From Duvalier to Trump: Authoritarian Rule and Transfers of Power

Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore/Flickr).

My PTSD seems to be back. I can scarcely watch the news. In the day, I easily spent five to six hours watching, reading to keep informed and bring my analyses into my classroom. Watching the news every hour on the hour was a family tradition inherited from my grandfather who had the same regimen, till he died at 89 in full command of his faculties. His career became his life in fact, and as a pre-teen, I was regaled by stories of his exploits at his diplomatic posts in Paris, Geneva, at the Vatican, in Washington, and elsewhere. In effect, his stories were part of his country’s history, though I did not know this as a child. So how and where and when did the PTSD enter my brain, subverting my hitherto comfortable childhood?

In 1957, after a protracted electoral campaign, a physician, Dr. Francois Duvalier was “elected” to the presidency, with the help of the United States, against arguably better candidates more in tune with the Haitian citizenry. Senator Louis Dejoie, an agronomist trained in Belgium, an aristocrat who looked exactly like Ronald Reagan, had won over the population. However, the army leadership and the American government reversed the results, and proclaimed Duvalier the victor. A FOIA request to the State Department revealed the subterfuge years later. Subsequently, the New York Times later informed us that the entire leadership of the armed forces had been compromised, and were paid informants of the CIA, from their early years as sub-lieutenants until they reached the rank of general. I knew some of these people.

Twenty-nine long years of the most dictatorial period of our history ensued. A number of army officers who could not be trusted, were “disappeared.” The opposition fled into exile or was killed after tortures. Less well-known individuals from the middle-class and the peasantry also found death at the hands of the ‘Tontons Macoutes’ — a private militia — trained by the U.S. Marine Corps in situ, sent to protect President Duvalier. These were the days of the Cold War, and the Cuban Revolution — as the Haitian Revolution before it — had proven victorious, after the American-selected President Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown. Years later, my mother would tell to me that President Batista had made a pass at her, at an official dinner for her father–my grandfather–in Havana.
Patrick with his grandfather, Dantes Bellegarde (1877-1966), 1963 (courtesy of the author).

I was to stay up late that night to meet Senator Dejoie, since I was going to meet our next president, my mother told me. He came to my grandfather’s home at 88 avenue John-Brown, at 10:00 P.M., in his chauffered black Cadillac, with his body guards in tow. It was no secret that my family favored his candidacy, and our troubles started then. I was nine years old. My grandfather had just resigned his post as the oldest ambassador in Washington, D.C. at age eighty, as the political situation was souring in Haiti.

As Duvalier consolidated his power, aided by his anti-communist stance, the death of those who might, someday, oppose his rule, increased. Children were also killed. I lost a cherished friend, Mondy, who was 14 when he was murdered. The godfather of my sister, Marie-Francoise-Elisabeth-Louise, was murdered. He was a retired colonel. University and high school students, in a vain attempt at overthrowing the government went on strike. The government said they were Communists. I, and all other students in the country, were on lockdown for six months. Desperate, many professors fled to the newly independent Congo to occupy lofty functions since Belgium had absolutely refused to allow Black people to rise above high school in their colony. At present it is said that about 80 percent of Haitian cadres reside abroad, in France, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, in a form of “golden” exile. I count myself among these exiled Haitians.

The economy collapsed. We were once ahead of the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. No longer. Corruption became a major factor, as hundreds of millions found their way to numbered Swiss accounts. The president kept reelecting himself, then declared that he was president-for-life, a title he transferred to his 19 year-old son upon his death. The U.S. Navy, within view, saw to it that there would be a smooth transmission of power between Papa Doc and Baby Doc. It was in the interest of the United States, not that of the Republic of Haiti. My childhood consisted of martial law, of nightly curfews, of executions by firing squads that were televised as warnings to the rest of us.

When President Kennedy was assassinated, the American embassy asked my grandfather to pen a few words that were published in its newsletter. He did so. By that time, there had been a falling out between Duvalier and Kennedy. Soldiers invaded our gardens in central Port-au-Prince, and arrested my grandfather who was then eighty-six years old. The maid, seeing the soldiers approaching, ran to the library where a superb photograph of Louis Dejoie hung, and buried it under a fresh pile of leaves that our gardener had amassed that morning. That might have saved our lives!

By a miracle, my grandfather was released after several hours of a menacing tongue-lashing by the Foreign Minister Monsieur Rene Chalmers, angry that kind words were said about Kennedy. Only my grandfather’s international stature saved him. At that point, my father – who had been shot at — decided to leave Haiti, and we settled in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands–a favorite place for Haitian exiles in the 19th century, then the Danish West Indies.

When I hear that there might not be a transfer of power on January 20th, 2021, and when I see private militias being asked by Trump to “stand-by,” I shudder. Will I experience at the end of my life what I went through as a child and young man?  Canada will not admit a man my age as an immigrant. I checked.

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Patrick D. Bellegarde-Smith

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is a professor emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He obtained a Ph.D. from The American University in international studies and taught in that field as well as African-American and Women’s Studies. Bellegarde-Smith has authored, edited and co-edited five books on these subjects, and a large number of articles, notably In The Shadows of Power: Dantes Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought; Haiti: The Breached Citadel, and Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in the New World. 

Comments on “From Duvalier to Trump: Authoritarian Rule and Transfers of Power

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    Bravo, Patrick, and thank you to Black Perspectives for publishing.

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    This is an eloquent personal statement from the author of _The Breached Citadel_. a distinguished Haitian scholar living in the US for many years. His story resonates with those we have heard from many Haitians of all walks of life who have contributed so much to the country of exile, but also to Haiti from a necessary distance. It also resonates with stories throughout history where the people and the governance are held in thrall by authoritarian rulers with lethal armies.

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    Thank you, my friend, for this poignant account that you leave –as a precious legacy and “un devoir de mémoire”– to your friends and former colleagues, to those who share with you the fate of forced exile, and especially to the younger generation so that it may know and remember.

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    Brilliant. I had no idea of your family’s relationship to Dejoie. Quelle histoire! We too wonder where we might flee on November 4th!! Kouraj, mon ami.

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    Thank you for making the connections across the Diasporas. This is timely and a poignant read. Chapo ba!

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    Thank you professor! I will purchase your books.

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    Merci Monsieur Bellgarde pour votre puissant témoignage. Je suis la Secrétaire Exécutive de la Fondation Devoir de Mémoire-Haiti , Guylène Bouchereau Salès, fille du Capitaine Ing, Jean Bouchereau, disparu le 26 avril 1963.
    Puis-je publier votre texte sur notre page facebook, et sur notre rëseau international de mémoire ? il est important que d’autres voix racontent cette horrible histoire .
    Pour nous connaître, allez sur notre site
    Ecoutez, si vous pouvez, nos émissions radiophoniques: Vin Kouté,; elles ont beaucoup d’impact.
    Si ,au nom de la Fondation, je vous demamdais d’intervenir sur un Thème comme: “Persécutions des intellectuels sous la dictature duvalieriste ; pourquoi Duvalier les pourchassait ils?
    On s’adresse aux jeunes du pays qui ignore tout de cette époque et aux moins jeunes qui ont oublié.
    Merci de prendre le temps de me lire, et de considérer ma demande. .
    Guylène B. Salès ( tel +509 36 61 80 13)

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    Thank you Dr. Bellegarde-Smith for sharing your personal and historical perspective on what we are experiencing right now.

    Know that you are not alone in your concern for the next inauguration or this upcoming election. The Pledge of Allegiance is a vision, and the United States of America has not always lived up to the promise.

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    This is a well narrated reminder:
    America does not have friends, but only interests.
    The darkness Haiti is living through now really started when we turned off the lights in 1957 while the rest of the closed it eyes.
    Professor, thank you. Your story is part of our collective memory.

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    Interesting although familiar story.
    My father, Leonvil Leblanc, was the head of a amalgamation of labor unions (Confederation Haitienne de Syndicat Chretiens) in the late 50’s and early 60’s and he was prosecuted and threatened with death for criticizing the Duvalier regime. As a young child, I too remember soldiers (Tontons Macoutes) trashing our yard and house in search of my father who had to flee the country. My mother and the rest of our family were also able to flee soon afterwards as friends and colleagues were imprisoned, tortured and killed.
    My greatest regret is for not having the opportunity to grow up and contribute to the country I was born in as well as the lack of research and published stories about the “lost generation” of the Haitian diaspora.
    Thanks for your post.

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    Your scholarly genius still resonates among the world of life long learners. Thank you for this significant reality check. This reminds me of those wonderful years working with you. You frequently kept the department updated with ideas and thoughts impacting the African world. Thank you for caring.

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