By Sabine Tessono
One of the most economically and socially disastrous systems in Haiti was the Duvalier governmental system. In 1957, François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc” as Haitian citizens know him, ascended into presidency under a black nationalist and populist campaign. While the population thought his rise to power would signify a new shift from previously self-interested leaders to an administration that would actually fix inequality among the common people and establish fairness for the poor black majority, it proved to be worse than they could have imagine. Under Duvalier’s totalitarian rule, his secret police force (called the Tontons Macoutes, or bogeymen in Creole,) murdered over 30,000 people, with countless others being imprisoned or tortured at prisons, the most notorious being Fort Dimanche. With political opponents, and even his aides, he would send them into exile, or call for mass executions to solidify his reign of terror and make an example of those who tried to oppose him.
While Duvalier’s violent actions were seen as socially repugnant throughout the population, his economic decisions caused a great deal of instability and strife that still has an effect on Haiti’s fiscal state in the modern age. One of the most prominent examples of this budgetary decline would emerge with the developing relationship of Haiti and America. Through his firm anti-Communist beliefs, Duvalier was able to grab the attention of the US, who at that time was in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Overtime the two countries managed to foster a relationship with the US providing aid grants to the Haitian government. Instead of using the grants to address issues of hunger and disease or to stimulate growth within the island’s infrastructure or job market, Duvalier “squandered much of the funds on grandiose prestige projects like the model city of Duvalierville, now a collection of decaying buildings overgrown by jungle”. This repetitive pattern of pouring funds into useless, vanity-inducing projects ultimately led to tensions with the US, becoming heated enough that America stopped the majority of its aid to the island. Haiti collapsed underneath the weight of its debt that lead to its per capita income to be less than $75.
Sadly, the level of political corruption and ignoring of the country’s growth only increased after Papa Doc’s tyranny. After his death in 1971, Francois Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc” rose to a dictatorial position at the age of 19. Under his rule, Baby Doc and his associates grew exceptionally wealthy by “brazen thefts of state funds, millions spent on lavish living, and millions more stashed in bank accounts”. His forced development of an industrialized Haiti also compelled poor, starving farmers to chop down trees to burn for charcoal and make way for public projects, while simultaneously making Haitian soil less fertile and thus created a loss of natural resources that further spun the country out of economic control. Baby Doc’s blatant disregard for these issues also increased the already large number of citizens living in poverty with “expensive slums spread around Port-au-Prince, put immense pressure on the weak infrastructure” and created fiscal stagnation that the island still cannot manage to overcome.
In essence, Haiti’s history is one filled with governments that are dysfunctional at best and arrogant and violent at worst. Dynastic regimes such as the Duvaliers carry so much social and economic devastation that even countries as affluent as the United States would find difficult to move on from. However, the complete explanation for Haiti’s poverty and strife is not completely explained by governmental corruption. To comprehend Haiti’s status within the modern world, and to begin to answer the question of how it got to this point, one has to also analyze the island’s present struggles and piece the entire narrative together.
-To be continued-