As I walked across a hot, treeless airfield from the plane to the ramshackle Duvalier International Terminal building in March 1977, a row of black faces stared down from the second floor balcony. Later, on the cab ride into the city, we passed wave after wave of makeshift houses and thousands of thin, dark Haitians.
The poverty was extreme; starving dogs searching the dirt roads, mothers cradling emaciated babies in their bony arms, young men struggling with huge carts of charcoal. Naked children, lanky teens and hobbled old folks wandered listlessly down the rutted roads. Drivers talked with their horns. Some people dressed in simple “western” clothing, and there were a few modern cars. But the tiny middle class was eclipsed by the pervasive deprivation.
On the advice of two friends, I'd flown there two days after turning 30. It had been a rough winter so far. My marriage had broken up and there was trouble at Burlington College. Travel and get a different perspective, they suggested. It made sense. I’d been so focused on work and Vermont for almost a decade that I’d missed the chance to explore the world.
They also had the perfect destination: the first Independent Black Republic, ruled by a corrupt dynasty, infused with both Catholicism and Voodoo. They were working on a new film, an animated history using indigenous Haitian art. I could go ahead and they’d join me later. Meanwhile, they could provide contacts and point me to some interviews. Given my dark mood it seemed like a frightening brilliant idea.
The day I arrived the tourist newspaper had a photo of Jean-Claude Duvalier on the cover, chubby in a conservative suit, grinning and sporting long sideburns. The paper said he had lots to be happy about. Haiti’s soccer team had just beaten Cuba, after all, and an “economic revolution” was getting underway. Hey, they might even find oil in Port-au-Prince Bay, the rag speculated. But reality was another matter. For example, workers at Habitation LeClerc, an exclusive $150 a day resort, were on strike for better pay. The bellboys refused to take out the garbage. When a brawl erupted the hotel manager was hospitalized.
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier had died in 1971 after ruling Haiti for almost 20 years. But before leaving the planet he passed on his title – President for Life – to his chuckle-head son. With a taste for fast cars, a jet set lifestyle and $200 million stashed in foreign banks, the new president was downplaying the “iron rule” image at the time.
The new line was progress – with a smidgeon of liberalism. Jimmy Carter, US president and Trilateral Commission man of the year, apparently liked what he was hearing and promised more development aid. But the liberalism was superficial. Press freedom needn’t mean much when the criticisms targeted Jean-Claude or his Tonton Macoute, the thuggish “national security volunteer” force he’d inherited from dad. With US assistance, Baby Doc – that was the new boss’s unofficial nickname – had even trained his own Delta-style force, the Leopards, just in case armed struggle broke out.
Not even progress looked promising. Investors poured in bucks, but the country was heading for ecological disaster. Drought, crop failures, deforestation, food shortages, bad drinking water, major electrical outages, severe malnutrition and malaria – Haiti had it all. Meanwhile the regime’s two factions argued among themselves – the “dinosaurs,” old time followers of Papa Doc who lined up with his Madame Duvalier, versus the younger “Jean-Claudists.” A mother and child disunion was only a moment away.
Haiti’s story was both heroic and tragic. The richest of the Caribbean colonies, once known as the “pearl of the Antilles,” had become the poorest nation in the Americas. Portuguese slave traders had begun bringing Blacks to the island of Hispaniola as early as 1510. The Spanish had already killed off the Indians that Columbus found there two decades before. Spain eventually ceded the western part of the island to France, and the slave trade accelerated until the end of the 18th century.
Around the time of the French Revolution, one slave read a book by Abbe Raynal, a French priest calling for freedom and revolution. That 45-year-old coachman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, became Haiti’s liberator, a fearless warrior who mastered politics and intrigue. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France, Toussaint had issued a constitution outlawing slavery. He tried to negotiate, but the little corporal assembled 60,000 troops, the largest expeditionary force in history, and tried to overrun the island. He did capture Haiti’s hero, and Toussaint died in a French prison.
In the end, a combination of indomitable resistance and yellow fever stopped the French. Saint Dominique was declared an independent republic in 1804, taking the name Haiti from the Indian word for “land of mountains.” But the country was in ruins, literally burned to the ground, and the next century was a violent time of serial dictatorship and deepening conflict between blacks and mulattos.
In 1915, the US stepped in. With a local uprising threatening US business interests, Woodrow Wilson decided to send in the Marines and set up a protectorate, touting the invasion as part of his “open door” policy. The troops remained for the next 19 years. When Franklin Roosevelt visited in 1934, the local reaction was blunt; crowds tore up bridges and telephone lines. The new empire answered with martial law. The greatest atrocity of the period was the slaughter of 20,000 Haitians working in the adjacent Dominican Republic, victims of a plan by that country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, to cut down the “foreign” labor force by murdering it. For that one Haiti’s government eventually received some compensation, $500,000 or $25 per death.
Papa Doc began his career with government jobs and US aid projects in the 1940s, an era of strikes and calls for “black power.” Speaking for blacks, who were often treated as second-class citizens by the less numerous but politically more powerful mulattos, he created a private army, the Tonton Macoute, who followed his orders, murdered his enemies, and acted like feudal warlords.
In 1957 Duvalier was elected president. The regime quickly degenerated into a dictatorship of unrelenting repression. Haiti was blacklisted from international aid and Papa Doc assumed a lifetime term, using Voodoo as a powerful tool of fear. His Macoutes, sporting “uniforms” of Denham and dark sunglasses, were so macabre that they seemed like zombis, the walking dead.
Part Ten of Prelude to a Revolution
Next: Haiti under Baby Doc