I came to Haiti in the spring of 2007 when my wife found a job with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission there. She was assigned to the southern seaside town of Jérémie, a place where donkeys outnumbered cars on the streets. Jérémie was just 125 miles or so from Port-au-Prince, but only a single dirt road linked the two, and the trip overland could take fourteen or fifteen hours. Otherwise, the only connection to the capital was by propeller plane, if one had the money; or, for the poor, the night ferry, the Trois Rivières.
About a week after we arrived in Jérémie, the Trois Rivières ran aground leaving the wharf. It had been loaded badly, its cargo heavy and high on the bow and its passengers perched precariously above the cargo. Another ship soon came to its assistance. Crew members ran lines between the two boats and the assisting ship reversed its engines. The Trois Rivières did not budge, listing instead under the tension of the ropes until its flank was at a sharp angle to the horizon. Then the lines snapped and the Trois Rivières, rolling fast back to the vertical, flung its passengers and goods into the shallow bay.
Eighteen travelers drowned. The bodies were gathered from the wharf and rushed to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine where in the middle courtyard they were tossed into a promiscuous heap—face down, face up, mouths streaked by weird smiles of sputum and sea foam. The next day or the day after that, the tides shifted and the Trois Rivières proceeded normally to Port-au-Prince. Several days later, the last of the drowned travelers was found on the wharf being eaten by a pig.
Here then was my introduction to Haiti, a classic Haitian tragedy: the careless, criminal incompetence; the gratuitous grief inflicted on the poorest of the poor; the absolute lack of accountability, on the part of both the boat’s owners and the bureaucrats responsible for overseeing maritime safety. In his new book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, the historian Laurent Dubois laments that “when Haiti appears at all in the media, it registers largely as a place of disaster, poverty and suffering, populated by desperate people trying to escape.” This is, he says, a “negative stereotype.”1 But Haiti appears this way in media accounts because in my experience it is the truth. It is not the whole truth about Haiti but it is surely the most important truth about Haiti. The newsman, traveler, or historian who ignores Haiti’s suffering to focus instead on its lovely beaches, its remarkable folk culture, or its brilliant and ingenious art might well be…
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