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

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.