Haiti--Next Mess in the Caribbean?

by Robert Debs Heinl. Jr.

Colonel Heinl is a retired Marine officer who served as chief of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in Haiti, and also as commander of the U.S. naval mission there until expelled by President Duvalier in 1963. He has written extensively about Haitian and Caribbean affairs, and has lectured at Yale, Brown, the Navol War College, and the Foreign Service Institute.

For a few hours last summer the State Department feared it had been overtaken by a contingency the United States has sidestepped for four years. Early on July 21 word reached Washington that François Duvalier, Haiti’s malodorous dictator, had been assassinated. The hearty tone in which State later denied the report was an indication that few Caribbean developments would be less welcome to Foggy Bottom’s harassed desk officers than the fall of the hemisphere’s most savage and detested dictator.

There was good reason for the consternation that followed the false report of Papa Doc’s death. For when he finally does depart, Haiti will be yet another scene of major crisis in the Caribbean. Moreover, it will be a crisis long imminent, for which neither we nor the OAS has made anything like intelligent preparation. The July assassination report didn’t happen to be true, but few who know Haiti or its selfproclaimed President-for-Life would predict with assurance that he will be alive two years from now.

What will happen when Duvalier falls, who his successors might be, and what troubles lie ahead for Haiti, the United States, and the OAS are hard questions. They are worth examining now because we will be forced to examine them before long.

Visit Friendly, Colorful, Sunny Haiti! exclaims the Haitian government tourist bureau’s ad in the New York Times. Haiti is sunny: despite severe hurricanes it has one of the finest tropical climates in the world. There the ad’s resemblance to reality ceases. After ten years of Duvalier, weather is Haiti’s only remaining asset. Otherwise, the country is mired in apathy and despair.

The depth of Haitian apathy showed during recent elections for deputies in Duvalier’s ragamuffin legislature. As usual, the government was paying each voter who appeared; nonetheless Port-au-Prince (population 300,000) produced less than 3000 ballots (each thoughtfully prestamped “Duvalier — Oui”).

The measure of Haiti’s ruin is that it is the only country in this hemisphere and one of very few in the world whose gross national product during the past (the Duvalier) decade has not merely stagnated but declined. A longer-term economic indicator is that in 1788, as a French colony, Haiti’s exports were $44 million. In 1964 they were $31 million. In 1946 Haiti’s national debt was $4 million; today the debt is $52.1 million. During the two decades of this enormous debt growth the United States gave Haiti some $100 million in aid, $40 million after Duvalier took over. Now, with the country flat broke, there is nothing to show for either aid or debt save enriched politicians.

Haiti is numb, exploited, and brutalized. The International Commission of Jurists reported in September, “The rule of law in Haiti has been replaced by a reign of terror.” Its ambassador to the OAS rarely bothers to attend meetings, while Duvalier’s failure to appear at the Punta del Este Presidents’ Conference reflected not only the wellfounded fear of assassination which holds him at bay in his capital but also the alienation of Haiti from Latin America. This alienation has deepened since Duvalier’s recent denunciation of the right of asylum, one of Latin America’s most cherished institutions.

But terror, destitution, spoliation, and disrepute have been Duvalier’s constant companions, in fact his accomplices. Why is he in special trouble today?

Executions at midnight

Near midnight last June 8, a messenger aroused Gérard Constant, the Haitian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, from heavy slumber. With eighteen other senior officers, including the President’s son-in-law, Colonel Max Dominique, the general was summoned to the National Palace. Characteristically, the dictator let them wait two hours. Then, in the noon of night, with a phalanx of tonton macoutes brandishing submachine guns, Duvalier appeared. Without explanation the officers were herded into a large truck, which under escort jolted toward the political prison, Fort Dimanche.

When the convoy halted beside the butts of a nearby rifle range, the officers realized why they were there. Bound to nineteen stakes stood nineteen brother officers, every one an intimate of Colonel Dominique’s. Ringed by peasant militia, the officers of the general staff were handed nineteen rifles, each with one round in the chamber, then formed into a firing squad under the headlights. On Duvalier’s command, each man raised his rifle, leveled it at the figure in front of him, and on the President’s word, a volley stuttered in the night.

Dominique, the victim of a family feud, had repeatedly killed and beaten at Duvalier’s behest, and so, for the past ten years, had most of the henchmen who were executed that night in June. In a regime which survives by terror it will not be easy to find nineteen new men with the cruelty, callousness, nerve, and experience of Dominique’s cronies. And Dominique himself has since been exiled to Europe — another man to replace.

Still others who will require replacement are former Ministers of Justice and Interior, Rameau Estimé and Jean Julmé, devoted tonton macoutes who now share space in the cells of Fort Dimanche with Clémart Joseph Charles, once Duvalier’s bagman and president of the Banque de Commerce. Among the two hundred Haitians in asylum who jam the Latin-American embassies of Port-au-Prince is another onetime pillar of the regime, Jean Tassy, the ex-police chief, who thoughtfully took with him not only twenty relatives but also a complete set of secret police dossiers and Duvalier’s execution records.

Besides having domestic difficulties the President-à-Vie faces trouble abroad. Three Haitian ambassadors have defected since June, and others are known to be wavering. Citing Duvalier’s violations of human rights, Ecuador severed relations with Haiti in August, while Uruguay and Venezuela have expressed open concern.

Duvalier’s basic problem is money, not least of all because he needs it to keep his terrorist organization well paid. But destitute Haiti has been picked bare. Therefore, as always when he has money problems, Papa Doc thinks of the United States.

Although he proclaims himself the sole barrier against Communism in Haiti, Duvalier as a matter of practice keeps overt Communists in key cabinet portfolios (Information, Agriculture, and Finance are or have been jobs held by Communists). He never interferes with the local Communists; he maintains backstage liaison with Fidel Castro. Duvalier has orchestrated these resources so as to scare Washington with manifestations of leftist agitation when his regime needs refinancing.

Six O’Clock Mass

Duvalier’s most harassing problem originates not in Haiti but in New York. There, at 6 A.M. daily, as dawn hits the Caribbean, a young Haitian, Ray Joseph, sips strong coffee in the Madison Avenue studio of Station WRUL and broadcasts highly informed Haitian news briefs interspersed with sharp jabs at Duvalier.

Raymond Joseph is the voice and intellectual sparkplug of the Coalition Haitienne, a moderate centrist group which has finally unified Duvalier’s long-splintered opposition. The Coalition (which State Department officials privately assess as realistic and reasonable) eschews filibustering and violence: not for them the Florida Keys fiasco of 1966, when, with CBS reporters poised by arrangement in the wings, Haitian exiles and Cuban gunrunners were restrained by federal agents from invading Haiti.

The Coalition’s sell may be soft, but it is a sell. No Haitian with a transistor misses “Six O’Clock Mass.” Broadcast in Creole, Haiti’s racy lingua franca, the morning “mass” is a hair shirt to Duvalier. The Voice of America does not broadcast in Creole. WRUL thus provides the only competition for Radio Havana’s two hours a day in that tongue. Using U.S. government export-licensed equipment, Duvalier jams WRUL when he can, but never Radio Havana.

René De Pestre, the Haitian Communist of Radio Havana, has a favorite theme. The Coalition, he says, is a party of the past. True, much of its money comes from Paul Magloire, the charismatic ex-President of the 1950s; and a leading figure is Luc Fouché, Haiti’s dignified former ambassador to the UN. But with Ray Joseph representing the new generation, the Coalition’s look, not only in its broadcasts but in Cumbattant, its hard-hitting newssheet, is anything but backward.

For Duvalier, the Coalition’s most damaging effect is that it refutes apologists who say there is no alternative to Duvalier, or that any successor would be about as bad. For this reason Duvalier often voices hope to ex-Trujillo torpedoes now in his employ that Ray Joseph might somehow “disappear,” as did anti-Trujillo exiles in the days of El Benefactor.


When news of the Kennedy assassination reached Port-au-Prince, one official who was present says François Duvalier called for champagne. November 22 is a significant date in voodoo numerology, and Duvalier had cast a ouanga à mart (“death curse”) on the President in May of 1963. To this day he boasts that he killed Kennedy.

What evoked Duvalier’s ouanga à mart was steady Kennedy pressure against the Haitian dictator and a continuing U.S. search for a nonCommunist alternative. These pressures relaxed shortly after Kennedy was assassinated.

Within weeks, an American ambassador was back in Port-au-Prince with instructions to be friends with Duvalier, superseding the chargé d’affaires who had been our caretaker for many months. Shortly afterward, the State Department commenced encouraging U.S. tourism to Haiti, blessed a $2.6 million Inter-American Bank loan to Duvalier for “waterworks repair,” and approved a $4 million AID guarantee to give Duvalier a petroleum refinery (a deal which eventually failed owing to the regime’s corrupt inefficiency). When Washington again received a Haitian ambassador, in early 1964, President Johnson welcomed him with a White House announcement that the United States “looks forward to close cooperation and solidarity with the government of Haiti.”

Duvalier’s American lobbyist, I. Irving Davidson, is credited with some but not all of Duvalier’s abrupt change of fortune. Mr. Davidson’s clientele has included the Nicaraguan Somozas, Sukarno (until recently), and Middle East armaments interests, but more to the present point, he is also Washington man for the Texas Murchisons, who have a monopoly in flour milling in Haiti.

Less committed than Davidson and the Murchisons, other U.S. investors in Haiti — Reynolds Metals, Haitian-Amcrican Development Corporation, and the HaitianAmcrican Sugar Company (which bailed Duvalier out of at least one dire crisis) — nevertheless feel they can get along with Duvalier and don’t want to rock the boat.

State (not much of a place for boat-rocking either) feels, with justification, that we have enough crises around the world without one more in Haiti. Every desk officer remembers the uproar when we had to intervene in Santo Domingo; the hope today on the Haitian desk, headed by a desk officer who has never served in Haiti, is that the same thing won’t happen on his watch.

This feeling works past a policy of inertia into one of propping up Duvalier (as we did Trujillo) to postpone the evil day. Behind the facade of CARE, we have resumed aid to Haiti, and on the Duvalier terms that Kennedy refused to swallow. State insists that this program is for only $165,000, but a CARE official told me that they expected it to build up to $750,000. From another source — the Inter-American Development Bank — a $1.3 million loan (equal to 7 percent of Duvalier’s exiguous budget) was given Haiti last year, interest-forgiven for five years, a term which most observers feel appreciably exceeds Duvalier’s life expectancy. This grant came from the Bank’s Special Fund, five sixths of whose capital we provide.

This past August, with U.S. acquiescence, the International Monetary Fund allowed Duvalier, though he was already deeply in IMF’s debt, to “withdraw” $1.5 million. This transaction (which an IMF official described to me as “very special”) amounts to an emergency loan at one quarter of one percent interest for a five-year maturity — in short, a virtual gift to Duvalier.

In such fashion, at every financial crisis since 1964, the United States, working through public, private, and international sectors, has helped to ward off the disasters Duvalier so surely courts.

Facing up to the unthinkable

Haiti is small. American interests there weighed against our great problems are small. But if we value our position in Haiti at all, our interests demand something less shopworn than today’s complacent policies, so typical of State at its do-nothing worst. For the present, several steps, well short of intervention, would help Haiti, hurt Duvalier, restore us in Haitian good opinion, and serve national interest.

We should adopt a conspicuously cool attitude toward the Duvalier regime, discourage tourism (a prime dollar-earner), halt loans and financial support, and again bring home our ambassador and relegate Portau-Prince to a chargé. CARE’s camouflaged AID program should be cancelled. USIA, cataleptic as State where Haitian matters are concerned, and for the same reasons, should be stimulated to compete effectively with Radio Havana for Creole listeners. The Coalition Haitienne should be quietly supported and groomed for succession, and a small U.S. task force, civil and military, of people who really know Haiti (few enough) should be formed for meaningful preparation for the problems and grief that lie ahead.

After Duvalier’s fall, which, like it or not, may well demand military intervention, we and the OAS must be ready to tackle Haiti’s abiding problems. Ironically, the military phase is all the United States is ready for. Yet a provisional government will have to be established, elections organized, and forces of public order rebuilt very quickly to disarm the secret police and tonton macoutes and prevent the peasant militia from degenerating into guerrillas in the mountains. The economy will need restarting, chaotic finances will require reorganization. Defunct public services will have to be re-created. These enormous problems will be as susceptible to the short-term AID and Alliance for Progress programs which State now contemplates after Duvalier’s fall as cancer is to aspirin.

To cope realistically with the post-Duvalier chaos, American policy ought above all to engage the rest of the hemisphere. Haiti could accept guidance and tutelage of a collective character which, however much it will need them, would be intolerable from a single power. A discriminating, preferably multilateral, aid program, not so big as to engorge the country, should be aimed at building tourism, re-establishing infrastructure (roads, small airfields, harbors) and coastal trade, developing rich potential fisheries, and salvaging the Artibonite Valley project which could still become Haiti’s TVA. A small but knowledgeable military mission will be immediately essential to revive the once efficient Garde d’Haiti and enable it to control and disarm Duvalier’s militia.

The cost to the United States of supporting Duvalier now and of drifting toward an inevitable Haitian crisis is alienation of any successor regime. They will accept U.S. aid afterward — they will have no choice — but Haitian memories are long, and they will also remember who for years supported the most flagitious regime in their country’s history — and for the wounding reason that Haiti, in the U.S. and OAS view, just really wasn’t worth a crisis.

The very thought of Haiti and its problems, let alone of another Caribbean intervention, is apparently so unthinkable today that nobody can bear thinking about it.