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.
Farewell, Fred Voodoo is a book about many things—Haitian history, daily life in suffering, and the role of the journalist in a disaster. But it is most fully alive when Wilentz discusses the flocks of foreigners who came to assist Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake; and the book is most fully alive because, claims of ethnographic passion aside, this is certainly what interests Wilentz the most. “I was sick of Haitian stories, of this kind of lived ethnography,” she writes. Her foreigners are far and away the most vividly drawn characters of the book. Here is where the moral passion that perfused The Rainy Season comes back to life.
Wilentz tells a number of stories about naive foreigners in Haiti—this is something of a parlor game among the old Haiti hands. The stories for the most part have a structure something like this:
Shortly before I came to live in the southwest town of Jérémie, a charitable organization organized a distribution of mosquito nets for the poorest of the poor, many of whom promptly sold their nets in the market. The poor had been cursorily instructed by health workers on the causal connection between mosquito bites and malaria and dengue fever, but the more pressing need by far was feeding one’s children. So many mosquito nets only succeeded in glutting the market; soon they were exported out of Jérémie to other places where they had not been distributed for free. The chief effect of this program was to subsidize the price of mosquito nets for the wealthy. Pharmacists in Jérémie had once sold mosquito nets for profit: now they no longer stocked the nets. When I arrived in Jérémie, one could no longer find a mosquito net for sale anywhere, in a place where malaria was rampant.
Such stories are so commonplace in Haiti that they have a formal structure, consisting of the Idealistic Naif, who formulates the Ambitious Proposal, which ignores the Local Culture, yielding up the Unexpected Outcome.
It is hard to know what conclusions to draw from such stories. Aid workers more sensitive to the ethnographical point of view might have observed that Haitian notions of medical causality were profoundly different from the Occidental point of view: disease was almost never the product of only a mosquito bite, but also the malevolent intentions of one’s rivals in the community, employing black magic to curse the sufferer. Against such magic, a mosquito net was useless, and so of little value except as an object of trade. Economists might have spoken of the deleterious effects of the free distribution of anything of value into a market economy. Enough stories like this one and a kind of corrosive cynicism sets in: here was a place where the best of intentions rarely yielded progress and often caused harm. Then again—Yes, but—some things did work: I passed daily a well dug by a Canadian teenager, from which a great many people drew clean drinking water.2 So things were complicated.
Amy Wilentz tells a story of a young Haitian, Gerson Nozea, married to an American woman, who in the aftermath of the earthquake wished to provide homes and occupation for “amputees, pregnant women, and single mothers.” An intense Christian commitment motivated this couple; their work was funded by evangelical Christians in the United States. (The chapter in which the Nozeas’ woes are recounted is entitled “Missionary Style”—an interesting choice for an author so preoccupied with the problem of excessive condescension.)
The simple act of buying a plot of land foiled the Nozeas’ best intentions. Land transactions in Haiti are immensely complicated, for two reasons: first, because there is no land registry; and second, because the judiciary is corrupt. Nobody knows who really owns what piece of land: almost any piece of land will claim multiple owners, each presenting deeds. (This has been the single greatest impediment to the effort by the “international community” and the Haitian government to house those made homeless by the earthquake.) So the Nozeas, having bought their land from one owner, were soon presented a deed by a rival owner, and after that another. Ultimately, the case arrived in court, where the Nozeas lost. They had been fleeced of every penny that they had proposed to employ in helping the most vulnerable and most wounded.
Let me be clear about something that Wilentz glosses over. It is strange that she ignores this point: it is the moral center of the story. The Nozeas were not victims of history, they were victims of a crime: the Haitian criminal code, written by Haitian lawyers and adopted by the Haitian parliament, is very clear on the definition of fraud. Unlike the mosquito nets in Jérémie, this is an outrageous story, and the appropriate objects of outrage are the grifters who saw in the Nozeas easy marks, and the Haitian judge who allowed such a thing to happen. This is precisely what it means to say that a nation is ill-policed and wretchedly governed.
I mention this because Wilentz infuses this story, like almost all the stories of foreigners she tells in Farewell, Fred Voodoo, with a subtle sense of satisfaction at the failure of foreigners to assist Haitians. She writes:
Often as I watch the posses of young, well-meaning American and European missionaries and development people roaming through camps or driving from meeting to meeting, I think about the idea of the innocent army, and am reminded—I can’t help it—of Village of the Damned, a 1960 horror movie that depicted invasions by huge-eyed innocent-seeming children who left destruction and death in their wake.
Here is the moral intensity of The Rainy Season but now with no appropriate target. I was in Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010; and I guarantee you, it was a profound seismic movement that left terrible destruction and death in its wake. Wilentz’s argument here is with Someone altogether more malign and mysterious.
Wilentz tells another story, of a doctor from Massachusetts named Mark Hyman who came to Haiti immediately after the earthquake. From Wilentz’s description, which is funny and rings true, Dr. Hyman seems to have been something of a publicity hound, blogging and giving interviews even as he treated the wounded; he has, she intimates, profited in some way from his willingness to aid the poorest of the poor. “One cannot deny that he came down and made himself useful, but his motivation seems sketchy,” she writes. I wonder if Wilentz, in her demand for a certain kind of spiritual purity, is not being overly exigent. So few in a crisis achieve usefulness—isn’t that enough? I know that in the aftermath of the earthquake I wasn’t particularly useful to anyone. It is a source of deep regret.
There is one foreigner in whom Wilentz finds all the requisite qualities of goodness, competence, and cultural sensitivity. Dr. Megan Coffee, a specialist in infectious diseases, has a doctorate from Oxford in epidemiology and an MD from Harvard. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Dr. Coffee came to Haiti where she discovered that the sanatorium had collapsed. So she established a new sanatorium at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where she remains to this day, working without pay, riding public transportation to work, and treating, with patience, dignity, and remarkable professional skill, some of the most vulnerable human beings on the face of the planet. (She is assisted by a small team of dedicated local nurses and equally compassionate foreign volunteers.) For a long time Dr. Coffee, unable to afford housing, herself lived in a yurt.
I should admit now that I have a preexisting bias in Dr. Coffee’s favor; like Wilentz, I spent many hours in Dr. Coffee’s TB ward, and Dr. Coffee frequently visited my house in Port-au-Prince. We were friends, to the extent that one can be friends with someone one admires so intensely. If I were to give my money to one individual endeavoring to assist Haitians—endeavoring to assist anyone—I would give it to Dr. Coffee.3
But I do not agree with Wilentz’s conclusion that Dr. Coffee is an “ideal foreign-aid delivery figure.” Her work depends entirely on her charisma, her skills, her willingness to endure suffering. Public policy cannot be based on the imitation of a saint. Moreover, perhaps Wilentz has overlooked the extent to which Dr. Coffee’s work has required personal sacrifice. She has been trapped by her own goodness: if she were to leave Haiti tomorrow, her patients would begin to die the day after. She has, so far as I could see, no replacement, and is supported by no larger institutional structure, either of foreigners or Haitians. An institutional structure would train her successor, and ensure for the future: it would allow Dr. Coffee to use her time treating the ill, rather than cooking for them, as she does every morning.
But it is precisely when you have such institutional structures that all of the compromise with the world that Wilentz finds so distasteful comes rushing in. You will soon have logisticians, accountants, purchasing officers, the lady from human resources, and the guy who does donor relations; and they will not be saints, but professionals. They will want to be paid to do their jobs, and have medical insurance, and provide for their children and retirement. This is true whether they are Haitians or foreigners. Just as soon as someone is robbed or kidnapped, the security officer will insist that they live, like most every middle-class resident of Port-au-Prince, in houses surrounded by high walls. They will want to drive to work in the kind of solid, comfortable, air-conditioned SUVs adapted to the roads of the city.
They will be, by Amy Wilentz’s lights, corrupt.
If Wilentz is skeptical about the general endeavor of helping Haitians, she is equally skeptical about the endeavor of writing about Haitians. A self-consciousness pervades almost every page and paragraph of Farewell, Fred Voodoo. She is not relaxed in her subject. She does not wish to take advantage of her Haitian subjects; she does wish to be accused of taking advantage of them. She writes:
The fact that he or she is also voluble and highly quotable, and very articulate, makes Fred Voodoo excellent material for video and excellent copy for the page. Indeed, for pages not unlike these pages.
These kinds of comments—and they are frequent—have about them a kind of rhetorical play-acting: past a certain point, introspection is only self-absorption. If Wilentz seriously thought she was taking advantage of Haitians in writing this book, one hopes that she would have stayed silent. She didn’t—and I’m glad.
Here is a book perfused, between periodic bouts of overwrought outrage, with melancholy beauty. Haiti has some strange, mystic charm to which Wilentz is particularly attuned: she communicates her heartsick love very effectively. She might have been sick of Haitian stories, but she tells them well.
I am sympathetic to how Wilentz sees the world. She sees Haiti as a place of immense complexity—and suggests that most foreigners in Haiti are blind to this complexity. She sees that the very best qualities of the Haitian character become degraded when in contact with immensely wealthier foreigners, herself included, myself included also. She loathes the crude simplification that ensues when men and women who are ignorant and callous propose to write about this country that she loves. In all of these judgments, Wilentz is probably correct.
But Wilentz does not propose an alternative. She has no clue—nobody does—how to fulfill one’s duty to the poor and escape moral compromise. This is something Dr. Johnson saw clearly also: “The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence.” Note where Dr. Johnson has placed the blame: on poverty itself, not on the act of charity; and note how Dr. Johnson has described the corruption—as inevitable. Haiti presents us with a case where the moral duty is to assist, and the side effect of assistance will be to taint both parties to the transaction.
The harsh fact is that Haiti is not, at this point in her history, a self-sustaining nation, and has not been for many years. Haitians, without foreign assistance, are not able to administer free and fair elections, maintain domestic security, vaccinate children, provide clean drinking water, combat childhood malnutrition, build roads, or pay the expenses of the state. If you believe, as I do, that the presence of vast numbers of culturally insensitive, publicity-seeking, bumbling, profiteering foreigners prevents Haiti’s descent into still-greater disaster, then you will accept some of the corruption as a necessary price of doing business, of alleviating still greater suffering. It is not perfect, it is not even good.
Yes, but—that is the reality of Haiti.
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). ↩
See www.ryanswell.ca for more information on this project. ↩
For those who want to help her, she can be found at www.tikayhaiti.org; or readers may follow her remarkable Twitter feed, @DokteCoffee. ↩