“Papa Doc” Duvalier: When the bogeyman is real | On this day

Sixty years ago, Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier set up a fearsome paramilitary corps to dispatch political opposition. James Ferguson looks back at the sinister history of the Tontons Macoutes

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Of all the sinister characters who inhabit the dark fictional world of British novelist Graham Greene, Captain Concasseur of The Comedians, the novel set in François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Haiti, is perhaps the most forbidding. With a name that in French means “crusher” or “grinder,” he is a sadistic secret policeman whose trademark dark glasses make him terrifyingly inscrutable. In one memorable scene in the novel, he and his fellow thugs hold up the funeral cortege of ex-Minister Philipot, an opponent of Papa Doc who has committed suicide, smash the hearse’s windows and whisk away vehicle, coffin, and corpse in front of his horrified widow.

A flight of Greene’s morbid imagination? Well, no. The scene in question was based on a real event that took place on 12 April, 1959, when the funeral of Clément Jumelle in Port-au-Prince was unceremoniously hijacked on the orders of the recently elected president, Papa Doc. Jumelle had been impudent enough to stand against Duvalier in the presidential elections of September 1957 and, worse, to condemn the outcome as rigged. Rumour had it that Papa Doc intended to use Jumelle’s remains in some sort of vodou ritual — but such rumours were primarily intended to terrorise ordinary people.

At the heart of Duvalier’s reign of terror were the Tontons Macoutes, a paramilitary force chillingly exemplified by Greene’s Concasseur. The Macoutes originated in the early months of 1959, sixty years ago, when Duvalier had recently survived an attempted coup d’état carried out by senior Haitian military officers and American mercenaries. The president was well aware that the army had always been the supreme political arbiter in Haiti, and was determined not to suffer the fate of many of his predecessors, who were overthrown, assassinated, or exiled.

The military, for their part, had at first thought that the seemingly mild-mannered, soft-spoken country doctor who was elected in 1957 would be their pawn and that business would continue as usual. Many of them refused to join in the attempted coup, which was easily crushed. But this complacency was profoundly misguided, as Papa Doc used the revolt as a pretext to purge the army and remove the threat of further dissent. As officers were imprisoned or banished and lower ranks simply dismissed, the creation of a paramilitary counterweight gathered impetus. The notoriously unpredictable national military was to be held in check by Papa Doc’s own militia.

 

To be a Tonton Macoute was to be given free rein to bully, extort, assault, and even murder. Many members, particularly in the countryside, were wealthier peasants and landowners who already commanded fear and respect in their communities. In the capital and towns, recruits were often criminals. The organisation was a strange mix of naked self-interest, expressed in corruption, theft, and protection money, but also unwavering loyalty to Duvalier and pitiless repression of dissidence. One of Papa Doc’s henchmen, Luckner Cambronne, headed the Macoutes during the 1960s while also operating a business that exported Haitian blood plasma to the United States, earning the nickname “the vampire of the Caribbean.” Alongside systematic extortion, the aim was to destroy organised political opposition and to terrify ordinary Haitians into submission. Victims were often openly murdered in the street, while many more disappeared into the infamous Fort Dimanche prison, never to be seen again. Fort Dimanche was supervised by the Uzi-wielding Madame Max Adolphe, one of the most senior Tontons Macoutes and a close confidante of Papa Doc.

What Graham Greene described as the “nightmare republic” was ruled by fear and superstition. Many Tontons Macoutes were also houngans, local vodou priests who claimed supernatural and often harmful powers. Duvalier himself, formerly an expert in Haitian rural culture, cultivated a frightening persona of omniscience and black magic. And his private army, originally named the Cagoulards (hooded men) and then officially retitled the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, were universally known as the Tontons Macoutes, the traditional bogeymen of folklore who would stuff errant children into their hessian sacks at night and carry them off to be eaten for breakfast.

At the organisation’s peak, the Macoutes numbered some 25,000 members, one per 150 Haitians. This terror network emboldened Papa Doc to dismiss US concerns over human rights and to extend his term in office indefinitely: in April 1961, a referendum granting him a further six years was won by the rather implausible margin of 1,320,748 votes to zero. Duvalier carried on in power until his death from natural causes in April 1971, to be succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude or “Baby Doc.”

Under Baby Doc, the Tontons Macoutes remained a powerful force, even if the new president took personal possession of foreign aid payments that they had previously pilfered. But change was in the air, and Baby Doc’s regime lacked the terrifying totalitarianism of his father’s. In the 1980s, exiles, the Catholic Church, and even community groups dared to protest, sometimes violently, against the government. In February 1986, such protests developed into a full-scale revolt, and Baby Doc, under pressure from the US, chose to fly into exile with millions of dollars looted from his impoverished country.

The Tontons Macoutes, or at least the lower ranks, were now victims rather than oppressors. Many were murdered and their homes destroyed in a frenzy of retribution known in Creole as dechoukaj or “uprooting.” Those higher up in the hierarchy were less likely to be killed, and were able to retain positions in state-owned and private industries. It was the neighbourhood bully rather than the high-level embezzler who was targeted. In the ensuing decades of political turmoil, when military regimes alternated with short-lived civilian governments, the Tontons Macoutes were no longer a visible entity, even if all Haitians were aware of their continuing presence. Only recently, perhaps, could it be said with any certainty that they are a spent force.

Graham Greene foretold the eventual demise of Papa Doc’s paramilitaries when at the end of The Comedians Philipot, the nephew of the ex-minister, joins a rebel group that kills the Macoute in an explosion:

I saw Concasseur knocked backwards as though struck by an invisible fist: the chauffeur pitched upon his face: a scrap of the cemetery wall leapt in the air and dropped . . . Concasseur’s black glasses lay in the road. Philipot ground them to pieces under his heel and the body showed no resentment.