"The Duvalier Family" by Elizabeth Abbott, Ph.D.

Abbott is Senior Research Associate at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. She has written numerous books including Sugar: A Bittersweet History (2009), Haiti: The Duvaliers and their Legacy (1988) and Haiti: A Shattered Nation (2011). 

In 1971, the dying Papa Doc formally decreed that his son, Jean-Claude, would succeed him as President-for-Life, and a bogus referendum ratified the decision 2,391,916 to 0 votes. Posters of Papa Doc with a hand on his son’s meaty shoulder were plastered everywhere, with the caption "I have chosen him."

The nineteen-year-old playboy inherited a dictatorship that operated on terror and institutionalized repression, with a weak army and a notorious civilian militia known as the Tonton Macoutes, and systemic corruption that enriched favorites and acolytes but kept millions of Haitians in grinding poverty. Under Jean-Claude, a reluctant law student with little interest in governing, Haiti’s real ruler was his mother, Simone Ovide Duvalier and her cronies. Terrified of being exiled in the event Duvalierists lost their stranglehold on Haiti, Simone took an active role in government, protected her associates and reinforced her image as First Lady of the Republic at myriad official events the cowed media duly reported and photographed.

The new regime touted its "liberalness" but relied on the same corrupt machinery of state and the coercive powers of the Tonton Macoutes. Three thousand rich, powerful and inter-connected families still controlled Haitian society, business and commerce while the Duvaliers and their officials raked in millions from gov­ernment revenues, kickbacks and misappropriated foreign aid.

Then in 1979, a furious Jean-Claude seized control of the government after his mother and her allies strenuously opposed his decision to marry Michèle Bennett, a light-skinned divorcee with two sons and a shady, drug-smuggling father. After their $3 million wedding, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the world’s three costliest, Michele plunged into affairs of state and, with Jean-Claude’s acquiescence, appointed officials, dominated ministers and directed policy-making.

The Duvaliers, staggeringly avaricious, treated the Haitian state like their private property. They plundered hundreds of millions of dollars from its treasury and revenues and instituted a new reign of terror that muted protestors, filled prisons and swelled the Diaspora. In 1986, when popular uprisings and international outrage forced them to flee, Haiti was bankrupt.