Originally: In Haiti, truth veiled by rumor, suspicion

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – My friend Stanley always greets me with the same words. “David, welcome back to Haiti. Are you still looking for the truth ?”

The first part of his greeting comes across as genuine. But the second half is always accompanied by a mighty guffaw.

There?s a simple reason for that. It?s never been easy to distinguish between fact and fiction in Haiti. Especially today, five months after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was whisked away on a U.S. jet to Africa.

On my latest trip rumors were swirling as usual. One of my sources informed me that four Israelis from New York had contributed $450,000 to finance the overthrow of Aristide, including the hiring of foreign mercenaries. There were also vivid allegations of a child sacrifice by Aristide supporters to ward off evil spirits.

While a foreigner might find such stories – especially the latter – far-fetched, many Haitians have no trouble believing them.

Traditional methods of journalistic investigation tend to be fruitless in a place like Haiti. You can research the Internet all you like, request interviews and attend press conferences, but in the end all you often end up with are wildly conflicting stories.

You might just as well consult voodoo, the traditional religion of Haiti. Indeed, for many Haitians, without Internet access, the ancestral spirits of voodoo – the loas – remain the gospel. On an income of less than $1 per day (that?s what an average Haitian earns, according to the World Bank), where else does one turn ?

But in the search for what is real in Haiti, there are one or two other options worth considering. Chief among these is La Souvenance, a cordon bleu restaurant in the hills of Petionville overlooking the city slums. This may be Haiti, but the filet mignon or shrimps in Creole sauce at La Souvenance can rival the best Paris has to offer.

It is here that Haiti?s tiny power elite gathers. These days, after the ouster of Aristide, the place is also packed with visiting foreigners, often from the World Bank or United Nations. Last month foreign donors in Washington approved a $1-billion aid package for Haiti. You can be sure that some of it will end up being spent at La Souvenance.

Once dismissed as the MREs (for “morally repugnant elite”), a wordplay on the initials of U.S. military rations known as “meals ready to eat,” Haiti?s wealthy few are less morally repugnant these days.

To be sure, there?s plenty of glee over the departure of their bete noire, Aristide, the former fire-breathing liberation-theology priest. But Haiti?s elite are showing a good deal more maturity these days. That may come with the uncomfortable realization that Haiti is on its last legs. If they don?t make this latest effort at reconciliation and nation-building work, there may not be another.

After throwing the better part of $1-billion at Haiti in 1994 (ironically to bring back Aristide after he had been ousted in a military coup three years earlier) the international community has already been burned in Haiti. “Donor fatigue” is just around the corner.

But part of the reason for the muddle in Haiti is that the West has interfered so much in its affairs. It is only recently that have we begun to promote democracy in Haiti. It was quite a different story for most of the last 200 years.

After Haitian slaves declared independence in 1804, initiating the first black republic, the United States and most of Europe did their best to undermine the nation?s economy. Slavery had yet to be abolished in the United States, so Haiti was seen as a dangerous precedent.

At the beginning of the 20th century the United States occupied Haiti for almost 20 years and dictated its foreign and economic policy. During the Cold War the United States preferred to support the Duvalier family, as a buffer against Cuban communism.

Far from improving Haiti?s lamentable social conditions, outside efforts have only deepened poverty. Poverty, and a lack of social spending on education, breeds ignorance. That?s why the truth is so hard to find in Haiti. In a country where so few can read or write it?s easy to manipulate the truth.

A few streets away from the fine dining at La Souvenance you find another kind of truth. Millennium is a Petionville nightclub that features scantily clad women from the Dominican Republic. As far as I could gather on a recent evening, there weren?t any Haitian girls there at all. One Dominican looked shocked when I asked why that was. Didn?t I know that one in 20 Haitians are HIV-positive ?

Millennium is a hangout for another kind of Haitian elite : Americans. My visit was no disappointment. I spent the evening in the company of a group of Americans who have worked closely with the Haitian government for several years. Oddly enough, for all his anti-U.S. rhetoric, Aristide relied heavily on Americans for his security, considering them more reliable than the Haitians he was elected to rule.

Aristide, who liked Haitians to think the voodoo spirits protected him, wasn?t much of a voodoo believer himself, it seems. Instead, he spent millions on a high-priced San Francisco private security firm that provided his personal protection.

As the Dominican women sat on the Americans? laps we chatted about their adventures in Haiti, ferrying Aristide – and mysterious boxes of cash – around the country. “We weren?t doing anything illegal – I think,” said one.

There?s plenty of speculation that Aristide siphoned off millions during his years in power. Looters found some $350,000 in rotting $100 bills in his house after he left. It?s not known how much he may haven taken with him. A U.S. Treasury Department team is in the country going over Aristide?s books. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is busy busting the traffickers who set up shop in Haiti under Aristide. Many are singing like canaries about their close ties to the palace. An indictment of Aristide seems likely fairly soon.

And that?s the truth.