Portrait of Papa Doc

July 28 2013

Alan Whicker’s film on Haiti, shown on ITV (Yorkshire Television) on June 17 1969. Graham Greene had published The Comedians in January 1966.

Whicker meets and converses with the black-clad Papa Doc himself. The Doctor would die, of natural causes, two years later (April 21 1971), but he had been morally assassinated by Greene and Whicker. Greene in his dedication: “Poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier’s rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night.”

He also meets Madame Max Adolphe, Duvalier’s right-hand woman and leading figure of the Tontons Macoutes; and Aubelin Jolicoeur, the gossip-columnist in Le Nouvelliste who was the model for Greene’s Petit Pierre. We glimpse the first lady, Simone, or Mama Doc.

Greene on Jolicoeur: “A métis in a country where the half-castes are the aristocrats waiting for the tumbrils to roll. He was believed by some to have connexions with the Tontons, for how otherwise had he escaped a beating-up or worse? And yet there were occasional passages in his gossip-column that showed an odd satirical courage – perhaps he depended on the police not to read between the lines.”

Old piece in New York Times: “tidbits of gossip to armchair philosophy, tenaciously maintaining his position as the informal keeper of the social history of Haiti and its leading eccentric.” There have been similar maverick columnists in other unfree and half-free countries, licensed jesters and philosophers whose remarks have sometimes had an edge.

Duvalier demoted Christianity, promoted Voodoo. Demoted the army and established and promoted the Tontons Macoutes.

Haitian Voodoo (Vodou, Vodun) originated in the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century, when African religious practice was suppressed and enslaved Africans were forcibly converted to Christianity. It is a synthesis of the Voodoo of coastal West Africa, village witchcraft, other African elements, indigenous Caribbean Taíno religion, Freemasonry, Christian mysticism, Catholicism. There are similar syncretised religions in Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Surinam.

The Tontons Macoutes were Duvalier’s secret police, created in 1959, two years after he came to power. They remained active even after the presidency of Baby Doc ended in 1986. They were officially the Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, but Haitians named them after a Voodoo bogeyman who kidnaps and punishes children by snaring them in a gunny sack (macoute) and carrying them off to be eaten for breakfast.

The most important members of the Tontons Macoutes were Voodoo leaders. The religious affiliation gave the Macoutes an unearthly authority in the eyes of the public. They wore straw hats, blue denim shirts and dark glasses and were armed with machetes and guns. Papa Doc was a kind of avatar of Baron Samedi.

He was a doctor who entered politics, and black. His aim was to end the economic and political dominance of the Haitian mulattos. That got him support among the peasantry and helped him to win a presidential election in 1957.

The giant slum known as Cité Soleil began in 1958 with a gesture by Duvalier’s wife: the construction of homes for fifty-two families. It was to have been called Cité Simone.

Piece in The Harvard Crimson, June 3 1963. It was not the nature, but the scale of his abuses that was extraordinary. The US could not afford to support him publicly as a counterweight to the communists who, from 1959, controlled the other side of the Windward Passage. No doubt it did it covertly. Duvalier’s overt position was one of hostility to the US and its business interests.

Between 1966 and ’69 British television evolved beyond shaky black and white. BBC2 started colour broadcasting on July 1 1967. BBC1 and ITV on November 15 1969. The Papa Doc film was made for colour, but must have been shown first in black and white. Whicker had been a pioneer in a golden age of British documentaries. Soon after this, he did a programme on Stroessner.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, Baby Doc, succeeded his father and held on until he was forced out by a popular revolt in 1986.

The Duvaliers belong to a club which includes (in descending alphabetical, not moral, order) Stalin, Hoxha, Hitler and Ceaușescu in Europe; Pol Pot, Mao and the Kims in Asia; Mugabe, Mobutu, Gaddafi, Bokassa and Amin in Africa. What characterises them all? After watching Papa Doc, one is tempted to answer: an immense moral stupidity and an equally immense dullness.

5 Responses to “Portrait of Papa Doc”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I should probably have included Saddam Hussein in the list. Perhaps Ferdinand Marcos. The Peróns. But then one can go on. All of them, I suspect, hated their childhoods.

    Simone was the daughter of a mulatto, and Baby Doc’s wife was distinctly light-skinned.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Où vas-tu, Haiti?

    Film by Lucien Bonnet, 1964. After the first couple of minutes about the 1957 “revolution”; rather obscure script translated from French:

    Second half, not about Duvalier directly:

  3. davidderrick Says:

    The Harvard Crimson op cit says “2,000 executions in the past month alone”. Whicker in 1969 says 2,000 tout court.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    1966 WTVJ-Miami report by Ralph Renick contains a longer interview with Duvalier. Starts here (first of six):

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