Nine Years in One Day: On Haiti

Nine Years in One Day: On Haiti

The tension between the personal and the political permeates new books on Haiti by Amy Wilentz and Jonathan M. Katz.


Some foreign visitors to Haiti are horrified and run away screaming, and may later communicate their experience to prophets and pundits like Pat Robertson and David Brooks. Others—a crew including doctors, missionaries, journalists, NGO-niks and so-called “cultural types”—succumb to the considerable enchantments of the country and grow attached to it in the long run. It’s a sizable company, but small enough that the people within it tend to know each other sympathetically. We all share an affection for Haiti, one based in both a sense that Haitian culture has many valuable qualities that our own First World culture can no longer supply, and a set of Haitian experiences which, we tend to feel, can only be understood by those who have been through them. I’ve been going to Haiti since 1995 and have a passing acquaintance with Jonathan Katz, the author of The Big Truck That Went By; Amy Wilentz, the author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo, I know rather well. With the rest of our fellow travelers, we inhabit a sort of floating island that drifts over Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, never quite finding a permanent mooring.

Haitians, meanwhile, call all foreigners in their country blan, regardless of skin tone. Applied to a glove or a goat, this Kreyol word means “white.” Applied to us, it simply means we are not Haitian. When Wilentz published The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier in 1989, she became a prominent spokeswoman for blan engaged with Haiti. Her book chronicles the turbulent, violent and energetic period following the overthrow of the long-running Duvalier regime in 1986, and the emergence of a populist movement that coalesced around Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who would be elected president in 1990. The Rainy Season is a thorough and solid work of hard-news reporting and analysis; Wilentz also appears as a first-person narrator and actor in many of the scenes she describes, writing beautifully and vividly about Haiti, Haitians and her own evolving position among them. Since its publication, The Rainy Season has set the bar for other books of its kind.

Jonathan Katz is a relative newcomer to the Haiti beat but, to paraphrase a Kreyol proverb, in Haiti you can sometimes live nine years in one day. On January 12, 2010, Katz was near the end of a three-year posting with the Associated Press when his Pétionville house caved in on him during the most powerful earthquake to strike Haiti in centuries. His book begins with a gripping account of his escape from the rubble and his first hours spent circulating through the wreckage of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, with his Haitian driver and all-around fixer, trying to report on the disaster and also to learn if family and friends had survived and required rescue.

Katz’s blow-by-blow reportage of the quake and its immediate aftermath is riveting. The book’s deeper structure offers a concise and accurate history of Haiti from its revolutionary origins to the present day, and a clear and cogent analysis of how and why the massive, expensive effort to rebuild the country after the quake has, for the most part, failed. His lucid understanding of the latter problem is undoubtedly hard-won, as essential information is extremely difficult to extract from the fog of confusion suffusing Haitian politics and Haitian relations with the international community.

* * *

In The Big Truck That Went By, a salient fact can pop upside your head like a piece of the iron rebar that urban Haitians use to reinforce—inadequately—their crumbly concrete-block structures. One of the book’s most valuable qualities is its thorough documentation of claims and suspicions that are more often announced than proved.

The earthquake’s horrific death toll was a consequence of persistent overpopulation in Port-au-Prince, where generations of new arrivals constructed their dwellings ad hoc in the absence of anything like a building code. The flood-level migration from countryside to capital, by people drawn to the sole source of essential services and economic opportunity, began during Haiti’s occupation by US Marines from 1915 to 1934; “the Americans knew it would be easier to control the country from a single locus of power,” Katz writes. This opinion was warmly shared by subsequent Haitian dictators, especially François (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his successor and son, Jean-Claude. Under their rule, “Port-au-Prince was becoming what geographers call a ‘primate city,’ a metropolis so big that its mere size distorts the balance of economy and power.” With the balance of political power having shifted away from the countryside, the economic staying power of which was further undermined by imported food, Haiti’s agricultural economy began to dissolve and its rural population thinned out. By 2004, “nearly 3 million of a population approaching 10 million were trying to carve out space in and around Port-au-Prince,” Katz writes, while “nearly half” of the country’s population lived in cities. Government decentralization programs proved ineffective, but soon after the earthquake, 600,000 people fled the capital for their ancestral home villages, where no preparation had been made to receive them. 

For some years before the quake, general opinion in the international community had been tilting toward the idea that aid money is best spent through local governments. But as Katz reminds us, “Haiti’s principal donor”—the US Agency for International Development—“just didn’t give aid that way.” Instead of offering direct budget support for Haiti’s government, USAID preferred to fund US firms working in the country, also “known as Beltway bandits.” After the quake, an estimated $16.3 billion was pledged to Haiti by various donors, but little of that money reached the intended beneficiaries. Displaced Haitians languishing in festering camps assumed “someone must have stolen it,” whether their own notoriously corrupt government or the myriad foreign-based NGOs and state agencies.

Katz points out that $16.3 billion would not “necessarily have been a transformative sum” in the first place, even if properly spent, comparing that amount to the $806 billion the United States committed to “the war and reconstruction of Iraq.” Of the $2.4 billion in relief funds somehow disbursed in 2010, “at least 93 percent” went right back to “the UN or NGOs to pay for supplies and personnel” or never moved out of the donor states in the first place. The American Red Cross, which raised more Haitian relief money than any other NGO, had practically no one on the ground before the quake, and didn’t know how to disperse its $486 million because all its expertise is in “short-term emergency relief.” Katz quotes a Red Cross representative: “For the most part we don’t do development”; however, the Red Cross did consider investment in the construction of a high-end hotel in Port-au-Prince. In the end, neither the Haitian government nor the Haitian private sector saw very much of the promised funds.

The earthquake destroyed the major government buildings of the capital (including the National Palace), killed many members of Parliament, and left President René Préval paralytically demoralized. But Préval, his term already near its end, managed to devise a reasonable plan for an orderly transition—only to be eventually undermined by the international community, which first pressed for elections to be held on schedule, even though “a clean vote seemed impossible,” then skewed the result by throwing out (via a commission of the Organization of American States) a critical chunk of the few votes cast. The result was that Michel Martelly, the current president, won a runoff election in which “just one-fifth of the electorate cast ballots.”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Katz argues persuasively that violent crime and demonstrations in the capital’s streets scarcely existed before the aid invasion provoked them. Then there were food riots, and violence surrounding the botched election, and ferocious outrage over the most devastating international blunder: Nepalese soldiers stationed at a UN peacekeeping base started a cholera epidemic by polluting Haiti’s most important river with infected human waste. Katz’s succinct summation of the overall international aid effort is irrefutable: “Having sought above all to prevent riots, ensure stability, and prevent disease, the responders helped spark the first, undermine the second, and by all evidence caused the third.”

* * *

Katz’s and Wilentz’s new books should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand Haiti or go there, especially to do good works. Katz, for the most part, writes a restrained sort of New Journalism; if he appears in a scene, it’s usually to hold the microphone. His more personal reactions (including subsequent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder) are walled off in separate sections. Katz’s account is mostly meant to be transparent: to report the story without a filter. Wilentz’s argument, meanwhile, is that, between Haitians and blan at least, such transparency is impossible.

Nearly twenty-five years on from The Rainy Season, Wilentz has written a valediction. The high hopes she expressed in the late 1980s—also certainly felt by a great many Haitians—have not been fulfilled. Instead, the old vicious circles have persisted, exacerbated by natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake and the ever-increasing hurricane strikes. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Wilentz takes the tone of a disappointed lover—wounded, but still very much in love.

Vodou, a religion that revolves around African-style ancestor worship and possession by spirits derived from the ancestors, is still practiced by the majority of Haitians in one or another of its immensely adaptable forms. The Anglo spelling of the term that Wilentz has chosen is guaranteed to be offensive to the majority of Haitians and their fellow travelers, to the point that many won’t reach the prefatory passage where she justifies the choice: “When I write about voodoo in this book, I am examining the historical engagement of outsiders with the religion, and so I wanted to capture—with the very word—all the negativity that’s been associated with this ancient form of worship by unschooled visitors and a dismissive outside world.”

The name of her straw man, Fred Voodoo, has a similar provenance, this time in the distancing cynicism of the journalists who spend their careers voyaging from one disaster area or war zone to the next; “Fred” stands for the proverbial Haitian man on the street. Wilentz’s fleshing out of this personage shows many of her extraordinary gifts:

Fred wanted to discuss democracy. He was thinking about what it would be like to be free, not to have a stick or a machete or a gun threatening him all the time, to walk around without cringing, not to have to give the local macoute money, women, things—and how it would feel to vote freely for a president who might care about him, who might worry about Fred Voodoo and all his problems…. Fred Voodoo often showed me his house. He would guide me around the one room, with the one bed, no kitchen, no lights, no bathroom. A pregnant wife and a bunch of skinny kids. Fred was thinking about food, about having enough of it, for himself and his kids, and about how a real country, a free country, would have enough food and at prices people could pay.

In this still-generic characterization, one begins to see a whole person and his aspirations. Still, Wilentz wants to do more, to get past “Fred Voodoo, a kind of speaking cipher,” to reach “a real, particular, single human being.”

Implicit in her approach is the assumption that when we blan look at Haiti, we don’t see the actual place or its people at all but instead a magic mirror that reflects aspects of ourselves. Reporting on any other place presents the same problem to some degree, but Haiti, with its wealth of seductions and deceptions, is special. The Rainy Season is a book about Haiti; Farewell, Fred Voodoo is about how Haiti is perceived by blan observers (those who love it and those who don’t). It’s a difficult project—as Nietzsche said, we can’t see around our own corner—and Wilentz sets herself a high standard of intellectual honesty. Such an approach requires self-criticism, and she does criticize herself, a lot and often harshly. In this context, her use of the offensive “voodoo” might be understood as a form of self-mortification.

The Rainy Season is an exhilarating narrative, caught up in the energetic mood of positive change that suffused the post-Duvalier period, expressed in the rise of Aristide at the head of a genuine populist movement called Lavalas, or Flood. Wilentz knew Aristide when he was still a practicing parish priest whose critique of the Haitian status quo was grounded in liberation theology, and her book contributed to building a positive image for him in the United States and elsewhere during the run-up to his first election as president in 1990. The euphoric sense of rising unity in that short period not only brought Haitians together in a new way; it also lent coherence to Wilentz’s book. Her new book cannot help being less tightly integrated. Its form is defined by the violent disintegration of the two Aristide regimes between 1990 and 2004, with the earthquake as a cruel denouement. Also, in the old days, Wilentz could write with a conviction that she understood her subject thoroughly. Now her writing is hobbled by doubt, the sense that things are not what they seem. In Kreyol, Tou sa w we, se pa sa.

* * *

Haiti was founded by African slaves who rose against their European masters, had a revolution and created a new state. There is no other such event in Western history. Of course, no blan at the time thought it was a good idea. The Haitian Revolution was almost perfectly effaced from history for more than 200 years, although in the last couple of decades it has become an overcrowded academic field. Like Katz, Wilentz succinctly describes the origins of the Haitian nation and state and their relation to the present situation; her effort is abetted by the fact that in an oral-history culture such as Haiti’s, events a couple of centuries gone still feel recent.

The Citadelle Laferrière, an astonishing mountaintop fortress that has dominated Haiti’s northern skyline since it was built by Henri Christophe, a key leader of the revolution, two centuries ago, might fairly be counted the eighth wonder of the world. One of Wilentz’s more startling discoveries is the existence of a quite similar edifice, built by Aristide above his hometown, Port Salut, on the south coast. Haiti’s justifiable pride in its revolution has devolved into a purely fantastic obsession with defense. Not that there haven’t been invasions and occupations: by the US Marines between the world wars, by an international force led by the United States during the Clinton administration, by the subsequent UN peacekeeping missions, and now by the swarms of well-meaning relief personnel in the aftermath of the earthquake—an invasion, as Katz shows, not as benevolent as intended. But in reality, since 1804 Haiti’s military has mainly been used against its own people, becoming, in the absence of external enemies, a poor substitute for a civilian police force, as well as a mechanism for frequent coups d’état.

Aristide meant to put an end to all that when he abolished the military in 1995. Since then, as Wilentz indicates, he has mutated from a true populist who would face bullets with no more armor than the robes of his priesthood to an ex-potentate willing to isolate himself in a mountaintop redoubt with walls a foot and a half thick, “a maze of secret corridors” deep underground, a water supply to withstand “several weeks” of siege, and so on.

In his failure to fulfill his early promise, Aristide is the tragic antihero of Wilentz’s narrative (though mostly standing in the wings). Many in the Haitian and blan pro-democracy movement invested their hopes in him at the beginning. The distancing and the divorce that followed were particularly wrenching for Wilentz, and the articles she published between her two Haiti books forced the end of a friendship that was once real and strong. After such a disappointment, it’s hard to trust again. And so in Farewell, Fred Voodoo, her many profiles of people roaming the post-earthquake wreckage tend to be skeptical. Wilentz guts poseurs like Anderson Cooper with one deft flick of her couline. A self-promoting doctor is sliced and diced with the simplest report of his own behavior: “It is a comment on the weirdness of our world that a doctor flying down into an earthquake could blog for the Huffington Post—via satellite phone or iPhone or whatever—but have nothing better on hand for amputations than a hacksaw.”

More intricate is her characterization of Mac McClelland, a human rights reporter for Mother Jones, who acquired PTSD like it was a cold virus by watching a recently raped Haitian woman collapse at a chance sighting of her attacker. Thus traumatized, McClelland published an account of the home therapy she elected: arranging for a friend to rape her, with the maximum verisimilitude their relationship would allow. It is truly the stuff of satirical farce—but Wilentz, no matter whom she’s criticizing, is frank on the point that, in reporting her own deeply felt responses, she’s doing a version of the same thing, albeit more tastefully than most, and certainly without McClelland’s egregious narcissism.

Of the many beautiful scenes in this book, one of the best presents Wilentz and our mutual friend, the photographer Maggie Steber, discovering an old Haitian companion among the post-earthquake ruins of Belair, a Port-au-Prince neighborhood both women once knew well. Steber “took both his hands in hers, and began to cry…everything Haiti meant to her, she was feeling and releasing.” Wilentz herself “stood off to the side, mentally tapping my foot…. This was my friend Maggie feeling real emotions about a specific person and the earthquake. And this was me, not feeling that…. To me, no emotion seemed proper.” These are not women who cry over splinters: both were on the scene in 1988 when Duvalierist paramilitary thugs tried to murder Aristide as he said Mass in St. Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince. Both women stood an excellent chance of being killed themselves. Many other people were, and the church was burned to the ground.

* * *

Amy Wilentz does not approve of herself—not anymore. Of whom, then, might she approve? It’s understandable for her to be a little shy on this point after the decay of her early support for Aristide. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, she finds very few blan who succeed, completely, in meaning well. To succeed in doing well is still more challenging: Wilentz’s study of the enigmatic and undismissible Sean Penn, whose efforts in Haiti go far beyond the usual brief performances of others at his level of stateside celebrity, is fascinating, if somewhat inconclusive. One senses that she is both impressed and perplexed by Penn’s perseverance in learning how to deal with Haiti and Haitians on their own terms.

Only Dr. Megan Coffee, who came to Haiti in the first wave of post-earthquake medical aid and soon created, out of toothpicks and determination, an effective tuberculosis clinic in a courtyard of a Port-au-Prince hospital, wins unequivocal admiration. As Wilentz describes her, Dr. Coffee (who makes a briefer appearance in Katz’s book) devotes her every waking moment to the care of her patients—from cooking caldrons of spaghetti to feed them to scrounging and bartering for medicine and oxygen to heal them. Here is the person who will give all she owns. The angels really do bow their heads at her devotion. At the same time, one cannot but feel that Dr. Coffee—as complete and convincing as her engagement is—has been elected to this role by Wilentz. I myself know several blan who have committed themselves to Haiti in just that absolute way, and none of them have so far saved the country.

Ayiti pou Ayisiens. Wilentz’s book is suffused with the awareness that, for all her admiration of Dr. Coffee’s impeccable effort, it’s just one more pair of tweezers trying to move mountains. Haitians have finally got to work out their solutions for themselves, and even with the most perfect good will in the world, we can’t know how to tell them how to do it. Wilentz expresses this idea insistently:

I feel the power of the invented place that is Haiti, the place created by Haitians, for Haitians. It’s always a less exotic place than the Haiti created by outsiders for Haitians. The farther you are from the people who are not Haitian, the more you can see the value of what’s Haitian. 

In Haiti, we blan may learn that our psyches can operate in very different ways from what, in the First World, we consider normal. That lesson isn’t always happy: it informs the run-away-screaming response as well as the enchantment. Though stoutly resistant to the paranormal phenomena that emerge directly from Vodou ceremonies, Wilentz does appreciate more diffuse variations, which underwrite the unusual success of magical thinking in Haiti: “I’d ended up where I meant to be, by accident. This is the rule rather than the exception in my experience of Haiti. You’ll be stuck on the side of a highway during a general strike with a person who needs medical attention, and eerily, down the empty highway, the one ambulance in the whole country will happen to be approaching, as if directed by Tarantino.” The collective unconscious has extraordinary empowerment in Haiti—for worse, sometimes, but also for better.

So many blan love to feel sorry for Haiti. These days we aren’t doing so great ourselves! Wilentz notes that Haiti might represent a microcosm of our own future—crippled by depleted resources, destroyed environments, dysfunctional economies, and governments too preoccupied with political infighting to manage such problems effectively. As she also points out, the Haitians were way ahead of us in 1804, on the slavery question at the very least. If we could just shut up and pay attention, Haitians might have something new to show us still.

Read Amy Wilentz’s “Letter From Haiti: Life in the Ruins,” from last week’s issue.

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