Voodoo is originally an animist religion which originates in Western Africa (Togo and Benin mainly). As the slave trade within the French empire reached massive proportions during the 17th and 18th centuries, Voodoo spread all over the colonies, where it mixed in with other belief systems, whether from different parts of Africa (mainly those of the Yoruba tribes) or indigenous Caribbean deities. The main influence, however, was the Catholic beliefs that the French slave masters tried to force upon the slaves. Thus, it became a very different beast from the one that was kidnapped from the motherland, and quickly took on a multi-faceted, mutated personality, which borrowed freely from different sources and amplified the occult, ritualistic aspects as only a faith that has been persecuted can, and gained a particularly strong influence in Haiti.
Haitian vodou believes in the existence of the Bondye, a supreme deity not unlike Jehovah, who uses the Loas or spirits as its emissaries in the material world. Much like saints in the Roman Catholic tradition – to which they are in fact linked – each Loa takes on a certain aspect of existence, and often acts as patron saint of a particular social group. One of the most popular Loas, Papa Samedi, is an imposing presence: a death-headed, tuxedo-clad living corpse, prone to bouts of debauchery, crude sexual humor and drunkenness. Guardian of the crossroads between life and death, he is the head of the spirits of death, responsible for leading the deceased into the realm of the dead, but can also cure the sick, suspend somebody’s death, or counter curses placed on somebody. He is, ultimately, the one who decides who lives or dies.
It was after Baron Samedi that François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier decided to model himself when pursuing a political career. An important part of Duvalier’s political campaign involved taking the power away from Haiti’s ruling mulatto minority and into the hands of the black majority, who until then had been largely kept out of social and political affairs by segregationist politics and extreme poverty. Having carefully studied vodou for years, and very much aware of the power it held over the population, it was clearly a useful tool for his political plans. He decided to dress in stark black suits and top hats and even affected the loud nasal whine that is said to be Baron Samedi’s trademark speech and the stiff, zombie-like body language of the living dead.
Of course, it was not only a matter of dressing up: a cultured man, Duvalier went out of his way to carefully study the many aspects of vodou cults on the island: the different rituals and practices, the personalities of the many loas, the intricate and mysterious Veve markings, the frenzied drum beats that lead practitioners into trance… He compiled massive amounts of information on the matter and used them to form a new ideal of the Haitian national identity, one that put the African roots of the country back into a position of privilege – and one, of course, that could help him. He sought the company and support of houngans (vodou priests) as a way to reaffirm himself as a true believer in the eyes of the people, and rumors about his private rituals started circulating, including that he used goat entrails as a divination tool to decide national matters, or that he had conducted a ritual in order to invite evil spirits to take residence in a specially designed room at the presidential palace. A folk belief that painted Duvalier as the actual manifestation of Baron Samedi quickly spread.
Duvalier’s government was a textbook example of totalitarian rule; from hand-picked assignment of official positions, to arbitrary repression and even deportation of dissidents and foreigners, to widespread corruption, misappropriation of foreign financial aids and rigged elections. The Tonton Macoutes, the paramilitary militia that effectively operated as the de facto police force all over the nation, gained a reputation for the most savage and brutal torture practices, often tied in with supernatural components. It was not uncommon for Haitians to be stoned, dismembered or skinned alive, or burnt with sulphuric acid, before having their corpses exposed where everyone could see them. In 1963, Clément Barbot, head of the Tonton Macoutes, was accused by Duvalier of trying to stage a coup against him, and a manhunt ensued, one which obviously relied on the power of vodou to locate the missing man. This often involved rituals where the remains of former collaborators were used as a means to communicate with the spirit world for advice, and word arrived that Barbot had been able to elude being caught by magically transforming himself into a black dog, something which Duvalier quickly solved by ordering the execution of each and every black dog on the island.
As expected, the country’s foreign relations were troublesome, particularly after the Kennedy administration decided to relinquish all financial aid to Haiti, even despite’s Duvalier’s claims that due to it’s proximity to Cuba, the country was an important strategic asset for anti-communist resistance. This enraged Duvalier, who in turn openly celebrated Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and claimed it had been the result of a curse he had personally placed on him.
Duvalier held on to his ‘president for life’ position until he died in 1971, at which point his son Jean Claude took over, living a more earthly and extravagant lifestyle, while maintaining the totalitarian grip of his father with a few minor improvements. Despite an improvement in foreign relations (the Reagan administration was particularly friendly), he was overthrown in 1986, fleeing to Paris and leaving behind a country that, after nearly thirty years of tyranny, can claim the Western Hemisphere’s lowest per capita income rate and highest income inequality, absolutely ruinous infrastructures and public services, and alarming numbers concerning access to drinking water, malnutrition and the cholera epidemic that has killed around 10,000 Haitians in the past few years. It’s easy to see how this can spawn from both political causes and environmental issues, as even before the infamous 2010 earthquake, the country had a long history of deforestation and soil erosion troubles – but it’s also tempting to take on a less materialistic, magical worldview, and see how the dark spirit currents that ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier decided to open and unleash for his political benefit are still pulsing through the country, oozing evil vibes that soak its everyday life.