Thursday, 14 January 2010

Haiti Then and Now

Like most of us, I've been saddened by the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake, as recorded in pictures on TV and the online New York Times, yet still trying to avoid the pitfalls Susan Sontag  analyzes in Regarding the Pain of Others.  Casting around for consoling perspectives (none of which quite work), I thought of Hurricane Katrina. Terrible as it was, the disaster at least served as a wake-up call to that part of the U.S. public ignorant of the difficulties faced by citizens living below the poverty line.  Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Not, as Bible-thumping Pat Robertson believes, because it has a "pact with the devil."  The legacy of colonialism, including a crippling indemnity imposed by France after Toussaint L'Ouverture won independence for this population of former slaves; U.S. military occupation from around 1914 to the mid-30s; and a succession of dictators concerned with lining their pockets at the expense of the people. These, impoverished, resorted to cutting down trees to make charcoal, the only source of fuel available; and so the country became deforested, its soil eroded, and the acreage of arable land reduced. Which only deepened the problem.

When international aid came to Haiti, corrupt officials raked off the better part of it to enrich themselves. Efforts weren't coordinated between competing organizations, and the potential benefit seriously hindered. Just possibly the disaster will be the stimulus that unites Haiti and the international community in a really effective array of programs to put this extraordinary country back on its feet.

I spent January of 1970 in Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien.  Forty years ago Haiti was in a little better shape than it is now.  It had for some time been a destination for world travelers. One of Graham Greene's novels, The Comedians, was set there. Though not his best, it was even so made into a film of some interest.  During our time in Port-au-Prince, Ann and I stayed in the Hotel Oloffson, mainly because Greene's novel had made it famous, an attractive old place with lacy Caribbean Gothic ornament that reminded me of New Orleans.  We instantly became enthusiasts of the city and its inhabitants. The Haitian people, intelligent and energetic as few nations are, combine cultural influences from Africa, France, and Latin America. Haitian visual art, as made by untrained painters, is world famous, vibrant, brilliant in color, arresting in design, and a potent depiction of the life of the Kreol populace.  The religion, which incorporates elements of West African polytheism and Roman Catholicism, is probably the main sustaining force in a land where purely material comforts are scarce.  Anywhere you go in the African diaspora the music is amazing, and Haiti is no exception. Also, it had at that time the best cooking to be found in the Caribbean, a combination of French and African taste and inventiveness. 

While we were there, a regime change occurred. "Papa Doc" Duvalier had died, and so his son, often called "Baby Doc" assumed the dynastic title of "President for Life."  (Do I need to say that the Duvalier regime enjoyed the protection and support of the U.S.? Anything to prevent intervention from Moscow.)  To mark the event, there was a celebratory parade, passing near the National Palace, which looked like a big white wedding cake.  One element of the parade was a flatbed truck bearing the privileged youth of the capital, who appeared to have only a small part of Haiti's African genetic heritage; in fact, most of the kids had curly blond hair and green eyes.  Following international youth fashions of the day, they were dressed in torn jeans and berets, played rock music, and held up posters bearing the image of Che Guevara. This in a celebration of Haiti's incoming dictator/exploiter. The mind reels.  (I was also stunned yesterday when I saw the National Palace a crumpled ruin in the aftermath of the quake.)

I had read Haitian history, so I wanted to go north to Cap Haitien and see the fort that was Toussaint L'Ouverture's stronghold--La Ferroniere, they called it, because it was shaped like an antique flatiron.  Northern Haiti has a pleasanter climate than Port-au-Prince's, but Cap Haitien is quite isolated. There were no usable roads, so we flew north seated on metal benches in a commercial prop plane.  Once there, getting to the top of the mountain where the fort stands was no easy task, involving several hours on the back of a donkey, which quickly became unbearable.  I walked more than half the distance beside my pleasantly surprised beast of burden. And then it began to rain, so the fort was only partly visible, lost in clouds and mist.  It was an eerie experience, standing in the lush tropical vegetation, gazing up at the old stone structure where an unrecorded number of Haitian freedom-fighters died.  In fact, it made so strong an impression that I later on worked out a Haitian setting for several chapters of a novel I wrote in the early 70s.  It was never published, but I think there is a copy of it somewhere, I'll have to look.

Port-au-Prince must be rebuilt. And the whole country must be put on a sound footing, a concerted relief effort that eradicates the poverty that has for two centuries made life difficult for Haitians, and yet meanwhile never destroyed them or undermined their creative energy. Vive l'Haiti et le peuple haitien.


  1. That was a wonderful entry, thank you. Just yesterday I was thinking exactly what you described about this kind of devastation bringing global attention to a country so in need and being an unfortunate catalyst for change.

    I, and 13 others, are leaving next week for Haiti. We began planning our trip last September and never dreamed that this kind of disaster would befall the country so soon before our departure. Although the emotional trauma will certainly be difficult to handle, we are passionate about helping these people. Hopefully we will be able to build relationships and one day help to rebuild the city.

  2. I appreciate your lucid post, and the note of hope.

  3. Of course there is a period of deep bereavement to be undergone. Yet the process of healing and rebuilding has already begun and will continue. Haiti is not finished. Nor should we let our modern short attention-spans move away and forget a nation that will need a sustained relief effort on the part of the world community. Vive l'Haiti et le peuple haitien.