FORMER Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc”, died of a heart attack yesterday aged 63.
The self-proclaimed “president for life” of Haiti, whose corrupt and brutal regime sparked a popular uprising that sent him into a 25-year exile, died at his Port-au-Prince home yesterday.
He inherited power from his father in 1971, aged 19, but Duvalier fled into exile in 1986 after a popular uprising.
After 25 years in exile in France, Duvalier returned to the country in January 2011 and was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds.
A Haitian court ruled in February that Duvalier could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law, and that he could also be held responsible for abuses committed by the army and paramilitary forces under his rule.
The dictator was notorious for failing to address the poverty and illiteracy of Haitians, while he and his friends indulged in a luxurious lifestyle.
Duvalier was the son of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a medical doctor-turned-dictator who promoted “Noirisme”, a movement that sought to highlight Haiti’s African roots over its European ones while uniting the black majority against a mulatto elite in a country divided by class and colour.
The regimes of both leaders tortured and killed political opponents and relied on a dreaded civilian militia known as the Tonton Macoutes.
In 1971, Francois Duvalier suddenly died of an illness after naming his son to succeed him. At 19, Jean-Claude Duvalier became the world’s youngest president.
Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled for 15 years, his administration seen as less violent and repressive than his father’s.
Echoes of press freedom and personal criticism – never tolerated under his father – emerged sporadically because of international pressure.
Still, human rights groups documented abuses and political persecution. A trio of prisons known as the “Triangle of Death”, which included the much-feared Fort Dimanche for long-term inmates, symbolised the brutality of his regime.
As president, he married the daughter of a wealthy coffee merchant, Michèle Bennett, in 1980. The engagement caused a scandal among old Duvalierists, for she was a mulatto and the arrangement ran counter to the Noirisme movement that Duvalier’s father espoused.
Under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s rule, Haiti saw widespread demographic changes. Peasants moved to the capital in search of work as factories popped up to meet the growing demand for cheap labour.
The tourists followed, some in search of a form of tropical hedonism that included booze, prostitution and Voodoo ceremonies for which the country became legendary.
But it was corruption and human rights abuses that defined Jean-Claude Duvalier’s rule.
The National Palace became known for opulent parties as Michèle took overseas shopping sprees to decorate and collect fur coats. Duvalier relished taking his presidential yacht out for a spin and racing about in sports cars.
Under mounting pressure from the administration of US president Jimmy Carter, Duvalier made pretences of improving the country’s human rights record by releasing political prisoners. Still, journalists and activists were jailed or exiled. Haitians without visas or money left by boarding flimsy boats in a desperate effort to reach Florida shores.
As Haiti’s living conditions deteriorated, Pope John-Paul II visited in 1983 and famously declared: “Things must change.”
Three years later, they did. A popular uprising swept across Haiti, and Duvalier and his wife boarded a US-government C-141 for France.