After Duvalier : Haiti: A Scary Time for Voodoo

Times Staff Writer

A few days after the ouster of President Jean-Claude Duvalier, a mob looted the home of a voodoo priestess here, shattered bottles of herbal medicine, tore apart her altars and stripped the house to bare plaster.

On a wall outside, across the street from a mural depicting the blood sacrifice of a goat, vandals scrawled the message: “Down With Voodoo. Free the Zombies.”

At about the same time, in the northern town of Gonaives, a neighborhood hero paraded through a salt-marsh slum wearing a cape and grasping a toy horse, a voodoo symbol of war.


The youth had fought the Duvalier police, and adoring townspeople reached out to touch him, to place their hands on his head. His head was damp with a voodoo potion reputed to give courage.

Conflicting Feelings

The two incidents--voodoo scorned and voodoo triumphant--reflect the conflicting feelings toward Haiti’s predominant religion that have surfaced since Duvalier fled to France a month ago.

Although voodoo practitioners have won some credit for supporting demonstrations against the dictatorship, voodoo is also under attack for its connections with the Duvalier family, particularly the ousted president’s father, the late President Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

Vigilante campaigns against Duvalier officials and associates have spilled over into assaults on voodoo priests who in one way or another were linked to the regime.

Near the port city of Cap Haitien, 10 priests and priestesses have been reported killed. Mobs shouting the anti-Duvalier battle cry “Uproot!” ransacked several homes and temples in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

Priests’ Double Role

Reasons for the attacks vary. Occasionally, ties to the Duvalier government are clear, for some priests doubled as members of the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier’s feared network of armed enforcers and spies.

In other cases, the motivation was personal vengeance, often based on belief in the occult power of voodoo to do harm. A northern farmer complained that a sorcerer brought a relative back from the dead and turned him into a zombie doomed to eternal bondage under the priest.

“This is a very delicate time for voodoo,” said Max Beauvoir, a Cornell-educated biochemist and voodoo priest in Port-au-Prince. “I fear there will be bloodshed.”

According to Beauvoir and other voodoo priests, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christians are campaigning against voodoo as part of a never-ending contest for the hearts and souls of Haitians.

“This is an ongoing thing in our history,” said Herard Simon, a Gonaives voodoo priest, or houngan, as they are known in the Creole patois.

Despite these fears, it is by no means clear that there is an organized crusade. Rather, the violence seems to be part of the general wave that emerged after Duvalier fled. Among the targets are government officials, businesses, the food warehouses of charity organizations--almost anything and anyone identified with the past.

In Port-au-Prince, young vandals who destroyed the home of Madame Pierrot, a well-known priestess, charged that she consorted with Duvalier’s secret police and probably cast spells over Duvalier’s enemies.

Exploitation Charged

Others in the group said they hope to eliminate voodoo from their neighborhoods and make Haiti a Christian nation.

Still others said simply that Madame Pierrot, who escaped the attack, exploited worshipers by charging excessive fees for her services, which range from marrying to telling fortunes. There were 32 rooms in her home.

In Limonade, a small town near Cap Haitien, a judge said there was no common factor, except for voodoo, in the 10 deaths among voodoo priests there. In one case, a priestess was said to have celebrated a black mass with a Duvalier official during which they ate rice mixed with blood.

In another case, a mob accused a voodoo priest of poisoning a farmer at the behest of the local Tontons Macoutes. How did they know the priest was guilty? “The people consulted with another houngan and he told them,” the judge, Menard Dessalines, said.

Family Association

Several voodoo priests recognize that they have an image problem because of voodoo’s association with the Duvalier family.

“The connection is imbedded in the minds of many people and will be difficult to erase,” said Simon, the Gonaives houngan.

Voodoo, a religion with many gods first brought to Haiti by slaves from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, has a turbulent history here. It has been alternately embraced and rejected by rulers, and campaigns against it have been bloody.

In the 1930s, a law was enacted forbidding the practice of voodoo, and in the 1940s the authorities tried to stamp it out by repression, only to set off an outbreak of religious violence. Periodically, the authorities imposed heavy taxes on voodoo priests.

Still, voodoo, described by the late U.S. historian Robert Heinl as “an amalgam of the ancient animist sects of West Africa infused with Catholic ritual,” has survived. Haitians today often say that their country is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% voodoo.

Papa Doc’s Embrace

When Francois Duvalier came to power in 1957, he publicly embraced voodoo. He invited voodoo priests to the presidential palace and let it be known that he took part in voodoo rites and considered voodoo an expression of the country’s black heritage. His mother was said to be a priestess, or mambo.

“Voodoo had gone through some difficult periods,” Simon said. “We were seduced by Duvalier.”

It was evident that Francois Duvalier exploited the cult mainly to bolster his rule. He identified his ascendancy with voodoo and was reputed to have slept on the tomb of the hero of Haitian independence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to commune with his ghost.

“Only the gods can take power from me,” Duvalier once said.

Voodoo came to be linked with the repression that characterized his regime. The first chief of his private militia was a sorcerer from Gonaives. Duvalier once ordered the head of a rival cut off and shipped to the palace, where Duvalier is said to have “chatted” with the victim’s spirit.

Legal Bar Remained

Superstitious opponents speculated that voodoo gave Duvalier the power to know where his enemies were and what they were doing.

Despite the use of voodoo to strengthen his mystique, Duvalier did little else to foster the cult. He continued to tax it, and he never rescinded the laws that make it technically illegal.

“Duvalier’s attitude toward voodoo was at best benign neglect,” Beauvoir, the biochemist-priest, said.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, unlike his father, was not seen as friendly toward voodoo. Yet toward the end of his rule, he called in voodoo priests to ask their advice.

Now the priests, burdened with this history and fearing they may be left behind in a changing Haiti, are looking for ways to alter the image of their religion.

They have drawn up a request to institutionalize the practice of herbal medicine. And they have submitted proposals to the ruling National Council on everything from reducing prices to reforming education. They have received no reply.

Role in Ouster?

As if to counter suggestions that voodoo was a willing tool of the Duvaliers, followers insist that voodoo played a role in ousting Jean-Claude Duvalier.

But if there was such a role, it is difficult to pin down. Some people think the voodoo priests are just trying to compete with the Catholic Church, which organized many anti-Duvalier youth groups.

Nonetheless, voodoo activity has become a part of the folklore surrounding the end of the Duvalier regime. In Gonaives, the town where anti-Duvalier activity reached its peak, activist youths say that voodoo ceremonies were a cover for clandestine strategy meetings.

Townspeople assert that voodoo priests contributed emotional support by dispensing potions reputed to impart supernatural courage. They say that Jean Tatoune, a fisherman who faced down Duvalier’s police, was strengthened by visits to voodoo priests.

“He is immune to bullets,” said Merisier Pierre, who described himself as a spokesman for Tatoune.

‘Mystic Strength’

Tatoune himself would say only that he visited a local voodoo priest to obtain “mystic strength.”

The prescription included an unidentified liquid poured on Tatoune’s scalp, which was covered by a blue and red scarf to inhibit evaporation. Blue and red are the colors of Haiti’s new flag. Tatoune also made a special request for protection to the war god Ogoun, whose symbol is the horse.

In the ramshackle neighborhood of Raboteau, where Tatoune lives, the belief lingers that he continues to have supernatural power. He is acclaimed when he walks in the streets, and he receives gifts from merchants who seek his favor, as well as constant offers of marriage.

Across town, Arsen Moise, a mechanic and a member of the fledgling Haitian Christian Democratic Party, said the demonstrators in his neighborhood bought a powder to spread on roads where the demonstrators would pass. The powder was meant to strengthen the demonstrators and somehow obstruct the police.

“We all felt better with the powder,” Moise said.

Even the youths who were trained by the Catholic Church, who consider themselves Christianized, declined to reject completely the appeal of voodoo.

A reporter with the Catholic radio station said, “The church organized people to take to the streets, but sometimes voodoo was needed to get them to confront the police.”

Jean-Claude Duvalier was ordered to move from the French Alps to the Riviera. Page 14.