Haitian President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1965
On October 22, 1957, a second ominous October launch occurred; Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was sworn in as President of Haiti. Although Sputnik 1 would fall out of orbit in three months, Duvalier became President for Life, “serving” the unfortunate populace of the Caribbean island nation until his death in 1971.
Born the son of a justice of the peace (father) and a baker (mother), and with a university degree in medicine, Duvalier was the rare educated man in a country where rampant illiteracy and repression of the Afro-Haitian majority by a small, mulatto elite were facts of life. Rampant and devastating tropical diseases were also facts of life during Duvalier’s early years, and he earned his “Papa Doc” nickname for his work through a United States-sponsored campaign to control the spread of typhus, malaria, and yaws (a destructive bacterial infection of the skin, bones, and joints). Also, early in his career, Duvalier began pursuing political and spiritual agendas: the negritude movement of Dr. Jean Price-Mars (a literary, Marxist-style movement promoting Afro-Haitian solidarity to fight French colonial racism and domination); and vodou (the island’s syncretic religion combining elements of West African beliefs and practices and Roman Catholicism).
In 1946, Papa Doc began serving as Haiti’s Director of National Public Health under the government of President Dumarsais Estime, but when Estime was ousted in a coup by General Paul Magloire, Duvalier went into hiding until amnesty was declared in 1956. Magloire’s rule ended in December of that year, and a series of provisional governments controlled Haiti until September 22, 1957, when Papa Doc was elected President over Louis Dejoie, a mulatto landowner and industrialist. Duvalier’s populist campaign called on Haiti’s rural Afro-Haitian majority to throw off control by the mulatto elite. After his landslide victory, he exiled Dejoie’s supporters and established a new constitution.
Over the following years, Papa Doc would consolidate his power base in the military, take control of Haiti’s Catholic churches, revise and then ignore the 1957 constitution, commit massive voter fraud to install himself as “President for Life”, use murder and expulsion to repress political opposition, decimate Haiti’s businesses with extortion, bribery, and theft, intimidate educated leaders to abandon the island, misappropriate millions of dollars in international foreign aid, and create a vodou-laced personality cult for himself to further consolidate his power.
Was Papa Doc sane? A massive heart attack in 1959, possibly due to an insulin overdose (Duvalier suffered from heart disease and adult-onset diabetes), left him unconscious for nine hours. Associates speculated that his mental health was affected by neurological damage resulting from this period. Over the following years, Duvalier’s life was increasingly marked by paranoia and delusions. He once ordered the head of an executed rebel to be delivered to him packed in ice (so that he could commune with the dead man’s spirit), and also portrayed himself as personally chosen by Jesus Christ to lead the Haitian people.