Originally: Iraq and Afghanistan should take note of the Caribbean’s failed experiment in nation-building
When I left Haiti a few weeks ago, news came of the anonymous but unusually precise execution of a thug named Amiet Metayer, leader of the pro- President Aristide gang called the Cannibal Army. One bullet to the heart, one in each eye.
Under other Haitian regimes, the president’s personal enforcers have been called Cagoulards, Tonton Macoutes, Attachés, and now for the ex-saintly priest Aristide, the poetically named Chimères, or chimeras. Metayer was an elite case, a megathug. He had been in prison, but was sprung about a year ago in a murky jailbreak. Then his arrest warrant was sweetly voided.
These days there are demonstrations, strikes and riots, with attendant murders, almost every week. That’s how regime change usually happens in Haiti, after accelerating street protests. And the protests are accelerating. I watched a helicopter carry the president from his mansion to his duties at the National Palace.
These days we’re thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan, but about 10 years ago, it was Haiti that offered a chance for the United States to practice its skills at building a nation, promoting democracy and protecting our cities. (In the case of Haiti, we were also anxious to protect ourselves against boat people.) Like the canary in the coal mine, poor, choking Haiti offers an early warning of how American nation-building may play out in the darknesses of elsewhere. Iran, Syria and North Korea are still on offer.
History has not been kind to Haiti. After a brilliant surge toward freedom, when a slave revolt defeated Napoleon at the height of his powers, Haiti’s story has been one of romantic failure, dignified grief, a brave independence sliding away.
After the fall of the Duvalier kleptocracy — sadistic Papa Doc, succeeded by his furniture-faced son Baby Doc — a long-awaited messiah arrived to save his beloved homeland: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former activist priest and protector of orphans.
The wispy, guitar-playing hero survived a steady diet of assassination attempts. Many a mango had fallen from the trees since a genuinely popular candidate had been elected president, so naturally he frightened the traditional elite, drug runners, and designer-uniformed army officers who ran this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere as their personal profit center.
A coup mounted by these gentlefolk, with the connivance, alas, of elements in the CIA, sent President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.
The next brutal regime of colonels (soon to nominate themselves as generals) sent crowds of desperate souls into hastily constructed junk sailboats. Refugees, dead and alive, began to wash up on the shores of Florida.
Col.-Gen. Raoul Cedras, leader of the coup, commented with an elegant shrug that Haiti is a place where life is worse than death. He was not merely a murderer and torturer, he was a philosopher who found peace scuba diving off his waterfront estate.
In 1994, the Clinton administration mounted a military intervention to bring back the legitimately elected Aristide. Twenty thousand American troops came for an armed visit, described by writer Bob Shacochis as “the immaculate invasion.” Gen. Cedras departed to pursue his hobby of scuba diving in Panama, although Jimmy Carter invited him to teach Sunday school in Plains, Ga. A few years carrying the burden of state, such as maintaining landing strips for cocaine traffickers on their way to Puerto Rico and Florida, had left the philosopher-general in no need of further employment.
I attended the triumphal Mass for Aristide’s return at the Port-au-Prince cathedral and afterward lay outside in the dirt behind a stone wall, discussing politics with a Haitian engineer, while a few diehard Attaché hoods fired into the crowd from their headquarters in the Renaissance Bar. My new friend gave me his business card while the crowd leaving the cathedral waved rooster banners, placards, effigies — the symbol adopted by Aristide. Some waved actual roosters and knifed to death one of the Renaissance Bar thugs.
The roosters crowed on and on. So it was finally morning in the first black nation to win its freedom in modern times? Not quite.
In 2003, I found the country under Aristide in near chaos, in misery seemingly without a bottom. My friends who once considered him the savior were in despair. The one civilian I knew who still supported Aristide pointed to a new stoplight and a paved stretch of road as proof of progress. I think he was being ironic; a few potholes don’t define salvation.
Of course, there are still folks who love Aristide; Mussolini also has his loyalists. The variety-pack of current issues in Haiti includes fraudulent elections, street violence, an entrenched drug distribution apparatus, and state-implicated murders and disappearances.
The pace of decay was accelerating this year, when I was greeted by the news of 11 people shot during a protest demonstration. Aristide has promised to privatize corrupt state-owned industries (actually, they are controlled by the MREs, the morally repugnant elite), but because he didn’t fulfill his promise, most aid from abroad has been blocked.
Conveniently, he can blame the United States, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund — why not the International House of Pancakes, too? — for Haiti’s hunger. “Can Titid (the fond nickname once given the little priest) still walk on water?” I asked a driver. “Ooo-uui,” he answered nervously, drawing out the word oui until it meant non.
We passed an auto repair shop preaching “FARTERNITE.” We passed a tap-tap- bus named SHALOM, with curlicue letters underneath in English, “PEEPUL BE NICE, ” and beneath that in smaller letters, “to me.”
My old pal and adversary, Aubelin Jolicoeur, model for Petitpierre in Graham Green’s “The Comedians,” always reminds me that he forgave me for calling him a supporter of the Duvalier kleptocracy because (a) indeed, he was
— and remains — loyal to Papa Doc, and (b) I described him as witty in the New York Times.
Now the lithe dancer around his silver-tipped cane is at the end of his tether. Journalists and opposition figures are being murdered. The boat people are drowning again.
Haiti’s ingenuity in illogical survival remains a reproach to the world as it, along with Aubelin Jolicoeur, slides down, down, down.
The charismatic former priest’s officials have taken to preaching zero tolerance for anti-regime expression, yet he issues regrets for the killings. I have visited and written about Haiti for 50 years, and I have trouble holding these contradictory ideas in my head.
Nevertheless, I’m not the only foreign visitor at the gingerbread Hotel Oloffson. A few boy-hunting gray wolves seem indifferent to AIDS. One, from Nevada, is known as “Monsieur Grand Marnier.”
Missionaries, Peace Corps idealists, NGOs with agendas ranging from planting trees to extracting abscessed teeth, and the usual swaggering drug dealers join the happy throng at the regular Thursday night performances of RAM, the terrific band led by Richard Morse, proprietor of the Oloffson, a Princeton-educated half-Haitian, along with his beautiful wife, Lunice, and a group of singers, dancers, drummers, defiant fun-makers. And it really is fun for everyone, even with strict Richard’s order that guns must be checked in the safe box at the entrance to the hotel.
Despite this rule, it seems that your suave Port-au-Prince reveler doesn’t consider himself well-dressed unless he puts on his weapon before picking up his petite amie. Unfortunately, the old gun-licensing system, “only to be used against thieves, wild animals, etc.,” is no longer adequate, because many of those shot fit the category of et cetera.
A Japanese television team came to film the flying zombies of Haiti. A powerful voodoo priest in Gonaives offered them two at the bargain price of $1, 000 per zombie.
But the zombies were flying so high on a fine sunny day that they were invisible. Pas problème. The Japanese documentarians went home with rare footage of the invisible flying zombies of Haiti and brought the houngan, the priest, in full Halloween voodoo drag — ribbons, bells, beads and 100 percent pure long-grain shuck — to be a star of Tokyo television.
At the Oloffson, Theo Duval was waiting. Former ambassador, former minister, unemployed since the fall of Baby Doc in 1986, he is suave, elegant and nearly manic with his losses. He lives in one room. His daughters and his French wife stay in Europe because he doesn’t want them to see how far he has fallen. How does he spend his days? “I’m studying television. That flag on the moon — it must be corrected at once. I insist. I’m losing patience, Herb.”
His concern is that, since the first moon landing planted the flags of all the nations on the moon, the Haitian flag has been changed. Would the United States mind training a Haitian astronaut to replace it with the revised,
improved new flag?
Speaking with a perfect Oxbridge accent, mannered and shrugging, he is a son of Haiti who marches alone with his cane in the streets of the port of princes, remembering past glories and certain they are over for him.
Telejiol, telemouth, the traditional spam system for rumors, predicts that (a) Aristide will be assassinated, (b) his wife will succeed him, her American citizenship being a minor detail, (c) he will succeed himself, “a vie, ” for life, and d., e., f., ad infinitum. Pick your own salvation or disaster.
In the meantime, a few stoplights are installed, a few stretches of road are paved, and preparations have begun to celebrate the 200 years since Haiti won its independence.
In 1954, I attended the 150-year festivities near Cap-Haitien, formerly Cap-Francois, sitting next to the wife of a French ambassador, who was weeping at the reminder that “we have lost the pearl of the Antilles.” It seemed that she had just gotten the news.
Aristide invokes this glory the way this President Bush used to invoke compassionate conservatism. But Pres. A. won’t get the foreign aid desperately needed from Pres. B. without reforms he can’t find in his patriotic heart to make.
When Baby Doc, the obese lad who inherited Haiti from his father, felt the need of a little adulation, he liked to race one of his luxury sport cars through the streets of Port-au-Prince, scattering out the window gourde notes worth a few dimes. The miserable ones chased after him, cheering, fighting for his leavings.
Aristide can get the same effect just by scattering words from a balcony. Sometimes he plays his guitar and sings. The former messiah used to tell his American supporters that he planned to lead Haiti out of its history of abject misery into a glorious future of dignified poverty.
It hasn’t worked out. Honest elections, ending violence, rationalizing the corrupt state businesses: Those were just words. Demagoguery grows splendidly in the fertile soil of the Haitian tragedy.
Every Haitian who can read and write believes he deserves a political position somewhat higher than senator. My favorite perennial candidate for President de la République is Rockefeller Guerre.
Despite his past sycophancy before power, Aubelin Jolicoeur has finally come to a tragic sense of the suffering of his 8 million fellow Haitians. In recent years he has been repeating a cry of proud and eloquent pain: “I write to those who won’t read on behalf of those who can’t read.”
Old Port-au-Prince is no more, that sun-drenched colonial port with its grand gingerbread houses seemingly held up by the backs of termites and surrounded by cailles-pailles, the shacks and huts of those who served the mostly mulatto rich. The town of burros and a cheerfully raucous street life, a Frenchified elite and flowered sensuality, has disappeared like the trees and most of the gardens.
When I contracted malaria in 1954 after a treasure hunt in Port-de-Paix, I sent for a neighbor, a Paris-trained doctor-lawyer — he was too busy being a gentleman to practice either trade — because it was a holiday and all the practicing doctors were off to the beaches for a five-day weekend.
My doctor-lawyer neighbor is long buried, despite the catskin shoes he wore for eternal life and virility. Perhaps he is still virile in heaven. Where there were about 200,000 people when I lived as a student in Port-au- Prince 50 years ago, there are now more than 2 million souls struggling to survive. Few of them are landed gentry with catskin shoes.
Yet on each of my visits, I still find the archeological remains of my youthful joy in this people with their gift for making impossible persistence into an art form, along with music, dance, painting, language and even faith in the possibility of a better future.
I had thought I’d not again see Aubelin Jolicoeur, confined by a stroke and the tremors of Parkinson’s disease, an invalid in his shabby room in Petionville. When he signed the collection of his articles for me, his writing was barely legible, but his eyes still glittered. He still managed to tap out chronicles for the Nouvelliste on an Olivetti portable typewriter.
But then, just as I was leaving for the airport, he appeared on the terrace of the Oloffson, quivering, fragile but dapper in a dark jacket, impeccable linen, the silken foulard around his neck, once more in his traditional boulevardier costume. He used to woo his many girlfriends, the mothers of his many children, and the women from Europe, Chicago, Montreal —
wherever dreamy women dream of tropical strange — by dancing and leaping around his silver-tipped stick.He needs it now to walk. He came to say goodbye and to be remembered as elegant and witty. Despite his errors and excesses, Aubie endures. Like Haiti itself, he is bravely incurable.