This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Haitians have seen their fair share of dictators and despots since their country gained its independence in 1804. But for the 1 million Haitians currently living abroad, one dynasty looms above the rest.
For nearly three decades, Haiti was ruled by the notorious Duvaliers—first by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc.” That era came to a close in early October, when Baby Doc died in Haiti at the age of 63. He had been facing charges of corruption and human rights abuse.
Baby Doc’s death has revived memories of repression and violence throughout Haiti. But one of his most significant legacies lies outside the country—in the flourishing Haitian Diaspora that fled the poverty and repression of the Duvalier era.
Papa Doc ruled Haiti with terror and impunity from 1957 until his death in 1971. With help from the Tontons Macoutes—a secret police force that took its name from a folk bogeyman who devours misbehaving children—Papa Doc presided over the murders of an estimated 30,000 people. Thousands of others simply disappeared or were imprisoned at the notorious Fort Dimanche, a prison known for torture, mutilation and death.
When Papa Doc died, his youngest and only son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” became a teenage dictator at the age of 19. Baby Doc lived an extravagant lifestyle as the president of Haiti, driving luxury cars while his wife pampered herself with fur coats. But beneath the flashy exterior, Papa Doc’s legacy of terror continued. Corruption, imprisonment and repression remained staples in Haiti’s government during Baby Doc’s fifteen-year rule.
And so did abject poverty, with over half of the population living on less than $1.25 a day in the early 1980s. The lack of jobs in rural areas caused a massive influx of workers into Port-au-Prince, where they took low-paying factory jobs with foreign companies lured by Baby Doc’s tax incentives. Paying low wages and benefiting from cushy tax breaks, these factories did little to improve Haiti’s economy. Instead, expansive slums spread out around Port-au-Prince, putting immense pressure on the weak Haitian infrastructure. Prospects for economic mobility were bleak.