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Tontons Macoutes
Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale [VSN]
National Security Volunteers

The army and section chief structure were subordinated to Duvalier's personal control. Duvalier also created the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (National Security Volunteers, VSN, commonly known as Tontons Macoutes), an armed militia under the titular authority of the Ministry of Interior, but which was in fact a personal secret police force accountable only to the President. If you translate it word for word, itmeans "Uncle Gunnysack." The Haitian people called Duvalier's henchmen the Tontons Macoutes, after the bogeymen of Haitian folklore who kidnap children and carry them off in their macoutes, the straw shoulder satchels carried by Haitian peasants. By the early 1960's the Macoutes outnumbered uniformed soldiers and often served as section chiefs.

Voodoo has always been Haiti's most important religious tradition. Throughout the country, the most influential figures at the community level were the thousands of houngans, voodoo priests, and mambos, their female equivalents. Papa Doc Duvalier entrenched his political control in the 1950s and 1960s by securing the support of this local elite -- in part by offering them the privileged power of the Tontons Macoutes, and by projecting himself as the top houngan. To personalize his spiritual mastery of Haiti, Papa Doc appeared in public in a black, long tailed suit and top hat or bowler that Haitians identify with Baron Samedi [Baron Saturday], the incarnation of the powerful loa [voodoo spirit] that is the guardian of the graveyard in the voodoo belief system. Similarly, Macoutes would routinely wear sunglasses -- even at night -- in order to affect a frightening, "zombie-like" demeanor.

As Haiti's important social institutions became subordinate to Duvalier's control, few outlets remained for traditional political activity and those that did became increasingly dangerous. Activities that would not in other societies be considered political were often viewed in Haiti as challenges to Duvalier's authority and power. Haitians lived in fear of the knock on the door at night and the soldiers or Macoutes who could take them from their homes and place them in Duvalier's prisons -- or worse.

Through the VSN, the Duvalier regime had politicized rural Haiti. The VSN had expanded the president's influence to remote areas, and it had incorporated rural Haiti into a political system once limited almost exclusively to Port-au-Prince. The VSN had assured political control of the hinterlands, but it had given peasants no new voice in the political process. It had created a rural awareness of Port-au-Prince and events there, however, a consciousness of the national political system, and new political aspirations. The VSN had engendered a generalized disrespect for political institutions, and it had heightened expectations of profit from the political system.

The Duvalier dynasty held power longer than any other regime in Haitian history. The duration of the dynasty enabled the thorough entrenchment of Duvalierist institutions and the development of a patronage system. One of the more important of these institutions was the VSN. After the VSN's dissolution, former tonton makout leaders remained at large, and some were politically active throughout the post-Duvalier period. The old makout networks also continued to function within the army. As of 1989, they were the main obstacle to free, fair, and popular elections in Haiti, and thet were the most significant threat to domestic security.

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Page last modified: 02-08-2011 16:44:56 ZULU