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1946-1950 - Dumarsais Estimé

Haiti elected its National Assembly in May 1946. The Assembly set August 16, 1946, as the date on which it would select a president. The leading candidates for the office -- all of whom were black -- were Dumarsais Estimé, a former school teacher, assembly member, and cabinet minister under Vincent; Félix d'Orléans Juste Constant, leader of the Haitian Communist Party (Parti Communiste d'Haïti--PCH); and former Garde commander Calixte, who stood as the candidate of a progressive coalition that included the Worker Peasant Movement (Mouvement Ouvrier Paysan--MOP). MOP chose to endorse Calixte, instead of a candidate from its own ranks, because the party's leader, Daniel Fignolé, was only twenty-six years old -- too young to stand for the nation's highest office.

Estimé, politically the most moderate of the three, drew support from the black population in the north, as well as from the emerging black middle class. The leaders of the military, who would not countenance the election of Juste Constant and who reacted warily to the populist Fignolé, also considered Estimé the safest candidate. After two rounds of polling, legislators gave Estimé the presidency.

Estimé's election represented a break with Haiti's political tradition. Although he was reputed to have received support from commanders of the Garde, Estimé was a civilian. Of humble origins, he was passionately anti-elitist and therefore generally antimulatto. He demonstrated, at least initially, a genuine concern for the welfare of the people. Operating under a new constitution that went into effect in November 1946, Estimé proposed, but never secured passage of, Haiti's first social-security legislation. He did, however, expand the school system, encourage the establishment of rural cooperatives, raise the salaries of civil servants, and increase the representation of middle-class and lower-class blacks in the public sector. He also attempted to gain the favor of the Garde -- renamed the Haitian Army (Armée d'Haïti) in March 1947 -- by promoting Lavaud to brigadier general and by seeking United States military assistance.

Estimé eventually fell victim to two of the time-honored pitfalls of Haitian rule: elite intrigue and personal ambition. The elite had a number of grievances against Estimé. Not only had he largely excluded them from the often lucrative levers of government, but he also enacted the country's first income tax, fostered the growth of labor unions, and suggested that voodoo be considered as a religion equivalent to Roman Catholicism -- a notion that the Europeanized elite abhorred. Lacking direct influence in Haitian affairs, the elite resorted to clandestine lobbying among the officer corps. Their efforts, in combination with deteriorating domestic conditions, led to a coup in May 1950.

To be sure, Estimé had hastened his own demise in several ways. His nationalization of the Standard Fruit banana concession sharply reduced the firm's revenues. He alienated workers by requiring them to invest between 10 percent and 15 percent of their salaries in national-defense bonds. The president sealed his fate by attempting to manipulate the constitution in order to extend his term in office. Seizing on this action and the popular unrest it engendered, the army forced the president to resign on May 10, 1950. The same junta that had assumed power after the fall of Lescot reinstalled itself. An army escort conducted Estimé from the National Palace and into exile in Jamaica. The events of May 1946 made an impression upon the deposed minister of labor, François Duvalier. The lesson that Duvalier drew from Estimé's ouster was that the military could not be trusted. It was a lesson that he would act upon when he gained power.

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Page last modified: 02-08-2011 16:44:45 ZULU