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The New Hustle in Haiti

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 few months and where the price of industrial lots has tripled; in the hotels crowded with tourists who never would have set foot in Haiti a year ago; in the bars and restaurants catering to foreigners, where crew-cut American engineers in short-sleeved white dress shirts and narrow striped ties while away their boredom over rum and cokes; in the conversation of the Haitian elite, who muse over skyrocketing property values and the heady business prospects offered by the infusion of new money into a stagnant society; and in the excited plans of young government economists and planners who are embarrassed by the reputation of Haiti under Papa Doc and who want to push their nation into the modern world with foreign (mostly American) capital.

Haiti today is a country that has gone through a state of siege and has not yet come out on the other side. Papa Doc’s fourteen years of brigandage and tyranny are over, but no one is sure what direction the new regime will take. So far it has eased up on censorship, promised a partial amnesty to political exiles, and given important ministerial jobs to development-minded younger technocrats. But although Jean-Claude has duly been crowned “President for Life,” the line of succession remains clouded, and the rule of law is still personal and arbitrary. People no longer are murdered on the streets by the Macoutes or disappear into dungeons for harboring dark thoughts, but neither are there any indications of free elections or the tolerance of a free press.

The Duvalier family still reigns in the gleaming white presidential palace that rises like a sugar fortress on the edge of the slums, but every day brings a dozen rumors about the struggle taking place within its walls. The king is dead and the new king obediently hailed by his father’s courtiers. But the crown sits uneasily on his head, and there are a number of contenders, even within the Duvalier family, eager to snatch it from him. The current arrangement certainly suits a good many powerful forces: the ex-dictator’s widow, Simonne Duvalier; the unofficial prime minister, Luckner Cambronne; the business community, which is tasting the heady fruits of new investment and tourism; and the American Embassy, which believes the new regime can provide stability and anti-communism without the messy features of the old Duvalier repression.

But it is far from certain that Jean-Claude has either the determination or the ability to maintain control of the state by the methods that his father perfected. Papa Doc, though hardly the first tyrant in Haiti’s long history of misrule, was unique in his ability to neutralize potentially threatening sources of power—the army, the mulatto elite, the Catholic Church—and to create new centers of power loyal only to himself. Through calculated promotions and discharges, bribery and exile, and even summary executions, François Duvalier reduced the army to a supine instrument of his personal rule. To reinforce his authority he assembled the Tonton Macoutes from the bas fonds of Haitian life and gave his thugs almost unbridled authority to extort and murder so long as they paid fealty to him.

Like the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, Haiti served as an instrument for the glorification of a single man for whom power was the ultimate end, and the manipulation and impoverishment of his nation the logical means. “No previous ruler,” as Robert Rotberg has observed in his invaluable analytic study of modern Haiti, “had so neatly and traumatically divided his citizens in warring camps, so dramatically revived basic tensions and fantasies, and so hypocritically maintained the rhetoric and trappings of parliamentary democracy while blatantly and with impunity flouting the constraints of constitution and custom.”1

The peculiar genius of Duvalier was his ability to manipulate the various elements of Haitian society for his personal ends and even to transform the folk religion of vodun into an instrument of social control. By subduing the hoggans, or priests, and convincing the peasants of his divine invincibility, Duvalier gained a powerful weapon against his enemies.

Deeply rooted in the consciousness of every Haitian, including the French-speaking elite, vodun is more than a religion. It is a link between the living and the dead, the known and the unknown, fate and certainty. Haitian art, music, and folklore find their source in vodun. It permeates the society and intensifies the fatalism and paranoia that anthropologists find in the Haitian personality.

Vodun both insulates and protects the Haitian from the outside world. As an animistic faith it links the peasant to the land and to the spirits of his ancestors—thereby providing an emotional continuity that is perhaps a succor in a life of poverty. The hold of its spirits and ecstatic sacrificial ceremonies on the Haitian—whether peasant or intellectual—is a living demonstration of the bonds of tradition and the obstacles to change if Haiti is, as Western technicians and economic bureaucrats say, to “embark upon the developmental process.”

Vodun is a folk religion of the peasantry, and Haiti is a peasant country. Few nations in the world are less urbanized, and none in the Western Hemisphere is poorer. Aside from a few provincial towns, there is only one real city, Port-au-Prince. The capital houses about 250,000 people, which is only 5 percent of Haiti’s population of five million. In Port-au-Prince there are shops, offices, small factories, government bureaus, movie houses, schools, hospitals, tourist hotels, and daily contact with the outside world. In the countryside life is a struggle to eke an existence from a barren plot of land. The condition of the Haitian peasant has not changed very much since Alexandre Pétion divided up the French plantations early in the nineteenth century, and remains very much the way Melville Herskovits described it forty years ago in his classic study, Life in a Haitian Valley. 2

Haiti is a country of divisions, not only between city and country but between classes within the city itself. There two peoples come into daily contact but never touch: the French-speaking elite, which finds economic status in its education and prestige in the lightness of its skin; and the dark-skinned multitudes, whose only language is Creole and who are confined to poverty by their ignorance. Those children of the urban proletariat who are able to go to school, who learn French and have acquired skills which the society could use, soon learn that there are no jobs. No longer taking poverty and hopelessness for granted, they become resentful toward a society that has no place for them and become consumed with the ambition of leaving it. Vast numbers do. Every day the American Embassy is crowded with young Haitians seeking visas; last year 10,000 emigrated to the United States. Most of these went to New York, where they joined 150,000 other Haitians who have been forced to leave their homes—not for political reasons, but simply to find work.

Those unable to leave wander aimlessly around the capital, seeking jobs that do not exist in a still stagnant economy, importuning tourists to hire them as guides or offering other services, hoping that something will happen and knowing that it will not. The desperate are driven to such practices as selling their blood—one of the more ghoulish job opportunities recently made available by an American-owned company named Hemo Caribbean. Every day hundreds of Haitians, many of them shoeless and in rags, crowd the blood center in Port-au-Prince, where they are paid three dollars a liter for blood plasma which is flown to the United States and sold for up to twenty-five dollars a liter. Owned by an American stockbroker named Joseph Gorinstein, Hemo Caribbean has ties to the regime through the powerful cabinet minister Luckner Cambronne. Indeed, it is made clear in Port-au-Prince that whatever business you want to start, it helps a lot to know Cambronne.

The Haitian economy cannot live by blood alone, which is why the development-minded ministers surrounding Jean-Claude Duvalier are providing a receptive climate for foreign investors in tourism and light processing industries. Over the past two years, beginning even before the death of Papa Doc, more than 100 light manufacturing plants have been set up, providing some 10,000 new jobs. Most of these plants are American-owned and have been established to take advantage of low-cost Haitian labor and its proximity to the American market. Since the average wage in Haiti is one dollar a day, these firms have found it cheaper to ship raw materials to Haiti for processing and re-export them back to the United States than to manufacture them at home. A burgeoning “transformation” industry has been created, with Haitians, mostly women, assembling a wide range of products, from baseballs to blue jeans and electronic components.

  1. 1

    Haiti: The Politics of Squalor (A Twentieth Century Fund Study, Houghton Mifflin, 1971). Useful for its information on the Haitian economy, despite its turgid style and quaint cold war rhetoric, is O. Ernest Moore’s Haiti (Exposition Press, 1972). For general history and cultural background, James G. Leyburn’s The Haitian People (Yale, 1966) remains unsurpassed. The new edition of this 1941 classic contains a valuable introduction by Sidney Mintz.

  2. 2

    Reprinted 1971, Anchor Books.

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