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Haiti: The Compromising Reality

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Antonio Bolfo/Reportage by Getty Images
A boy sleeping in a pile of plastic bottles at the Truitier landfill, Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 2011

Amy Wilentz knows Haiti very well. She has a quarter-century of experience with the country. She speaks excellent French and Creole. She understands Haitian history intimately. She has the patience to sit with Haitians for hours, and the empathy to listen as her Haitian informants talk. She is marvelously observant and in command of a prose style sufficiently supple and imaginative to communicate her observations. Her naive illusions about the place have long since been stripped away.

Her first book about Haiti, The Rainy Season, was published in 1989 and depicted what seemed at the time a crucial moment in Haitian history, as the thirty-year dictatorship of the Duvaliers collapsed and a new nation emerged. The Rainy Season is an enthralling book—it remains so even now, at a remove of decades. (The book was republished in 2010 with a new introduction by Wilentz.)

The Rainy Season slips into the interstices between journalism, ethnology, history, sociology, and memoir; it is above all a traveler’s account of Haiti. Dozens and dozens of characters appear in this book, emerging from the page as full-fledged personalities, from vivid, flawed, never mawkish street children to the cynical “Well-Placed Embassy Official,” from voodoo priests to Baptist missionaries. So much of its power comes from the author’s moral clarity: the Haiti of The Rainy Season was a place in which elemental battles of good and evil were being waged; one could not be neutral; and every character is defined by his attitude toward the battle. There is no doubt where Wilentz’s sympathies lie: anger is an element of her literary personality. Here it fits her subject.

The Rainy Season was one of the few books about Haiti that I read before coming to the country for the first time in the spring of 2007. So panoptic, so detailed, so precise, and so evocative was The Rainy Season that I felt as if I knew the country intimately without having spent so much as a day there. I was for many months like the character Pyle in The Quiet American, clutching a volume of the imaginary York Harding’s works on democracy.

For a long time, I saw Amy Wilentz’s Haiti before I saw my Haiti. The two nations were not necessarily at a remove from one another, but neither were they entirely coincidental. The country had changed a great deal in the interim. The Haiti that I found in 2007, unlike the Haiti that Wilentz wrote about in 1989, was morally muddled. I found it impossible to acquire a sense of certitude.

The Tonton Macoutes, once so terrifying, were now geriatric. My wife worked for a United Nations peacekeeping mission that some denounced to me as neocolonial foreign occupation, but that others told me was all that had kept Haiti from degenerating into mass murder. I could take either side of the argument with equal dexterity nowadays, but with no conviction: both charges might well be true.1 Haiti in 2007, as it is today, was a place of charge and countercharge, of anecdote and counteranecdote, of rumor, accusation, and arguments that concluded Yes, but—. The only moral absolute in my eyes was that the suffering of the poorest of the poor was unconscionable—but just what to do about the poverty was unclear. So much had been invested over the previous decades to so little effect.

After the earthquake, Amy Wilentz returned to Haiti. The pendulum that alternates between nightmare and the blackest comedy had slid again and Haiti was experiencing a moment of horror. Now Wilentz has produced a second book about Haiti, Farewell, Fred Voodoo.

The title derives from a reportorial convention, she tells us, of the 1980s in which the Haitian man on the street was known jokingly as “Fred Voodoo.” So the title means many things: it is a salute to the anonymous dead of the earthquake, and it is a declaration of the author’s intention to see beyond the anonymous man on the street to a world of named individuals, each possessed of hopes, dreams, and agency. It is perhaps also a valediction to Haiti. I suspect that another generation of travelers will come to Haiti clutching this new volume, in possession of a portrait of the country at once very much like, and very much unlike, the country they find on the ground.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo is in the mold of The Rainy Season: like the earlier book, it is a traveler’s account of Haiti, again in the first person—what Wilentz saw, who Wilentz spoke with, what Wilentz thinks and has concluded. The book is subtitled “A Letter from Haiti,” but it is a letter addressed to a reader with only a passing acquaintanceship with the country: she covers a good deal of familiar ground recounting the history of Haiti and her own experiences with it. She visits the vast tent camps that sprouted up in the aftermath of the quake, and attends a voodoo ceremony. One of her intentions in this book is certainly to incite the casual reader’s interest in this place to which she has given such a significant share of her most intense feelings, the reader who might only have registered the nation’s existence in the weeks following the earthquake. Such a reader would have been deluded by television coverage, Wilentz tells us, suffused with a spirit of “condescension filled with pity.” It is her goal to make complex that portrait of Haiti.

May I be blunt? I don’t think that “condescension” and “pity” are wholly inappropriate reactions to a place like Haiti, particularly in the aftermath of the earthquake, which is to say that naive eyes in their primitive reaction to Haiti might see more clearly than experienced eyes. There is some profound dysfunction in Haitian society: some nations work poorly, and this is one of them. Dr. Johnson was familiar from the streets of London with poverty on the scale of Port-au-Prince, and so remarked to Boswell:

Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.

This is not condescension, or at least it is not only condescension: it is also a correct moral judgment. Such a judgment should never be ignored.

Just why Haiti is so wretchedly governed is a complicated question—like all Haitian questions. It is strange that in a book eager to point out complication upon complication, Wilentz, on this point only, is eager to seek out radical simplification. It is largely, she says, the fault of the United States, which invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and which, she maintains correctly, has been actively involved in Haitian politics almost continuously thereafter. “This is not invented, left-wing, knee-jerk interpretation. It’s just true,” Wilentz writes.

Ignore for the moment that the past two decades or more have seen in power only Haitian governments that were, for the most part, in one way or another opposed by the United States; and ignore also the example of the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbor, equally under historical American domination, but very much more prosperous. You can see how quickly these arguments in Haiti devolve into Yes, but—.

I would offer Wilentz greater benefit of the doubt on invented, left-wing, reflexive interpretations of Haitian history were she not so prone to other invented, left-wing, reflexive ideas. “Haiti can be a seen as a libertarian’s dream,” she writes. The libertarians I know, when they suffer me to listen to their dreams, tell fantastical tales of monkeys speaking Chinese, of wandering Paris in a bathrobe, and of a lean, effective state dedicated to the preservation of individual liberty and governed by the rule of law.

What we have in Wilentz’s asseveration is a compressed form of a larger argument offered by the Duke historian Laurent Dubois in his recent book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. In the introduction to that otherwise excellent book, Dubois argues that Haiti’s

poverty and instability are not mysterious, and they have nothing do with any inherent shortcomings on the part of the Haitians themselves. Rather, Haiti’s present is the product of its history.

The prose here is unclear, but by “history” Dubois means chiefly the history of malign foreign involvement in Haitian affairs; and by “inherent shortcomings,” I do not think he is referring to race, but culture.

This is a remarkable claim, attempting to explain in a single epistemological gesture phenomena as disparate as chronic childhood malnutrition, widespread illiteracy, endemic judicial corruption, the failure to establish stable democratic institutions, the rise of the narco-state, overcrowding of the prisons, and the clear-cutting of Haiti’s forests. “History” can account for anything: the rise to power of François Duvalier (and if ever there was a dictator intimately linked to culture, it was François Duvalier, the former ethnologist); the maintenance of the Duvalier dictatorship over three decades; the subsequent collapse of the dictatorship; the rise to power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (whose popularity is inconceivable without some deep understanding of Haitian culture); the subsequent coup d’état that sent Aristide into exile; the reversal of the coup d’état that reinstalled Aristide in power; and so on. Here is an explanation so broad as to encompass anything and explain nothing; it is an argument so vague that it is beyond analysis.

This is a proposition so distinct from the lived experience of the traveler in Haiti, where in everyday life the Haitian character makes such an indelible impression. Haiti’s failures have nothing to do with any “inherent shortcomings” on the part of the Haitians themselves? Really? Would Dubois accept the opposite conclusion, that Haiti’s successes have nothing do with “inherent strengths” on the part of Haitians themselves? Is there no link at all between culture, religion, governance, national temperament, and economics? Would such a statement make sense applied to any other people of this earth?

As for pity—Wilentz doesn’t like it any more than she likes condescension. She writes, “My rule is, don’t be full of pity and charity. Don’t feel sorry for them, rule number one. Be glad you’re not in their situation, but don’t pity.” But for heaven’s sake, why not? Pity, charity, compassion, and the concomitant instinct to succor are human virtues. They are the product of empathy. By “pity,” Wilentz seems concerned with simple-minded kindness that reduces a victim in all his manifold human complexity to nothing but a suffering object. After the earthquake, when camera crews were surveying men and women still trapped under rubble or languishing untended in hospital beds or stumbling about on newly amputated limbs, I daresay that the most salient feature of these victims was indeed their victimhood—but Wilentz seems worried that a sense of pity might obscure understanding: “Haiti needs to be understood in Haitian terms,” she writes. This is a recapitulation of Bronislaw Malinowki’s injunction to the working ethnographer: “To grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”

Now I do not doubt that it is generally a good thing to see others as they see themselves and almost never a bad thing; but there are many ways of seeing, and the ethnographical point of view is just one. The cartographer, the theologian, the agronome, or the jurist will all see Haiti from a different point of view. A blinding sense of pity may obscure the journalist’s clarity of vision, but may well aid the missionary or the medic. It all depends on what you wish to achieve.

So too the critic: I am not attempting to write this from a Haitian point of view, and Simon and Schuster, proposing to sell Wilentz’s book to the American public, has obtained blurbs from Susan Orlean, Tracy Kidder, Barbara Ehrenreich, Adam Hochschild, and Kurt Andersen, strangely not a Haitian voice among them.

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    Here is not the place to review the complicated history of United Nations peacekeeping in Haiti; and having benefited from the mission so handsomely, I am certainly not the man to conduct such a review. That said, there is no doubt in my mind that the United Nations is guilty of the gravest charge critics have leveled against it: that it accidentally introduced cholera into Haiti. These charges are discussed comprehensively in Jonathan Katz, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 

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