Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m appalled at how many people don’t know recent Haitian history. The 30 years of the Duvaliers gets condensed into one phrase, “The US-supported Duvalier regime.” For US policy, the dilemma of the Duvalier years in Haiti was how to help the people in an abysmally poor country run by kleptocrats. This dilemma is repeated, not only in Haiti today, but in many countries.
Again, Haiti is in the headlines for its desperate need. Its government is among the ten most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. Calls for the US to provide more aid are are loud. If we don’t understand the events and decisions of US policy towards Haiti in the Duvalier era, we can not improve the effectiveness of US policy and aid in today’s crisis.
Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) earned his nickname and his popularity in the 40s when he worked in a US-sponsored program to help combat rampant disease among Haiti’s poorest citizens. In 1957, Francois Duvalier, he was elected president of Haiti by a landslide. In 1961, he violated the Haitian constitution, replaced the parliament with one he controlled. The US strongly objected to the increasing repression as well as embezzlement of aid money.
By mid-1962, the US had suspended aid to Haiti. Duvalier refused to meet US conditions for renewal of aid (improved human rights and an accounting for US funds received in the past) and condemned American policy towards Haiti. By 1964, Papa Doc had declared himself President-for-life and established the Tonton-Macoutes, securing his hold on power. He ruled until his death in 1971.
US aid to Haiti didn't resume until a few years after Papa Doc died and his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) became president. The thinking was that maybe the US could help desperately poor Haiti and influence the very young Baby Doc to make much needed reforms to bring democracy and economic development to Haiti.
It looked like Baby Doc was moving Haiti in the right direction. In the 70s, he restored some degree of freedom of the press, and allowed some opposition groups and a human rights league to form. He spoke of further reforms to come. The US resumed aid in 1973. Support for the regime seemed to be working.
The period of liberalization ended with Baby Doc's marriage to Michelle Bennet in 1980. Their three million dollar wedding when the country’s annual per capita income was around $300 dollars destroyed his popularity. In response to increasing social unrest, he was increasingly repressive. By 1983, the US and the Pope called for change.
The US had a choice to, again, withdraw from Haiti or to continue both pressuring the government for change and providing aid to Haiti’s people, while limiting misuse of their funds. The prospect of real political change looked remote and the US continued to provide aid to Haiti, working, where possible through effective NGOs, rather than Baby Doc’s government, ensuring US aid was accounted for. In short, working to help the people of Haiti, not the president and his cronies.
The need was great. When I was in Haiti in 1985-87, I frequently saw children with the characteristic crippling of polio. At a time when AIDS had become associated with Haiti, most health clinics did not adequately sterilize needles before reusing them, so getting vaccinations was risky. The majority of the population was illiterate and very, very poor. The majority of children were malnourished. Typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis were endemic. Deforestation was causing major ecological damage.
Programs funded by USAID included, providing TB clinics and subsidizing the cost of TB drugs; a vaccination program aimed at getting vaccines -- and sterile needles to every child, and support for research on AIDS. Another USAID program focused on the reforestation of Haiti’s denuded hillsides.
In the early 80s, vaccination rates climbed from around 60% to nearly 80%. No doubt sterile needles and education programs helped Haiti’s AIDS rate remain comparatively low. Reforestation was less successful. A manager of that program told me the most they accomplished was to slow the rate of deforestation.
In 1986, when the Haitian army showed signs that was no longer willing to support Baby Doc, the US negotiated Duvalier's departure and a path towards elections and democracy. There was a provisional governing council, a new constitution, and elections were scheduled for a lower and upper house of parliament and a new president.
Duvalierist para-military groups assassinated presidential candidates and shot up the polls on election day. In the following ten years, Haiti had 13 different heads of state; some elected, some successful coup leaders. When his first term finished in 2001, Rene Preval became the only Haitian president in over 100 years to leave the presidency after serving a full, uninterrupted term in office. The next five years saw another coup and a temporary regime until Preval won the 2006 elections.
President Preval remains in power. He’s instituted some necessary reforms, but has been ineffective at combatting the corruption that puts Haiti in the ten most corrupt countries of the world.
US policy and aid towards Haiti again has to meet the challenges of helping people in dire need while navigating a corrupt and not very effective government. I welcome constructive comments on how US policy towards and aid for Haiti in the Duvalier years could have been more effective.