PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – Jean-Claude Duvalier, 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 today of a heart attack, his attorney said.
Reynold George said the 63-year-old ex-leader died at his home. He was 63.
Duvalier, looking somewhat frail, made a surprise return to Haiti in 2011, allowing victims of his regime to pursue legal claims against him and prompting some old allies to rally around him. Neither side gained much support, and the once-feared dictator known as “Baby Doc” spent his late years in relative obscurity in the leafy hills above the Haitian capital.
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 and named his son to succeed him. At 19, Jean-Claude Duvalier became the world’s youngest president.
The son was regarded as a lacklustre student at a prestigious private Catholic school in the capital but his teachers gave him passing grades anyway to avoid fury from the National Palace, according to Written in Blood a history of the country by Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl.
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, Michele 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 Duvalier’s father espoused.
The wedding was a lavish affair, complete with imported champagne, flowers and fireworks. The ceremony, reported to have cost $5 million, was carried live on television to the impoverished nation. After they exchanged vows, Michele ordered her tubby husband to go on a diet.
Under 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. Thousands of professionals fled a climate of repression for cities such as New York, Miami and Montreal.