Jean-Claude Duvalier's flight to exile has ended a dictatorship founded by his father 29 years ago. But if history is a valid guide, it has not ended the political turbulence that has tormented Haiti almost without letup since rebellious slaves won independence there in 1804.
About 25 dictators have established their rule over Haiti since then, interspersed with military coups d'etat and unsuccessful attempts at representative democracy. When the 34-year-old Duvalier climbed aboard a U.S. Air Force plane in the dark of night, therefore, he was following historical tradition as well as closing an era.
The most recent dictatorship began in 1957 when Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Jean-Claude's father, emerged as president after a political struggle so chaotic that six governments had held power in the preceding year. Although he took over as the result of elections, Duvalier swiftly asserted himself as one of the most brutal and repressive despots in a Haitian history already rich with blood.
Francois Duvalier, a short, bespectacled physician widely rumored to dabble in voodoo, carried out what he called a revolution in Haitian life. It was based mostly on his pledge to increase the influence of poor blacks over a mixed-race elite that had dominated economic and political life since the end of French colonial rule.
This goal struck a chord among the descendants of African slaves who make up 95 percent of the country's 6 million inhabitants and form a peasantry scratching out a sparse living from a land largely drained of natural wealth by overpopulation. But at the same time, the elder Duvalier established a repressive security apparatus and corrupt economic management that left Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most downtrodden in the world.
Graham Greene, who captured the darkness of Haiti under Duvalier in the novel "The Comedians," wrote in his introduction: "Poor Haiti itself and the character of Dr. Duvalier's rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night."
To enforce his rule, Duvalier created the Ton-Tons Macoutes, described by longtime residents as a cross between a militia and an armed political party. In addition, these thousands of armed followers provided a loyal counterweight to the military, which Duvalier feared might be inclined to overthrow him and install a mixed-race officer in his place.
Duvalier, perhaps by design in dealing with a people steeped in voodoo, also created a mystique about his person. While it sometimes seemed madcap to foreigners, the aura bestowed on Duvalier unusual powers in enforcing his authority with an iron hand.
When sickness attacked in 1971, therefore, Haitians did not laugh as Duvalier prepared the way for his 19-year-old son's takeover by comparing him to Caesar Augustus, who Duvalier noted was also 19 when "he took into his hands the destinies of Rome." In a referendum that yielded 2,391,916 "yes" votes and not a single "no," the Haitian people approved Jean-Claude as his father's successor as "president-for-life."
Overweight, untraveled and known principally as a lover of fast cars, the young Jean-Claude seemed an unlikely candidate for dictator. But he was his father's only son. As Duvalier's health faded, Jean-Claude swiftly became the object of a government campaign to prepare the way.
Bernard Diederich, in the book "Papa Doc," reported that one poster showed the dictator with a hand resting on Jean-Claude's shoulder and the caption: "I have chosen him."
Francois Duvalier collapsed during dinner April 21, 1971, and was pronounced dead that night at the age of 50. His son was installed the next day. The fat teen-ager who had been off the island only once and never graduated from college suddenly became president-for-life with absolute powers.
In one of his first public statements, Jean-Claude issued an amnesty for all his father's exiled opponents "except Communists and troublemakers." But Luckner Cambronne, who became minister of interior, national defense and police, was quick to clear up any confusion about life under the new ruler.
"There has been no change," he told reporters then. "President Duvalier's mission was to allow the black people to raise up their faces to the sun. That was the aim of his revolution, and we will continue his path."
In fact, there had been change. The young Duvalier never seemed to have the stomach for his father's brutality. In addition, U.S. aid had resumed, and with it came pressure for relaxation of some of the most obviously repressive aspects of the family dictatorship.
The Haitian Catholic Church also changed, abandoning a long tradition of getting along with the government for an activist Gospel attuned to the needs of the poor. This attitude sharpened after Pope John Paul II visited in March 1983. Responding to a request from the Haitian bishops who met him then, the pontiff negotiated an end to an 1860 concordat that had given the government veto power over papal nominations of bishops.
Prodded from several sides, Duvalier relaxed political repression and censorship in what he called "democratization." He authorized long-banned political activity, but insisted that any political leaders vow allegiance to his status as president-for-life.
At the same time, political police and Ton-Tons Macoutes frequently violated civil liberties laws proclaimed as part of the much-heralded liberalization. Duvalier's zig-zag course seemed to illustrate the difficulty of attempting "democratization" within the framework of absolute dictatorship.
Perhaps inevitably, the smell of freedom appeared to give Haitians an appetite for more. In addition, thousands of Haitians had lived for a time in New York or Miami and returned with a new determination to assert their rights.
Their determination was heightened by increasing economic misery in the countryside. African swine fever wiped out the pig population on which peasants had depended as an investment and nest egg. Tourists, frightened off by reports of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), largely stopped their contribution to the economy.
Against this backdrop, the opulent life led by Jean-Claude and his circle of family and friends became less tolerable. For example, reports that the president's wife, Michele, had gone on a Paris shopping spree aboard the Concorde while most Haitians suffered from a gasoline shortage contributed to the outrage.
Jean-Claude's marriage to the beautiful Michele also had caused discontent. She was light-skinned and of mixed race, the kind of person Francois Duvalier had vowed to help blacks combat. In addition, her father, Ernest Bennett, was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Haiti and the epitome of the economic elite resented by poor blacks.
The first sparks flew two years ago in Gonaives, the poorest of Haitian cities. Food riots there turned political, with crowds daring to shout for the first time, "Down with Duvalier." The unrest renewed last fall, building until the young dictator seemed on the verge of falling last Friday. By then, diplomats, Haitians and almost anyone interested were saying it was only a matter of time until he did.