The New Hustle in Haiti

Jean-Claude Duvalier
Jean-Claude Duvalier; drawing by David Levine

It was the new Haiti, I was told, and from the beginning it was different. In the old days it was an adventure: one descended into a deserted airport in the company of a few unlikely tourists and itinerant missionaries, was quickly frisked by the Tonton Macoutes, drove at hair-raising speed down the deserted highway into a seedy town that seemed a setting for Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, arriving at a Victorian gingerbread hotel that always had more rooms than guests and where the price was negotiable.

Now it looked like a setting for another Caribbean holiday. The usually empty Caravelle from San Juan was crowded with well-dressed, well-heeled tourists eager to dip into the exotic delights of voodoo, roulette, and duty-free shopping. No seedy missionaries and peddlers this time, but a buzzing assortment of pale Yankees in search of fast suntans or divorces, black Americans looking for their African heritage, and high-fashion mulattoes from Martinique with copies of L’Express under their arms.

Even François Duvalier International Airport—modestly dedicated by the late Papa Doc himself—had been transformed. Instead of Macoutes and secret police, there were customs officials of studious courtesy and a battery of hotel hawkers eager, like Venetian gondoliers, to whisk the puzzled tourist off to dubious but usually agreeable destinations. Rather than presenting its usual appearance of an abandoned Boston and Maine station, the airport had become a Caribbean stage set, complete with bar, curio shop, air conditioning, and a bongo drum band to assure new arrivals that they were indeed in the fun-loving West Indies.

Two large signs prominently displayed in the airport waiting room provided a clue to some of the visible changes. The first announced that the government welcomed inquiries from those desiring to set up businesses or acquire property in Haiti. The Yankee dollar, it seemed, was not only being accepted but actively courted. The second was a pronouncement by Jean-Claude Duvalier, the corpulent twenty-year-old playboy who in April, 1971, suddenly found himself crowned “President for Life,” a term which in Haiti implies longevity less than it does elsewhere. “My father made the political revolution,” the sign declared in that combination of authority and fantasy that was the hallmark of the Duvalier regime, “I will make the economic revolution.”

Since the political revolution consisted largely of intimidation, arbitrary rule, the suspension of civil liberties, and windy pronunciamientos, there has been much skepticism about what its economic equivalent is likely to be. But one does not have to be in Haiti for long to discover that something new is in the air. That something is money, a minor economic boom that has seen foreign investors flocking to an island that hitherto was, for better or worse, spared the joys of economic development.

Signs of the new boom are evident all over: along the airport road, where scores of new assembly plants have sprung up during the past…

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