395. Letter From the Political Officer of the Embassy in Haiti (De Santillana) to the Chief of Haitian Affairs, Office of Caribbean Affairs (Wauchope)1

Dear Keith:

In recent months the troubles which have plagued the Jean-Claude regime have, as might be expected, led to an increase in speculation and reports of a possible military coup in Haiti. Since I know all coup talk is of unusual interest in Washington, I thought it might be useful to pass on to you some of my own thoughts on the question.

In recent months disenchantment with the performance of the Jean-Claude regime (or the lack of it) appears to have increased markedly among a number of “old guard” Duvalierists, men who held important positions under Papa Doc. It used to be that most of the grumbling or complaining from this element was directed against Luckner Cambronne or others in the cabinet, but more lately their barbs have swung against the President himself. In fact it has reached the point where I would say that some of the notable “old guard” Duvalierists would now welcome replacement of the President. Insofar as the military is concerned, I have no personal knowledge of their political thinking, but if other Duvalierists appear to becoming increasingly disenchanted with the regime, it would not be surprising if some of the military officers shared that feeling. So we have a backdrop that would, on the surface, seem to be increasingly favorable to a coup.

On the other hand, I must confess that to me it seems a long step indeed in Haiti from expressing disenchantment with the regime to actually putting together an effective coup. Two all-important factors must be taken into consideration here: One is the extreme fragmentation, even atomization of the Armed Forces, perfected by Papa Doc to protect himself from any military coup and continued by his successors. The successors have even established a new, independent and powerful unit—the Leopards—to further complicate any possible coup plotting. The second factor is the character of the officers in question [Page 1029] themselves. Both Spencer Key and I are personally acquainted with Jean Thomas, Serge Coicou, Francis Charles, and a few other officers of the Presidential Guard. We are both impressed with Thomas, Fils-Aime, and Coicou mainly as affable, friendly, apparently decent and family-oriented men. That is probably why Gracia Jacques picked them and has trusted them. These men must have some special qualities of loyalty and keeping their noses out of politics, else they would not have survived the 1960s so close to the President while the ranks of their fellow officers were decimated. Francis Charles appears to me more of a slippery character, but I would interpret his slipperiness as working against collaboration with his fellow officers, rather than with them. Charles is also a son-in-law of the Defense Minister, Breton Nazaire. And as for Lt. Col. Raoul Remy, I simply cannot conceive of him doing anything in a coup. Remy commands only a few dozen recruits in basic training camp forwarded to him every six months from the various department commanders, and he has no ammunition whatsoever. When we met him last summer during the Survey Team visit Remy told Spencer Key and me that he takes his recruits out to firing range practice only two or three times during their six months of training, and each time he must go to the Palace to get the ammunition.

To my mind, there is only one officer in Haiti in a position to think realistically about mounting an effective coup: Gracia Jacques. And even Jacques would not find it easy. First, he would have to get most of his own officers in line—no certain accomplishment when it appears that some of them (such as Francis Charles) report individually to the President. Then he would have to plan how to neutralize Luc Desir and his secret police, the VSN of the Palace (who are regularly on duty and numerous—I saw them en masse outside the President’s office the night of the Knox kidnapping); Breton Claude, and probably Acedius St. Louis, Commander of the Leopards. Neutralizing all these people and their deputies, even for Jacques, would not be at all easy, and the odds would be even worse for any coup plotters who would have to overcome Jacques in addition to the others.

The above is to outline what I personally see as very formidable obstacles to any traditional sort of military coup here. And I suspect that most military officers would tend to view the obstacles in much the same way, whatever their private opinions of the regime. The above, however, does not rule out the isolated attempted act of violence against the regime, such as sabotage or an attempt to assassinate the Duvaliers. In this respect, however, we are inclined to think that the Palace fire of the 23rd was more likely accidental than intentional.

In conclusion, I would stress that this letter is directed only at the question of the possibility of a military coup. My skepticism concerning the likelihood of a coup should not be interpreted to mean that the re[Page 1030]gime is not badly troubled these days, as I hope we have indicated in our reporting.

You may wish to show this letter to John Burke.


Gerald de Santillana

Note: This letter was drafted before the cabinet changes announced last night (August 9).

  1. Summary: De Santillana reported on speculation regarding a military coup in Haiti and concluded that an attempt by the Armed Forces to overthrow the government of President Duvalier was unlikely.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files, 1970–1973, ARA/CAR, Lot 75D393, POL Political Affairs—General. Confidential; Official-Informal. In telegram 1375 from Port-au-Prince, August 10, the Embassy reported on the cabinet changes referred to in the postscript of this letter, noting that Duvalier’s August 9 reshuffle would help to deflate some of the pressure for change that had been mounting. (Ibid., Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number])