For years after his death, many people feared he would come back to life and rule once more.
One spring day of 1971, several cannons announced the death of the man who had claimed to be the “Renovator of the Republic," "the Chief of the Revolution,” and "the Spiritual Father of the Nation.” But actually, he was very far from honoring those titles. He was François Duvalier, best known as Papa Doc, one of the most ruthless and cruel dictators of Haiti, and probably of Latin America. He was a man who stayed in power thanks to a mechanism of terror and intimidation, but more importantly, a man who used people’s superstitions and beliefs to take everything from them and have a lavish life with his loved ones, while his people died of hunger and disease. So, yes, you read that right: he’s best known for allegedly having an army of zombies at his disposal, and that’s not even the most shocking aspect of his regime.
Born in 1907 in Port-au Prince to a working-class family, Duvalier was a black man who had always endured, like many others, racism and discrimination because of the color of his skin. This constant abuse inspired him during youth to do something to help others in even worse conditions. For that reason, he decided to pursue a career in medicine, where he excelled. This allowed him to study Public Health in the US for a while, and he was even invited to join a campaign researching the control and treatment of tropical diseases (one of Haiti’s worst health problems, killing thousands of people every year). Convinced that this was the best way to help the most vulnerable people in his country, he went back to work in several rural hospitals, where he earned himself the nickname of Papa Doc for his caring treatment. So, you might be wondering, what went wrong?
Power and ambition. All his life he had seen how white and mixed-race people controlled the country by stealing from the poorest, meaning the black population. In 1915, the US army had begun occupying the country, and even though they had no direct contact with the government, they had control over pretty much everything. By that time, several resistance groups based on Pan-African ideals (honoring their African roots) had appeared throughout the country, and since Duvalier was very close to rural areas, he got really interested in these movements. He soon became part of one called Négritude and adopted their lifestyle.
One of the things he adopted that would become an essential element to his regime was religion. Though he was a man of science with a Catholic background, he followed Haitian Vodou, a derivation of Nigerian Voodoo traditions that believed in the existence of a good god called Bondye and a set of different loa (spirits) that control everything in the world. With this belief that he shared with so many people in Haiti, he started combining medicine with many rituals, which led people to believe that he was actually performing miracles and curing them of the diseases that were ravaging the population.
By 1946, Papa Doc was more interested in politics and decided to take a stab at state matters. He joined president Dumarsais Estimé, who named him Director General of National Public Health. However, this president’s government didn’t have that much approval, and the following year a coup was planned to topple him. Duvalier didn’t support the movement and had to flee to save his life. He returned to practice medicine while hiding from the current government, but by 1956, president Paul Magloire’s government was weakening. Duvalier saw this as a chance to actually change things and become the first black president of the nation. He was elected president in 1957, and instead of real change that helped his people, a reign of terror begun.
One of the things he learned after working in the government and seeing how the previous leaders had failed was that you can lose power easily, if someone is against you. For that matter, his first action as a president was to eliminate any potential detractors, including his opponent’s followers. This practice of exiling or even assassinating his detractors became a characteristic trait of his regime. But that wasn’t all. He soon started making changes to the constitution and placing his supporters in important government positions. He also solidified the army with his friends as leaders. On top of that, he asked many members of the Négritude movement to create a rural militia called Militia of National Security Volunteers (it’s something similar to what Hitler did with the SS), also known as the Tonton Macoute, a name he took from a traditional Voodoo figure that would be the Haitian version of the Boogeyman, a spirit believed to kidnap children and eat them.
As you can imagine, the Tonton Macoute was a fearsome group with permission to torture and kill anyone they considered a threat to the regime. Papa Doc had important Voodoo priests and sorcerers in this group to make people believe that they were powerful beings with supernatural powers even. Now, in the Voodoo tradition, there’s the belief that a powerful sorcerer can bring people back from death (the famous zombies), but these zombies are not like the ones we see in movies with their slow movements mumbling incomprehensible words, who only want to eat our brain. According to these beliefs, these are conscious beings who respond only to the person who brought them back. Now, picture this, by that time, most of the poorest population believed in this, so if the person in power, who you already heard has miraculous healing powers, claims that he has a full army of zombies at his command, you naturally believe and fear it, and that’s precisely what he wanted, to cause fear so no one would dare to threaten him.
Of course, this didn’t fool everybody, and during his almost two decades in power, he kept killing those who said the slightest thing against him. The key to understanding how Papa Doc was able to do all these terrible things is what all dictators do: create a personality cult presenting themselves as saviors or even divine figures (as was Duvalier’s case) while inspiring terror in their people, but more importantly, by limiting their contact with the outside world. During his regime, he cut all relations with other countries, including the US, mainly for their support for Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic dictator who ordered a massacre of Haitians. Duvalier presented himself as an anti-Yankee leader who even claimed that J.F. Kennedy’s assassination had been the consequence of a curse he had placed on him. He based everything on superstitions to convey that image of the supernatural being who had been chosen to rule Haiti forever.
Naturally, this wasn’t going to last forever. Despite all his attempts to consolidate his power and become invincible (even holding elections where he was the only person on the ballots), at the end of the day, he was only a regular human being like any other, and on April 1971, he died of complications of diabetes and heart disease, which had afflicted him for years. But if you thought his reign of terror ended there, you’re so mistaken. Not only did he name his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier (a.k.a Baby Doc) as the next president, but also the belief of him coming back to life was a constant fear in the population. Actually, it’s said that to this day, there’s always a pair of officers guarding his tomb. That’s the legacy of fear this deranged man left in a country that far from doing good, he only made everything worse.
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Cover image by Lino Martins