Michèle Bennett Duvalier fleeing Haiti on February 7, 1986 with Jean Claude Duvalier.
|First Lady of Haiti|
May 27, 1980 – February 7, 1986
|Preceded by||Simone Duvalier|
|Succeeded by||Gabrielle Namphy|
|Born||1950 (age 64–65)
|Spouse(s)||Alix Pasquet Jr. (1973-1978)
Jean-Claude Duvalier (1980-1990)
|Children||Alix Pasquet III
Michèle Bennett (born 1950) is the former First Lady of Haiti and the ex-wife of former President for Life of Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier. She currently lives in France after her husband was exiled from Haiti. She was divorced from Duvalier in 1990.
Michèle Bennett was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1950, the daughter of Ernest Bennett, a Haitian businessman, and Aurore Ligonde. Her father (a descendant of Henri Christophe, King of Haiti) owned more than 50,000 acres of land—growing mostly coffee—employing 1,600 estate workers in addition to 900 more in his business. Her uncle was Haiti's Roman Catholic Archbishop Monsignor François-Wolff Ligondé. The Bennetts are light-skinned mulattoes (of mixed race) in a largely black country.
At 15, Bennett moved to New York, where she was educated at St. Mary's School (Peekskill, New York) in Peekskill, New York, USA. She went on to work as a secretary at a slipper company in the garment district in New York City. In 1973, she married Alix Pasquet, the son of Captain Alix Pasquet, a well-known mulatto officer and Tuskegee Airman who in 1958 led a coup attempt against François Duvalier. By Pasquet she had two children, Alix Jr. and Sacha. After her 1978 divorce from Pasquet she had a career in public relations for Habitation LeClerc, an upscale hotel in Port-au-Prince.
Bennett met Jean-Claude Duvalier in high school, although the pair did not become romantically engaged until ten years later. In 1980, Bennett married President Duvalier. Their wedding, Haiti’s social event of the decade, cost an unprecedented US$2 million and was received enthusiastically by the majority of Haitians. Mrs. Duvalier at first endeared herself to the population by distributing clothes and food to the needy as well as opening several medical clinics and schools for the poor. In the six weeks following the wedding, Michèle and Jean-Claude toured Haiti, turning up unannounced at meetings, marketplaces, and other gathering places, which garnered "approving glances and words most everywhere". On a visit to Haiti, Mother Teresa remarked that she had "never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with [Michèle]." The Duvaliers had two children, Francois Nicolas and Anya.
The marriage represented a symbolic alliance with the mulatto elite—the very families Jean-Claude’s father had opposed. This resulted in her husband’s mother, Simone Duvalier (who opposed the match), being sidelined politically, which in turn created new factional alliances within the ruling group since the Duvalierist Old Guard opined that the new First Lady's power appeared to exceed her husband’s. While Jean-Claude often dozed through Cabinet meetings, his wife, frustrated at his political ineptitude, reprimanded ministers herself.
Criticism of regime
Accusations of or associations with corruption plagued the Duvalier-Bennett marriage. Michèle's father, Ernest Bennett, took advantage of his presidential connection to extend interests into his businesses, from his BMW dealership, to his coffee and cocoa export concerns, to Air Haiti, in whose planes Bennett was rumored to be transporting drugs. In 1982, Frantz Bennett, Michèle's brother, was arrested in Puerto Rico for drug trafficking, and began a three-year jail term.
Mrs. Duvalier's family amassed wealth during the later part of Jean Claude's dictatorship. By the end of his fifteen-year rule, Duvalier and his wife had become famous for their corruption. The National Palace became the scene of opulent costume parties, where the young President once appeared dressed as a Turkish sultan to dole out ten-thousand-dollar jewels as door prizes.
While on a visit to Haiti in 1983, Pope John Paul II declared that "things must change here," stating that he calls on "all those who have power, riches and culture so that they can understand the serious and urgent responsibility to help their brothers and sisters." Popular uprising against the regime began soon after that. Duvalier responded with a 10 percent cut in staple food prices, the closing of independent radio stations, a cabinet reshuffle, and a crackdown by police and army units, but these moves failed to dampen the momentum of the popular uprising. Jean-Claude's wife and advisers urged him to put down the rebellion to remain in office. In response to widening opposition to 28 years of Duvalier rule, on February 7, 1986, the Duvaliers left the country in an American plane accompanied by 19 other people.
The governments of Greece, Spain, Switzerland, Gabon and Morocco all refused the Duvalier family's requests for asylum. France agreed to give the Duvaliers temporary entry but also denied them asylum. As part of an investigation into looting allegations, authorities raided the villa Jean-Claude and Michele Duvalier rented in Mougins shortly after they arrived in Europe. The authorities found Mrs. Duvalier trying to flush a notebook down the toilet. It logged US$168,780 for clothes at Givenchy, US$270,200 for jewellery at Boucheron, US$9,752 for two children's horse saddles at Hermès, US$68,500 for a clock, US$13,000 for a week's stay at a Paris hotel. In 1987, the Duvaliers won a court case that attempted to hold them responsible for repaying money to Haiti.
In 1990, the former first lady was divorced from Duvalier. The former dictator filed for divorce in the Dominican Republic, accusing his wife of immoral acts. Mrs. Duvalier contested the decision, flying to the Dominican Republic to obtain a reversal before her husband prevailed in a third court. Mrs. Duvalier was at the time living with another man in Cannes; she was awarded alimony and child support.
In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake which affected millions, Bennett returned to Haiti and joined a search-and-rescue team to look for her brother Rudy Bennett in the rubble of the Montana Hotel. The former first lady returned to the site a year later for a commemoration ceremony. Bennett also returned to Haiti for Jean-Claude Duvalier's funeral on October 11, 2014. She attended with her two children from their marriage, at a chapel on the grounds of the Saint-Louis de Gonzague school in the Delmas, Ouest district of Port-au-Prince.
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- Ernest BENNETT
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