Originally: Paralyzed by Politics, Haiti Finds that Life Will Not Wait
The passengers on the flight to Port-au-Prince are a strange subset of
Haitian culture. The majority are those Haitians wealthy enough to afford
airfare that exceeds the average annual income. The rest are a conspicuous
mixture of white missionaries – black-brimmed Mennonites and doughy couples
in matching T-shirts bearing the name of their church – young backpack-laden
NGO workers and laptop-toting reporters.
The real Haiti rushes at you the minute you step off the plane – porters
clamor for your attention, jostling each other to lay hands on your baggage,
racing ahead once they have possession, knowing you will pay precious
American dollars to get it back.
And it keeps coming at you as you escape the airport veering through the
anarchic traffic – no traffic lights, no lanes, sometimes no road.
You pass the La Saline slum, the lesser known but no less horrific cousin of
Cite Soleil. It is a hive of commotion, strapped together with plastic
tarps, sheet metal and sticks. No one knows the actual populations of these
bidonvilles, which, despite the daily toll of disease and hunger and
violence, continue to swell with displaced peasants from the country.
Tap-taps, the brightly painted pickup trucks that serve as taxis, swerve
through traffic belching diesel plumes. Goats, pigs and feral dogs trot
through the crowd, nosing through smoldering piles of garbage. Flies shimmer
like heat waves over butchered chickens.
Women balance baskets on their heads piled with mangoes and monstrous sacks
of charcoal (the preferred source of fuel) and wend their way along the
margin of the road, poised and strong beyond knowing.
Hundreds of people line the road selling small quantities of plantains,
bundles of sugarcane, rice and wilted vegetables. Each transaction will net
a few gourdes, the shaky national currency. Sell a handful of limes and you
have maybe five gourdes. Amass 41 gourdes and you have a dollar.
Passing through Carrefour the road becomes a main street of sorts. Here
there are businesses with actual storefronts. The most successful of them
are the chateaux funeraires and the ubiquitous lottery outlets. Both
businesses thrive on odds, but in neither case do they favor the customer.
Less than an hour in the country and it is clear the cliches of poverty do
Poverty does not grind here. It is virulent and alive. It is not crushing.
It is far more agile. It teems, it scratches, it gets up early and it works
late. The economy is, on the face of it, hopeless, and yet the activity is
frenetic. When you’re living life without a safety net, the one thing you
never want to do is stand still.
Yet, that is exactly where the country finds itself – paralyzed in a
political and economic crisis that is worsening by the day.
“If it weren’t for aid that various foreign governments and relief agencies
send,” says Bill Roen, a Lutheran pastor from Hernando County who does
missionary work in Haiti, “starvation would begin within a couple of weeks.”
Amazingly, this disaster is transpiring under the leadership of
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president in the
nation’s history, a man the United States dispatched 20,000 troops to
restore to power in 1994 after he was deposed in a military coup d’etat.
Nine years later, more than $500-million in international aid is being
withheld because of concerns that Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party
manipulated the ballot counting in the 2000 elections. Former Aristide
supporters who have defected to the opposition say the populist they once
admired has become a dictator equal to the legendary Duvaliers. Outspoken
journalists have been assassinated in broad daylight, opposition leaders set
on fire; and critics say the government is too corrupt to care.
Aristide, meanwhile, decries what he calls the international racist
conspiracy that still views Haiti as a colony to be exploited. He and his
supporters talk about the dangers of unfettered “neoliberalism” and “the
laboratory” where the CIA concocts its plans to destabilize legitimate
To an outsider Haitian politics can be a disorienting rhetorical din,
originating from a bloody and byzantine history of alliance and betrayal.
And the United States’ role – two military invasions that have produced no
lasting stability – is hard to explain. Not that anyone outside a fervid
cottage industry of Haiti pundits is trying; the world is too preoccupied
with the most recent nation-building effort in Iraq to care much about the
But traveling through Haiti, from the grimy markets of Gonaives to the armed
compounds of Petionville, you cannot avoid the subject. Nothing you see and
touch, hear or speak is completely divorced of political meaning.
Evidence of the crisis is everywhere and though solutions to it are
confoundingly elusive, you are forced to marvel at the ability of the people
to function – and sometimes even to work small miracles.
Going east from the capital, once you put the congestion of Delmas behind
you, the road is surprisingly good, owing to how little traveled it is. Few
people have reason to travel this way unless they are trying to sneak into
the Dominican Republic. An estimated 150 Haitians are deported by the D.R.
On the other side of the village of Ganthier, Times photographer Kathleen
Flynn and I turn off the main road down a sandy track that leads toward the
Etang Saumatre, a large salt lake on the border. We’ve been told there is a
fishing village that recently experienced a disastrous fire and we want to
find out what’s become of the residents.
The end of the road gives out onto a wide sandy shore. It is not so much a
village as a collection of a dozen or so thatched huts with mud walls.
Lillette does have a couple of small buildings made of concrete. One of them
was built as a home for a missionary who never came.
As we climb out of the truck, the wind is whipping dirt and sand into the
crowd of about 40 people that has quickly gathered around us. Some of the
children have no clothes. Their hair is tinged orange at the ends, a sign of
I asked what caused the fire, the remnants of which can be seen in singed
patches in the sand, like scattered camp fires.
“We don’t know,” says Sauel Joseph, the 43-year-old head of the village. “We
woke up and everything was on fire.”
In all about 54 huts were destroyed. They don’t have the money to rebuild.
A couple of times a week they bring baskets of small fish to the market in
Croix des Bouquets, about 15 miles away as the crow flies. This is not a
particularly reliable source of income, however. Ten small fish might fetch
seven gourdes, about 17 cents. The driving offshore wind has made fishing
almost impossible recently.
We lingered after we were done asking questions and this gave the crowd a
chance to beg. Some of the adults rubbed their bellies with their hands
extended. They gestured to the children, who mouthed “dollar.” They pointed
at my watch, at my wedding ring. They rubbed the headlights of our
Mitsubishi Montero as if they were magic lamps.
Port-au-Prince’s Oloffson Hotel is a charmingly down-at-the-heels Victorian
pile that has been a gathering point for foreign press and Haitian
intellectuals and artists for more than 50 years. Its rooms are named for
famous visitors – Alvin Ailey and Jean-Claude Van Damme, to name two. The
Oloffson has an old-world conviviality; guests actually interact here. The
hotel’s wide veranda with its high ceilings and bow-tied waiters is the
place where they do it.
I had come to meet Micha Gaillard, who is by profession a biology professor
but who devotes much of his time to the National Congress of Democratic
Movements, one of Aristide’s principal political antagonists.
I asked him what has led him to denounce a man he helped to win 67 percent
of the vote in 1990.
“Aristide pushed aside all his supporters who were strong,” he said. “He
didn’t want anyone around who would criticize him. Today we are in the
presence of a king, who is not willing to work with other organizations of
power, the legislature, the press. He wants to block popular expression.”
He went on to enumerate the standard complaints against Aristide – that he
condones violence against his opponents, that he has politicized an already
weak and corrupt national police force, that he perpetuates an utterly
ineffective justice system by allowing intimidation of judges who dare
investigate corruption and political violence.
This is what Gaillard and others in the opposition have been saying for
years. But it was only after the 2000 elections – when the Lavalas Family
Party swept elections that many observers expected to be much more
competitive – that the international community stepped in by withholding
aid. That has become the opposition parties’ chief point of leverage, but it
has also earned them a reputation as bourgeois puppets of U.S. officials who
never liked Aristide’s brand of populist politics in the first place.
The blocked aid is slowly crippling Aristide’s government, and political
protests and strikes indicate his once vigorous support is waning. But even
his staunchest opponents stop short of saying they have picked up the
support Aristide may have lost.
“One can’t know (the level of our support),” Gaillard said. “You know at
elections. You know at demonstrations. What we know is that Aristide has
lost the majority of support that he had. But you can’t say that this
majority of support has gone to us.”
Up the hill from the Oloffson, in the leafy neighborhood of Pacot, Michelle
Karshan lives in a quiet house with a Haitian maid and a high steel gate.
Karshan has backed Aristide ever since she first heard the Catholic priest
preaching liberation theology in the days after the ouster of the Duvaliers.
When Aristide was in exile in the United States, Karshan hosted a radio show
in New York City devoted to Haitian politics. When he returned to power in
October 1994 he asked her to be his foreign press liaison.
The job has gotten a lot harder since the world has turned on her boss. You
can hear it in the frustrated edge to her voice.
The 2000 elections?
“It was only seven seats and Aristide got the legislators to resign,” she
said. “It’s not about these seats any longer.”
“Calls for violence from the opposition are never reported by the foreign
press. They always zone in on alleged Family Lavalas incidents. There are
former military gangs in the central plateau.” (Several days later, armed
men attacked a hydroelectric plant in the central plateau, killing two
security guards and setting fire to the control room.)
“The opposition doesn’t want new elections. It’s not in their interest.”
Nobody wants to report the good news, she said. Why doesn’t anyone write
about Aristide’s national literacy program, she asked, before answering her
“Because Cuban doctors are helping Haitian peasants and Cubans are also here
supporting the literacy program,” she said.
“The elite is not interested in a literate populace,” she said, “because it
would increase the cost of labor.”
Later, someone would make the argument to me that Aristide is not interested
in a literate populace either because informed voters would see right
through his racial demagoguery.
Back in my room at the Oloffson (the Barry Goldwater suite, as it turns out)
I turned on the television to see a replay of Aristide’s appearance for the
national holiday honoring workers and agriculture. If ever there was an
occasion for some oratorical fireworks, this was it: a speech celebrating
the worker in a country in which three-quarters of the people have no formal
Aristide, slight, bespectacled and dressed in a guayabera, gave the speech
in Creole. He did it without notes or teleprompter, but the effect was still
scripted. Parts of it read like a grocery list, quite literally a price
check on how many gourdes someone would save on a box of spaghetti at a new
government-sponsored food store.
But the political rhetoric came through clearly.
“If there were no embargo, couldn’t we do more?” he asked the crowd. “If we
had restitution and reparation already, couldn’t we do more?”
Restitution means billing France for money the former colonial power
extracted in 1838 as payoff for recognition of Haiti’s independence. Getting
this money – $21.7-billion is what Aristide has requested – would seem like
a long shot, but Aristide treats it with utter seriousness.
Just how serious was made clear the day before Aristide’s speech when
someone hand delivered a letter to radio reporter Lilliane Pierre-Paul
urging her to speak positively on the subject or she would get a “surprise.”
The “surprise” was not specified, but the 12-gauge shotgun shell in the
envelope was a strong hint. One of the signatories to the letter was the
grass-roots group Domi Nan Bwa, which had taken credit in December 2001 for
the machete killing of radio reporter Brignol Lindor.
Aristide’s speech ended and I could hear music vibrating through the floor
of my room, so I headed downstairs to see the weekly performance of the
house band, RAM, which is headed by the hotel’s owner, Richard Morse. Morse
and his wife, Lunise, who is the band’s lead singer, started the band back
in the early 1990s.
The Thursday night show draws an eclectic mix of journalists, diplomats,
beautiful Creole women, and all political persuasions. It has been described
as a DMZ, but it is not apolitical.
One of RAM’s most celebrated songs was a 1993 swipe at the bloody military
regime wrapped in a deceptively simple Creole folk song. It was called Fey,
and it earned Morse death threats. A decade later the band is still playing
what it calls “vodou rock ‘n roots,” but Morse’s political allegiances have
Over coffee one morning at the Oloffson bar, Morse told me that the
difference between Raoul Cedras, the general who deposed Aristide in 1991,
and Aristide’s government is the difference “between a shotgun and a
sniper.” The number of dead bodies may not be as high now, but the effect of
the violence is the same.
“Aristide could have gone the other way, but he didn’t,” Morse said.
Route Nationale 1 snakes along the beautiful Cote des Arcadins, where
wealthy Haitians have built weekend homes overlooking the white sand
beaches. The coast doesn’t attract quite the tourist trade it once did; Club
Med closed its resort here not long ago, though notably, it still operates
one in the Dominican Republic.
The beaches are some of the last vestiges of Haiti’s reputation as the
“pearl of the Antilles.” That description is a sad joke now. If you turn
away from the water and look inland to the mountains, you see the result of
decades of deforestation: whole mountainsides laid open from erosion.
Only 2 percent of the country is forested now, down from nearly two-thirds
in 1923. With no trees or vegetation to trap rain water, topsoil is washed
into the Caribbean where it kills fisheries. The runoff also means
underground reservoirs aren’t replenished, one of the reasons Haiti has the
worst water quality in the world.
Halfway to the northern city of Gonaives the asphalt road ends. The rest of
the trip is a teeth-rattling ride on rutted rock and sand. Even in a
four-wheel-drive vehicle you can’t go faster than 25 miles per hour for long
By half past noon, more than four hours and less than 100 miles after we
started, we enter Gonaives, a bedraggled port with a rich history.
This was the city where Dessalines, the slave-turned-rebel leader, declared
Haiti’s independence from France in 1804. This is the city that spawned the
uprising that toppled Jean-Claude Duvalier. This is the city where Aristide
supporters, led by a man named Amiot Metayer, were slaughtered in April 1994
in one of the last brutal acts of the Cedras military regime.
It is Metayer that we have come to find. Few embody the bizarre reversals of
Haitian politics more than he and his followers, known as the Cannibal Army.
Once considered persecuted freedom fighters, they are now regarded as thugs
in their own right, responsible for a rampage following a failed attempt to
oust Aristide in December 2001.
During that rash of violence Metayer was reputed to have ordered the grisly
attack on Luc Mesadieu, the leader of an evangelical Christian opposition
party. Mesadieu survived but his assistant was doused with gasoline, set
afire and killed.
Last July, bowing to pressure from the Organization of American States,
Haitian authorities lured Metayer to a meeting in Port-au-Prince with
Aristide. It turned out to be a ruse to put him in jail, a fact that so
enraged the Cannibal Army that they broke him out of jail with a bulldozer.
Metayer escaped along with 148 other prisoners, including several political
enemies who had been convicted of the 1994 massacre of Metayer’s supporters.
Metayer didn’t go into hiding. He led public demonstrations denouncing
Aristide’s betrayal. “We burned for him, we killed for him,” the Cannibal
But only days later, Metayer suddenly re-entered the Aristide fold,
reportedly after he received some cash and promises of no-show jobs for his
Despite the fact that he is still a wanted man, Metayer has not been
rearrested, much to the consternation of the Organization of American
States, which has said his continued liberty is proof Aristide is not
interested in creating a secure climate for new elections.
Back in Port-au-Prince I had asked Privat Precil, the director general at
the Ministry of Justice, why Metayer was still at large when everyone knew
where he was. He’s not Osama bin Laden living in cave; he’s walking around
“I don’t think he is living openly,” Precil said. “He’s not someone you can
just go and arrest. The police said they have tried to find him, but he is
well-protected and they don’t want to kill innocent people.”
At Raboteau, the waterside slum that was the scene of the 1994 massacre, we
pulled up in front of the house of Fritz Desir, one of the survivors. Within
minutes Desir assembled several other victims and we sat down in the tiny
courtyard of the house. Nearby a woman washed clothes in a small basin as we
Desir, Enold Prophete, Louis Ernst Jean Jacques and Georges Alfred know
Metayer and they support him, to an extent, but they renounce violence and
they are not members of the Cannibal Army.
They remember vividly what happened the night Haitian soldiers and masked
paramilitaries of FRAPH (the CIA-backed squad that was responsible for many
of the several thousand killings during the military’s three-year reign)
began pounding on their doors looking for Metayer and other leaders of
Aristide’s Lavalas movement.
Prophete, who was hiding with Metayer the night of April 20, said they
escaped by “dressing up in big hats and masks, pretending to be FRAPH
members. We banged on peoples doors with sticks and slipped away. When the
military couldn’t find us they started killing other people.”
Firing randomly into the air, the soldiers chased men toward the water and
shot them as they tried to swim to safety. They beat people to death who
wouldn’t reveal the whereabouts of Metayer. The death toll has never been
ascertained, though authorities think it may have been as many as 30. The
memorial marker at the water’s edge lists the names of three of the victims
who could be identified.
The survivors have grown accustomed to retelling their story. They even have
their own group, Association Victimes de Raboteau. It was their testimony
that led to the unprecedented conviction of 53 former military leaders and
members of FRAPH at a highly publicized trial in 2000.
Justice is fine, they said, but what they really need is the compensation
they won from former military leaders in a separate civil suit.
“If a member of the (opposition) pricks his finger he gets compensated with
millions of gourdes,” Prophete said. “Us? We have people who died in this
neighborhood. We never got a penny.”
And they probably won’t get anywhere near the $70-million judgment they won.
The case is stuck in appeals court.
Desir said he’d try to get a message to Metayer, whom he had seen just the
day before. But he was dubious that Metayer would agree to an interview, and
as it turned out he was right.
“He’s still afraid of being set up,” Desir said.
Metayer needn’t have worried. Two weeks later, the third judge on the case
(the other two had fled the country in fear of their lives) revoked the
“We need to find a way out of this crisis,” Hans Tippenhauer said. “But we
also need a new social contract, a way to understand why Haiti is going
through it’s habitual problems.”
Tippenhauer runs a consulting firm that specializes in finance and
technology. He is young, handsome, well-educated and Haitian. He is the face
that Haiti should be presenting to the world, the one that is often obscured
behind the demagoguery and glib rhetoric of Aristide and his opposition.
Tippenhauer is a member of the Group of 184, a broad-based collection of
civil society organizations that includes businessmen, peasants,
intellectuals and aid agencies. The Group of 184 was formed late last year
after a massive general strike, and though it is separate from the political
opposition, it shares the opposition’s fixation with getting Aristide to
step aside in favor of a transitional government the international community
But the country is in gridlock. Like the ubiquitous half-built homes you see
throughout the country, the country seems trapped between the forces of
growth and decay.
Aristide won’t crack down on the political violence and until he does the
opposition refuses to participate in forming an independent commission to
organize new elections, which were supposed to have been held by now.
No one seems quite sure what can break the logjam. Some insist the United
States must apply pressure, but that is unlikely absent a massive
humanitarian crisis – famine or epidemic or a wave of sea-tossed refugees
heading for Florida.
“When the economics get to the point the population is getting really hungry
and really angry, you’re going to have to come up with a transitional
government,” Tippenhauer said.
“Inflation was 35 percent for the first four months of this fiscal year.
It’ll probably be 60 percent by September. Employment is so bad it’s not
even a useful indicator anymore,” he said. “If it weren’t for the drug trade
and remittances (from Haitians living abroad), we probably would have
already closed down the country.”
In short, life must become even worse before it can hope to improve.
One evening, we drove up the winding road through the wealthy enclave of
Petionville. The houses got bigger the higher we climbed until they were
high-walled mansions hanging on a cliff edge. These are the homes of the 0.2
percent of the population who make money no matter who is in power.
The air at 3,400 feet was much cooler, noticeably less sooty. Privilege
means never having to breathe someone’s exhaust fumes.
We parked at the top of the mountain and looked down on the capital. From
that height it was possible to forget for a moment the smell of the
bidonvilles, the stories about mothers who starve their sick children
because there’s no point in feeding someone who will die anyway, the memory
of the people lined up to fill water pails from a waste-fouled trickle. Up
here, the elite can afford to have fresh water trucked to their private
The sun set and we headed back, descending steadily into the darkness of the
Just when I thought the whole situation was hopeless I discovered the babies
on the boat.
I had gone looking for Augustin Saint-Clou, who I’d heard was an houngan, a
vodou priest, as well as a civic activist in Carrefour. His temple is named
for the divinity Erzulie Danthor, the fiercely protective black madonna who
looks after the hardworking poor.
I wanted to talk to Saint-Clou, 38, about the recent decision by the
government to recognize vodou as an official religion. For the first time,
houngans like Saint-Clou can legally accept money for services they provide.
But he showed me something else that I didn’t expect to see.
Yes, he says he has the power through vodou to cure afflictions as grave as
AIDS, but in Carrefour he is known as the unofficial mayor for the very
straightforward work he has done providing social services.
“My spirit told me to help poor people,” Saint-Clou said.
Twelve years ago he started the Danthor Foundation. Under its auspices he
has opened a school, across the street from the temple, as well as a
hospital and an orphanage. The last two are housed in a large beached
freighter less than a mile from the temple.
How he came to have this ship has a great deal to do with his position as an
“There were some Canadians who had big, big problems. I helped them,” he
said somewhat mysteriously. He ended up with the boat.
The inventory of supplies at the medical clinic is only slightly larger than
a well-stocked American medicine cabinet. But the waiting room was filled
with women who would pay less than 25 cents for a gynecological checkup or
an HIV test.
The orphanage on the upper deck had about 20 children, from infants to
6-year-olds. It was startling to see the children in such an unlikely place
– a boat that had been turned into a haven instead of a vehicle of escape.
“The children come from parents who have nothing, so little that they’re
going to die,” Saint-Clou said. “They know that I am a serious man who can
help them and they bring their children to me.”
Saint-Clou is a Lavalas supporter. It’s printed on his business card, but
nothing he has accomplished is due to the government, he said.
I tried to offer him a donation for the orphanage, but he wouldn’t accept
it. He had faith that something greater would come. I got on the plane
believing he was right.