Haiti Table of Contents

Although François Duvalier came to power through elections in 1957, he lost all credibility because of a fraudulent re-election in 1961, a rigged referendum in 1964 that confirmed him as Haiti's president for life, and the severe and unrelenting repression he dealt out, primarily through the Volunteers for National Security (Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale--VSN), or tonton makouts (bogeymen). Duvalier ("Papa Doc") extended his illegitimate rule beyond his death by naming his son JeanClaude ("Baby Doc") as his successor.

Jean-Claude Duvalier came to power in 1971, under the informal regency of his mother, Simone Ovide Duvalier, and a small inner circle of Duvalierists. As Jean-Claude matured and began to assert his power independently of his mother and her advisers, some minor reforms in Haitian life took place. By the late 1970s, Jean-Claude had restored some freedom of the press and had allowed the formation of fledgling opposition political parties as well as the organization of a human rights league. This brief period of liberalization, however, ended with the arrest and the expulsion of a number of union leaders, journalists, party activists, and human-rights advocates in November 1980. Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and leaders of peasant organizations also suffered arrest and intimidation. These arrests heralded a period of heightened government repression that lasted throughout the balance of Duvalier's tenure.

Duvalier's 1980 marriage to Michèle Bennett resulted in Simone Duvalier's exile and created new factional alliances within the ruling group. The Duvalier-Bennett clique amassed wealth at an unprecedented rate during the remainder of JeanClaude 's presidency for life. The concomitant sharp deterioration in the already dismal quality of life of most Haitians prompted Pope John Paul II to declare in a speech in Haiti in 1983 that "things must change here." His call for social and political justice signaled a new era of church activism in Haiti.

The 1983 promulgation of a new constitution--Haiti's twentieth since 1801--and the February 1984 legislative elections, heavily weighted in favor of Duvalierist candidates, did little or nothing to legitimize Duvalier's rule. These efforts were met by antigovernment riots in Gonaïves in 1984 and 1985. In response, "Baby Doc" attempted to manipulate further the "liberalized" system he had established. Constitutional amendments, approved in 1985 by a fraudulent referendum (a traditional Duvalierist legalism), created the post of prime minister, confirmed the presidency for life as a permanent institution, guaranteed the president the right to name his successor, and provided for severe restrictions on the registration of political parties. Duvalierists organized into the National Progressive Party (Parti National Progressiste--PNP) in anticipation of future manipulated elections. New outbreaks of popular unrest shattered Duvalier's plans, however, and he was eventually forced into exile in February 1986.

The popular revolt, known in Creole as operation déchoukaj (operation uprooting), sought to destroy the foundations of Duvalierism. Its strikes and mass demonstrations reflected the Duvalier regime's general loss of support. In response, the CNG annulled the Duvalierist constitution and held elections for a constituent assembly in October 1986. This assembly produced a new constitution in 1987. Haitians overwhelmingly ratified the document by popular vote on March 29, 1987. At that point, a number of observers seemed optimistic about Haiti's potential transition to democracy. This optimism proved short-lived, however.

The Constitution mandated the formation of an independent electoral council. The Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire--CEP), established in early 1987, initially fulfilled this requirement. Relations between the CEP and the CNG, however, weakened, and by June they had degenerated into open conflict over proposed electoral guidelines. The CNG disbanded the CEP, proposed its own electoral council, and abolished an important opposition trade union. This attempt by the military-dominated CNG to control the electoral process met with strong popular opposition. Strikes and civil unrest eventually forced the CNG to reinstate the independent electoral council, which set presidential elections for November 29, 1987, but postponed local elections.

The presidential campaign was a volatile affair. Two presidential candidates were assassinated, and controversy gripped the CEP with regard to the application of Article 291 of the Constitution, which banned participation by Duvalierist candidates. The campaign officially opened in October, with thirty-five presidential candidates registered. The CEP eventually recognized twenty-three of these candidates and disbarred twelve as Duvalierists. In apparent retaliation, Duvalierist provocateurs are reported to have burned CEP headquarters. By election day, about 2.2 million voters--73 percent of the voting-age population--had registered. Voter turnout on the morning of November 29 was reported to be heavy. Balloting was suspended, however, by midmorning because armed paramilitary groups, linked to old tonton makout leaders who were reportedly protected by certain army officers, massacred an estimated 34 voters at the polls.

After the 1987 electoral debacle, the CNG announced the formation of a new electoral council, controlled by the government, and scheduled new elections for January 17, 1988. Four leading presidential candidates withdrew from the race in protest over the military's attempts to control the electoral process. The balloting went ahead as scheduled, however, amid a low voter turnout and allegations of fraud. The CNG's electoral council declared Leslie F. Manigat, of the small Coalition of Progressive National Democrats (Rassemblement des Démocrates Nationaux Progressistes--RDNP) the winner. Manigat took office on February 7. Namphy and the army deposed Manigat on June 20, following a dispute over army appointments. Manigat made the mistake of trying to assert constitutional control over the armed forces rather than serving as a figurehead. In response, Namphy and the army deposed Manigat on June 20 of that same year, and Haiti returned to direct military government for the first time since 1956. Namphy formally rescinded the 1987 Constitution in July 1988.

Human-rights abuses increased during Namphy's tenure as the army did little to discourage the violent backlash of Duvalierist groups. These abuses climaxed on Sunday, September 11, when a group of former tonton makouts entered the Church of Saint John Bosco in Port-au-Prince (pastored by a prominent opposition priest), murdered a number of worshipers, and set the church on fire. On September 17, noncommissioned officers of the Presidential Guard (Garde Présidentielle) ousted Namphy and replaced him with Lieutenant General Prosper Avril. Avril proceeded to purge the army command and the government cabinet in an attempt to solidify his position. In October, Avril arrested fifteen soldiers and noncommissioned officers who had helped to bring him to power.

In early 1989, instability intensified as labor unions and other groups staged demonstrations throughout the country. In an attempt to achieve some sort of stability, Avril convened a National Forum on February 7, with strong participation from centrist politicians, to explore the possibility of re-establishing an electoral calendar. In a further conciliatory move, the government excluded key Duvalierists from the forum. Avril also partially restored the 1987 Constitution on March 13. In line with the Constitution, the government announced the formation of a new independent electoral commission, the Permanent Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Permanent--CEP). The CEP members took office in April.

From April 2 to 8, factional struggles in the military evolved into two attempted coups supported by old-line Duvalierists, former tonton makout leaders, and high-level army officers implicated in drug trafficking. Key elements of the Presidential palace guard, however, remained loyal to Avril, who survived the coup attempts and emerged with a strengthened hand. In an attempt to head off future challenges, Avril abolished the rebel army units and began to disperse their troops into scattered provincial outposts. Avril managed to retain power, but the events of April 1989 had left the armed forces divided. The domestic situation continued to be extremely unstable, and the future political course of the nation was unpredictable.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress