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Haiti: The New Violence

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 working, but the mood in the capital seemed so menacing that, whenever he visited, he took a special safety precaution. “I tell people I’m Canadian,” he explained. “It makes a big difference.”

In one sense, the emergence of anti-American sentiment in Haiti can be viewed as progress—a sign of freedom after years of enforced silence. What is surprising is the fierceness of the reaction. Personal hostility toward Americans is a rare phenomenon in the Caribbean Basin. Even in Nicaragua and Cuba—countries with long anti-Yankee traditions—there have been few reports of people attacking Americans just because they are American. Indeed, throughout most of the third world, Americans, if not their government, are welcomed. How, in Haiti, can America be so generous and so unloved at the same time?


When Jean-Claude Duvalier departed for France on February 7, 1986, he left behind a country in desperate need. Between 1980 and 1986, the Haitian economy had shrunk by almost 10 percent. Three of every four adult Haitians could not read; one in every five children died before the age of five. The country’s per capita income was $380—half as much in the countryside, where 80 percent of the population lives. According to a World Bank report, “Agricultural extension workers could not get to the fields, irrigation systems were not properly maintained, schools were without furniture and books, and public health clinics were without drugs.” Overall, twenty-nine years of Duvalierism left Haiti the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Politically, too, Haiti was a wasteland. Under the Duvaliers, all forms of political opposition had been crushed. Labor unions were suppressed, newspaper offices bombed, church leaders exiled. The dreaded Tontons Macoutes, wearing sunglasses and felt fedoras, served as the president’s private security force and kept the country in a state of low-level terror. Haiti became one of the world’s leading exporters of people. An entire generation of students and activists grew up driving cabs on the streets of New York. Haitian professionals, unwanted at home, found jobs as civil servants throughout Francophone Africa. Haiti’s best newspapers were published in Brooklyn and Miami; opposition parties flourished in France, Venezuela, and the United States.

With Duvalier’s departure, an era of freedom and prosperity seemed within sight. To prepare the way, the Duvaliers’ many enemies undertook what they called dechoukaj, Creole for “uprooting.” (Creole, a French-based patois indigenous to Haiti, is spoken by all but the tiny elite, which prefers French.) Dechoukaj meant eradicating all vestiges of Duvalierism. Papa Doc’s tomb was destroyed and the statues he had erected toppled. Members of the Tontons Macoutes were hunted down and murdered, their homes burned, their headquarters turned into a school. Work stoppages were held to force Duvalierists from office.

The gleaming white National Palace—so long a symbol of corruption and repression—was now taken over by the provisional Conseil National de Gouvernement (CNG). Its head was Lieutenant General Henri Namphy, who had served as the army chief of staff under Jean-Claude Duvalier but had nonetheless managed to steer clear of politics. Otherwise, the six-member council was a combination of military officers and prominent civilians, including one, Gérard Gourgue, who had long been active in protesting human rights violations. Namphy announced that his government would be based on “absolute respect for human rights, press freedom, the existence of free labor unions, and the functioning of structured political parties.” The CNG was to rule the country until national elections could be held in late 1987.

For help in carrying out the transition, the CNG looked to Washington. The Reagan administration had good reason to lend a hand. Duvalier’s overthrow had won the White House much credit. Together with the ouster of Marcos in the Philippines, it seemed to show that the administration opposed dictatorships on the right as well as the left, and even Democrats praised the administration for its enlightened approach.

No sooner was Duvalier on his way to France than Americans began streaming into Haiti. Administration notables included Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs; Vernon Walters, US ambassador to the United Nations; and Brigadier General Fred Gorden, the Pentagon’s regional security director for Latin America. Arnold Harberger, a former professor of economics at the University of Chicago, came to study Haiti’s economy and draft recommendations for reforming it. The Peace Corps doubled its contingent to about fifty volunteers, dispatching them to work in irrigation, forestry, health, and nutrition. The American Institute for Free Labor Development, an arm of the AFL-CIO, came to instruct moderate labor leaders in American-style collective bargaining. And the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a new organization linked to the Democratic party, staged a workshop in Puerto Rico on the democratic process. Seventeen political and civic leaders attended, gaining advice on everything from building coalitions to raising money.

Most active of all was the US Agency for International Development. AID is responsible for disbursing US assistance abroad, and as the dollars came cascading into Haiti, the agency underwent a rapid expansion. Its sprawling compound in Port-au-Prince—housed in a former hotel on Harry Truman Boulevard—swelled with consultants, economists, agronomists, accountants, and development experts. Eventually, AID’s staff grew to about 170, all engaged in devising a sort of mini-Marshall Plan aimed at raising Haiti from the ashes of dictatorship.

The country’s most pressing needs were for food, education, and health, and AID now sharply increased its funding for each. The agency worked through a network of four hundred private voluntary organizations, or PVOs, ranging from worldwide giants like CARE and Catholic Relief Services to smaller groups like the Adventists and Mennonites. Through them, AID was helping to feed 700,000 people a day—more than one in every ten Haitians. It was also subsidizing health clinics, literacy programs, preprimary education, child care, and family planning. AID’s most ambitious program was in the countryside, where it oversaw a “hillside management” strategy designed to alleviate catastrophic problems of deforestation and erosion. As part of the program, AID has been planting ten million trees a year.

But AID’s activities extended far beyond such traditional relief work. As Haiti’s single largest donor, the agency had tremendous leverage with the Haitian government, and it now used its influence to push for a thorough overhaul of the Haitian economy. Under Duvalier, the country had become a “kleptocracy,” designed to enrich Baby Doc and his cronies. Duvalier had plundered the national treasury while saddling the country with huge deficits. State-run companies were granted monopolies, allowing them to turn out inferior goods at inflated prices. Tight restrictions were placed on imports, thus shielding local businessmen from foreign competition.

AID resolved to change all that. Reflecting the philosophy of the Reagan administration, it encouraged Haiti to stress the private sector, foreign investment, and the marketplace. Its chief ally was the new finance minister, Leslie Delatour. Delatour was “an AID mission’s dream,” as one AID officer put it. He had earned degrees from Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, then gone to work for the World Bank. While in Washington, Delatour had undertaken frequent consulting jobs for AID, recommending ways to improve the Haitian economy. Now, at the age of thirty-eight, he had a chance to implement those recommendations himself. Brash, outspoken, and thoroughly Americanized, Delatour enjoyed direct access to AID officials and consulted them frequently in the course of carrying out his program.

The changes came fast and went deep. Delatour adopted an austerity budget and, as part of it, slashed government expenditures (except for those in education, which were increased). He exposed fraud in public agencies and fired one hundred employees from his own bloated ministry. To lower the cost of living and make local enterprises more competitive, he cut tariffs and eliminated import quotas, thereby allowing in a flow of cheap goods. Delatour also closed two inefficient state-owned enterprises—a vegetable-oil plant and a sugar refinery—and laid off workers from the national cement factory.

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