Letter From - Winter 2015

Letter from Haiti: After the Earthquake

By Madison Smartt Bell | December 2, 2014
A month after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, Pétionville children jump rope under a sheltering tarp. (U.S. Navy/Spike Call)
A month after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, Pétionville children jump rope under a sheltering tarp. (U.S. Navy/Spike Call)


Last summer I went to Haiti again.

For a little more than a decade, beginning in 1995, I had made the trip frequently, and once there I traveled far and wide, often with another blan (non-Haitian) from Europe or the United States and a Haitian companion-guide. I would rent a four-by-four truck and drive all over the northern part of the country, with the object of seeing firsthand the places and pathways that had been instrumental in Toussaint Louverture’s rise to and consolidation of power between 1791 and 1802—the period of revolution that brought the Caribbean island out of slavery and made Haiti the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere, and the first (and only) to have been founded by Africans who had freed themselves from slavery.

The summer of 1995 was a euphoric moment all over Haiti. A U.S.-U.N. “intervasion” had just restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office—he was the first person to have been elected president in a free and fair election since François (Papa Doc) Duvalier seized power in 1957—although his restoration came very close to the end of his five-year term. Aristide’s universal popularity at that moment may be difficult to remember now. His following among the ti nèg Haitian lower classes was tremendous, and most of the prodemocracy intellectuals were enthusiastic too. Hearts and flowers were everywhere, and the smiles from the broken streets and battered roads were blinding.

As those years went by, I immersed myself as much as possible in Haitian culture, which has proved to have remarkable absorbency. I improved my French and learned a functional amount of Kreyòl, the French-based dominant language. I attended Vodou ceremonies in various places and undertook an early stage of initiation into the religion. Sometimes it seemed to me (fleeting as my visits were) that I felt more at home in Haiti—particularly up north, in the Cap-Haïtien area— than in the United States. With a Haitian friend I bought a small piece of property on the road running out of Cap toward the capital. Our notion was to start a traditional lakou, or familial compound, where my friend could install his family and where one day I might even bring mine.

The purchase of the land involved running around with a lot more cash in my pocket than made me comfortable, but eventually the deal was done, whereupon I made an interesting discovery. The last document of the deed was a single piece of foolscap, twice folded and turned an unctuous black on the outside from having been carried around in someone’s pocket for at least one lifetime; it revealed that we’d just bought a corner of Habitation LeNormand, a colonial plantation that included the site of Bwa Kayiman, where the ceremony launching the first and most violent phase of the revolution had been held in August 1791. In a matter of weeks, most of the sugar plantations of the northern plain were burned and many of the planters slaughtered. In fact the century-old, sacred mapou tree of Bwa Kayiman was only a 20-minute walk from our new demesne. Me voilà proprietaire blanc à Bois Caïman! I thought, with a thrill, though even then I perceived that the harbinger wasn’t necessarily a good one.

After 2007 I stopped going to Haiti for a number of fairly unhappy reasons. When the earthquake hit in 2010, I packed a bag but changed my mind about making the trip: I wasn’t qualified as a first responder and couldn’t convince myself that going there then would be anything other than opportunistic. More years went by. Eventually, in Guadeloupe, I ran into a bunch of Haitian writer friends who invited me to a literary festival that would take place in the summer of 2014.

The American visitors to Livres en folie (a group that by the time of my arrival had boiled down to just me) were funded by the American embassy, which turned out to mean that the embassy had put me in charge, which in turn meant that I was met at the Port-au-Prince airport by a member of the embassy’s Haitian staff in command of a discreetly but heavily armored car. That felt a little odd to me, as my armament had previously consisted of a multipurpose knife, a short stick or a set of nunchuks, trust in my friends, propitiation of the lwa (Vodou spirits), and as much good luck as I could muster, but the ambassadorial hospitality was also comforting. The airport zone, conveniently near Cité Soleil, the shantytown where many criminal gangs are quartered, has for the past couple of decades been the most dangerous area in all Haiti. Predators cruise the perimeter for prey, normally consisting of diaspora Haitians tricked out with bling, gifts, and cash for their extended families back home, but more recently blan had also become eligible for robbery and kidnapping. In the 2000s, the latter had become a major problem, and kidnapping was a prospect I found so distasteful that for my last few visits to Haiti I had taken a tiny plane direct from Fort Lauderdale to Cap-Haïtien, giving Port-au-Prince a miss altogether.

The weight of the embassy escort meant that this trip would be remarkably safe. At the same time, I felt as though I were sealed in a sort of diving bell to descend into waters I once felt happy to swim in my bare skin. This time around, no harm could touch me, except perhaps for chikungunya, a mosquito-borne disease that had just arrived in Haiti and, finding itself in a vast, overcrowded population with no immunity and few defenses against being bitten, was enjoying great success.

Anywhere, and especially in Haiti, it’s unlucky to say that things can’t get worse. The 2010 earthquake, in addition to killing more than 200,000 people, pancaked all the seats of government and many of the capital’s residential buildings. It also decapitated what had, until the day before, looked like a genuine political and economic recovery. This disaster had to be the nadir. But then came cholera, and then the revelation that cholera had been introduced by members of the U.N. mission ostensibly present to help the country get back on its feet. Chikungunya, which is not fatal (at least not to otherwise healthy people with access to adequate medical care) had to seem like, well, a mosquito bite compared to all that. It amounted to only a couple of days (or weeks) of fever, followed by an indeterminate period of arthritis-like pain of varying severity.

My hotel, a new building that had sprouted like a mushroom after the earthquake, was in Pétionville, a relatively prosperous suburb high on the hillside above the popular quarters of the capital. In the evenings, when the armored car had released me, I could cautiously prowl this neighborhood. Pétionville had once been a good hunting ground for kidnappers, but the craze had abated, thanks to the success of the U.N. military mission and the Haitian National Police in disrupting the bases of the gangs in the slums. The streets of Pétionville were safe enough now, and I was told I would see evidence of great progress there. But I seemed to miss the signs, maybe because I had to concentrate on avoiding the numerous holes in the pavement and collisions with speeding vehicles. It was World Cup season: a gigantic screen had been mounted in the Place Saint-Pierre so that people could watch the games, and drivers overexcited by victories didn’t always look where they were going.

Before bed, I might stop for a beer at a bar staffed by platoons of pretty young waitresses with little to do, as there were very few customers. One night I saw a vendor wandering through with a box of Samsung smartphones. A communications revolution occurred a few years ago. Digicel had introduced prepaid cell phones, and the instruments cost so little that even otherwise destitute people could have them. Some who were not so destitute could probably spring for the relatively cheap Samsungs. Among the hundreds of paintings displayed for sale on the streets all over Port-au-Prince was a large canvas depicting only a smart phone screen, with a thumb hovering over it, ready to open the portals to other and better worlds.

Before cell phones there was teledjòl, the word-of-mouth information mill that continues to generate much of Haitian intelligence—true and false. From the embassy staffers, my writer friends, and other friends I stole a moment to drop in on, I could glean a few interesting tidbits without appearing to ask any questions. It was rumored that former president Aristide intended to reenter the political lists, perhaps in elections (since postponed) scheduled for fall 2014. Aristide had kept much to himself since his return to Haiti in 2011, remaining within the walls of his private compound, in Tabarre, and the nearby Aristide Foundation for Democracy (which now houses a university with respectable schools of nursing, medicine, and law). About a year previously, however, returning from giving testimony at an inquiry into the 2000 assassination of agronomist and radio journalist Jean Dominique, Aristide had stepped out of his car for a moment, into the public space of the capital. The crowds that spontaneously assembled to greet him gridlocked Port-au-Prince traffic for several hours and dispelled any doubt that Aristide could still rally more genuine popular support than any other political figure.

Meanwhile a new political party had been founded in honor of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier—that is, without his direct or overt participation. His death on October 4 probably took the wind out of that sail, but last June the idea of a contest between Duvalierists and Aristide’s still-massive Lavalas party foretold a more interesting election season than usual—not necessarily a good thing in Haiti.

At the same time, some thought that the current president, Michel Martelly, was doing an adequate job of furnishing “Duvalierism without Duvalier,” a slogan adopted by the Haitian far right in the period following Jean-Claude’s 1986 abdication. Despite fairly widespread grumbling, the United States remained firmly in Martelly’s camp, and some achievements of his administration looked substantial. The security situation, critical to any other progress in Haiti, had indubitably improved—was in fact better than at any time in the past 15 years except during a few months immediately before the earthquake. Legitimate foreign investment (as opposed to the endemic drug trade and associated money laundering) had returned—concretely and on a sizable scale in the form of a new industrial park at Caracol on the north coast. Our armored car circled the Champ de Mars in downtown Port-au-Prince, from which the postearthquake tent city had been cleared. The National Palace was under slow but apparently sure reconstruction, and a project to build a new ministry row was taking shape. Eviction of householders to make way for the latter had recently raised a hue and cry, but embassy staff pointed out that relatively few people were affected by that, while millions stood to benefit from the stable housing of the government.

What form of government would best serve the interests of the Haitian people remains a conundrum, though one seldom acknowledged. Aristide’s original populist program, driven by liberation theology on the one hand and bedrock Haitian communal values on the other, was never given a fair chance to succeed. The 18th-century model of democracy we use in the United States has begun to falter even at home; imposing a simulacrum of that on Haitian society remains intractably difficult. In the 200 years since their revolution, most Haitians have experienced little from any government but oppression. No great surprise, then, if what we call democratization inspires only muted enthusiasm.

Haiti’s default sociopolitical solution is a feudalism that, though many of its origins are African, would be perfectly recognizable to the lords and ladies of King Arthur’s court. My grasp of this system improved when, in the late 1990s, I realized I was enacting it myself on a very small scale. I was operating a miniature feudal state, quartered first in my rented vehicle, later on that acre of ground near Bwa Kayiman. My intentions didn’t matter; the thing naturally, inevitably, assumed this form.

Someone in charge of a feudal state must feed his retainers. They deserve it, they expect it, and without it they grow disloyal. The process can be disarmingly simple: it’s traditional, for example, for drug lords in the Cap-Haïtien area to hand out the equivalent of $20 to each of a hundred or so people in their neighborhoods every Saturday night. The necessity of such procedures does something to explain the chronic corruption of Haitian government.

Toward the end of my enterprise up north, my mere appearance in our lakou-in-progress was enough to prompt the assembly of 40 or so unemployed young men who sought to serve me in some way. The region, where the heartbeat of Haitian independence had started, was extraordinarily wretched at the turn of the 21st century. Most of the trees had long since been burned for charcoal, and the men had turned to gravel mining: backbreaking labor, for pennies a day, which splendidly accelerated erosion in the deforested hills. Poisoned at the instigation of U.S. evangelicals bent on extirpating Vodou, the mapou tree of Bwa Kayiman was burned for charcoal after it died. In the face of such desperation, my own resources were utterly inadequate and I couldn’t muster other resources quickly enough. In the end, my house was burned, which as an absentee blan proprietor at Bwa Kayiman, I had always had every right to expect.

It was still a thrill to be back in Haiti last summer, though in my peregrinations around Port-au-Prince, I couldn’t help pining for what might have been—what, with a little luck and a nice leaving-alone, could still be. During the five-year interim between his two presidencies, René Préval had completely regenerated the area surrounding his hometown of Marmelade, a village so desolate in the late 1990s that when my mud-spattered vehicle lurched onto the square, most of the population turned out to look at it. Using $5 million from Taiwan—which came without the cat’s cradle of strings normally attached to international aid to Haiti—Préval had paved the roads, refurbished the town center, restored a colonial plantation to resume production (with cooperative labor) of top-quality coffee for the export market, started a bamboo plantation and furniture factory, installed an Internet café, staffed a clinic with Cuban doctors, and started a music school attracting students from all over the country. Naysayers dismissed this success as the exploitation of a personal fief (it was true that exuberant townspeople liked to salute Préval as “Excellence!” whenever he appeared among them), but I saw it as a shining example of what Haitians could do for themselves, given sufficient resources and a free hand to deploy them. With such a high level of achievement, an element of patronage seemed forgivable; one could imagine the restoration of the whole country in this manner, a bit at a time.

Haiti is a tiny piece of real estate, approximately the size of Vermont, with an enormous population whose will to not only survive but prosper has proved itself in innumerable rebounds from episodes of bone-crushing adversity. The culture, derived from a fusion of West African folkways with the 18th-century French Enlightenment, is extraordinarily rich and various. Haitian music has made its impression on the world scene, and Haitian visual art has been promoted to the point of cliché.  The literature, produced in French and Kreyòl and not much translated into English, is not so well known. I’d had close friendships among Haitian writers for many years, but all the same I was startled to learn that the Livres en folie festival was in its 20th year, and that this year about 150 authors were presenting their work, almost all of them Haitian.

The book fair took place in the Parc Historique de la Canne à Sucre, in Tabarre, neighboring Aristide’s emplacements and the recently relocated American embassy. In slavery times the site was a cane plantation and sugar refinery. Now the bookstalls were pitched among restored buildings and machinery of the old colonial enterprise. The low ground of the park is propitious for mosquitoes, and the chikungunya vectors (somewhat unsportingly) bite by day, but none of the hundreds of people attending seemed very much concerned with that. They all looked healthy and happy and at their ease, and they were buying books by the bushel, which, in a country so often reproached for its high level of illiteracy, seemed a very encouraging sign: an image of what could be in Haiti—what, to some extent at least, already is.

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