The Haitian army has traditionally played the role of political arbiter. The precedent for this role can be traced to eighteenth-century colonial Saint-Domingue. The early leaders of Haiti established strong military rule during the revolutionary period (1791-1804). The leading general of the revolution, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, declared himself the French governor-for-life in the preindependence constitution of 1801. The French Revolution also affected events in Haiti. At the time that Haiti achieved independence, France was ruled by Napoléon Bonaparte, a preeminent military figure who eventually declared himself emperor. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first Haitian head of state, was also a victorious general who declared himself emperor. From 1804 to 1913, almost all Haitian heads of state were military officers. Military occupation by the United States (1915-34) served to reinforce the central role of military power in society.
The army clearly exercised its power, as the supreme arbiter of political destinies, during the political succession of François Duvalier in 1957. At that point, however, history took a different turn. By 1962, Duvalier had effectively undermined the authority of the regular army by legitimizing the tonton makouts as a paramilitary counterforce, the VSN. The VSN, devoted to maintaining power and repressing political opposition, was considerably larger than the army; it consisted primarily of rural dwellers.
Duvalier's ability to maintain power can be attributed largely to his neutralization of the military as an independent political force. The idea of a paramilitary counterforce also had historical precedent. Soulouque made effective use of the zinglins, precursors to the tonton makouts. During his presidential campaign, François Duvalier organized a private paramilitary group known as cagoulards (hooded men).
For years the VSN has had a strong base of support in rural Haiti; from the same segments of the population that filled the ranks of the irregular military forces known as cacos and piquets during the pre-occupation era. Duvalier's decision to legitimize the VSN was clever, partly because it co-opted disenfranchised groups into the established political system at relatively little cost to the regime. Militia members were volunteers who were even willing to pay fees to local VSN commanders for permission to join the force. Volunteers were familiar with the VSN's opportunities for personal gain through corruption. To raise money, local VSN commanders periodically disbanded their units and recruited new members who would pay to join the force.
Forces that countered military power were set up within the military itself at certain points in Haiti's history. President Sténio Vincent (1930-41) first created a presidential guard in the 1930s, and he had heavy weapons brought into the presidential palace. This guard helped Vincent maintain power for eleven years; it played a key role in the political fates of all of Vincent's successors. The Leopards Corps, created by Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1970s, represented yet another variant of a specialized army corps assigned the responsibilities of maintaining presidential power and discouraging coups d'état.
More recently, Avril's core of support also lay clearly within the Presidential Guard. As of mid-1989, Avril had not fully consolidated his power base, and contenders vied for his position as military chief of state. Avril was also forced to contend with army and nonmilitary groups linked to the tonton makouts. The tonton makouts, although abolished in 1986, were never effectively disbanded. They continued to play a leading role in the politics of the army, and they, together with the Duvalierists, appeared to represent the central obstacle to Avril's consolidation of power. Ironically, these were the same people to whom he owed personal and political debts.
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