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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?

1.

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.

Finally, together with AID, Delatour mounted a campaign to promote exports and foreign investment. In their view, Haiti had two great advantages: its proximity to the United States and its three-dollar-a-day minimum wage, the lowest in the Caribbean. The country seemed a perfect place for US companies seeking to escape high production costs at home. Beginning in the mid-1970s, many American manufacturers came to Haiti to produce textiles, electronics, and baseballs. By the mid-1980s, these plants had created 50,000 jobs. With that record in mind, the Reagan administration had visions of turning Haiti into a Caribbean Taiwan or Singapore.

To help set the process in motion, the White House in June 1986 organized an extraordinary briefing on Haiti. About one hundred chief executive officers from major American corporations came to hear Secretary of State Shultz extol the country’s investment opportunities. The administration’s bullish attitude was summed up in a briefing paper prepared for the session:

With improvement in political stability in recent weeks and a sobering realization among workers that unrealistic wage demands result in the closing of factories and the loss of jobs, both Haitian and foreign businessmen are showing growing confidence in Haiti as a place to invest.

The paper added: “The Haitian people are decent and friendly to the United States and deserve our help in improving their own situation.”

In Haiti, meanwhile, AID oversaw the creation of a new agency, called Prominex, intended to woo foreign capital. It would advise investors on things like labor, shipping, and local resources, as well as help them cut through government red tape. AID allocated $7 million to finance Prominex’s first four years of operation and brought in an American consulting team to help get it off the ground. The organization set up shop in Port-au-Prince’s Holiday Inn and waited for investors to start stopping by.

By 1987, money was pouring into Haiti from all sides—the United States, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank, United Nations, France, Canada, West Germany, and Japan. Haiti seemed on its way to creating a better society.

2.

Arriving in Haiti in mid-August, I found a country rapidly spinning out of control. Every morning, people tuned in to the radio to find out if Port-au-Prince would be shut down by another strike. The newspapers brought daily word of some new horror, from death threats and smashed windshields to actual murder. By day, the capital seemed ruled by beggars, hustlers, and street vendors; at night, by brigands, vigilantes, and moonlighting soldiers. After dark, death squads raided the capital’s shantytowns, called bidonvilles, causing them to echo through the night with the sound of gunfire.

These escadrons de la mort also operated in well-to-do neighborhoods, as I discovered early one Sunday morning. My modest hotel was on a pleasant middle-class street full of palm trees and gingerbread houses, near the Oloffson, the florid, fanciful hotel of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. I had an appointment not far away, and, since the air was still cool, I decided to walk. Some three hundred feet from my hotel, however, I came upon a crowd of forty or so Haitians gathered in a circle on the street. Only after drawing closer did I see the object of their attention—the body of a young man lying face down on the road. From his head came two streaks of dried blood. The victim, I learned, had been seized by several uniformed men the previous night while he was on the street talking with some friends. The men had beaten him for two hours, then shot him—exactly why, no one seemed to know. He was simply another of the many bodies that were regularly turning up on the city’s streets. The question was raised in a newspaper headline: “Existe-til une terrorisme d’Etat?

As for the economy, the policies of Delatour and AID had produced utter disarray. Once the government began easing import restrictions, it was unable to maintain any controls at all. The Army, always on the lookout for lucrative sidelines, now allowed in all goods in exchange for a percentage off the top. Haiti became a smugglers’ paradise, and freighters from Miami daily pulled into ports large and small. One morning I visited Miragoâne, a quiet coastal town southwest of Port-au-Prince. Two freighters had just arrived, and the waterfront buzzed with hundreds of traders clamoring for merchandise. A long line of sweaty, bare-chested men lugged bags of cement from the ships to waiting taptaps, the wildly colored vans that serve as Haiti’s chief means of transport. An impromptu market had sprung up, and women squatted in the sun selling Borden’s breakfast drink, Colgate toothpaste, Carnation milk, Rainbow bathroom tissue, cheap pocketbooks, flashlights, and cowboy boots. Clustered about the vast, illegal operation were groups of smiling Haitian soldiers.

The influx of these foreign goods helped to lower prices. In Port-au-Prince, street vendors hawked Dewar’s Scotch at six dollars a fifth, and supermarkets stocked rows of Manischewitz wine. But the flood of cheap imports was having a devastating effect on local producers, who simply couldn’t compete. For instance, imports of cheap “Miami rice” enraged the farmers in the fertile Artibonite Valley north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s chief rice-growing area. A virtual rice war had broken out, with local farmers attacking trucks laden with imported rice as they headed for market.

The job situation, too, was dismal. When Delatour took over the unemployment rate was 50 percent or higher. But, insisting on cuts in spending, he had allocated few funds for public works projects. “When I came in, there was not one cent of foreign exchange reserves,” Delatour told me. “I had no room to maneuver.” Not only were few jobs created but the closing of the state-owned companies had thrown hundreds of people out of work. The Prominex office, meanwhile, had few callers. Haiti’s growing instability had caused dozens of foreign companies to leave, taking with them 12,000 jobs. As a result, since February 1986, unemployment had only grown. Haiti was looking less like Taiwan and more like Tanzania.

Many Haitians blamed the United States. The country was rife with talk about an ominous “American Plan” designed to keep the country backward and dependent. According to the common wisdom, the plan sought to keep Haitian wages low so as to make the country attractive to American capital. To an outsider, it sounded as though some secret US documents had fallen into the wrong hands. In fact, the “American Plan” was a handy political term for the annual country statements that AID routinely draws up for countries around the world. The statements had come to the attention of Haiti Progrès, a lively leftist newspaper published in Brooklyn. Its articles on AID were then picked up by Haiti’s powerful radio stations, the chief source of news for illiterate Haitians. As a result, even Port-au-Prince’s poorest residents could talk knowledgeably about the “American Plan.” By the spring of 1987, AID had grown so weary of being attacked that it paid an American consultant $40,000 to find out why it was so disliked.

During my stay, a protest organized on behalf of an outspoken thirty-four-year-old priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide gave me a sense of the strength of anti-American feeling in Haiti. Père Aristide is the leading figure in the Ti Legliz (Little Church), the radical wing of the Catholic Church. His thunderous sermons had gained him a passionate following in the bidonvilles. Using biblical imagery with a flourish, Aristide railed against the greed of the elite and the cruelty of the military; Haiti’s meek, he declared, had to rise up and inherit what was rightfully theirs. The United States, Aristide said, favored the mighty over the masses at every turn. For the conservative Church hierarchy, things had gone far enough, and, in an effort to keep Aristide quiet, it announced that it was transferring him to a parish outside the capital. This outraged Aristide’s followers, seven of whom embarked on a hunger strike in Port-au-Prince’s stark, cavernous cathedral.

By the time I visited the cathedral, the protest was already in its fifth day. A hunger strike might seem redundant in Haiti since half the population goes to bed hungry every night, but hundreds of slum dwellers had turned out in the 95-degree heat to express their solidarity. I joined the line of sympathizers for a time as it filed solemnly past the fasters, who, lying in front of the altar, all seemed to be napping. Then I walked out onto the street, where I fell into conversation with one of the protest’s organizers. A crowd gathered around, and the conversation quickly turned to the United States. The air turned hotter still. “America always likes a dictator,” said one middle-aged man carrying a radio. “It keeps the army in power.” Another eagerly agreed: “The Haitian people have no problem with the American people—they are our friends. But the American government doesn’t care about the poor people—only the high classes.” Everywhere I went, I heard the same views.

Eventually, the crowds at the cathedral grew so large that the hierarchy was forced to relent and allow Aristide to remain in Port-au-Prince. To mark the end of the hunger strike, the priest himself showed up at the cathedral, touching off a joyous celebration among the thousands gathered there. It was a great victory for Aristide, fortifying his image as the champion of the people. But it also made him a more inviting target for the military. A few days after his triumph, Aristide and several other priests were driving to a religious festival north of the capital when, passing an Army roadblock, they were set upon by a gang of thugs. Aristide managed to escape with minor injuries, but the incident left him badly shaken. Soon, however, he was back in the pulpit, resuming his jeremiads against the government and the United States.

It was not hard to trace the immediate source of Haiti’s feelings about the United States. The Reagan administration had become a strong backer of the governing CNG, and the CNG had grown extremely unpopular. Far from ushering in a new era, the council seemed intent on perpetuating the old one. Gérard Gourgue, the human rights activist on the CNG, soon resigned in protest of the Army’s continued abuses. General Namphy remained the nominal head of state, but he had long since been eclipsed by General Williams Regala, the minister of interior and national defense. Regala, according to Americas Watch, “was associated directly with the Secret Police during the 1960s and 1970s and was also a close personal associate of its former chief Luc Desyr, one of the most notorious torturers and murderers of the Duvalier era.”1 In addition, the hated Tontons Macoutes, after suffering initial setbacks, were making a comeback. To Haitians, it seemed familiar. “Duvalierism without Duvalier,” they called it.

Matters reached a flash point during the summer. In late June, soldiers occupied the office of a militant labor union, arrested several of its leaders, and ordered the organization shut. In addition, the CNG—acting more and more like a traditional military junta—announced it was usurping the powers of the independent electoral commission, which had been set up to ensure a fair election. In a sense, the CNG was staging a coup d’état by stealth.

The opposition, until then badly fragmented, now banded together in a center-left coalition called the Group of 57. It represented a cross section of the many grass-roots and civic organizations that had emerged in the country since Duvalier’s fall. Although more than one hundred political parties had recently been formed, the Haitians, deeply distrustful of traditional political organizations, paid them little heed. Instead, many were drawn to more populist institutions—peasant cooperatives, youth committees, neighborhood organizations, organs of the popular church. Now, with the CNG sliding toward dictatorship, representatives of these groups began working together for the first time. The Group of 57 demanded that the electoral commission be reinstated and the CNG resign.

To enforce its demands, the coalition called a general strike at the end of June. It was a huge success. In Port-au-Prince, stores lowered their shutters, schools closed their doors, and public transport ground to a halt. Piles of tires were set aflame on downtown streets, creating barricades of billowing smoke. They were manned by young toughs who, armed with rocks and sticks, stood ready to enforce the strike order. On July 2, the CNG revoked its electoral decree. However, the opposition, sensing its own power, declared it would not call off the strikes until the CNG was replaced by a more representative body. Protestors poured into the streets of the capital. The Army, determined to break the strike, fired point-blank at demonstrators; at night, soldiers raided the restive slums, leaving behind a trail of bodies. Radio stations played dirges and church bells tolled. By the end of July, more than thirty people were killed and two hundred were wounded.

Throughout these events, the United States remained largely impassive. The State Department repeated its commitment to the electoral process, and officials from the US embassy reportedly lobbied the CNG in private to reinstate the electoral commission. The pressure from Washington probably helped convince the junta to relent. But Washington was silent on the Army’s abuses, and it brushed off the opposition’s demand that the CNG members resign. US officials maintained that the only way to get rid of the CNG was to hold elections, and that the only way to hold elections was to avoid provoking the CNG. This infuriated the opposition groups, which believed that coddling the junta represented the one sure means of undermining the election.

In formulating its policy, the administration clearly had more than Haiti on its mind. To Washington, Haiti—located just fifty miles southeast of Cuba—is part of a much larger struggle taking place throughout the Caribbean Basin. “Haiti is one nation,” says Richard Holwill, a deputy assistant secretary of state and a policy maker on Haiti. “If we abandon the field there, we might be undercutting ourselves in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama. We have to look at the country in a broader context.” Holwill, who worked at the Heritage Foundation before joining the State Department, says that since Duvalier left, “there has been substantial Soviet support to the Communist party in Haiti and an increase in broadcasts by Radio Havana and Radio Moscow in Creole.” The election, he says, “offers the Soviets a chance to embarrass the United States and create a defeat for it.”

Such geopolitical talk makes many Haitians bristle. As they point out, the Soviet Union has virtually no presence in the country. The Haitian Communist party, banned under the Duvaliers, has since reemerged, but it is small and, by contemporary Haitian standards, rather moderate. In fact, anticommunist sentiment runs deep in Haiti, most of whose peasants aspire to be landowners above all else. In the countryside, “communist” serves as an all-purpose epithet applicable to anyone with alien ideas.

The administration’s tendency to view Haiti in a geopolitical perspective troubles even the most pro-American Haitians—for example, Marc Bazin, a big, hearty man who hopes to become Haiti’s next president. Before Duvalier fell, Bazin spent many years working for the World Bank in Washington, and as a result, he is often called the “American candidate.” When I visited Bazin at his headquarters in Port-au-Prince, I asked him to what extent he felt the United States was keeping the CNG in power. In view of his close ties to Washington, I expected a vague answer, but instead Bazin looked at me as if I were feebleminded and, with a dismissive wave of the hand, said, “one hundred percent.” He then summed up the essence of US policy toward Haiti: “The people in Washington look for stability first, democracy later.”

The single most controversial aspect of US policy is the military aid that Washington is sending Haiti. The sum is relatively small—only $1.6 million in 1987—but for most Haitians it counts for more than all the food, trees, and medicine that Washington has contributed. The US embassy is very conscious of the problem. “The public image here is that we’re supplying bullets to kill innocent people,” Jeffrey Lite, the US press officer in Haiti, told me. In reality, he said, the funds go only for “nonlethal” equipment—trucks, boots, tear gas. In addition, Lite noted, Pentagon advisers have come to instruct the Haitian army in the techniques of crowd control. “In some ways, it’s the most valuable thing we’ve done,” Lite said, adding that the troops who opened fire on demonstrators had not received any instruction. “They need more training, not less,” Lite told me. Perhaps so, but most Haitians I talked to disagree. More than any other single factor, they said, the decision to send military assistance to the CNG has tarnished America’s image in Haiti.

3.

To understand the depth of Haitian feelings about these matters, one must remember that Haitians have accumulated a huge backlog of complaints against the United States, extending back to 1915, when the Marines arrived to quell social unrest. They stayed for almost twenty years. Today Haitians make regular—and sour—references to the Marine occupation. Charlémagne Péralte, a populist leader killed by the Marines in 1919, is now considered a national hero, and his image appears on Haitian coins.

In addition, Haitians almost unanimously blame Washington for having kept the Duvaliers in power. Soon after François Duvalier’s election as president in 1957, the Marines returned to Haiti—this time by invitation. Duvalier asked the United States to train his army, and a large Marine mission was set up to carry out the job. Relations remained cordial until 1963, when the Kennedy administration, disturbed by reports of Duvalier’s increasing brutality, cut back on aid. In reaction, Duvalier expelled the Marines and demanded that Washington recall its ambassador. During the next ten years the United States sharply reduced its aid to Duvalier’s regime.

After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, however, matters seemed to return to normal. Jean-Claude toned down some of his father’s worst excesses; he also went out of his way to welcome Americans. They came in increasing numbers—investors to take advantage of the country’s cheap labor, tourists for its tropical beaches. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, the president for life could count on Washington’s firm support. Year after year, as Baby Doc persecuted priests, journalists, and political opponents, the Reagan administration kept silent. Only when the mounting opposition to Duvalier made it clear that his days were numbered did the White House speak out.

As if this dreary thirty-year record were not enough, Haitians have numerous specific complaints against the US as well. One is US immigration policy. In the 1970s, tens of thousands of Haitians, seeking to escape poverty and persecution, fled to the United States in crowded, leaky boats over seven hundred miles of hazardous seas. Countless thousands died in the crossing. Those who did make it fared little better. In contrast to Cuba’s “Marielitos,” who were immediately granted status as political refugees, many of the Haitian boat people were summarily deported back to Haiti. The Reagan administration set up an elaborate Coast Guard program off Haiti’s coast to stop the immigration. Thus the United States—already helping to prop up Duvalier’s rule—sealed off the only avenue of escape.

AIDS is another cause of bitterness. When the disease struck the United States, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta designated Haitians as a principal carrier group. Many American correspondents came to Haiti to file stories on Haitians with AIDS, often with a sensationalist cast. One result was the collapse of Haiti’s tourism industry—a situation from which it has yet to recover. Many Haitians believe that it was Americans who introduced the virus into their country. In the late 1970s, Haiti was a favorite tourist spot for homosexuals, and several hotels in Port-au-Prince were known to cater to them. There is no way of knowing whether they in fact brought AIDS to Haiti, but many Haitians, especially poorer ones, believe they did, and resentment over the issue lingers.

Even pigs have been a source of suspicion. In the early 1980s, Haiti experienced an outbreak of African swine fever. The United States, fearing that the disease might spread, prevailed upon the Duvalier government to launch a pig eradication program. Teams of riflemen spread into the nation’s villages, shooting every pig in sight; in all, more than 400,000 were slaughtered. For the Haitian peasant, a greater calamity could hardly be imagined. Pigs served as something of a rural bank; if a farmer needed to pay for a baptism or send a child to school, he could raise the necessary money by selling off a pig. Now this vital source of income was gone. AID, aware of the magnitude of the crisis, initiated an ambitious program to replenish the local pig supply, but the new pigs, imported from Iowa, had a hard time adapting to Haiti. So far, only about 20 percent of the peasants have received pigs. Today, many Haitians question whether the pigs had to be killed in the first place.

Pigs, AIDS, immigration, support for the Duvaliers, military aid—it’s hardly surprising that, with Baby Doc gone, resentment toward the United States has reached the boiling point. What is surprising is the virulent form that resentment has taken. In Nicaragua, for instance, the United States has financed the killing not of pigs but of people, yet Americans come and go there without any fear of reprisal. In Haiti, Americans have been threatened, raped, and stabbed. Most confounding of all have been the attacks on humanitarian groups. Virtually every agency distributing food in Haiti has suffered attacks. Trucks have been ambushed, warehouses overrun, even helicopters hit.

Consider the case of CARE. Few organizations are doing more to help the people of Haiti. CARE is running a pre-school education program, constructing community water systems, planting trees, advising peasant farmers, and, most importantly, providing meals to 350,000 people a day. Nonetheless, CARE’s trucks have been hijacked with such regularity that the organization has had to ask the government for help. “I know of no other country in the world where we allow the host country’s army to come near our trucks,” said Virginia Ubik, the American in charge of CARE’s program in Haiti. “Here, soldiers routinely go out as guards.”

To some extent, the attacks can be explained as the desperate acts of a hungry people. Even before Duvalier’s fall, relief facilities were sometimes raided by starving peasants. In recent months, however, the attacks have taken on a distinctly political tone. The major private aid agencies are run by Americans, and most rely on AID for funding. As anti-American sentiment rises in Haiti, these highly visible organizations are bearing the brunt. Today CARE, which relies almost entirely on AID for its $15 million annual budget, is strenuously seeking to broaden its base of donors. “We appreciate the support of AID, but we don’t represent the US government,” Virginia Ubik told me. “It would be healthier if we were truly international.” Many other humanitarian groups are following suit.

Even if we take account of the American factor, however, the attacks on humanitarian organizations seem bizarre, even pathological, symptoms of a strange national disease. After all, relief organizations have done much good in Haiti; without them, many more Haitians would die of tuberculosis, drop out of school, go hungry. One would expect Haitians to want more help from the outside world, not less.

Yet it may be that the very size of the foreign presence in Haiti has contributed to the problem. The AID mission, for instance, is larger than most ministries of the Haitian government; in fact, the agency acts as something of a shadow government. Even AID, however, is dwarfed by the network of foreign non-government groups active in Haiti. The country is host to as many as eight hundred private voluntary organizations, all crammed into an area the size of Maryland. The PVOs are so numerous that AID recently had to create an entirely new one—the Haitian Association of Voluntary Agencies—just to look after them. CARE alone, with a staff of 239, employs more people than AID does.

Arlin Hunsberger, project director for the Pan American Development Foundation, an AID-funded PVO active in reforestation, finds the sudden growth in PVOs disturbing: “A lot of programs are ill-conceived and poorly carried out. It’s nauseating to see some of the stuff that goes on in the name of humanitarian response.” The Haitians, he adds, “have to be a tolerant people to tolerate all the foreign groups here.”

That tolerance may be at last wearing thin.

4.

In 1949, a statue of Christopher Columbus was erected on the Port-au-Prince waterfront to honor the man who “discovered” Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. To many Haitians, however, Columbus’s visit seemed less an act of discovery than one of invasion. One night shortly after the fall of Duvalier, some of the young men carrying out dechoukaj uprooted the two-ton monument and pitched it into the sea. Pas de Blancs en Haiti, they wrote on its pedestal—no more whites. The adjoining Quai Colomb was renamed after Charlémagne Péralte.

Haiti’s changed attitude toward Americans is only part of a much larger reckoning. The country’s latent nationalism, suppressed for so long, is finally coming to the fore. In the process, Haiti is rediscovering its self-esteem. Forced to endure the most wretched poverty, Haitians nonetheless feel a sense of historical and cultural distinctiveness. Haiti was the world’s first independent black nation, and Haitians do not easily let outsiders forget it. Haiti has its own language, Creole, which, dismissed by some as a bastard tongue, is a vital, protean language with deep roots in Haiti’s past. Haiti may be economically backward, but it has produced some of the world’s greatest folk art. Even tap-tap drivers vie with one another to produce the most visually captivating vans, making Port-au-Prince seem a giant museum on wheels.

Although the practice of voodoo has diminished in recent years, it continues to hold sway in the countryside, providing peasants spiritual shelter from the harshness of the world. With its spirits, drumpounding ceremonies, and black magic, voodoo links Haitians to their African past. Voodoo “is the spiritual blood of Haiti, a rebellious reaction against French Catholicism vying with the African beliefs imported by the slaves,” write Bernard Diederich and Al Burt in their book Papa Doc: The Truth About Haiti Today. “It is a religion tailored for the Haitian, geared to his life and spirit.”2

The sense of apartness felt by many black Haitians is heightened by their country’s extreme social and economic divisions. Haiti is not only one of the world’s poorest nations, it’s also among the most inequitable. Less than 1 percent of the population owns 45 percent of all national income. Much of that wealth is controlled by a small community of café-au-lait mulattoes. Spawned centuries ago by miscegenation between white aristocrats and their black slaves, the mulattoes have deftly managed to preserve their privileged position; indeed, a Haitian’s station in life is often determined by the proportion of café and lait running through his veins. Mulattoes together with many rich blacks congregate in Pétionville, the fashionable suburb of Port-au-Prince that is more like Miami and Paris than the rest of Haiti.

Haitian history can be read as the continuing struggle of poor black masses seeking to break free of their exploiters, foreign and domestic. The story begins with Columbus himself. His arrival prepared the way for Spanish colonialists who proceeded to wipe out the island’s indigenous Arawak population. That, in turn, made necessary the importation of slaves from West Africa, the first of which arrived a mere eighteen years after Columbus’s visit. The Spanish eventually gave way to the French, but the change in master made no difference in black suffering. Eventually a half-million slaves worked in Haiti’s sugar-rich fields, helping to make it the world’s most lucrative colony.

In 1791, the slaves revolted, inaugurating a long period of upheaval and anarchy that would not only drive out the French but devastate the country. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great slave leader, battled the French with a scorched-earth policy, torching plantation homes, sugar estates, even whole cities. Before he could finish the job, however, he was kidnapped and transported to France; there he was thrown into one of Napoleon’s dungeons and left to rot (a fate few Haitians have forgotten). The task of emancipation fell to another ruthless nationalist, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who finally drove out the French in 1804. Haiti’s first constitution, promulgated the same year, stated that “no white man will set foot on Haitian soil as owner or master.”

Independence did not put an end to the bloodshed and suffering. Haiti during the next century was ruled by a succession of thugs, tyrants, and imbeciles; revolution and rebellion became routine. It was during this period that the basic pattern of Haitian governance was established: those in power enriched themselves, extracting all they could from the defenseless peasantry.

The Duvaliers eventually perfected the traditional pattern. In organizing the Tontons Macoutes, they found a way to institutionalize the cruelty inherent in Haiti’s political system. Under the Macoutes, Haiti became a land of incessant blackouts, arbitrary arrests, massacres, torture, and executions. During the fourteen years of Papa Doc’s rule, as many as 50,000 people were killed. Throughout, the gap between rich and poor widened. François Duvalier, a devotee of black-nationalist philosophy called noirisme, cut back the power of the mulattoes, but, far from giving power to the black masses, he simply supplanted the light-skinned elite with a dark one. Even that change did not last. His son Baby Doc energetically encouraged the mulattoes’ return to power—a development confirmed by his marriage to Michèle Bennett, daughter of a mulatto businessman.

With Duvalier gone, the state has lost its monopoly of violence. This is evident in Haiti’s soaring crime rate. Under Duvalier and the Tontons Macoutes, Haitians felt safe walking through Port-au-Prince at all hours of the night. Throughout the capital, walls are now going up around the homes of the well-to-do, and some neighborhoods have hired private guards to patrol their streets.

The upsurge in hostility toward outsiders should be seen in the same light. As nationalist sentiment increases, Haitians have become increasingly aware of the extent to which white foreigners control their affairs. And with that awareness comes resentment. Broadly viewed, the violence directed at Americans and other foreigners seems a primitive eruption of nationalist anger, an urgent, twisted assertion of independence and self-identity.

The freighted nature of the foreign presence in Haiti is nowhere more apparent than in the activities of Protestant missionaries. Of the six thousand Americans in the country, nearly a thousand are evangelicals—a ratio of almost one missionary for every six thousand Haitians. The missionaries began coming to Haiti in the 1960’s, when Papa Doc, concerned about the activities of radical Catholic priests, welcomed the more conservative Protestants. Today they continue to find Haiti attractive because of its convenient location, less than a two-hour plane ride from Miami, and its voodoo-practicing population, which offers a ready pool of converts.

Virtually every Protestant denomination is represented, from Baptists and Methodists to Nazarenes and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell provide funds for work here, and Mormons are arriving in growing numbers. “Per capita, Haiti is probably the most evangelicized country in the world,” one AID official says.

Most of the Protestant groups combine relief work (funded primarily by AID) with old-fashioned proselytizing. Although Protestant aid programs are theoretically open to all comers, in practice they are used as enticements to conversion. Matters are not improved by the missionaries’ brand of theology. Whereas Catholic priests—most of whom are Haitians—recognize the power of voodoo and seek to incorporate it into their rituals, Protestant missionaries mostly denounce it as paganism and seek to eradicate it. An intense backlash against the Protestant presence is the predictable result. Père Aristide, for one, recently denounced Protestant pastors as espousing a “Mafia and CIA theology that blocks the historic march of change in Haiti.”

Missionaries, consultants, development experts, economic advisers—Haiti in recent years has received a steady procession of such visitors, all bearing aid, advice, and promises. Despite it all, the country remains the poorest in the hemisphere. “Since 1970, we have received so much aid,” Jean-Claude Bajeux, a prominent Haitian intellectual and a leader of Konakom, a large grass-roots organization, told me. “The result is that we are now poorer, and the dysfunction in society has increased. The aid, instead of helping the country, has helped only a few people.”

Bajeux, a balding man of fifty-six, had recently received some death threats and for the past few weeks had slept at a different house every night. At any moment, he felt, the army might come to get him. For Bajeux, it all seemed familiar. In the early 1960s, Bajeux’s entire family—prominent mulattoes—were massacred by Papa Doc. He escaped only because he was out of the country at the time. For twenty-two years Bajeux remained abroad, most of the time teaching at the University of Puerto Rico. After Baby Doc’s fall, Bajeux, anxious to help rebuild his country, was among the first exiles to return, but sadly Haiti’s politics were reverting to form. Bajeux held the United States accountable. “Jean-Claude Duvalier was put into power by the Americans,” Bajeux told me. “Now they’re backing the CNG.”

5.

I’m confident that the overall image of the United States in Haiti is positive,” Richard Holwill of the State Department told me. “Much of this anti-Americanism is specifically designed to manipulate US policy. Much of it comes from people who have a vested interest in attacking the United States.” Holwill added: “A lot of people who are calling for elections are in fact opposed to them. There are strong currents on both the far right and far left that would like to abandon the electoral process.”

On that last point, at least, Holwill is right. Many people got rich under the Duvalier system and see no reason to change it. Their capacity for disruption was demonstrated on October 13, when a presidential candidate was gunned down on the steps of police headquarters in Port-au-Prince. Yves Volel was delivering an anti-government speech when several men—believed to be plainclothes police—came up and shot him. Volel died clutching a copy of Haiti’s new constitution, a document filled with eloquent guarantees of free speech and assembly.

Whether those guarantees become more than a piece of paper depends in part on what happens on November 29. The election poses some awesome problems. Haiti has not had a census in decades, so there are hardly any voter registration lists. Some Haitians live in regions so remote that they will not be able to make it to the polls; those who do will not, in many cases, be able to read their ballots. The potential for fraud is thus immense.

Even more serious, however, is the climate of terror that has settled over the country. The murder of Yves Volel, together with the brutal killing of another candidate in August, has had its effect on the remaining contenders. How fair can an election be when candidates must worry that each rally might be their last? On November 2, the office of the electoral commission was set on fire hours after it had disqualified a dozen Duvalierist candidates from running, including Clovis Desinor, a close associate and one-time finance minister of Papa Doc. The attack suggests how far the ancien régime will go to preserve its position.

In view of the mounting violence, it’s remarkable how many people want to be president of Haiti. The job may well be the most unenviable in the Carribean, but some two dozen candidates are seeking it. Most are cautiously centrist in their politics and have not made a strong impression during the campaign; as a result, few have managed to establish much of a popular base. Leading contenders include Marc Bazin, the former World Bank official; Sylvio Claude, a Christian Democrat who spent much time in Baby Doc’s jails; and the human-rights activist Gérard Gourgue.

Whoever emerges on top will face some frightful problems. In the first place, Haiti’s new constitution, adopted earlier this year, places strict limits on the powers of the president. This is understandable, in view of the country’s experience under the Duvaliers. Even the stongest-willed leader, however, could find himself encumbered by legal restrictions to the point of paralysis.

Haiti’s next leader will also have to contend with a public rubbed raw by repression. Obviously thirty years of a brutal dictatorship are not readily overcome in two or three. Manhandled by their secular leaders, Haiti’s poor have instead turned to the Catholic Church and priests like Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With his fervid, Armageddon-like pronouncements, Père Aristide has shown remarkable skill at expressing the people’s anger; he has not yet proved capable of channeling it. Haiti today is potentially explosive. Will Aristide, like Toussaint L’Ouverture, set fire to the country in order to save it?

Finally, Haiti’s president will have to contend with the United States. No government in Haiti can function without sizable infusions of American aid. In return for its dollars, Washington will surely make certain demands. More exports, for example. Further liberalization of the economy. Continued austerity. More incentives for the private sector. In short, the United States will demand a continuation of the policies of Leslie Delatour. Unfortunately, that will probably mean more factory closings, more rice wars, more unemployment.

American policy in Haiti suffers from one great weakness: it leaves the status quo intact. If Haiti needs anything, it is far-reaching social and economic change. The main brake on Haiti’s progress has been its gross inequality. Many of the country’s deepest problems—its pervasive illiteracy and superstition and violence—have their source in longstanding disparities of wealth and status. Any poor country that has a suburb as rich as Pétionville and slums as wretched as the bidonvilles seems fated to a future of destitution and instability. When the gap between rich and poor is so great, democracy will have a hard time taking root.

November 4, 1987

  1. 1

    Haiti: Duvalierism Since Duvalier, Americas Watch Report, October 1986, p. 3.

  2. 2

    McGraw-Hill, 1969, p. 359.

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