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Haiti: Warning to a Dictator

3 minute read

“Blood will flow as never before. The land will burn from the north to the south, from the east to the west. There will be no sunrise nor sunset, just one big flame licking the sky. It will be the greatest slaughter in history. There will be a Himalaya of corpses.”

It was the opening rally in a “Month of National Gratefulness to Duvalier,” and the speaker was a henchman of Haiti’s Dictator. Françpois Duvalier himself was on hand, surrounded by helmeted palace guards and blue-denimed militiamen. He had given orders for his men to explain to Haitians just what would happen in their tiny Caribbean Negro republic if anyone should try to topple “Papa Doc.”

Militia & Army. Duvalier has reason to worry. Haiti’s per capita income is about $70 a year, one of the lowest in the hemisphere; unemployment averages 60%, illiteracy runs 90%, and life expectancy is only 32.6 years. When he campaigned for the presidency in 1957, Duvalier, a onetime backwoods physician who ministered to the poor, promised to change everything. Instead, he slapped on stiff new taxes and tolls, siphoned off graft to his cronies. To hold down the opposition, Duvalier set up a plainclothes gestapo of 5,000 men, called Tonton Macoute, or bogeymen, and in 1960 added a militia that now numbers 13,000. The two operate in chilling tandem, handling everything from shakedowns of merchants to the assassination of suspected anti-Duvalierists. Their biggest day came in 1961 when they helped Duvalier rig a phony election that extended his rule to 1967. Legally, his first six-year term should end this May 15, and as the date approaches, restlessness stirs the country.

Until recently, the only outward manifestations of revolt were a few student marches, and individual acts of defiance. But now Haiti’s U.S. -trained 5,000-man army is dissatisfied with Duvalier, and embittered at being upstaged by the ragtag militia. Last month a group of army officers hatched a plot to depose Duvalier. When the dictator got wind of the coup, four of the officers involved managed to take refuge in the Brazilian embassy. A fifth, Colonel Charles Turnier, was picked up and dragged to Dessalines barracks for “questioning.” Next morning machine guns rattled in the barracks, and there was Turnier dead on the drill ground. The official version was that Turnier somehow acquired a pistol, broke out of his cell, and was cut down as he darted toward the commanding officer’s quarters.

Lesson & Warning. Since then Duvalier has cashiered 60 career officers—almost one third of the army’s officer corps—broken off a U.S. Marine training program for his army, and prohibited all U.S. flights into Haiti, except those of Pan American.

At week’s end, as Duvalier’s two children—Jean-Claude, 12, and Simone, 14—were being driven to Methodist Bird College two blocks from the palace, a car pulled alongside and shots rang out. Neither child was hit, but the driver and two bodyguards were killed. Duvalier called out the militia to patrol all the streets of the capital, and a heavy dread of reprisal set in. By nightfall his men had gunned down six people, including two motorists. The U.S. embassy warned the 1,000 Americans in Haiti to stay clear of Port-au-Prince, stock up on food and water, and “await advice from the embassy.”

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