When Haiti’s dictator, ‘Baby Doc,’ lost control, it was Washington to the rescue
In this April 14, 1971 file photo, Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier, son of Haitian dictator Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, is flanked by military guards as he reviews the troops at the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted and fled to France in 1986, a repressive army high command of Duvalier appointees remained largely intact. | Photo: AP / Headline: People's World Archives

This article is part of the People’s World 100th Anniversary Series.

On Feb. 7, 1986, the U.S.-backed dictator of Haiti, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, fled the country as a result of a mass popular uprising that had started boiling to the surface in 1985. Baby Doc had ruled Haiti since succeeding his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, at the age of 19 in 1971. The latter had been elected president in 1957; he subsequently turned the government into a personal dictatorship and declared himself “president for life.”

The Duvalier regime was intensely anti-communist and anti-labor. Despite a few ups and downs, it enjoyed the generous support of the U.S. government for most of the Cold War period. The Duvalier family was intensely corrupt, stealing untold wealth from the Haitian people. The dictatorship played a central role in keeping the masses of people in poverty while rewarding Duvalier cronies and foreign allies with access to the country’s riches. During the family’s rule, 60,000 or more Haitians were killed by the state, often on allegations of being communists.

Since their overthrow, Haiti has been subject to repeated coups and rounds of foreign invasion and military occupation, by the U.S. and other powers. Instability, gang violence, and corrupt politics continue to plague its beleaguered people. The promise of the 1804 Haitian Revolution—in which self-liberated slaves rose up and ended French colonialism and established a free state—still awaits it next chapter.

The following article by Daily World reporter Tom Foley shows how this newspaper covered the final overthrow of “Baby Doc” as it happened. It appeared in our pages on Feb. 8, 1986.

Duvalier flees Haiti with U.S. assistance

By Tom Foley

Daily World, Feb. 8, 1986

Haiti’s pro-U.S. dictator, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti Friday for France aboard a U.S. Air Force C-141 transport plane. The collapse of Duvalier’s tyrannical rule took place after months of steadily building protests and two weeks of a general strike called by the democratic opposition.

In an exclusive interview with the Daily World three days before Duvalier fled, Rene Theodore, general secretary of the Unified Party of Haitian Communists (PUCH), said that the situation inside the country was highly complex. Theodore, in Havana to attend the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, explained that Washington wanted to keep Duvalier in power but became convinced it had to get rid of him to save U.S. interests in Haiti.

Theodore’s assessment was indirectly confirmed by U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in a Friday morning interview with ABC TV. Weinberger said the U.S. agreed to help Duvalier flee after strong requests from the dictator. “He (Duvalier) seemed to feel he could no longer keep order,” Weinberger explained, adding, “We are very anxious to have stable conditions there.”

A U.S. fleet is off Haiti. Weinberger said the U.S. is prepared to intervene if U.S. citizens are in danger—the pretext used for the 1983 Grenada invasion.

Last week, White House press spokesman Larry Speakes said the Duvalier government had collapsed, with Duvalier fleeing the country and a military-civilian junta taking over. The White House retracted the story two hours later.

On Friday, however, CBS announced that as a result of a “multinational deal” negotiated through the U.S. Ambassador, Duvalier would leave Haiti for temporary exile in France.

CBS also reported part of the deal was that Duvalier had agreed that a military-civilian junta would replace him in power.

The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915-1934. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president in 1957, amassing a fortune. On his death in 1971, he was replaced by his son Jean-Claude, self-appointed “President-for-Life.”

Haiti, which won independence from France in 1804, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Last year alone, it had to pay $21 million in interest on loans owed to foreign, primarily U.S., banks.

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Tom Foley
Tom Foley

The late Tom Foley was a Daily World reporter.