By Cheryl Mc Call
Updated November 14, 1977 12:00 PM

Graham Greene called it “the Nightmare Republic,” and it has never been hard to see why. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent illiteracy, an average per capita income of $200 a year and a tradition of epidemic starvation. Life expectancy is 45 years, nearly half of all Haitian children die before their fourth birthday and 15 percent never see their first. Every year scores of Haitian peasants flee the country in skiffs, preferring the long odds against survival at sea to the ordeal of another season on the edge of despair.

In 1971, at the age of 19, Jean-Claude Duvalier became absolute dictator and President for Life of the steamy Caribbean republic. In so doing, he inherited a country ruled as much by fear as by poverty. His despotic father, Dr. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, had governed Haiti ruthlessly for nearly 14 years—a voodoo cult figure and tyrant whose rifle-brandishing Tontons Macoutes (Creole for “bogeymen”) terrorized, plundered and murdered at his whim. When he presented his country with “the young leader whom I have promised” shortly before his death, the widespread assumption was that Jean-Claude would be simply a trustee of the family slush funds. But there is growing evidence that he is more than just his corrupt father’s son. “He’s a dictator, let’s face it,” says one close American observer of the Haitian scene. “All the opposition has been quashed so he can use his energies in other ways. But we must appreciate what changes have occurred.”

In the six-plus years since he took office Jean-Claude Duvalier (known to the natives as Bébé Doc, a nickname he dislikes) has freed all political prisoners, fired corrupt retainers from his father’s regime, closed the infamous Fort Dimanche prison in Port-au-Prince and allowed the Haitian press more leeway in criticizing the government. In a country heavily dependent on foreign aid from Western nations (U.S. assistance totals $41.3 million), such liberalization makes sound economic sense. But Duvalier fils, now 26, seems committed to making his own mark on Haiti—even to the point of tacitly admitting the sins of his father. “Many leaders in the past, and the presidents, managed to make money out of contracts in the country,” he says. “If such a system still prevailed, we would not be getting as many loans from international organizations as we are.”

At first little was expected of the blubbery 6’1″, 250-pound teenager. The youngest of Papa Doc’s four children, and the only son, he had been educated in local Catholic schools but seemed better suited for life as a playboy than as ruler of his country. An accomplished horseman and an avid race-car driver and speedboat pilot, he cultivated a seemingly limitless passion for games—pool, backgammon and chess among them. “In the past I tried to fly airplanes,” he says, “but I had to give it up due to pressures from the palace. They thought I might take too many risks.” Since he has always been a potential target for assassination (terrorists tried to kidnap him when he was 11), his early training emphasized self-defense. “Once,” he recalls, “I was deeply asleep and dreaming when my mother came into the room. As I awakened I could only see a dim figure looming over me, and instinctively I grabbed her by the throat in a judo hold. She screamed so loud I woke up. That really scared her.” (Duvalier can break a two-inch board with his hand.)

When the mantle of power descended on him, the young bon vivant stopped drinking and smoking, went on a strict diet to lose 50 pounds—and began casting a cold eye on the government his father had left him. “In one human being you have two persons,” he explains, “Mr. Duvalier and the president of the republic. Mr. Duvalier is a man who sometimes tolerates too much in private life and relationships with friends. I cannot allow this when it is a matter of state. If someone deceives me, I won’t trust him ever again.” Hundreds of government workers have been fired for inefficiency and corruption in the last month alone, he declares. “I am a very dynamic man, and I like things to move rapidly. I am open-minded, and I consider myself sympathetic, but I don’t like it when people try to shirk duties.”

The change in Haiti is palpable. Curfews and midnight police raids have been abolished, as well as the labyrinthine network of police checkpoints that made driving even short distances an adventure in delay and frustration. The Tontons Macoutes still exist but are now under the control of the army; the new presidential guards, “Les Léopards,” are an elite corps trained by retired U.S. Marines. Renewed confidence among foreign investors has brought Haiti financing for 300 miles of new roads, an infusion of light industry and plans for major construction to meet an anticipated increase in tourism (construction of a Club Med will begin in January, and negotiations are nearly complete for a new 250-room Hyatt Hotel complex). “Government policies made it attractive for business,” says Duvalier.

Still, much in Haiti has changed not at all. The Duvalier family—Jean-Claude, his three sisters and his 54-year-old mother, Simone Ovide Duvalier—live in a luxury that is incongruous when measured against Haiti’s poverty, and incredible when measured against Jean-Claude’s income of $2,000 a month (plus expenses) as president. There are four plush family homes scattered about the island, including a 112-acre ranch Jean-Claude uses on weekends. By one report he recently purchased a million-dollar yacht, and two years ago he dedicated a $3 million mausoleum to Papa Doc in Port-au-Prince (although he has decided against having his father buried in it).

Nor do the demands of office keep Jean-Claude from enjoying old pastimes—listening to jazz and popular music (his taste runs from John Coltrane to Frank Sinatra to Mac Davis), seeing three or four movies a week in the palace screening room (recently Jaws, Rocky, Network and, his favorite, Dirty Harry), developing his own photographs in the palace darkroom—and looking, tentatively, for a wife. “I cannot marry yet,” he says, “although I get very lonely sometimes. I have five and a half million people as a responsibility, and the woman I choose must also be first lady—that is very difficult.”

For all the reforms, democracy and affluence still seem light-years distant from Haitian reality. There are elections every six years, but anyone who wishes to vote “no” must write it in—and thereby open himself to the charge of defacing a ballot. The only parliamentary body is composed of Jean-Claude’s 57 appointed ministers. “We will have our own form of democracy one day,” he says. “But we do not wish to imitate the U.S. The Haitian mentality is that your democracy lets people take advantage of weakness to get rid of leaders. If I were to announce a democracy now, it would be considered a sign of weakness on my part.” Young Duvalier’s reforms, of course, may be largely expedient. As U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young noted after a recent visit to Haiti, “When people understand which way the wind is blowing, they trim their sails accordingly.” Should Duvalier succeed, however, in dispelling the fear and privation that were his father’s legacy, his motives may not seem significant.