Democracy, fair elections, toleration of dissent, multi-party government, checks and balances, constitutions and the rule of law are all foreign to Haiti, the sick man of the hemisphere and the United States’ close neighbor. This summer Lieutenant General Henri Namphy, Haiti’s current strongman and the head of a military junta that has ruled the demi-island nation since dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was forced to flee in February 1986, ousted President Leslie F. Manigat and tore up the country’s post-Duvalier constitution. "Constitutions are not for Haiti," Namphy said.


The Duvalier family, father and son, had run Haiti like a feudal fiefdom for nearly 30 years. Although Baby Doc was less indiscriminately cruel than François (Papa Doc), his father, he maintained a predatory state which terrorized Haitians and returned very little to most of his countrymen. The junta—Namphy, Major General Williams Regala, Brigadier General Prosper Avril and Colonel Jean-Claude Paul—all soldiered for the Duvaliers, and had ties to the corrupt and rapacious elements who used Haiti for private gain. But as officers in the army their role individually and collectively was less central to the dominance of the Duvaliers than the dreaded tonton macoutes, a group of henchmen that functioned as a secret police.

Indeed, the Duvaliers largely shunted the soldiers aside, until the last Duvalier was himself forced out by a massive, popular outpouring of revulsion similar to that which rid the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos during the same month. Baby Doc’s ouster, aided by a final, vital push by resident U.S. diplomats, permitted the long ignored and despised army to reclaim the power it had lost in Haiti in 1957, with the end of the dictatorial regime of General Paul E. Magloire and the rise of Papa Doc. Unlike its Philippine counterpart, Haiti’s army had not been instrumental in Duvalier’s departure. The junta declared itself an interim government to supervise a transition to democracy, and received the United States’ blessing for this purpose.

Instead, Namphy presided throughout 1986 over a silent and largely enigmatic junta. He moved more slowly than populists and the United States wanted toward the goal of constitution-writing and popular elections. Eventually and reluctantly, the Namphy junta permitted long-term exiles to return and opened the doors to debate. A constitutional commission wrote and the Haitian people ratified a liberal instrument in 1987; it called for open elections supervised by an impartial, nonmilitary commission, and barred close associates of Duvalier from candidacy. It set up a host of traditional democratic safeguards, and restored meaning to Haitian national institutions like the judiciary and the legislature.

The western hemisphere’s poorest country, a nation which had never known more than the whisper of democratic government, seemed set for a benign and fair harbor. But Namphy and his colleagues distrusted the probability of popular rule; this became clear in June 1987, when they tried to wrest control of elections away from the independent electoral council. Massive protests forced them to back down, but they dealt harshly with their opponents. Two candidates were killed, and on the morning of November 29, election day, the army participated in the massacre of at least 34 people before it broke up polling and called off the elections.

In reaction to the aborted election, the United States (along with France and Canada) cut off the large amounts of foreign nonhumanitarian assistance that had helped to sustain Haiti since early 1986. But the generals paid little heed. By 1987 the army had come to control one of Haiti’s few sources of personal gain: port and customs revenues, and the contraband trade in all kinds of prohibited imports. Commerce under the junta has largely been dominated by unofficially permitted smuggling at the ports. The goods—rice, bread, bicycles, batteries and so on—fill the markets of Port-au-Prince, and officers profit handsomely from this trade.

The junta rescheduled elections for January 1988, altered the rules, welcomed a boycott of the second balloting by all the popular and liberal candidates who had sought to contest the November poll, and carefully supervised the result. Calls in the U.S. Congress for a peacekeeping force to ensure orderly elections came to naught; in the event, many Haitians did not vote, having been sufficiently intimidated by the November massacre and also exhorted to abstain by opposition leaders.

Manigat won in January, overwhelming two other candidates believed to be friendly to the military and to conservatism in politics. Widespread voting irregularities were reported, and a supervisory electoral council handpicked by the junta gave Manigat over 50 percent of the vote. Though these circumstances suggested he was to be a figurehead, Manigat represented something of a surprise choice. Briefly a cabinet minister under Papa Doc, he had been sent into exile, where he wrote anti-Duvalier tracts of Marxist bent. When he stood for the election of 1988 he promised a liberal democratic regime, but his main constituency was the junta, or at least elements within that shadowy body. Manigat’s election did not persuade the United States to release the $79 million in annual aid suspended in November; the State Department said the elections were not "free, fair or open."

For six months Manigat apparently knew his place. Neither his promised new era of development and democracy, nor his opponents’ dire predictions of dictatorial misrule and corruption, were realized. Nothing very much happened. There were few initiatives of consequence, and citizens in the outlying areas of the country like Cap Haitien in the north and Les Cayes in the south could hardly tell that non-dictatorial rule had at last arrived.

Yet Manigat quietly attempted to end the junta’s control of the contraband trade. Unable to pay bureaucrats or sustain a state becoming bankrupt, he schemed to gain control of the main source of available revenue. Manigat may also have hoped to intervene against the drug trade.

Manigat sensed a growing split within the junta, and apparently saw an opportunity to assert himself. Suddenly, over a weekend in June, he sided with Colonel Paul, and removed Namphy as head of the army. After all, presidents of Haiti are supposed to be commanders in chief. Within 24 hours, however, Manigat’s presidential palace was surrounded and he and his family were on their way to the Dominican Republic and exile in Europe. Thereafter, Namphy abolished the much-vaunted constitution of 1987.


What of poor Haiti, a nation of seven million people living on a land area the size of Maryland? Were it not on our doorstep, and had we not occupied and run Haiti for 19 years from 1915 to 1934, and had the U.S. marines not trained the Haitian army in those days, perhaps we could ignore the turmoil in Haiti. But we cannot, both in order to ensure peace in the hemisphere and because Haiti has no other friends. Moreover, Haiti lies only 700 miles from Miami, and two million Haitians live in Miami, New York and Boston, and another half-million or so in Montreal and Quebec. The United States can no longer afford to act in paternal or avuncular ways in international affairs, but neither can it walk away from the misery and misgovernment of the hemisphere’s oldest black entity.

Namphy was neither the first Haitian autocrat nor will he be the last. Indeed, Namphy is ill and may soon be succeeded by another junta member—possibly Regala, long regarded as the unsavory strongman of the junta. Another member, Paul, has been indicted by a U.S. grand jury in Miami as a drug trafficker. Duvalierists, who uniformly did well out of the old state, are anxious to return. Even if there should be another upwelling of popular protest, the future of Haiti is hardly easy to imagine in bright colors. Unhappily, given Haiti’s tragic history and the legacy of three decades of Duvalierism, it is very difficult to persuade jejune observers that Haiti can be transformed from within. It lacks a viable political culture, basic literacy, natural resources and a germ of prosperity. It also has little faith in itself. Given such a fragile foundation for change, can the United States help in a significant way?

Patterns of interaction between rulers and the ruled are hardly immutable; long cherished modes of individual and group behavior can change. Modern, clear-sighted leadership can make a difference. So, at the margin, can foreign assistance. But Haiti is an unusual neighbor of the United States. Its history, its economic and political structure, and its social character all declare the Haitian case a severe challenge to policymakers in Washington as well as to the governors and the governed in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti, the western third of the Antillean island of Hispaniola, occupies an area of about 10,700 square miles. But to be small is not necessarily to be compact. The Gulf of Gonâve cuts into the heart of the country, making Haiti resemble a crocodile that is about to swallow the desiccated satellite island of La Gonâve. Port-au-Prince, a mere 30 miles from the rugged, often-closed land frontier with the Dominican Republic, guards the apex of the bay. But the narrow belt of land widens on each side of the capital; Haiti’s longest and widest dimensions are 183 and 114 miles. Because the coastline is irregular and the northern and southern peninsulas are so elongated, different sections and peoples of the country have remained unusually separated, internal communications have always been excessively difficult, rural life has proved markedly resistant to change, and the port towns’ development has not spread to the surrounding hinterlands.

Haiti has always been a place apart. Historically and geographically isolated despite (and because of) its shared border with the Dominican Republic and its proximity to Cuba and the United States, Haiti resisted (at least until the drug-running era) the full embrace of westernization and modernization. A third of the land is about 1,500 feet above sea level; its mountains impede cross-country communication and commerce, even with the improved road network of the 1970s and 1980s. Among the measures of modern means of communication and physical integration, Haiti has the fewest telephones and the least electric power and poorest overall infrastructure per capita of any country in the hemisphere. Outside Port-au-Prince and its suburbs, transport and communication are difficult, harsh and expensive.

Haiti is a rural fastness, yet even the countryside is no longer as hospitable as it once was to impoverished millions who grow corn, sorghum, rice, yams and pulses and nurture a few pigs on tiny holdings outside the towns. Haiti has been denuded of trees, long ago cut down for firewood and charcoal; its mountaintops are bare and its slopes badly eroded. Only two percent of its total land is still forested. The torrents that pour brown and red out of the interiors into the sea during the rains carry nutrients and precious soil. As a result, agricultural productivity has declined drastically in this century, and especially since 1960.

Haiti remains much more rural than most developing countries of its size and quality. The people of Haiti live in the folds of the country’s hills, in small villages, in port cities and squashed into the fetid slums of the capital. Since only 28 percent of all Haitians are urban, a remarkably low percentage for the Third World, the 72 percent of Haitians who scratch a subsistence from the low-yielding soils of the denuded valleys and slopes constitute the most densely packed rural population in the Americas.

The average density of Haiti as a whole is 560 persons per square mile, but only 20 percent of the land mass is arable and half of the country’s people lives on this 20 percent. On those hectares the average pressure on cultivable land is well over 2,000 people per square mile. That high figure places rural Haitians in unhealthy competition with denizens of the Nile delta and Java for the world’s most crowded conditions outside cities. In other words, Haiti boasts less than half a hectare of farmland per person.

Unfortunately, the arable hectares are shrinking because of erosion and overuse. Only 11 percent of all land is now capable of sustained farming. Even the comparatively rich, central Artibonite Valley has grown poorer through overcrowding and land exhaustion. Given the obviously declining carrying capacity of all the land, these are spectacular burdens to be borne by a developing country, much less one of the least efficient and least politically stable.

Haiti’s average per capita gross national product is $400. Haiti ranks at the very bottom of the western hemispheric scale and is among the bottom quartile of countries on a world scale, comparing approximately with Ghana and Kenya. It ranks with the poorer (but not the poorest) African nations.

Haiti is poor both because it is overpopulated and because it lacks natural resources. Comparatively modest deposits of bauxite and low-grade copper were once mined, but are no longer viable. Oil drilling has produced little, and no base minerals—not even the gold that attracted Christopher Columbus in 1492—have been discovered in concentrations attractive to investors. Haiti exports coffee, sugar, mangoes, a little sisal and, until recently, produced baseballs, leather goods and other consumer items that rely on hand labor for their manufacture. This assembly industry has been severely affected by political strife; about 20,000 jobs were lost between 1986 and 1988. Urban unemployment is estimated at 50 percent. Tourism, once another major source of foreign exchange earnings, has been greatly curbed by Haiti’s reputation as a source of AIDS and by riots and instability. Namphy’s June takeover will hardly help restore his country’s fortunes.

Standard numerical equivalents cannot begin to describe the extent and impact of Haitian poverty. It is equally apparent in the extensive slums of the capital—they rival those of Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Johannesburg in squalor and misery—and in cramped rural villages and in pole and dried earth hutments reminiscent of tropical Africa. The swollen bellies of children and the tattered raiments of their elders, the kind and quantity of consumer goods in most shops and markets, the long distances women travel in order to obtain water or to sell a handful of mangoes, the absence of shoes and the omnipresence of maimed and mutilated beggars all testify to the corrosive continuation of depressed conditions.

Poverty, nutritional failures and the spread of endemic diseases are all part of a cycle of underdevelopment that limits the effectiveness of modernizing initiatives. Tuberculosis and tetanus are endemic, malaria has not been fully eradicated, and protein deficiency in children and intestinal disorders are widespread. A survey established that the nutritional status of the people of Haiti was the worst in the western hemisphere. Sixty-six percent of all Haitian dwellings lack access to safe drinking water and eighty percent have no indoor sanitation.

These conditions produce an infant mortality rate estimated at a high 117 per 1,000 live births. Between seven and 15 percent of all Haitian children die during the first eight weeks of life alone; about 20 percent of all children die before they are five years old. Life expectancy at birth averages about 55 years.


Politics in Haiti reflects and is constrained and conditioned by these many physical and socioeconomic hardships. The continued domination of an urban elite and the style of dictatorship to which Haitians have become accustomed have also been assisted by the maintenance of a restricted and inappropriate system of education and the perpetuation of antimodern modes of thought and patterns of behavior. Schooling, in theory accessible to all Haitians, has in practice been limited since the early nineteenth century to members of the urban elite and the families of relatively advanced peasants. Haiti’s functional illiteracy rate remains about 90 percent, at the level of Ethiopia, Mozambique, Afghanistan and North Yemen.

Teachers, like the newly trained doctors who are obliged to spend their first two years in a village hospital or clinic, disdain their rustic surroundings, are poorly motivated, have little equipment, and probably find it stultifying to try to convey the elements of a French classical education to their charges. The lessons are meant to be taught in French, which few rural pupils can read or speak. There has been serious talk of curriculum reform and of a vast campaign to teach illiterate adults to read and write in Creole, an extended version of seventeenth-century Norman French influenced by Bantu grammatical constructions and vocabulary, which is the sole language of about 90 percent of the population.

Together with low levels of education in a rural setting go the parochialism and resistance to change which are often attributed to peasants largely cut off from mass media or easy access to urban life. According to a variety of indices, the pace and pursuits of most rural Haitians seem to have changed little since the early nineteenth century.

Haitian farmers have had every incentive to turn their backs on developments in the capital. Neither the heritage of slavery, the wars of independence, nor the experiences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries encouraged peasants to seek their security elsewhere than in their isolated mountain and valley retreats. Freedom and independence were more important to ex-slaves than higher levels of prosperity. Cut off as they were—and as most still are—from communications media that might have inculcated a sense of relative deprivation, and uninfluenced by missionaries (of which there were few in the rural areas until the mid-twentieth century), or immigrants from other cultures (of which there were none), or the towns, self-preservation has dictated an overwhelming apathy to the course of Haitian politics. On an experiential basis, disengagement has proved a prudent policy. Peasants still have no reason to suppose that anything but harm comes from involving themselves in national politics; at the local level the question of participation hardly arises since there has never been any effective political life for the citizenry. Under the Duvalier regimes, colonial-style military rule was the pattern in the rural sections and districts.

Nearly all Haitians share the attitudes of rivalry, suspicion and intrigue that are so apparent in national life. Except to the extent that sophistication and education have altered their perspectives, urban-dwelling Haitians also share a distinctive cast of mind which influences their political and economic responses, and appears to be derived from the necessary mental accommodation with slavery: the first Haitians were rootless, lacking any bonds common to them all except revolution. They were originally of many tribes and languages of Africa, and thus lacked the cement of a shared culture, religion, language or, later, as peasants and freed men, the group socialization that might have been conveyed by a colonial experience. Instead, the vast majority of Haitians went directly from slavery to independence, without any sort of participatory tutelage as colonial subjects. Separated as they had been from kith and kin and denied the normal rights of assembly and thus the possibilities of cooperation, they retained the combination of submission to authority and the ability—deviously if necessary—to cope under stress, which was a by-product of the slave estate. Even within the nuclear family there was competition and calumny.

In order to reform and uplift Haiti, its future leaders must overcome poverty, demographic drags, infrastructural deficiencies and the social disabilities that have been sketched. Further, neither the leaders nor the Haitian people themselves can deny the national legacy of decay and destruction. Haiti’s history militates against democratic development. Haiti’s political culture—its political and personal values—hardly enshrines participatory politics.


Haiti is a nation that has known despotism and terror more than elections and power-sharing. Conceived in harsh slavery, born of revolution and nurtured in decades of hostility, Haiti knew turbulence and corruption before it experienced order. It has never known effective two-party competition, with honest elections or benevolent government.

The problems of modern Haiti have a long lineage. In the eighteenth century the French-owned plantations of sugar and coffee prospered. By the 1770s Haiti had eclipsed other French colonies of the Caribbean in wealth. Sugar exports were greater than those of any other territory in the world. Haiti’s soils were fertile, extensive and well irrigated, its plantations well managed. About 30,000 whites, and 27,000 free mulattos and blacks, enjoyed comfort, culture and privilege. The 500,000 slaves who worked the plantations, however, were ferociously abused.

In 1790 and 1791, rioting slaves became a great mob run amok; they uprooted, fired and destroyed. Before long rural Haiti was dominated by roaming slave bands. Everywhere there was devastation; even Port-au-Prince was razed. By 1798 the revolution had succeeded both in establishing the freedom of the slaves and, decisively for the development of modern Haiti, in destroying the country’s profitable agricultural base. Technically trained persons fled and about a third of the prerevolutionary slave population died. The surviving ex-slaves took to the mountains, and concentrated on subsistence rather than cash cultivation. Independence was achieved in 1804 after a series of wars with France.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded Toussaint L’Ouverture as free Haiti’s first ruler in 1804, accentuated the decay of France’s sugar isle by unleashing a wild wave of despotism and terror. Instead of conserving the few oases of learning, middle-level bureaucracy and technocracy available within the country, Dessalines systematically extirpated whites and oppressed mulattos, confiscating their land and, on several occasions, massacring large numbers for sport.

Haiti came to govern itself in the absence of any heritage of representative democracy or any experience of consensus. It was unable to reestablish the intensive agriculture of the country because indigo, cotton and sugar all required large-scale capital investment. Under President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1820-1843), Haiti irrevocably became a land of largely illiterate, black, Creole-speaking smallholders divorced from the mulatto-dominated towns. Most Haitians were poor, but they were free and secure in this stagnant status quo. Class consciousness, sectionalism and individualism were all tendencies carried to political and social extremes by Boyer and his successors. Impersonal abstractions like the notion of nationhood and the common good attracted few loyalties; there were no means of communicating the needs of the state and no funds with which to extend its apparatus to those outside the elite cliques which dominated it. The presidency was equated with a license to plunder, and nearly all the elite’s energies were devoted to the acquisition and retention of that license. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only the army maintained a semblance of institutional coherence and continued to play an influential national role.

Because of its poverty, isolation, endemic corruption and administrative inefficiency, Haitian governments after Boyer became more and more unstable and short-lived. From 1843 to 1915 there were 22 presidents, most of whom came to power by force of arms and coups d’état. Fourteen were ousted by revolts after relatively brief incumbencies, three died naturally in office, one resigned, one was poisoned, one was blown up in his palace and another was pulled apart by an urban mob. Legitimacy, in the American sense, was nonexistent: Haiti was ruled until 1915, but it was never governed.

By the early years of the present century, Haiti was bankrupt, economically and politically. Foreigners, especially the Germans (who controlled wholesale and retail trade), the French (to whom Haiti sold nearly all its coffee), and the Americans (who supplied most imports), dominated what remained of the republic’s economy. Customs revenues had been pawned to pay off ruinous loans, and a number of dubious and costly concessions had been granted to unscrupulous foreign promoters. Private funds were not lacking, particularly for backing movements of rebellion, but the government itself lurched precariously from payday to payday and encouraged the army to forage for itself.

Expediency had destroyed any lingering willingness to attend to national needs. At the same time, Haitians were, and have remained, fundamentally conservative. Any social change constituted a major threat to the entrenched livelihood of the urban elite. Thus, they could live with turmoil, corruption, and maladroit, grasping and visionless rulers—providing that these men were not unusually brutal and provoked no radical alterations in the fabric of Haitian society. By 1915 the people of Haiti had experienced only brutish rule, and nothing that looked hopeful for the future. Unfortunately, the American occupation did not provide durable new footing.

The United States intervened in Haiti in July 1915 and ruled there until 1934. The intervention was prompted by turmoil in the country and the United States’ fear of the German presence, fueled by the outbreak of World War I. The United States pacified, administered, introduced new methods of solving old problems, provided an array of technological improvements, built decent roads and introduced proper telephone and telegraphic services, refurbished hospitals and schools, tried to upgrade living standards and, like colonial powers in Africa, attempted to impose its own cultural ideas on Haitian society.

Although Woodrow Wilson declared that the intervention in Haiti constituted a humanitarian response to the total collapse of indigenous abilities to maintain law and order, the manner of intervention, and the way in which Americans subsequently dealt with Haitians, suggested an overriding concern for the protection of U.S. national interests in a disturbed world.

The Americans were inexperienced colonizers, and the Marine Corps, which provided the local leadership and the grand commissar during most of the occupation, proved more amateur than most. Their horizons were narrow, and the maintenance of law and order—at a time when U.S. funds were short—seemed more important than preparing Haiti for economic and political growth. The American occupation was thus without plan, and disappointing to those who had hoped that it would transform a society too long isolated from the currents of world progress. It also perpetuated the atmosphere of arbitrary authoritarianism to which Haitians were long accustomed.

Haitians resented the occupation, not least because of the failure of the Americans to prepare either Haitians or Haiti for its end. No attempt was made to involve Haitians in the country’s political process or to plan with Haitians for their eventual resumption of sovereignty. During the occupation elections were held locally, but they were rigged; after 1917, the ballot was denied on a national level. Presidents ruled by fiat on behalf of the occupiers, constitutional amendments were farcically ratified, and the press was censored. The U.S. decision to withdraw in 1934 was spurred by anti-U.S. protests in Haiti, and the U.S. Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America.

The United States had failed to change Haiti. Nineteen years might have proven sufficiently long to have demonstrated the superiority of Anglo-Saxon political approaches. American tutelage might have brought about lasting alterations in Haitian practices. But the Americans had ruled arbitrarily, perhaps more openly and without the venality, but still in the manner of earlier Haitian dictators. We had given Haitians no obvious and easily imitated model of political responsibility. The level of local participation in politics remained low and unrepresentative. As far as most Haitians were concerned, one clique had replaced another: power was power. As tutors, the Americans had reinforced retrogressive stereotypes.

The Americans had not broadened the base of political participation; the same types of cliques operated in Haitian politics as had always operated. President Sténio Vincent, a wealthy mulatto who had assumed office under the Americans, transformed himself into a dictator in 1935. He reintroduced censorship, jailed editors, ended the independence of the judiciary, and resumed the Haitian practice of arbitrary arrest and detention without trial.

Vincent was supported by the Haitian army, which backed him when he sought and obtained a third term as president in 1941. The American-introduced Haitian constitution, however, only permitted two terms for a president. U.S. diplomatic pressure and threats of intervention forced Vincent out; Elie Lescot, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, was elected by the legislature to succeed Vincent. After a few years, Lescot, too, attempted to exceed the authority of his office. Students and civil servants took to the streets of Port-au-Prince, and the army moved in to oust the president. In 1946 they installed Dumarsais Estimé, a reformer who encouraged trade unions and rural cooperatives, and even nationalized large U.S. companies. By 1949, however, Estimé had succumbed to the venal sin of Haitian leaders: he considered himself indispensable and above the law. Indeed, Estimé failed the essential test of Haitian political life—the maintenance of legitimacy during periods of stress. Once it was realized that Estimé, like all of his predecessors, was a mere opportunist and no true popularist, the army acted, installing General Paul Magloire, one of its own, trained by the U.S. marines, as his successor.

Magloire ruled during a period of comparatively high world prices for Haitian exports and, as a result, was able to build roads, construct other public works and achieve a degree of modernization in Haiti. But Magloire and his chief of police both believed that the presidency was a license to make money. They lived ostentatiously and projected playboy images, dipping their hands deep into the national till. To protect themselves, they also began depriving citizens of their civil liberties. Even in Haiti there were limits; in this case, the limits were attempting to exceed a constitutional term of office and jailing those who protested and struck.


The fall of President Magloire in late 1956 marked the end of the century-long manipulation of Haitian politics by shifting arrangements of interlocking cliques. For eight months, while Haiti looked for a new political direction, turmoil and chaos racked the republic as it had in those terrible months before the American occupation. It was from this bloody cataclysm—during which five weak and inherently unstable governments and 13 bitterly antagonistic contenders vied for the presidency—that Papa Doc Duvalier and his family machine emerged victorious.

Duvalier, a public health physician, had studied at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. His manner was reassuring and he appeared (especially to the U.S. embassy) to represent an authentic, popular break with mulatto domination. The official Americans who assisted him financially in the election campaign of 1957 were pleased at his victory. They expected it to usher in a brave and bold new world of democracy.

Duvalier, however, was motivated by a lust for power which would be satisfied only when everything in Haiti budged according to his will, which was not socially oriented. The elimination of his enemies would not and did not result in the spread of social justice, economic development, widespread modernization or even a puritanical national cleansing. Like presidents preceding him, if never before so single-mindedly and ruthlessly, Duvalier was consecrated to the gods of destruction, brutality and sadism. Potential dissidents were removed and opposition of any kind stilled. Duvalier’s dictatorship was henceforth marked by unbridled bullying of defenseless Haitians throughout the republic, and by the elevation of torture and brutality to astounding levels.

As Duvalier’s tonton macoutes made Haitian notions of personal liberty obsolete, so he himself made a mockery of the political process, constitutional constraints on executive power, and the already loose definitions of proper Haitian presidential behavior. Duvalier’s object, during his dictatorship, was to entrench himself in power by any and all means, to quell even the most vestigial parliamentary opposition, to put himself above the state and law, and, largely in order to enhance the successful accomplishment of the last objective, to continue to glorify his person. Duvalier sought to humble all men and institutions that might challenge the eminence of his rule and to crush, over and over again, any pockets of independent and constructive thought.

In 1958, for example, Duvalier pushed the legislature aside and began governing by decree. Among his first acts was retroactive legislation that promised death to persons spreading rumors or false news. His macoutes made 100 political arrests and shut down 46 newspapers throughout the country. He solicited special "contributions" from wealthy businessmen; parliamentary deputies "donated" one month’s salary, and the army also paid. Duvalier confiscated all radio transmitters in the country, including those in missionary hands. From 1958 onward, roadblocks were common; daily commuters were searched by macoutes, who regularly exacted their special tolls from hapless motorists and bus passengers.

In 1964, completing a process that had been started in 1961, Duvalier declared himself—in response to "popular demand"—president ad vitam aeternam. The transformation of the state into a personal fief, the subordination of a natural ethos to an individual will, and the elimination of any Haitian, foreigner or institution capable of detracting from, minimizing or holding out hope against the perpetuation of dictatorship—these were all standard Haitian (and authoritarian) techniques of maintaining one-man rule simply carried to, and, in some categories, well beyond, the previously conceivable boundaries.

Although Duvalier prohibited free movement of Haitians, by the mid-1960s an exodus of trained Haitians was well under way. At least a half-million Haitians left their country for the Dominican Republic, the United States and Canada between 1964 and 1969. In the latter year there were more Haitian physicians, psychiatrists and nurses in Montreal than in Haiti. Duvalier had succeeded in terrorizing his people and in destroying Haiti’s economy.

In 1959, at a time of acute stress in his regime, Duvalier had written:

Our governments never cared about the national inheritance and never attempted to stop social griefs. They talked a lot about liberty, only to fool the free world instead of using it fairly as a domestic policy. The country is split into two groups; the exploiters—restless and foolhardy minority—monopolize the administrative power and paralyze the progress of the masses; the exploited—the great majority—[are] victims of a wrongful and cruel system. There are exploiters in all strata of society. Originated from the mass, they are sometimes more dangerous. All stunning blows to the collectivity’s interests come directly from them. To enrich themselves with all possible speed, they will betray anyone for a mess of pottage. Do not trust them.

Without meaning to, Duvalier wrote accurately of his own and his son’s governments. There were no intermediary structures of relevance, no hierarchies of importance, and no competing foci of institutional loyalty. The Duvaliers were the only bosses. No one shared their power or helped them to exercise it in anything other than menial ways.

The Duvaliers created as totalitarian a state as could be achieved with the underdeveloped technology at their disposal. Because of the relative inefficiency of their regimes, and their concentration upon short- rather than long-term gains, they made no attempt to institute a process of thought control or mental indoctrination. However, dissent of all kinds was stifled whenever and under whatever circumstances it arose.


The three decades of Duvalierism, father and son, robbed Haiti of what little democratic and developmental momentum remained after World War II. Reminiscent as their reigns were of the harshest phases of despotism during the nineteenth century, it is hardly a wonder that the structure of the state and the character of politics changed little under General Namphy’s junta from 1986 to early 1988. The ouster of Baby Doc had brought renewed personal freedom and inaugurated a welcome diminution of the capital’s climate of terror. But the junta’s first phase was hardly popular; its rule was arbitrary, if less vicious and less capricious than that of the Duvaliers.

Namphy’s successors, whoever they may be, have a hard and, frankly, almost impossible task. Without the backing of a robust national democratic value system and given inherited traditions of cynical misrule, it is unlikely that the transition from authoritarianism to good government can be either easy or quick. Haitians have long endured a zero-sum existence: either one is on top or on the bottom; no group or clique shares with others. Future democrats and dictators may want to change Haiti in a fundamental political sense. But because the human and historical material is so fragile, no remolding of Haiti can be predicted with confidence.

Haiti is poorer and more miserable than it was. As a nation it is close to bankruptcy and ripe for yet another personalist takeover. François Duvalier ran the country down; his son’s regime sponsored modest growth, but the tumult during the junta’s rule has made the country’s prospects precarious once again. Given its legacy of overpopulation, deforestation, infrastructural neglect and general weariness, Haiti hardly presents a likely case of economic takeoff. Its citizens have too little to eat and spend; until Haitians see themselves as becoming politically and economically better off, they will distrust and withhold consent from their governments.

Since Namphy and his colleagues hardly have the vision or skill to accomplish this formidable task, and clearly refuse to share power with the majority of Haitians, the people may yet generate the energy to revolt, as they did against Baby Doc. In that uprising, Haitians were more united than at any time since the eighteenth-century revolt which brought them freedom and independence. Although the Haitians’ fury forced the remaining Duvalierists and tonton macoutes to lie low for a time, and the machinery was set in place for a democratic experiment, the opposition leaders proved no match for those wanting to perpetuate the old ways. There was no single opposition leader behind whom the people could unite, in part due to the fractured nature of the country and its primitive means of communication and transport. Of the 22 candidates who stood for the canceled November 1987 election, four were thought to have substantial popular support. Until there is a renewed symbolic focal point for rallying people to the long fight ahead, the cause of democratic rule will be lost.

Whatever happens, Haiti will need renewed help from the United States, France and its other traditional friends and benefactors. For the moment, however, the United States should seek ways—mostly diplomatic, but with the promise of resumed cash aid—of influencing the junta to return to the democratic path of 1987. Ultimately, we must take our lead from Haitians of democratic instinct. We must look to Haiti itself, which finally ousted the Duvaliers, for critical leadership and positive direction. The case for helping Haiti is overwhelming. Patience will be needed, too. But exactly how and when to help are still open questions.

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  • Robert I. Rotberg is Academic Vice President for Arts, Sciences, and Technology of Tufts University. Until 1987, he was professor of political science and history at M.I.T.
  • More By Robert I. Rotberg