J.-C. Duvalier, nicknamed Baby Doc, tried to improve the external image of the regime, also to strengthen relations with the countries on which Haiti is economically dependent (first of all the United States, then, especially as far as concerns aid, France, Canada and Germany). However, the repeated commitments of gradual liberalization were not accompanied by significant changes in the political system; Duvalier held the office of president for life inherited from his father, and parliamentary elections, held for the first time in twelve years in 1973 and repeated in 1979 and 1984, saw the participation of only government candidates. The repression, although less violent than in the 1960s, continued to prevent any form of dissent, and the corruption of the regime remained unaltered.
According to Naturegnosis, the living conditions of the population, by far the poorest in all of Latin America, remained very bad: the widespread misery and malnutrition were accompanied by the lack of infrastructure and essential services, with very high levels of morbidity and infant mortality., especially in the countryside; in the latter, in the mid-1980s, illiteracy was still higher than 85% (over 60% the national average), also due to the de facto bilingualism in the country between French, the official language of the elite urban, and Creole, spoken by the great majority of the population. The persistence of agriculture as a fundamental economic activity was accompanied by a decline in the already low agricultural productivity and a tendential reduction of the cultivable area itself, due to excessive demographic pressure, the poor distribution of land ownership (coexistence of a few large estates and a large number of tiny plots), primitive cultivation methods and severe erosion caused by intense deforestation: the use of wood and charcoal as main sources of energy has in fact produced a strong degradation of environmental conditions. Hence the progressive deterioration of the food situation, despite emigration, starting from the 1960s, of over one million Haitians to the United States, Canada and various Caribbean countries, and the growing dependence in this field also on foreign aid, particularly from the United States. The high unemployment, the corruption of the administrative apparatus and the weight of the ruling oligarchy contributed to worsening social conditions, while the establishment in Port-au-Prince of some US industries (clothing, electronics), which, attracted by the low wages and the favorable conditions offered by the government, decentralized the final stages of processing, had only limited expansionary effects on the country’s economy.
Given the impossibility of any political expression, the growth of popular discontent manifested itself above all through the Catholic Church, whose relations with the government suffered a progressive deterioration. Starting in November 1985, repeated demonstrations of protests, at first mainly students, then extended to ever wider sectors of the population, resulted in an open revolt, with dozens of deaths, and in a general crisis of the regime (January 1986); on 7 February Duvalier, also following US pressure, was finally forced to leave Haiti and took refuge in France, while a junta (Conseil National de Gouvernement, CNG) was established in power, chaired by the chief of staff of the army gen. Haiti Namphy.
The CNG assumed the functions of provisional government, allowed the formation of various political parties (1986) and undertook to complete the process of transition to a constitutional regime by 1988; but the close ties of the military with the ruling oligarchy and with the Duvalierist dictatorship itself tended to frustrate this process. The clash between popular pressure for an effective democratization of the country and the resistance opposed by the armed forces, which continued to exert harsh repression, as well as the divisions within the latter kept Haiti in a state of acute conflict, also fueled the persistence of severe economic and social conditions (in the second half of the 1980s the unemployment rate exceeded 50% of the workforce, and 1% of the population appropriated nearly half of the national income). Therefore, unrest and unrest continued even after the fall of Duvalier, with a death toll made even heavier by the violence of the tonton-macoutes, the Duvalierist militia that had been formally dissolved in February 1986, but whose members remained active with the connivance of the military.
In October 1986 the junta convened a constituent assembly of 61 members (41 of whom elected in the same month and 20 appointed by the government) which drafted a new constitution, approved by referendum in March 1987: it provided, alongside the recognition of fundamental freedoms and Creole as an official language alongside French, a limitation of presidential powers by a bicameral parliament and the exclusion for ten years from public office of the elements most linked to the past regime; an independent electoral commission should have supervised the regularity of future elections. After an attempt by the CNG to overthrow the independent commission, which returned following strong popular protests (June-July 1987), tonton-macoutes.
Having replaced the commission with one of its own liking and changed the electoral law, the junta announced in January 1988 new consultations which, boycotted by the majority of the political forces, saw very little turnout at the polls. The conservative L. Manigat was elected to the presidency of the Republic, who constituted a civil government in February but, after just four months, lost the support of the armed forces, was dismissed by gen. Namphy. Having assumed the presidency of the Republic in June 1988 and reconstituted a military administration, Namphy dissolved Parliament and repealed the constitution, leaving a free hand to the atrocities of the Duvalist death squads, but in September he was in turn overthrown by a coup in power the gen. P. Avril. The new president’s
After a temporary proclamation of a state of siege in January 1990, rising popular protest and pressure from Washington finally forced Avril to step down in March; the presidency of the Republic was assumed by a judge of the Supreme Court, E. Pascal-Trouillot, who set up a provisional civil government, flanked by a State Council of 19 members (appointed by the main political forces of the country) with advisory and control functions. Despite the uncertain policy of Pascal-Trouillot, harshly criticized by the Council of State, and the recurrent violence of the tonton-macoutes, substantially correct presidential and legislative elections were finally able to take place in December 1990-January 1991, thanks above all to the presence of numerous international observers who joined the reconstituted electoral commission. President of the Republic was elected, with over two thirds of the votes, J.-B. Aristide, Catholic priest and exponent of liberation theology, supported by the progressive Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie (FNCD) which obtained the relative majority of seats in both branches of the National Assembly. Repeatedly made a sign of attacks and opposed by the same ecclesiastical hierarchies, Aristide enjoyed widespread support among the peasants and the urban poor masses who in January 1991 reacted harshly to the umpteenth attempt at a duvalierist coup, contributing to its failure. On February 7, five years after Duvalier’s flight, Aristide was thus able to install the first democratically elected administration.
The new government tried to initiate a policy of reform, but this encountered serious obstacles both in the heavy economic situation and in the hostility of the military and the ruling oligarchy. The tension intensified during the summer (also following the life sentence of one of the promoters of the attempted coup in January and the government measures against drug trafficking, in which the army was involved), while the forced repatriation of thousands of emigrants in the Dominican Republic (which reacted in this way to criticism for the harsh conditions of exploitation to which Haitian workers were subjected) aggravated the economic difficulties. On 30 September a new violent coup, led by gen. R. Cedras, overthrew Aristide, forcing him to take refuge in Venezuela; popular resistance suppressed, the military formed a provisional administration in October, entrusting the presidency of the Republic to the judge of the Supreme Court J. Nerette. The sanctions launched by the Organization of American States, which sought to induce the coup government to reach an agreement with Aristide for the return to constitutional legality, were unsuccessful: despite the opening of negotiations with the deposed president, the military and the oligarchy maintained an uncompromising stance, while the violent repression (over 2,000 deaths in the twelve months following the coup) and the further worsening of the economic and social situation led thousands of Haitians to attempt to flee by boat to the United States (about 40,000 by August 1992, for the most part rejected in the island by Washington authorities). In June 1992, a new provisional government was formed: the conservative M. Bazin, defeated by Aristide in the presidential elections in December 1990, assumed the office of prime minister, while that of president was left vacant.