof in hand of the honors which await them from successful revolt on their part.”

The struggle for freedom against France was begun by white planters—colonial imitation of the ideas of 1789, just as North Americans had studied British radicals. The whites were massacred in a slave revolt (1791) and it was yellow fever, mulattoes, black slaves, and British soldiers who defeated Napolean’s reconquest and dream of a French Empire in America. “Damn sugar, damn colonies,” he exclaimed; he pulled out of Haiti and sold Louisiana. By stretching history a little it can be argued that it was negro slaves who gave the United States New Orleans.

Once the whites had gone Haiti fell apart into the divisions that have haunted its history: mulatto against black; north against south. Dessalines, the first Emperor, was an illiterate black, mocked by mulattoes for his clumsy dancing. His successor, King Christophe, ruled only in the north; the south went to the French-educated mulatto, Pétion. For a newly independent nation the problem was, as it still is, how to generate the exports on which the prosperity of the old colony was based. Emancipated slaves did not want to go back to work on sugar plantations. Dessalines and Christophe saw that only forced labor could make Haiti rich as well as independent. It was forced labor that built the Citadel of La Ferrière, superb monument to the determination of ex-slaves to resist the return of their masters; now it is a melancholy ruin perched above a poverty-stricken village.

Forced labor and sharecropping did not last. It was Pétion who carried through the first agrarian reform in the Western Hemisphere. Thirty years after independence two-thirds of the population were landowners. On gardensized plots coffee was the only conceivable commercial crop; the production of subsistence crops exhausted the soil. Eroded landscapes—hardly what the Caribbean tourist expects to see from the air—are a sad reminder that prosperity is not always produced by giving the land to those who till it. Haiti cannot conceivably generate the exports to bring even a modest prosperity. One hundred and sixty agrarian paupers squat on every square kilometer. They will have to go on living on vegetables, walking miles to market a pathetic surplus, and dying of intestinal diseases.

Leyburn describes Haiti in the final stages of the US presence which began with the occupation of 1915, when the highly unstable political structure that had grown up after independence collapsed in chaos. He saw the country as imprisoned in a caste system. The “light skinned,” diglot, nominally Catholic, and legally married elite, whose cultural world was centered in Paris, controlled political life from the towns. In the impoverished countryside eroded by a century of subsistence farming were the “black,” Creole-speaking peasants living in free unions, whose strange cult of vodou was beginning to attract anthropologists. The control of the state was based on a subtle mechanism: black armies could make and unmake black presidents, grotesque puppets controlled by those who had a monopoly of education and therefore of the language of government—French.

United States officials reinforced and simplified the system. To them the elite seemed the only possible class around which a modernized society with roads, hospitals, sewers, and a progressive agriculture could be built. The mulatto elite regarded themselves as white Europeans, however black they were in skin. In Brazil money whitens; in Haiti culture does. Sometimes the uncultured revolted; in 1883 four thousand mulattoes were slaughtered in a week. Sometimes the cultured took their revenge; in 1915 the mulattoes tore the black President Guillaume Sam limb from limb in front of the French Legation.

After 1915 the crude version of elite control in the interests of a foreign power was attacked by Haitian nationalists as a subconscious version of the racial prejudices of the United States. The American occupation provoked a revival in literature and politics, a return to the African heritage of a former slave society. A politically inspired doctrine of social realism was combined with a new respect and interest in the African elements of popular culture and the language of the people—Creole. All Caribbean slaves of African origins tried to sustain an independent culture of their own. Planters sometimes found this useful (it kept the slaves quiet), but at times it seemed a vast and impenetrable conspiracy against the whites—as indeed vodou proved to be in 1791.


An African “subculture” survived among the Creole-speaking peasantry of Haiti more strongly than anywhere else in the Americas. During this century, social realists and ethnologists have been able to describe this culture in French, and their writings are the foundation of the self-conscious Haitian cultural nationalism that has been a recurrent theme in Haitian life for more than fifty years. But when Haitian nationalists wished to close the gap between the French-speaking elite and the peasants, in what language could they write? They might seek to import Creole rhythms into French prose. But who would read a Creole book? So far, it is only the Haitian poets who have written convincingly in Creole; and perhaps it is only the dancers and musicians who can enter into the culture of the masses.

The American occupation did not only provoke a cultural revival, it also fostered “progress,” induced by American money and expertise; and produced a middle class differing from the old elite, but whose composition, function, and relation of color have never been analyzed.

In 1946 a black-skinned but educated villager, Dumarsis Estimé, became President. Estimé’s “revolution” represented a symbolic shift of cultural emphasis rather than a radical social change—governmental patronage of Afro-Haitian folklore in an educational system where the Haitian elite had formerly been reared on the history of the Gauls and read Racine. Leyburn’s caste society was being weakened (if it ever existed in the rigid form he imagined) by the new “black” urban middle class and a new urban working class. Paul Magloire, another northern black, thrived in and on this new society and became President in 1950. To outsiders it looked as if, at last, Haiti of the Fifties was, in spite of corruption, on the way to modest prosperity via foreign investment; caste conflict, if it existed apart from class conflict, would be subsumed in economic progress, or so it was hoped.

Suddenly it all ended. In 1957 Francois Duvalier was elected President of Haiti; in 1963 he declared himself President for life.

No dictatorship can survive by pure force and it would be a great mistake, as Sidney Mintz points out in his contribution to Leyburn’s book, to regard the present regime as no more than “an élite-hating dictatorship backed by machine-guns.” Duvalier regards himself as the spiritual heir of Estimé’s revolution of negritude. His first published work (1933) calls for a “truly Haitian literature”; his teacher Price Mars was the founding father of Haitian ethnology. His Praetorian guard, his Ton-Ton Macoutes, his militia, in so far as they think at all, regard themselves as ultra-nationalists; his sycophants rate him as “one of the great thinkers of the third world,” for whom the murder of Martin Luther King was a turning point in history. Illiterate peasants are flattered as well as manipulated by the first President to make vodou virtually a state religion, and his pretentious verbiage may appear to them the wisdom of a national sage.

Duvalier’s current hero is Dessalines, who, in the struggle for independence, massacred white planters en masse. Dessalines is a nightmare to those who dream of Paris, but to others his desire to inscribe Haiti’s declaration of independence on white skins constitutes his claim to be the true founder of the nation. “Dessalines pas vlé oné blancs,” runs the Haitian military march once played before American Marines when being decorated by the President. It means, “Dessalines can’t stand the sight of white men.” Duvalier has a developed sense of irony in his dealings with the United States.

However explicable as an event in Haitian history, Duvalier’s regime remains the most ghastly regime in the hemisphere. On this score Mr. Diedrich and Mr. Burt, two journalists who knew the country well, leave no doubts. Duvalier may not contemplate the heads of his slaughtered enemies stuck before him on his desk. He has, however, left his rivals riddled with bullets on the pavements. He has dismantled all organized institutions from the business community to the army and the Catholic Church. Every Haitian with a glimmer of independent spirit is outside Haiti.

One is astonished at the physical courage of his opponents; Clement Barbot, hatchet man of the early days, believed capable of changing himself into a black dog (Duvalier, it was said, ordered all black dogs to be shot on sight), was perhaps the only man who knew enough about Duvalier’s methods to oust him. After three years of hair-raising clandestine activity he was flushed out of a burning cane field and shot like a rabbit. All the horror can scarcely be described in modern English: only Suetonius, as Graham Greene suggests, could do these Roman tragedies justice.


Why does it last? Oppositions—and Mr. Diedrich and Mr. Burt give a clear, if discouraging, view of this process—have fragmented time and time again. The Coalitienne Haitienne in New York united the centrist leaders; but it must seem old hat to radical young Haitians to contemplate politicians like Magloire as powers in the New Haiti. Guerrillas attacking in groups without coordination, harboring illusions that foreigners will give arms and that the peasants will support them as they cared for Castro in the Sierra Maestra, meet with failure. Jacques Alexis, a writer arriving from Peking and Cuba, was stoned to death by the peasants he had come to save in April, 1961.

Does the majority—the peasants—swallow Duvalier’s turgid declarations about “the victory of our miserable peasant masses”? Or are they terrified? “Blood will flow in Haiti as never before. There will be no sunrise or sunset, just one big flame licking the sky. The dead will be buried under a mountain of ashes because of serving the foreigner.” All guerrillas are, by Duvalier’s definition, foreign whites. “Allow the blood of Dessalines,” he exhorts, “to flow in your veins.” Black racism is denied by Papa Doc’s lobbyists and public relations men in New York and Washington; but it is there.

In Mr. Diedrich’s and Mr. Burt’s book Duvalier is shown as alternately blackmailing or humiliating the United States. If aid agencies attempted to halt the process by which their aid was used to strengthen Duvalier’s police and enrich his supporters, they were accused of infringement of Haitian sovereignty. If a cut-off of aid was threatened, Haitian students could be relied on to demonstrate and “reaffirm the anti-imperialistic position beside the youth of Cuba and all the progressive youth of the world.” When Washington suggested that Duvalier’s second election was illegal this was to discriminate against a negro nation—democracy masquerading as colonialism. Haiti alone knows “true” democracy—“ethnic” and “revolutionary.”

Duvalier’s relations with the United States are a farcical parody of the embarrassments created by the American search for “security” (Haiti must not become another Cuba) and by the external weaknesses created for US policy by domestic failures. If the OAS has a right to curb internal violence in member states, “why has it not,” asks Duvalier, “been used in Birmingham?”

Large-scale aid from Washington was wound up in 1963. “Correct” diplomatic relations, after a short suspension, continue, to the distress of exiles who regard such a policy as empty of moral conviction, and to the embarrassment of a State Department which can think of nothing better to do—even if this means that Governor Rockefeller must smile on Papa Doc.

Perhaps there are situations too tragic to contemplate. Only extensive aid could lift Haiti out of poverty which breaks the heart; but, private charity and restricted bank loans apart, the subjects of some dictators do not qualify for public aid because the dictator cannot be trusted with the funds. Coming from a civilization where citizens—and even horses—get their own disposable syringes, one is shocked to visit a village dependent on an ancient hypodermic sterilized in a cocoa tin over a charcoal fire. Do only the politically respectable qualify for “humanitarian” aid?

Duvalier’s popular appeal, I would guess, is greater than is believed. Liberals, of course, do not and cannot support governments because they are popular, but they do then—as any glance through press cuttings since 1963 would reveal—toward a belief that a government of which they disapprove is on the verge of overthrow. A bullet or a stroke may do the trick; the economy, catastrophic as it is, may slide into total ruin. But it is hard to see how anything but chaos can follow Duvalier’s crazy police state.

So long as Papa Doc lasts Haiti will suffer some form of ostracism. Tourists believe that they will be found with their throats cut among the dead leaves of an empty swimming pool in a guestless hotel. Graham Greene and his scriptwriters have seen to that. The taxi drivers and prostitutes, hotel porters and pimps, the tourist agents and money changers of Port-au-Prince regard Greene as public enemy number One. Such is the power of literature.

This Issue

March 12, 1970