Papa Doc Duvalier: The Voodoo President who killed Kennedy

“He was four when a revolution ousted [Gerenal Antoine Simon],” recalled Bernard Dierderich and Al Burt in their study Papa Doc, “and five when an explosion reduced the old wooden Palais National and President Cincinnatus Leconte along with it to splinters.

“Duvalier was six when President Tancrède Auguste was poisoned; his funeral was interrupted when two generals began fighting over his succession… One Michel Oreste got the job, but he was overthrown the following year by a man named Zamor, who in turn fell a year later to Davilmar Theodore.”

Plagued by chronic political instability, when the populist François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was elected president of the Republic of Haiti on 22 October 1957 you could have been forgiven for thinking that the crisis-rocked Caribbean state was about to turn a corner. Forget that in some regions the number of pro-Duvalier votes returned were in excess of the actual population, at last the island had a leader with a real mandate to rule.

A US-educated doctor of medicine (from where he took his nickname), Duvalier had campaigned on a platform to overturn the traditional dominance of the ‘mulatto’ elite, the minority who claimed mixed African and European descent and kept the country in a state of near-Apartheid with whole blocks of the capital out of bounds to the “noir” majority.

The markings of a Haitian Vodou ceremony in 1956 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
The Veve markings of a Haitian Vodou ceremony in 1956 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Duvalier had all the trappings of a moderniser. As a doctor he had worked tirelessly to stamp out malaria and tropical skin diseases and as a political activist – a reader of Renaissance thinker Machiavelli and Turkish reformer Atatürk – Duvalier spread his word not at gunpoint but through the urbane nationalist journal Les Griots (meaning ‘The Bards’).

With the keen eye of an amateur historian, anthropologist and ethnographer, he compiled studies of the island’s Voodoo religion, Haitian Vodou – an intoxicating mixture of Catholicism and deep rooted African beliefs that had thrived on the slave plantations and gripped the wider consciousness through its tales of blood sacrifice, malevolent curses and shambling zombies – but rather than a progressive new model, Duvalier exploited the drum beats of superstition in his vision for a new Haitian identity with himself clutching at its heart.

Keenly aware of the lingering national humiliation left by the 1915-34 US occupation of Haiti (which had relied heavily on mulatto rule) and recognising the simmering distrust of the Roman Catholic church which had attempted to suppress Vodou, Duvalier espoused a cynical new breed of nationalism that equated this “heathen” creed with the nation’s African roots, appealing to the marginalised black working class and pitting them against the mulatto ruling class.

Francoise Duvalier in May 1957
Francoise Duvalier in May 1957

In his 1957 election campaign, Duvalier openly sought the endorsement of the houngan priests and in rural areas Vodou temples served as branch offices for his party. He even celebrated his victory by meeting with the island’s houngans in his presidential palace. More than aware of the fear and respect afforded to the priests by Haiti’s rural poor, Duvalier began to embellish his reputation with the folklore that he had once made such a thorough study of.

“Soon,” recalled an article in Life, dated 8 March 1963, “Port-au-Prince was filled with rumours of strange doings up in the salon jaune, Duvalier’s private quarters in the palace. The stories have come along steadily ever since: that he seeks guidance by studying goats’ entrails.”

Adding to his black-rimmed glasses, Duvalier deliberately styled himself in the image of Baron Samedi – the top-hatted Vodou spirit (or Loa/Lwa) of the dead – donning a bowler hat, black suit and straight black tie, even deepening his voice to match the myth.

“Whenever he appears in public,” recalled Life breathlessly, “the look of him makes every tale seem possible – including hopeful talk that he really is one of the walking dead. His eyes are icy and hooded. His walk is measured by a robot rhythm, his voice a rheumy whisper. He keeps his hands hidden, he dresses in zombie black. His features are chilled into a graveyard mask that makes him seem the very spirit of evil.”

François Duvalier and his wife Simone in 1957
François Duvalier and his wife Simone in 1957

One story recounted in Haiti: Past, Present, Future by Timothy DeTellis involves Duvalier travelling to Trou Forban, a cave believed since the time of the French plantations to be the home of powerful evil spirits. In this tall tale Duvalier and a loyal houngan held a ceremony that invited these malignant spectres to take up residence in a special purpose-built room in the presidential palace.

While this seems a lot of work for a man who was using the trappings of Vodou as a means to an end, it speaks volumes about the president’s growing reputation.

Another unlikely tale born out of Duvalier’s mystique is that upon hearing of US President John F Kennedy’s death in 1963, rather than offer his condolences, Duvalier took credit – if that’s the right word – for the murder.

It was rumoured that on the morning of the assassination, the Haitian president had stabbed his JFK “Voodoo doll” 2,222 times (22 being Duvalier’s lucky number). Although Voodoo dolls are connected to the Louisiana Voodoo centred around New Orleans and not Haitian Vodou, Duvalier did claim to have put a curse on the president in retaliation for US aid drying up in the wake of Papa Doc’s tyranny.

If his manner was carefully contrived to imitate the Vodou Lwa of the dead (in one speech he even barked, “I am an immaterial being.”), then Duvalier’s actions were tailor made to honour him.

A pick-up truck on the streets of Haiti in 1958 © W. Eugene Smith/Magnum Photos
A pick-up truck on the streets of Haiti in 1958 © W. Eugene Smith/Magnum Photos

Confronted by violence from the very second he took office – army units were ambushed and bombs were detonated in the capital by his rival’s supporters – Duvalier responded with violence. Hooded thugs burst into the home of an opposition journalist, raping her, beating her and leaving her naked by the roadside. More brutal attacks followed and some opponents of the regime disappearing altogether along with their families. More like gangsters than secret police, these cagoulards, or “hooded ones”, wanted to be talked about.

Like their commander, they wanted to be feared.

With the military instrumental in earlier coups against his office, Duvalier set about purging the leadership and keeping the Haitian army cowed, removing not just convicted plotters but those suspected of plotting against him. Loyalists were promoted and the existing hierarchy splintered like broken bone as local commanders and the Presidential Guard alike bypassed the army high command to answer directly to their president.

Soon, even the armoury was transferred to the sturdy cellars of the presidential palace where Papa Doc himself held the key.

“Last June, one visitor was shown how Haitian military logistics operate,” wrote Richard Eder of The New York Times, “he was sitting with Duvalier in his office when an aide came to tell the president that guerillas had landed at Saltrou and the army needed ammunition. Silently the president took a gold key from his pocket and took out a revolver. He got up, tiptoed to the door and cocked the revolver, opened the door and peered out. A secretary appeared and he gave her the gold key.”

The Tonton Macoutes prowl the streets
The Tontons Macoutes prowl the streets

With the army neutered, Duvalier built one in his own profane image – the cagoulards’ spiritual successors, the 25,000-strong Tontons Macoutes.

Taking their name from a bogeyman of Haitian folklore – Uncle Gunnysack, who would stuff naughty children into his knapsack and eat them for breakfast – the Macoutes were a mixture of gang, cult, secret police and fascist militia. Led by brutal Duvalier loyalists and Vodou houngans, they were recruited from the villages and slums and revelled in the power their status gave them, stealing, extorting, raping and murdering at will, and holding the people in the cold grip of terror.

One torture chamber run by the Macoutes shared a wall with the presidential apartment, allowing Papa Doc to watch the bloodshed through a peephole, and many of these state-sanction sadists earned themselves an infamy that echoed their chief. Among their number were Luckner Cambronne, who became known as “the Vampire of the Caribbean” thanks to his sideline in selling blood and body parts to medicine (contributing, many now believe, to the spread of AIDS), while Max Adolph – aka “Madame Max” – became notorious for creatively mutilating the genitals of the political prisoners held cowering in the cells of Fort Dimanche.

Duvalier was delighted, proclaiming: “They have but one soul: Duvalier; know but one master: Duvalier; struggle but for one destiny: Duvalier in power.”

The presidential palace © W. Eugene Smith/Magnum Photos
The presidential palace in 1958 © W. Eugene Smith/Magnum Photos

By 1963, 50 per cent of the Haitian government’s budget was being spent on the Presidential Guard and the Macoutes, while 90 per cent of the population remained illiterate.

Enshrined in Haiti’s new state faith, Duvalier then took on its old one and in 1959 the Tontons Macoutes stormed Port-au-Prince Cathedral during Sunday Mass, beating priests and worshippers alike. Many more priests – three quarters of them foreign, mostly French and Canadian – were expelled from the country, earning the president a formal excommunication from the Vatican. Macoute priests promptly took their places until eventually the Pope’s ban was lifted, the pontiff blinking first and awarding the Haitian government power to appoint its own bishops.

Perversely, while the Vodou-dominated Macoute took on the clergy, there were few such battle of faith in the hearts of the Haitian public. Though the Roman Catholic Church itself disproved of what it saw as pagan corruption of its own rites, this counted for little in the villages. Although 90 per cent of Haiti remained staunchly Catholic, much of this 90 per cent honoured the Haitian folk beliefs too, seeing the God of the Bible and Vodou creator god, Bondye (from the French Bon Dieu, or “Good God”), to be one and the same.

A homeless man sleeps beneath a mural of Papa Doc in 1975 © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos
A homeless man sleeps beneath a mural of Papa Doc in 1975 © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

Crucifixes, rosaries and statues of the Virgin Mary adorned Vodou shrines and Duvalier himself proudly represented this seemingly incompatible duality with pro-government newspapers running a baffling montage showing Jesus Christ placing his hands on the shoulders of the seated president. Below him ran the caption: “I have chosen him.”

When Papa Doc finally left this earthly plane on 21 April 1971, to be replaced by his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier (who held office for a further decade with the aid of the Tontons Macoutes), that familiar montage reappeared on the streets of Port-au-Prince and this time the elder Duvalier took Christ’s place, his hand on the new president’s shoulder.

“I have chosen him,” said François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier from beyond the grave.

But what do you expect from the Vodou lord of the dead?

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  • The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
  • Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean edited by Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
  • Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War by Mark Danner
  • Haiti: Past, Present, Future by Timothy DeTellis
  • Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean by Alex von Tunzelmann

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