Something strange and terrible is taking shape in Haiti. In July hundreds of peasants agitating for land reform in a remote rural province were massacred by a ragtag force organized by a local landowner. The leader of one political party was hacked to death while addressing a crowd of peasants; another was murdered in full view of reporters while delivering a speech in front of police headquarters. At night, death squads roam the streets of Port-au-Prince, and bandits man roadblocks on rural thoroughfares. Haiti, preparing for elections this month, its first real elections in thirty years, is coming more and more to resemble Central America at its most violent.
Americans have not escaped the violence. In fact, probably nowhere else in the hemisphere have so many US citizens been handled so roughly. Last spring the wife of the political officer of the US embassy was stabbed in broad daylight on the grounds of the US consulate. During the summer, a Peace Corps volunteer was raped at knifepoint by a man shouting curses at the United States. Three American Protestant missionaries, fearing for their safety, fled with twenty-eight Haitian children into the neighboring Dominican Republic. The State Department, concerned about the mounting tension, issued a warning to Americans against traveling to Haiti.
The recent outbreak of anti-Americanism has taken US officials by surprise. Haiti has traditionally received Americans with warmth. Less than two years ago, when Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country, the United States was praised for helping to topple him. By criticizing his regime, Washington had hastened Baby Doc’s flight; it then sent an Air Force jet to fly him into exile. Throughout Haiti, people were exultant. The Reagan administration, eager to capitalize on the climate of good will, promised to do everything it could to help Haiti usher in a new, democratic era. The State Department voiced its support for speedy elections, freedom of expression, and human rights. More tangibly, it doubled the level of US assistance to Haiti, to more than $100 million a year—not bad for a country with approximately six million people.
Somewhere along the way, however, events turned sour. In the last few months, hospitality has given way to hostility, making Haiti a hardship post for Americans. And not just for US officials. Relief agencies, religious groups, and volunteer organizations have all been struck. Among the six thousand or so Americans who work in Haiti, safety has become a prime topic of conversation. One Friday evening, I showed up for drinks at a pricey restaurant much favored by Americans. It was located in Pétionville, a posh enclave situated on a hill overlooking Port-au-Prince. With its mansions and Mercedes, Pétionville seemed far removed from Haiti’s continuing difficulties, but for the Americans present it was hard to forget the country’s slide toward anarchy. I talked with a young Peace Corps volunteer who was working in the south of the country, helping villagers dig wells. So far, he said, there had been no incidents where he was…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.