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The voodoo president

Doctors save lives and use medicines. Instead, Papa Doc killed people and prescribed fear and voodoo. If you had been so daring as to opposed his regime his personal police would have killed and your family. After that, his henchmen would have burned down your house. It was nothing personal, just a warning to others: "Don't mess with me, I am in charge".


François Duvalier (Papa Doc)

François Duvalier, president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, was one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century, no better than the big three (Hitler, Stalin and Mao). He even televised public executions and made sure teachers took the kids to learn the lesson.


He was born into a Haitian middle-class family and studied medicine at the University of Port-au-Prince. He even trained for a year at the University of Michigan, collaborating with the United States in a program to eradicate tropical diseases.


He began to visit his patients in their houses and even walked long journeys to reach the most remote areas. This willingness to help combined with the effectiveness of the penicillin made his popularity grow enormously among Haitians. He became known as "Papa Doc" and he was delighted.


Haiti has been described as 70% catholic, 30% protestant and 100% voodoo. Many of Papa Doc's patients thought that he must have special magical power. He cured the sick in a way never seen before. For a large percentage of the population he was not just a doctor, he was a demigod. His popularity caught the attention of the politicians and he was appointed Health Minister, but four years later there was a coup (unfortunately not uncommon in Haiti) and he had to go into hiding.


Papa Doc was not strange to Marxism or Machiavelli and he starting plotting for power. It was his time, he felt ready for the top job. After the fall of the Government, he was elected president of Haiti by landslide.


To consolidate power, he exiled part of the opposition, appointed trusted people to command the army, and proclaimed a new constitution. None of that would surprise Haitians at the time, since the country's chronic instability meant that presidents did not last long in power.


A crucial change, however, was the creation of a national militia called the Tonton Macoute which would in time become a Praetorian Guard even larger than the army itself. They acted like a gang of thugs in the service of the president and were easily recognizable for the use of very cool sunglasses.


A member of the Tonton Macoute

His political position was strong, but his health was not. He was diabetic and required insulin injections. On one occasion, while in his office, he suffered a heart attack and was in a coma for nine hours. When he woke up nothing would be the same and unfortunately in Haiti politics took a rather surreal turn.


After this episode Papa Doc's behavior began to become more and more erratic. He publicly proclaimed that he had become a voodoo divinity, a gatekeeper of death called Baron Samedi. He began to mold his physical appearance and voice to resemble depictions of Baron Samedi. It is shocking to hear some of his speeches using a nasal voice as if he were communicating with voodoo spirits. Since then, he would always appear dressed in black in his public appearances, sometimes wearing a tall black hat.

Baron Samedi, the keeper of the graveyard

While he was recovering from the heart attack Clemént Barbot was the acting president, but things were not going to end well. Papa Doc's paranoia was increasing and he saw an attempted conspiracy in Barbot who had to flee and later tried to overthrow the government. Papa Doc was fully into voodoo magic and believedhis enemy had turned into a black dog in order to scape. However this would not stop him and consequently he ordered all black dogs in Haiti to be executed. The New York Times, in an article published in 1971 commented:


In the relentless search for Mr. Barbot in the weeks that followed, Tontons Macoutes surrounded the house that hid his cache of arms and ammunition. They sprayed it with machine‐gun bullets. Finally, an old black dog came howling out. Reacting to the superstitious belief of many peasants that the shadowy Barbot could change himself into a black dog, Duvalier, it was said, ordered all black dogs shot.


 

The constitution had ceased to be relevant to Papa Doc and he himself decided to organize an unopposed election in which he won 100% of the vote. That would keep him in power indefinitely, and thanks to the communist paranoia of the United States, he received millions of dollars on the condition that Haiti not become a socialist state.


In reality, Papa Doc was an opportunist and he was just milking the American cow. Kennedy, fed up with his antics, tried to get rid of him, but the hunter was hunted. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas in 1963. In his delirium, Papa Doc claimed the the voodoo curse that he put on kennedy worked to perfection.


On a different occasion, he gave a public speech claiming that he was inmortal. Bullets could not kill him, he was not human, he belonged to the pantheon of voodoo divinities. He was the incarnation of Baron Samedi, the guardian of the graveyard. That was enough for most Haitians not only to fear him but also to revere this demigod.


Bullets may not be able to kill him but he was also a doctor and he knew that the end was near. He was sick and he needed to prepare for the next chapter of Haiti. His successor? No other than his son, Jean Claude, a completely ill-prepared teenager that nevertheless managed to stay in power for another 15 years.

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