"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Haiti, a country I love and where I lived for months in 1997, seems once again to be drifting, inexorably, toward its own terrible, particular marriage of anarchy and dictatorship. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections that were held May 21 (where former president Jean Bertrand-Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party won 16 of 19 Senate seats outright), the country witnessed a spate of political violence on a level not seen since the dark days of Raul Cedras’ military junta of the early 1990s.
In the space of six months, Jean Dominique, the country’s most respected journalist, was gunned down outside his radio station, an opposition campaign director was macheted to death inside his home and the campaign offices of opposition party Espace de Concertation were burned to the ground by a mob chanting pro-Lavalas slogans and calling for the death of Espace’s leader, former mayor of Port-au-Prince Evans Paul. Recently, the president of Haiti’s electoral council fled to the United States, fearing for his life after he refused to sign off on the election results.
Members of various opposition groups were jailed in advance of last week’s announcement of the electoral results. The Lavalas government has given explanations for these “detainments” ranging from the accusation that those arrested were accumulating firearms in preparation for a strike against the government, to saying that the detained were being threatened and that they were taken into protective custody for their own good as a “preventative measure.” Meanwhile, the disputed count has Lavalas taking 16 of the 17 available Senate seats and likely to control both houses of Parliament.
While a second round of voting has been indefinitely postponed, the elections so far have been marred by allegations of fraud. The opposition has declared the results invalid, vowing to sit out the runoff elections. People murmur that the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral monitors are trying to shove a sham election down the country’s throat just so all the international types can go home feeling that their money was well spent on “democratic” development programs, since some form of democracy was restored in 1994. Although the OAS recently released a statement calling the methodology of the vote tally “incorrect,” there are many who think that it is too little, too late.
This situation is all the more troubling because Fanmi Lavalas (“lavalas” means “the flood” in Creole) is a political party whose dominant figure, Jean Bertrand-Aristide, has been the country’s most outspoken, fearless champion of democratic rights. He fought for those rights during days when championing such a cause meant death.
Aristide is the preeminent political figure in the country. It was Aristide who spoke out against the Tonton Macoutes and human rights abuses of Frangois and Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regimes. Aristide, who continued the democratic struggle under the military regimes of Henri Namphy and Prosper Avril, men who found it politically expedient to massacre voters in 1987 on Ruelle Vaillant at Port-au-Prince, and then again in 1988 at the Cathedral St. Jean-Bosco while Aristide, then a practicing Catholic priest, was celebrating Mass.
It was Aristide and Lavalas, also, who were chased out of the country by a military coup in 1991 (after Aristide had become Haiti’s first democratically elected president) and then returned to power by the U.S. Marines in 1994. Barred from serving consecutive terms as president, Aristide reluctantly handed over power to his protigi, Rene Preval, and is said to be waiting until he can again run for (and almost certainly win) the presidency of Haiti in 2001.
Haitians, meanwhile, are left wondering whether they will have a heroic, visionary Nelson Mandela or an authoritarian, scapegoating Robert Mugabe (two other third-world leaders who came to power on a tide of popular movements) on their hands come that time.
Sadly, as I found out, the hard facts of Haiti don’t make it easy to stay a hero for long.
“These are difficult times in Haiti,” said Mirlande Manigat, an unsuccessful candidate for the Senate. Manigat is a member of the Assembly of Progressive National Democrats (RDNP), and a constitutional law professor at the University of Quisqueya in the capital. “The many political parties in Haiti reflect the polarization of Haitian society, and one party wins over 90 percent of the vote? Impossible.”
A pleasant, highly educated woman, Manigat is the wife of onetime Haitian president Leslie Manigat. Her husband (whom Haitians had never really warmed to and whose election many regarded as fraudulent itself) was booted out of the post in 1988 in the chaos of post-Duvalier Haiti by Gen. Henri Namphy, a vicious dictator now alleged to be slowly and quietly drinking himself to death in exile in the Dominican Republic.
“My political party doesn’t believe in violence or dictatorial force, so we now have no recourse … We are heading for a gloomy time in Haiti.” She looked down at her desk, and then wistfully out the window of her university office. “I didn’t expect this for my country, now.”
The climate of violence affects everyone here. A shellshocked Reuters correspondent, just arrived from the States, appeared at the house I was staying at in Port-au-Prince to inform us that his car had been detained as a group of young men ran past, smashing bottles and carrying tires under their arms. Word on the street had it that they were angry because Lavalas still hadn’t paid them for their “work” during the elections. Zenglendos (armed thugs) stuck a gun in my friend’s sister’s face as she sat stuck in traffic on a downtown street. Finding notebooks that indicated she was a student, they threw them back at her through the car window as they drove away on their motorcycles.
As a friend of mine, a wealthy progressive mulatto, said, “The security situation here is not good.” The fact that the streets of a city of 2 million people are empty at 8 p.m. is testimony enough to that.
I got a taste of how unstable that situation was firsthand when a group of friends and I ventured out one night to a hotel in the affluent suburb of Petionville. We went to see a concert by Sweet Micky, the legendary “president” of compas, Haiti’s singularly slinky and sensual popular music. Micky is an unrepentant supporter of the 1991 coup against Aristide, and is as famous for his scabrous double-entendres as for his anti-Lavalas politics. His sweaty, exhilarating shows are known to attract a raucous crowd of ex-secret police, soldiers and gang members.
Sure enough, once we arrived among the massive, dressed-to-kill crowd, the audience scattered over the demurely arranged deck chairs and around a pair of illuminated pools — not once but three times — as groups of men drew their guns on one another, spitting invective and threatening violence. After one particularly nasty stampede, where I badly twisted my ankle knocking over a table to get away from any potentially flying bullets, a teenage Haitian boy got up with his girlfriend from their own pile of scattered chairs, looked at me and said simply, “Blan,” the Creole world for foreigner. He was doubled over with laughter.
But in the face of such terror, kindness persists. A musician insisted that I partake of his young daughter’s first Communion cake. An evangelist minister drove me the whole, hot, long, dusty way from Aristide’s foundation at Tabarre to drop me off in downtown Port-au-Prince and then refused to take any payment for his services. A Haitian English teacher in a frayed suit who had lived near my own home in Brooklyn for 14 years began a conversation with me, unsolicited, just to hear what New York was like these days. As we walked down the street, he asked me with a sad shake of his head to tell people “what they [Lavalas] did to these elections.”
Cleansing rain showers began in a flash on an afternoon of brilliant sunshine, the city never darkening a bit. These people’s kindnesses and the stunning beauty of this place are what make the story of what is happening in Haiti something you must know.
“I came down here in 1985 to research voodoo rhythms,” says Richard Morse, a surpassingly tall New York transplant, as he takes a drag off an early morning cigarette. We’re in the lobby of the hotel he runs, a space where his group, Ram, also plays regular weekly gigs. The hotel itself is one of the outstanding examples of gingerbread architecture in Port-au-Prince.
“I took over the hotel in 1987, formed a band in 1990 and stopped counting governments in 1996.” He remembers a time in the early 1990s when coups and counter-coups gave the country three governments in 12 hours. Morse, a Haitian-American educated at Princeton, is not hopeful about the current state of affairs in his adopted country. He says the lines between the old military regimes and Lavalas are getting fuzzier.
“They’re trying to set up a system where there’s no opposition, and they’re willing to try any methods necessary to attain that,” he says. He disagrees with the Organization of American States’ qualified approval of the election results. “The OAS is saying, ‘There were some discrepancies, but everything’s OK.’ Well everything’s not OK. They’re killing people. They’re killing people and people are going into hiding.”
Lavalas essentially terrorized the opposition into hiding until two weeks before the elections, Morse believes. Then, with a statement from Aristide calling for peaceful elections, the violence miraculously ceased and the opposition was told to field their candidates in what was to be a competitive election.
Morse thinks that the OAS is trying to pretend an election is valid despite obvious fraud and unfair voting practices, as they are currently accused of doing in Peru. Critics say the OAS is lowering the bar for what is acceptable in democratic elections under the philosophy that some movement forward (i.e., the holding of elections at all) is better than no movement forward.
Reiterating Manigat’s sentiment, Morse stated flatly: “The precedent has been set that if you want to be involved in politics in this country, you’ve got to get your guns together … Nothing’s changed, the teams have changed but not the modus operandi.”
Before we switched to music and New York, he punctuated our political conversation simply. “You can get killed here for saying the shit I just said.”
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Yvon Neptune and I sat around a table inside the house where he keeps his offices in downtown Port-au-Prince. An intense man with his beard and hair going gray around the edges, Neptune is the spokesman for Fanmi Lavalas who recently defeated Manigat to become a senator in the Haitian parliament.
The room was cool and quiet, away from the noise of the street. Cabinets were arranged around the room, lined with books in several languages. A bird chattered away from somewhere in the garden out back.
“The Haitian people are pleased” with the results of the election, he said. “The majority of the voters are pleased, because the elections have been an opportunity for them to state their position on the situation in Haiti.”
Over the course of an hour, Neptune spoke of the policy of agrarian reform begun under President Aristide and continued under Preval, and also about encouraging the private sector, local and foreign, to invest in Haiti. He alluded to the pending approval of agreements with the IMF and World Bank by the new parliament, and of the necessity of modernizing the administrative infrastructure of Haiti.
Asked about Lavalas’ commitment to democracy, and about the violence preceding the election, Neptune commented that “we continually stated our position on violence in Haiti: denouncing the violence, condemning the violence. We encourage everybody, everybody,” he continued, “not to let themselves be intimidated and to come out and vote. And that’s exactly what they did.”
When questioned about the attacks on the opposition headquarters, specifically the arson of Espace de Concertation’s offices, Neptune shifted blame back to that party’s leaders, and their supporters, whom he characterized as party “cronies.”
“It is difficult to accept the value of the opposition, the weight of that opposition, because it is practically nonexistent except for a few politicians who would use the airwaves to make accusations,” he said. “They often commit violent act [sic] or delegate people to commit violent acts and they go as far as posturing as Fanmi Lavalas partisans. It is very easy for them to do that.”
The fire, he implied, was probably set by Espace themselves. “That particular organization failed to pay the rent on that building for almost five years.”
Again and again, talking to people of various backgrounds and political stripes, I heard of how Aristide’s party has been acting recently in ways that are reminiscent of dictator Frangois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. It’s hard for many Haitans to forget that Papa Doc came to power on a wave of noirisme, resentment of the elite light-skinned minority. And recently Lavalas members on state-run TV labeled mulattos of any ideological orientation as the “racist bourgeoisie” for the crime of criticizing Fanmi Lavalas (and by extension Aristide).
Dany Toussaint, a close confidant of Aristide and a newly elected senator, dismissively referred to several prominent mulattos including journalist Jean Dominique as “ti wouj” (the little red ones). Dominique had been an advisor to both Aristide and Preval. But he was murdered shortly after Toussaint’s comment. That fact, and Dominique’s intimations about Toussaint’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking, shifted suspicion for the journalist’s killing onto Lavalas.
One goes downtown in Port-au-Prince to the slums of Bel Air, near the Palais Nacional, the crowded, congested streets of Avenue Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or the dusty, chaotic suburb of Delmas (favored base for the zenglendos) where, as one friend told me, “everyone gets robbed.” You go to these neighborhoods and you are struck by the absolute belief that exists there that “Titid” (as Aristide is affectionately known) is the only man capable of solving Haiti’s multitude of problems, the only man who has ever stood up for the poor, the only one who ever gave a damn.
The desperate, begging street boys on the Champs Mars dress in rags and sleep on the ground. I talked to young men who have moved from the countryside to the Cite Soleil and La Saline slums who have never found a job and probably never will. Old women sell fritays and fried bananas under the withering noonday sun. “N’ap toujou renme w Titid” (We will always love you Aristide) is scrawled on crumbling walls.
Some words come to mind that Aristide spoke, just days before the coup of 1991 forced him out of office and Cedras and company began an orgy of bloodletting unrivaled even in Papa Doc’s time. Aristide, his back to the wall, had been informed of rumors that a plot was about to topple him and perhaps kill him, and that lists of his supporters who were also to be killed were being drawn up. This was the famous “Pere Lebraun” speech, which many in the media never tire of referring to as the moment when Aristide began calling for the “necklacing” of the opposition:
Again, under the flag of pride, under this flag of dignity, under this flag of solidarity, hand in hand, one encouraging the other, [...] each one will pick up the message of respect that I share with you, this message of justice that I share with you, so that the word ceases to be the word and becomes action. [...] it’s you who will find what you deserve, according to what the Mother Law of the country declares.
One alone, we are weak,
Together we are strong. Together, together.
Together we are the flood (crowd: Frenzy!)
Do you feel proud? (crowd: Yeah!)
Do you feel proud? (crowd: Yeah!)
So true, that there is power in numbers. Whether or not Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas are committed to using their popularity — and, more important, Aristide’s sacred relationship with many in the country — to push forward a program of real democratic change remains to be seen, but the signs are not encouraging.
If they fail, or succumb to the temptations for a naked power grab that have too long plagued Haiti’s rulers, their betrayal of the Haitian people will be doubly bitter, coming as it does on the backs of all who followed Aristide’s clarion call for democracy to their graves: the voters at Ruelle Vaillant, the martyrs of St. Jean Bosco and the thousands who died under the junta of 1991-94.
As always in Haiti, only time (and not words) will bear out their true intentions. But they’re walking on a razor’s edge.
“With a strong government and parliament, and a strong political program,” Neptune said to me toward the end of our interview, “we’ll spend less time bickering over power, so the majority who represent the people will have enough time to concentrate on their jobs. I think that’s what needs to happen. And it is about to happen.”
Michael Deibert is a writer living in New York City. He last wrote for Salon about the 2000 elections in Haiti.More Michael Deibert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)