President John F. Kennedy thoroughly deplored Duvalier's infamous corruption, brutal human rights violations (carried out by the infamous Tontons Macoutes), and tyrannical oppression of his political enemies, an all-inclusive group that ranged from trade unions and churches to the Boy Scouts. The CIA and the State Department's Special Operations Branch armed and supported several unsuccessful exile invasions aimed at overthrowing the dictator.
At the same time, the U.S. actively encouraged Haitians to immigrate. The first to leave were members of the upper class who directly threatened the Duvalier regime. U.S. consular officials readily approved nonimmigrant visas and - in contrast to later years - virtually all émigrés arrived legally via airplane. Though many would subsequently overstay their visas, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) did not pursue their cases, and most eventually became permanent U.S. residents.
Following President Kennedy's assassination, policy changed. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was more concerned with combating communism than with human rights violations in right-wing dictatorships. In addition, Duvalier stood by the United States against Fidel Castro's Cuba; the U.S., in turn, ignored his tyranny and stopped encouraging Haitians to immigrate here. Nevertheless, around 1964, the middle class began to leave the island. The 1965 Immigration Act permitted legal residents to bring close relatives, and the northward stream broadened.
In September 1963, the first boatload of Haitian refugees landed in South Florida. They asked for political asylum, but the INS summarily rejected the request and the boat was sent back to Haiti. The incident was a preview of the epic to come.
By the late 1970s, crude sailboats, often nearly overflowing with refugees, began to arrive regularly. Though there were tales of boats that never made it, enough arrived to cause concern among South Florida officials. The desperate plight facing many Haitians began to make media headlines. Haitian advocates argued that they were fleeing legitimate political persecution and at least deserved a chance to make their case. Repeatedly, the INS used its resources to turn them back.
François Duvalier's death in 1971 brought no appreciable change in Haiti's despotic political conditions. His nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude (nicknamed "Baby Doc"), succeeded him as president-for-life. With the murderous assistance of the Tontons Macoutes, he perpetuated the reign of terror. In February 1986, anti-government demonstrations finally toppled his regime, and Baby Doc fled to France with an estimated $120 million.
With Duvalier out, the Haitian masses rejoiced in the belief that democracy would finally come. The flow of refugees into South Florida noticeably declined, although the United States continued to interdict boats and detain their passengers in the ongoing effort to deter Haitians from coming to this country.
Even with a new regime, the economic and political conditions did not improve in Haiti. Repression and corruption continued under what Haitians refer to as "Duvalierism without Duvalier." From Jean-Claude Duvalier's fall until December 1990, the country experienced four military coups and a fraudulent election. Human rights violations, desperate poverty, and government corruption remained an integral part of everyday life. As a result, the number of Haitians seeking refuge in the United States climbed.
Haitians' hopes rose again with the election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in December 1990. The activist Catholic priest's victory caused a substantial drop in the exodus of refugees. But the return of democracy and the associated decline in Haitian "boat people" proved all too brief. On September 30, 1991, after just eight months in office, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup.
In the aftermath, soldiers beat, tortured, or murdered the ousted president's supporters, who had been arrested and imprisoned without warrants. Haitians again began to leave for the United States: 38,000 in the first eight months following the coup. Between October 29, 1991, and February 12, 1992, according to Haiti Insight, the United States Coast Guard spent an average of $45,000 per day intercepting, housing, and returning most Haitians to their homeland.