All of the dictators we’ve profiled so far did some pretty crazy things that led to massive death tolls, the collapse of their regimes, or both. We’ve also seen that food and poverty were also often used as a weapon by dictators to either keep their populations in line or to punish a group within their countries.
Dictators also like to focus their crazy ideas on “others.”
For Pol Pot, it was urban intellectuals and for Stalin, it was rural farmers. Hitler focused on the Jews and Slavs, while Idi Amin reserved his vitriol for foreigners and other tribes within his country.
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier also demonized and persecuted “others” while he was the dictator of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, targeting the country’s mulatto minority, communists, and non-Haitians in general.
He appealed to his people’s patriotism and nationalism to gain plenty of support in the early years in his reign, which was bolstered by at least one attempted coup by some of the country’s mulatto elite and American mercenaries.
But as with any other dictator, patriotism and nationalism are not enough; a healthy dose of fear is also needed.
Duvalier developed an intricate police state in Haiti that was based on the expansive police force he created and his image as a Voodoo priest. He knew that many of the Haitian people believed in Voodoo and if he could appeal to the darker elements of the religion, he could inspire fear in the people’s hearts.
During his rule over Haiti, Duvalier is believed to have killed more than 6,000 people, with many of them taking place after elaborate Voodoo rituals.
When it was finally over, Duvalier’s proved to be one of the most bizarre and brutal dictatorships in the Americas with his crazy policies and beliefs serving only to isolate and impoverish the already troubled Haiti even more.
Many think that Robert Duvalier’s nickname, “Papa Doc,” was related to his connection to Voodoo. Since Duvalier publicly identified himself with the top hat-wearing Voodoo spirit, Baron Samedi, many thought that was the connection to the nickname.
But Robert Duvalier really was a doctor.
Duvalier grew up in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince and although he didn’t come from a privileged family, he was bright and ambitious enough to land a spot in medical school, graduating in 1934.
It may seem difficult to believe that as brutal and bizarre as Duvalier was, he was by all accounts a competent and thoughtful physician.
He was particularly concerned with stopping the spread of tropical diseases that were endemic in the Caribbean and took extra time to check on his patients, which earned him the nickname “Papa Doc.”
As helpful as Papa Doc was in the hospitals and clinics of Port-au-Prince, his true calling was to rule in government and to use his Voodoo powers to eliminate his enemies.
After working for the government and then falling out of favor with the regime, Duvalier saw a chance to become president in 1957 on a pro-black, anti-communist platform. He won the election by taking more than 70% of the vote.
There were accusations of voter fraud, intimidation, and ballot stuffing from Duvalier’s opponent, while others accused Papa Doc of using the dark arts to conjure demons that allowed him to win.
The reality is that he properly gauged the Haitian population’s attitudes and was able to use a bit of demagoguery to get the black Haitians to “vote against” the mulattos.
Once Papa Doc took power, things immediately got crazy in Haiti.
Baron Samedi in Power
A failed 1958 coup by exiled Haitian military officers left Papa Doc extremely paranoid, leading him to unleash a whole torrent of crazy upon Haiti. Just as every dictator in modern history has done, Duvalier created a secret police force to root out his enemies. Papa Doc’s force was known as the Tonton Macoute.
The Tonton Macoute were just as brutal as the KGB or Gestapo and certainly more bizarre.
The Tonton Macoute did the run-of-the-mill repression against Duvalier’s enemies by abducting, torturing, murdering, and raping them, but they also took things to an entirely new level.
The victims’ corpses were often left in public view for all to see and if family members attempted to bury their loved ones, they too became victims. But the strangest thing about the Tonton Macoute was its connection to Voodoo.
If you lived in Haiti during the 1960s and you saw a group of men wearing straw hats and denim shirts, and carrying machetes, come to your village, it was a good idea to hide because you were being visited by the Tonton Macoute.
Their unique style of dress was based on the Voodoo spirit Azaka Medeh, the protector of farmers; but their utilization of Voodoo went far beyond imagery.
Many of the captains of the Tonton Macoute were Voodoo priests and one in particular, Luckner Cambronne, earned the nickname the “Vampire of the Caribbean” because he was said to have drawn blood from his victims to sell and use in Voodoo rituals.
But it wasn’t just Duvalier’s secret police who engaged in the dark arts. Papa Doc also performed Voodoo rituals against his enemies.
Papa Doc had many of his enemies submerged live in sulfuric acid as he watched through peepholes from another room. And if there were any doubts as to whether or not Duvalier believed in the dark arts, an incident from early in his reign proves he did.
After having a heart attack in 1959, the already-paranoid Duvalier grew even more so and began to accuse those closest to him of planning a coup. Duvalier eventually had Clement Barbot, the head of the Tonton Macoute, charged with plotting to overthrow the government and had him imprisoned.
Papa Doc later had a change of heart and had Barbot released in 1963, but by that time, the former death squad leader was planning to overthrow his leader.
After Barbot failed in an attempt to kidnap Duvalier’s children that year, Papa Doc ordered Barbot to be arrested and brought to him. But finding Barbot proved to be difficult, even on the small island, so Papa Doc thought greater things must be at work.
A Voodoo priest told Duvalier that Barbot was moving through the island disguised as a black dog, so Papa Doc ordered all the black dogs in Haiti to be killed! Barbot was later captured and killed, but he was very much in human form!
Duvalier’s crazy repression and even crazier beliefs had the long-term effect of isolating Haiti from just about every country in the world. Although Duvalier was anti-communist and seemingly would have provided the United States with a base against Cuba for intelligence and a potential invasion, the Americans wanted nothing to do with the crazed Haitian dictator. Fidel Castro also rebuffed Duvalier’s overtures.
By the end of Papa Doc’s rule, Ethiopia was the only foreign country where he made an official state visit. No one else wanted to be the victim of a Voodoo curse.
Did You Know?
- In his quest to position black Haitians against the “others,” Duvalier expelled the foreign-born bishops from Haiti, which earned him excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.
- There is a story that Papa Doc cursed American President John F. Kennedy for withdrawing his support of Haiti. Duvalier later claimed that he made a Voodoo doll of Kennedy and stuck it 2,222 times with a needle. Papa Doc said that 22 was his lucky number.
- Many historians believe that Duvalier’s hatred of mulatto Haitians came after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The Americans favored the mulatto minority and put them in power before leaving in 1934.
- Despite his generally negative feelings toward mulatto Haitians publicly and politically, his wife Simone came from a well-established mulatto family. They married in 1939, had four children, and remained married until Papa Doc’s death in 1971.
- After dying of heart disease at the age of 64, Papa Doc was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Baby Doc was as crazy and brutal as his father, although he apparently the Voodoo spirits didn’t work for him quite as well, as he was deposed and sent into exile in 1986.