The History of Peasants, Tonton Makouts, and the Rise and Fall of the Duvalier Dictatorship in Haiti

Publication date

Authors

ABSTRACT

This dissertation analyzes the social and political history of Haitian peasants and the formation of the brutally repressive Duvalier dictatorship. It establishes that the rise of the dictatorship was the result of a political trajectory shaped by historical processes. In post- emancipated Haiti during the nineteenth century, thousands of peasants, who were formerly enslaved, joined the military and participated in insurrections to achieve high status and social mobility. These traditions of militarism and popular revolt also undermined the state’s monopoly over force and checked its authoritarian tendencies. However, these militaristic traditions were curtailed and stamped out by US intervention (1915-1934). U.S. forces employed tactics of disarmament and imposed a repressive penal system that disempowered Haitian peasants.

This dissertation argues that decades of peasant marginalization from power eventually led to the rise of the Duvalier dictatorship in the twentieth century. After coming to power in 1957, François Duvalier remilitarized and rearmed peasants in exchange for their loyalty. This study shows how the dictator Duvalier, in particular, created a civil militia infamously known as the tonton makouts whose members formed the arm of state repression. Thousands of previously ostracized peasants enlisted into the dreaded makout militia to access status and political power. The support of an armed peasantry helped Duvalier repress the political opposition, allowing the regime to stay in power for almost three decades. In the same breath, this dissertation reveals that experience in the militia and the regime’s peasant councils politicized peasants over time. After being politicized, peasants participated in a major popular revolt in 1986 that was the first since the U.S. invasion. The popular revolt, which paradoxically included many makouts, led to the overthrow of the Duvalier regime and eventually to the truly democratic elected presidency of Jean- Bertrand Aristide.

FULL TEXT

RELATED CONTENT

Decentralization and Development in the World’s First Black Republic

In Haiti, decentralization as a development tool has been a part of the political discourse for over thirty years, since the end of the 29-year father-son Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. However, Haiti’s recent progress – specifically in terms of fiscal decentralization – has been largely credited to the United States Agency for International Development’s Limyè ak Òganizasyon pou Kolektivite yo Ale Lwen (LOKAL+) program though it has not been readily apparent to what extent enhancements in local revenue have impacted public expenditures.

Read More »

The Economic Consequences of The Haitian Revolution

Haiti is among the poorest nations in the world and it is the single poorest country in the western hemisphere. Yet, Haiti once possessed the exact opposite connotation. Haiti was once the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest, most profitable colony in the world. Saint-Domingue was France’s most prized possession and it became the prime destination for fortune seeking Frenchmen.

Read More »

The King, a Queen, and an Oath Sealed in Blood: A Cultural Re-Evaluation of the Bois-Caiman Ceremony and its Impact on the Early Haitian Revolution

Historical studies have set up a paradox where religious practices are discussed as socially important to enslaved people while simultaneously are described as peripheral to the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution. Yet at the heart of the lead up to the 1791 insurgency was an Afro-Caribbean religious event called the Bois-Caiman ceremony.

Read More »