Jean-Claude Duvalier was just 19 when he succeeded his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who had ruled Haiti since 1957.
Assuming the post as “president for life”, as he and his father called it, Duvalier became the youngest head of state at the time. Like his father, he ruled with an iron hand and suppressed effective opposition, largely with the support of brutal paramilitary secret police agents known as the Tontons Macoutes.
The “Baby Doc”, as Duvalier was also called, governed Haiti for 15 years – from April 22 to February 7, 1986 – longer than his father’s and this has been attributed to the support he received from Western governments such as the U.S., as well as, financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Duvalier would later relax his iron fist, but his extravagancies and the continuous arrest of opponents led him into exile in February 1986 after he was forced from power by a popular uprising.
Born in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, in 1951, Duvalier was the only son and youngest of the four children of his father, Papa Doc and his wife, Simone, a former nurse.
Papa Doc, who was once a medical doctor during his time on a U.S. Army-sponsored disease-eradication campaign in rural Haiti, first came to power in 1957 following elections when Duvalier was around 6 years old.
The father adopted an authoritarian rule “enveloped in black empowerment and voodoo” and in 1964 declared himself president for life. By November 1970, the old man had grown weak and ill, and he formally named his teenage son as his successor.
Duvalier was then an introvert and a martial arts enthusiast, who loved fast cars and jazz. The University of Haiti graduate, initially, did not like the idea of succeeding his father as he saw it as a distraction from the things he loved.
An article on the Independent said an obese Duvalier wanted his sister to take the presidency role but the day after his father’s death, the young man became the world’s youngest head of state.
For years, Duvalier was hardly in control of affairs, as he left the country’s administration to his mother and her lover, Luckner Cambronne. Cambronne began a flourishing business exporting five tons of blood plasma a month and also traded in cadavers under the watchful eye of Duvalier.
When Duvalier took over full responsibilities, he tried to reform the state and deal with its poverty crisis, unemployment issues and lack of investment. But his dictatorial and authoritarian approach, as well as, influences from his mother, hindered the above.
He hardly made public appearances, yet, news of his lavish lifestyle and spending at the expense of the majority poor in the state was widely known. What made matters worse was the alleged $5 million wedding that he had in 1980 with his lover, Michele Bennet, the daughter of a wealthy coffee baron.
She immediately stamped her authority when she entered the presidential palace and forced Duvalier on to a slimming diet, threatening staff against any excess meals. Duvalier was less harsh than his father and occasionally released political prisoners and tolerated divergent opinions, but poverty and suppression of dissent soon returned, with the aid of his feared militia.
According to human rights organisations, hundreds of people were killed under his administration while several others fled.
“Papa Doc was more openly brutal. Baby Doc was smoother,” said Robert Duval, the son of a Haitian businessman who was arrested shortly after his return from university studies in Canada in 1976 and held for 18 months without charge.
“Fear had got into people and few dared to talk. You always kept a smile on your face and never caught yourself saying anything critical. Many left the country,” Duval who had filed a case against Duval in 2011 was quoted by the Financial Times.
While in power, Duvalier was presented as a firm anti-Communist and this improved his relations with the U.S., as he bargained for aid and was given the resources he needed to maintain his lavish lifestyle in one of the world’s poorest countries.
When the country suffered a foreign exchange crisis in 1980, the situation was salvaged with a $22m loan from the IMF. Unsurprisingly, the Independent reports that $4m went to the Tontons Macoutes and $16m to the president’s personal accounts.
Following months of widespread demonstrations and the withdrawal of support for his regime by the U.S., Duvalier went off to live in exile in the south of France on the night of February 5, 1986.
Reports said he had asked France for asylum and the United States for the plane which whisked him from Haiti with his wife, daughter, son, and hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen money.
In France, Duvalier still lived flamboyantly, mostly depending on several accounts in many cities, including Barclays in London and Amro in Geneva. But he lost a huge chunk of money after divorcing his wife in 1993 and some $6m he held in Swiss bank accounts was frozen in 1986, the BBC reported.
He would depend on support from his friends and followers, including his mistress, Vèronique Roy, whom he lived within a one-bedroom flat in Paris.
In 2011, after 25 years away in exile, Duvalier returned to Haiti that was then struggling to get back on its feet after a devastating earthquake. Duvalier quashed claims that his return was for political purposes, stressing that he just wanted to help rebuild the Caribbean nation.
Yet, many felt that he was back to secure money that was still stashed away while others said he had returned to die, considering his ill-health. Duvalier, upon his return, was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds. A Haitian court further ruled in 2014 that he could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law, and be held responsible for abuses committed by security forces under his rule.
Denying any of these offences, Duvalier remained in a hotel in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, where he died of a heart attack in October of that year before he could be put before trial.
“Duvalier’s death deprives Haitians of what could have been the most important human rights trial in the country’s history,” said Reed Brody of New York-based Human Rights Watch, who helped Duvalier’s victims build the criminal case.
He said that under Duvalier, “hundreds of political prisoners held in a network of prisons died from mistreatment or were victims of extrajudicial killings.”
“Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten, in some cases tortured, jailed, and forced to leave the country.”
When he fled Haiti, he held $200 million to $500 million in foreign bank accounts, reported the New York Times, and gave his family members million-dollar vacations at luxury resorts, while scores of Haitians lived in poverty.
Though there have been subsequent leaders, many observers say that Duvalier’s style of leadership torments Haiti till today.