François Duvalier, 1957-71
When François Duvalier came to power in 1957, the armed forces were at their lowest point, professionally, since 1915. Internal tension stemmed from political, generational, and racial divisions within the army command. The leadership of the former Garde d'Haïti, trained by the United States Marines, was aging and was slowly giving way to a younger cadre of Military Academy graduates from the 1940s. Duvalier hastened this process by retiring a group of senior officers and promoting a number of junior officers.
Duvalier's establishment of a parallel security apparatus posed the most serious challenge to the crumbling integrity of the armed forces. In late 1958, Duvalier reinstated, and took direct control of, the Presidential Guard (Garde Présidentielle), and he eliminated the Maison Militaire (military household), which had served as the presidential security unit before the Duvalier era. In 1959 the regime began recruiting a civilian militia (Milice Civile), ostensibly as an adjunct to the Presidential Guard. Drawn initially from the capital city's slums and equipped with antiquated small arms found in the basement of the Presidential Palace, the civilian militia became the VSN after 1962. The VSN's control extended into the countryside, through a system of information, intelligence, and command tied directly to the Presidential Palace.
The armed forces yielded political power to the new regime and lost many of their institutionalized features, developed during the previous thirty years. Duvalier closed down the Military Academy in 1961. A professional and elitist institution, the academy represented a potential source of opposition to the regime. Officers who attempted to resist Duvalier forfeited their careers. In 1963 Duvalier expelled the United States military mission, which he had invited to Haiti in 1959, because he believed that military-modernization values imparted by United States instructors could lead to resistance to the government's restructuring of the armed forces.
Duvalier succeeded in overpowering the mainstream military establishment, but the process was painful; it required several abrupt attacks. For example, Duvalier eliminated, or exiled, anyone who opposed him. Duvalier's ruthlessness and suspicion caused members of his own security apparatus to turn against him- -most notably Clément Barbot, one of the original VSN chiefs.
By the mid-1960s, the VSN and the army routinely cooperated on internal security matters, even though the two groups were suspicious of each other. There were occasional lapses in the security apparatus, however. In 1967 several bombs exploded near the palace, and the regime subsequently executed nineteen officers of the Presidential Guard. In 1970 the entire membership of Haiti's small Coast Guard staged an abortive mutiny.
The regime referred to the VSN as a militia. This designation masked the organization's role as the Duvalier's front-line security force. The VSN acted as political cadres, secret police, and instruments of terror. In addition, they played a crucial political role for the regime: they countered the influence of the armed forces, historically the nation's foremost institutional power. François Duvalier went farther than any of his predecessors in his efforts to reduce the ability of the military to influence selection of the country's leaders. The VSN's success in keeping the army and the rest of Haitian society in check created what has been described as a VSN-led "parabureaucracy."
The VSN gained its deadly reputation partially because its members received no salary, even though they worked for the National Palace (Palais National). They made their livings, instead, through extortion and petty crime. Rural members of the VSN, who wore blue denim uniforms, had received some training from the army, while the plainclothed members, with their dark glasses, served as Haiti's criminal-investigation force.
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