Magloire. Military ruler behind Haiti’s brief golden age
By Greg Chamberlain The Guardian – 20 July, 2001
General Paul Magloire, who presided over what many of his compatriots – especially the wealthy – saw as Haiti’s last golden age, has died aged 93. It was also a time that starkly displayed the colour divide that has bedevilled the country for two centuries.
Under Magloire, Haiti became a mecca for American tourists and world-ranking glitterati, among them Truman Capote, Irving Berlin and Noel Coward. The anti-communist ruler was also a Washington favourite at the height of the Cold War, and was feted by President Eisenhower, with whom US journalists compared him in gushing terms.
Magloire’s rule as president, from 1950 to 1956, was a period of unusual peace and efforts at modernisation, before the long dictatorship of the Duvalier family laid waste to Haiti, sending it into a downward spiral of poverty, repression and disorganisation from which it has yet to recover.
A general’s son himself, Magloire was a product of the new Haitian army, that dubious legacy of the US occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. As a young major, he overthrew the disastrous regime of President Elie Lescot in 1946, amid an uprising by young urban revolutionaries, many of them steeped in Marxism.
But the issue of colour intervened. Magloire was from the rising, black middle-class; the two other officers in the junta were from the light-skinned elite. Together, they allowed the election of a liberal black president, Dumarsais Estimé, but his promotion of fellow blacks frightened the elite. When he tried to extend his term of office in 1950, the elite turned to the ambitious Magloire, already wealthy with their help, and he again deposed a president.
The mulattos were happy that Magloire was now fronting their shameless privilege and barely concealed racism. His rule marked the apogee of their power – some would say their last stand – and the genial “Kanson Fé” (or “Iron Pants”), as he was known, threw himself with gusto into their lifestyle. With his passion for bemedalled uniforms, horses and fine whisky, Magloire staged endless dazzling social events and ceremonies, even re-enacting the final battle for Haiti’s independence from France on its 150th anniversary in 1954.
Blessed by good world coffee prices, the country’s ill- endowed economy moved forward under Magloire, who refurbished towns and built roads, public squares, a cathedral, the country’s first major dam and other infrastructure projects. The first attempts at economic and social planning were made, and foreign investment was successfully courted. Women were given the vote, and direct popular election of the president was introduced – though Magloire still scored a time-honoured 99% of the poll when the new system was first used soon after his 1950 coup.
But corruption, growing repression, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, and the theft of subsequent relief funds turned the tide against Magloire. In 1956, disputes broke out over when his term of office should end. Under pressure from strikes and demonstrations mounted by his rivals, the army abandoned him and he fled abroad.
After a year of political chaos, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier won the presidency in a rigged election, and Magloire quickly became the absent scapegoat. Opposition to the new regime was blamed on him, and used by Duvalier to build his reign of terror. Magloire was even stripped of his Haitian nationality.
After the Duvaliers fell in 1986, he quietly returned to Haiti from exile in New York. Two years later, the army, once more in power, briefly coopted him as an unofficial adviser; it was a token attempt to make it up to the old general it had earlier rejected.
He is survived by two sons and two daughters.
* Paul Magloire, soldier and politician, born July 19 1907; died July 12 2001