My student asked, “Was François Duvalier an ‘honest man’ before he became president?”

Brief Reflections

This week’s theme in my Haitian Culture and Society class is “Dictatorship and Democracy.” We are reviewing passages from Robert Fatton’s Haiti’s Predatory Nature, reading two chapters from Haitian History (“Dynastic Dictatorship” by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and “The Rise, Fall, and Second Coming of Jean-Bertrand Aristide” by Robert Fatton), a chapter from A Haiti Anthology: Libète by Charles Arthur, J. Michael Dash, Alex Dupuy’s book chapter in Haiti, “The Transition to Democracy and the Demise of Color Politics in Haiti”, and finally Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “Haiti’s Nightmare and the Lessons of History”.

On Monday, I lectured on the political life in Haiti and a few terms associated with Haiti such as “weak/fragile state”, “political instability” and “corruption.” I challenged students to consider an anthropological perspective when considering these characterizations. For example, what does corruption mean if we consider the historical, political, and socioeconomic context of Haiti? How is corruption any different from that of the United States and other countries?

We discussed this passage from Robert Fatton’s Haiti’s Predatory Nature:

In a country where destitute is the norm and private avenues to wealth are rare, politics becomes an entrepreneurial vocation, virtually the sole means of material and social advancement for those not born into wealth and privilege. Controlling the state turns into a zero-sum game, a fight to the death to monopolize the sinecures of political power. The tragedy of Haiti’s systemic foundation is that it literally eats the decency and humanity of perfectly honest men and women, transforming them into grands mangeurs (big eaters) – a rapacious species of officeholders who devour public resources for the exclusive private gains (p. xi).

We learned from Patrick Bellegarde-Smith’s (p. 275) chapter in Haitian History that Papa Doc’s repressive regime commenced 6 months after he had taken office. Bellegarde-Smith noted that took most Haitians by surprise by Papa Doc appeared to be non-threatening.

A student then asked, “If we consider Fatton’s argument from Haiti’s Predatory Nature, do you think Duvalier was an honest man before he was president?

I think this is a really good question, and I’m not sure I gave my students a concrete answer. I couldn’t – in good conscience – say that François Duvalier was a “good/honest” man before his leadership. For one, I really don’t know. Also, I am sure Duvalier’s patients thought highly of him when he served as a practicing physician in various local hospitals and as a recruited rural doctor to combat tropical diseases in Haiti’s countryside.

Although I might be idealist, I do believe many political candidates in Haiti want to do right by their nation because of the daily realities of socioeconomic challenges. Unfortunately, as echoed by my research collaborators, once a candidate wins an election, power, authority, and opportunities can all become a motivating force that encourages officials (on a local or national level) to enrich their own interests and neglect their duties to serve pèp la (the masses, the people). I found this to be the case while doing fieldwork in Cap-Haitien and post-Matthew research in southern Haiti. Cronyism (moun pa) became a recurrent theme in the interviews. Narrators shared that local officials would keep aid for themselves and their friends/families rather than distributing the aid to others in their community. As result, a vast majority of those in these communities only received support (if any) from neighbors, friends/families (including Diaspora), local community organizations, and/or NGOs.

To conclude, I’m looking forward to more questions and discussions that emerged from the readings and additional materials that I assigned in my course. For this week, I hope my students will continue their inquires on how the political history of Haiti has shaped social life today. The rawness of challenges is a depressing and disappointing reality, so one may find political in/action in Haiti confusing and contradictory. However, I think more reading and conversation can only provide additional context (not an excuse) to why these socioeconomic and political issues have not been mitigated by elected officials in Haiti.

Featured Picture: A homeless man sleeps beneath a mural of Papa Doc in 1975 © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos.


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