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.
Generous tax credits and relief from import restrictions encourage this invasion of American capital. While much of it goes into plant construction, there is also a booming tourist industry, with the old hotels expanding and new ones rising in the town and in the cooler hillside suburb of Pétionville. With the introduction of direct daily flights from New York, and the diminishing fear of tourists that they will be kidnapped by Macoutes, passenger arrivals by plane have jumped 30 percent over last year and 300 percent over five years ago. In 1971 some 71,000 people came to Haiti by plane, and another 42,000 stopped off for a day of shopping and sight-seeing from cruise ships.
The once-empty luxury hotels in the hills of Pétionville now require reservations, even at rates of up to fifty dollars a day. Such rates may be standard in the Caribbean, but they are fantasy to most Haitians, for whom fifty dollars represents two months’ wages. The most expensive of the tourist pleasure domes, a Miami-inspired creation of teased concrete and mosaic tile, advertises itself as providing the ultimate in luxury, which it defines as “being whisked from the airport in a special breed of car—the Rolls-Royce Corniche or a brace of Lamborghinis—to a Haitian palace embedded in lush foothills like a jeweled dream…your every whim means dignified service with two servants for every guest.”
For those willing to endure something less than this, Haiti still offers the cheapest vacation in the Caribbean. The capital, a ramshackle museum of Victorian gingerbread architecture, while hardly beautiful, is teeming with life. It has cool hillside suburbs with glorious views of mauve mountains and a turquoise bay, and a cultural richness which cannot even be tapped, let alone comprehended, in a short visit. It is an obvious target for big tourist development.
The obligatory Holiday Inn is already being planned and various projects are afoot for “developing” the virgin coast. One of the most exotic of these is the sybaritic palace now being assembled on the grounds of Katherine Dunham’s old villa, the Habitation LeClerc. Once the residence of Pauline Bonaparte and her husband, one of Napoleon’s generals, this hostelry will house a select group of jet-setters in Acapulco style, with a swimming pool for each suite and private jeeps, at fifty dollars a day.
The Haitian government is encouraging the hotel boom with generous concessions. So is the American government, which is providing funds to entrepreneurs through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a federally financed agency. OPIC not only insures such investments, but in some cases actually puts up part of the money. The insurance scheme is designed to calm fears of nationalization, and thus induce Americans to invest in the “development” of approved Third World countries. This, of course, raises the question whether Washington is going to be neutral when foreign countries nationalize firms that are insured by the US government. American businessmen in Haiti aren’t worried. “With Uncle Sam as a partner,” an OPIC-financed American entrepreneur told me, “we feel our investment is safe.” He is probably right. The Marines occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, when American investors felt their interests were threatened, and it wasn’t long ago that they were dispatched to the Dominican Republic, on the other side of the island of Hispaniola.
Haiti is becoming a paradise for the hustler. The most ambitious project to date, still on the drawing boards and in search of capital, is for the Ile de la Tortue, a bucolic island a few miles off the north coast. Once the outpost of buccaneers who attacked gold-laden Spanish treasure ships returning to Europe from the Caribbean, this idyllic island of mountains and golden beaches has been singled out by a group of Texans who call themselves Dupont Caribbean. Their ninety-nine-year lease from the Haitian government includes exemption from personal and corporate income taxes, capital gains, and export and import duties. The promoters have sole power to grant licenses, start corporations, and issue business permits to foreign companies. To symbolize the purity of their political credentials, they have inserted a clause in the agreement that bars contracts with communist governments or with firms controlled by such governments, and affirms that “no subversive activity shall be permitted on the island.”
The promoters have rebaptized the island with its old Spanish name of Tortuga. Their ambition is apparently to create another Freeport, which will attract big spenders from North America with a gambling casino and golf courses. To the complaint that the government gave away too much too cheaply to a financially dubious group, and that the transformation of bucolic Tortuga into a plasticene Caribbean shopping center will benefit only foreigners and a few influential Haitians, the usual reply is that the benefits of all that cash flowing into Haiti will trickle down through the economy and provide more jobs and raise the standard of living.
This classic theory of development through capital accumulation is well-known in this country as well, where it provides lucrative tax benefits for giant corporations and cozy tax shelters for the rich. Regressive and unjust in an advanced industrial country like the United States, it is cruel in a country like Haiti, whose peasants form 90 percent of the population. Isolated in their villages, tilling their fields with wooden plows, and dying of malnutrition and disease, they will not benefit from the creation of a few thousand jobs for the urban proletariat of Port-au-Prince. For the millions who live in the thatched-roof huts of the Haitian mountains and plains, without access roads to markets, without schools, without health clinics, without adequate food, the construction of luxury hotels and low-wage workshops in the capital city is almost totally irrelevant.
But the Haitian elite has never had any interest in the peasants, other than in exploiting them. The foreign-trained technocrats who have come to power with Jean-Claude are concerned with capital development rather than social reform. To seek a path to development other than that favored by the international lending agencies and American aid officials would require a different philosophy of social responsibility. It would demand the equitable distribution and exploitation of resources for the benefit of society as a whole rather than for a privileged class of landowners and entrepreneurs. This, in effect, would mean a social revolution, and Haitian society is far from ready for that.
While the regime is encouraging foreign investment, there is little emphasis on education, which is still confined to the elite and the aspiring middle class. Nine out of every ten Haitians can neither read nor write. To launch a concerted attack on illiteracy would not only be costly but would involve political and social risks. It would create a proletariat and a peasantry that would cease to accept the established order and that would begin to question the institutions of a society where a few live in baronial splendor, where several thousand enjoy the privileges of cars, plumbing, health, and travel, and where millions struggle to stay alive. Today the poor in Haiti know their place. As in most traditional societies, there is little theft, and the streets, as one is constantly reminded by resident Americans, are “a lot safer than in New York or Washington.” Upsetting the status quo might change this.
The economy may be booming, but the established order in Haiti is solidly entrenched. Unlike many countries of Latin America and the Arab world, Haiti has no reform-minded military, inspired by the passions of nationalism and eager to redistribute the national wealth. The few Haitians with such ambitions have either been murdered by the Duvalier regime, driven into exile, or silenced by a system which provides no outlet for their indignation. Haiti is not only a traditional society but a stagnant one, where revolutionary nationalism is confined to exiles who dream of reform or revolution but so far represent no serious threat to the regime.
The exiles plot incessantly, but they have never been able to agree on a common program, and many factions hate the others as much as they do the Duvaliers. Dispersed from Caracas to Paris, Havana, Montreal, New York, and Mexico City, they represent every shade of political ideology, from right-wing politicians like ex-President Paul Magloire to the Havana-based communist poet René Depestre. Until a few years ago the democratic center was represented by a loose organization known as the Haitian Coalition, with headquarters in New York. The coalition fell apart and was succeeded by the Resistance, which itself includes some dozen factions, divided over ideology, politics, and personalities. Some military officers who have gone into exile dream of an invasion which will overthrow the Duvalier regime. But the realists know that this is inconceivable without at least the acquiescence of the United States.
Washington obviously is not at all unhappy with the current arrangement in Port-au-Prince. The “Baby Doc” solution has so far maintained stability, assured anti-communism, and provided a healthy climate for US private investors. Indeed, relations between the United States and Haiti are better than they have been in a decade. The United States ambassador, Clinton Knox, has been an enthusiastic advocate of the regime, urging the full-scale resumption of economic aid. Such pleas have been received sympathetically in Washington, where a stable ally in the Caribbean is considered worth paying for.
The ostracism of the Duvalier regime is now a thing of the past as the Nixon Administration moves toward a renewal of economic and military ties with Haiti. Such aid was cut off by Kennedy in 1963, more because of the misuse of economic aid funds than for political reasons. The break, however, was never total, for the United States continued to finance a malaria control program, the distribution of surplus food, and small grants through international organizations. A few loans were approved by the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both under American control. Duvalier bitterly resented restrictions imposed by the US aid mission and, after the American spigot dried up, showed his independence by constructing with private bank loans the impressive new jet airport and a giant Peligre hydro-electric project.
Papa Doc was always adept at manipulating the Americans. He blackmailed Kennedy, who considered him a blemish on the façade of the Alliance for Progress, into promising a loan in 1962 because the United States needed Haiti’s vote for the condemnation of Cuba at the OAS Punta del Este conference. He played on Washington’s anti-communism, using it to neutralize hostility to the barbarities of his regime. While cleverly denouncing the giant to the north to the delight of the Haitian multitudes, he never totally cut himself off from the American support that was necessary for his survival.
Even before the demise of Papa Doc, the United States was coming around from resentful acquiescence to open support of his regime. In November, 1970, seven months before his death, the State Department quietly lifted restrictions on the export of US-made weapons into Haiti. Since that time some $200,000 in arms, including armored personnel carriers, have been bought from private US arms dealers and sent to Haiti. The State Department has also licensed the sale of six patrol vessels at the cost of $1.2 million.
The conduit for these transfers has been an organization known as Aerotrade, with offices in Miami. Aerotrade is linked to Air Haiti, a small cargo line which is, predictably, controlled by Luckner Cambronne. Wielding the double portfolio of defense and interior, Cambronne also controls an elite military unit known as the Leopards, a Green Beret type outfit dressed in camouflage suits, who are supposed to put down guerrilla insurrections and invasions. The weapons are for their use.
Many suspect that the Leopards really serve as Cambronne’s private army and would be called into service if the powerful minister should be threatened by one of his numerous rivals for power. The most threatening of these is Max Dominique, husband of Papa Doc’s favorite daughter, Marie-Denise. Once thought to be the chosen heir to the throne, Dominique fell from favor after getting involved in a plot to overthrow Duvalier and was exiled to the embassy in Paris. His return to Haiti has so far been successfully blocked by Cambronne.
The struggle goes on within the palace, where the Duvaliers cling to the remnants of power left by Papa Doc, and ambitious ministers maneuver for influence. It has been generally assumed that Jean-Claude is only a transitional figure, doomed to go under during the power struggle that lies ahead. Perhaps. It would be difficult for him to re-establish the terror imposed by his father and thus imperil the flow of foreign money that is further enriching the Haitian elite and providing some jobs for the urban poor. But it is worth remembering that Papa Doc, too, came in like a lamb, and it is not inconceivable, although improbable, that this amiable playboy may, like the young Louis XIV—if that is not stretching a parallel too far—shake off the influence of his mother and his powerful ministers and stand alone. Whether he has any sincere interest in ameliorating the wretched poverty of his people remains to be seen.
Haiti today is a country emerging from a long nightmare. The stepchild of France, the orphan in America’s backyard, the victim of foreigners who exploited and controlled it (Franklin Roosevelt once boasted that he wrote the Haitian constitution which was imposed by US Marines), Haiti has been plagued by two centuries of unfulfilled dreams and cynical misrule. Her heroes—Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe—astounded the world by seizing independence from Napoleon and made Haiti the first nation in Latin America to win her freedom. But this very act of bravery cut her off from the privileged market in France and confined the country, whose riches once furnished 40 percent of France’s foreign trade, to political isolation and economic stagnation.
It would be easy to say, along with the economists and international aid officials, that the cure for Haiti’s ills lies in rapid economic development and cultural absorption into the modern world. Certainly the heart-breaking poverty of her people makes it difficult to be romantic about folklore and tradition when their price is malnutrition and disease. But the cultural richness of Haiti is its glory, and it would be even more difficult to hold up neocolonial Jamaica or Puerto Rico as an example of the path to development, prosperity, and happiness.
What is important is the kind of development that a country like Haiti will undergo, for it is clear that it cannot be indefinitely isolated from a world determined on tapping its resources. The question is: development for what and for whom? For blood buyers, casino operators, and the privileged Haitian elite, or for the shoeless peasant suffering from diseases that fifty cents worth of medicine could cure?
The young president’s “economic revolution” is so far more a slogan than an achievement. If it is modeled on his father’s “political revolution,” it will be a cruel hoax, another form of plunder performed upon a people who have learned to expect nothing better from their rulers, and nothing less from the powerful foreigners who claim to be their protectors.
June 29, 1972
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. ↩
Reprinted 1971, Anchor Books. ↩