The danceable tragedy

Just past Carnival, dozens die off the Florida coast, and still Haiti waits for a savior


Herbert Gold
March 13, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once a priest and hero of the resistance to Haitian tyranny, then president, then exiled, then restored to the presidency by the U.S./U.N. "Operation Other Than War," now waits for Haiti's next democratic election, when he can run again. (He was limited by law to one six-year term.) In the meantime, he obstructs and Haiti sinks. He is a democrat who is also a savior, the Messiah. History is filled with such unstable leadership, but few nations in history are as desolate as Haiti seemed this Carnival season.

In the dusty outskirt of Port-au-Prince called Croix des Bouquets, I offered to exchange my Grateful Dead T-shirt for a missionary's "With Jesus Haiti is Possible" T-shirt. Both of our shirts implied messages, I said, "a subtext."

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"I don't see your message in the Gospels," he said. "What's a 'subtext'?"

My son Ethan and I arrived in February, just before Carnival, during the time of RaRa bands roaming the streets with their battered metal horns and honking bamboo pipes. We danced with the others, because Haiti is still the danceable tragedy, continually sinking but never quite hitting bottom -- there seems to be no bottom for Haitians. This week's shipwreck -- in which two boats sank off the coast of Florida, leaving as many as 40 fleeing Haitians dead -- is just the latest horror. What doesn't change is the 200-year surrealist melodrama of political life, in which every candidate except Aristide is a party of one. Since the end of the Duvalier kleptocracy, the procession of ephemeral power-grabbers and the cruel Cedras coup, speech is ample, murders are more common in street crime than among politicians, and functioning democracy is still a dream. The improvement in politics is confined to the right to political calisthenics. A typically objective newspaper report captions a photo of politicians with these helpful identifications: "From left to right, the opportunist Evans Paul, the putschist George Gilles, the ex-super-revolutionary Maoist Claude Roumain." Not the ideal of the just-the-facts journalism.

For years now, choosing the leader of Haiti has been a one-man lineup. Aristide, you do want him, don't you? ... And a majority does still want him. But democracy suffers when the democrat in chief begins to believe only he is a democrat and nothing can be done without him. So nothing is being done during the current interregnum. He will surely be elected again in 2001. He waits in Tabarre, his mansion. ("Oh, it's not as big as that," said one of his devotees. But it is.)

Rene Preval, the mild-mannered agronomist who is currently president, is considered a proxy for Aristide, waiting to reassume the mantle. He may aspire to be a proxy for himself. According to the newspaper Le Matin (Feb. 3), he "has not stopped the parliament from functioning; he has only made it inoperative."

While the Messiah hovers over the eroded Haitian landscape in his spaceship non-mansion, people are, as usual, kept busy not eating much and dying young. Of course, real estate prices are firm. Planes drop cocaine as if the clouds are seeded for it. We visited an MRE beach resort on the St.-Marc road -- bikinied lovelies -- and dined with friends at an MRE restaurant, Cascade, in Petionville. In the American Army, MRE stands for Meals, Ready to Eat. In Haiti, MRE stands for Morally Repugnant Elite.

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During the Cedras coup days, I watched frightened people building boats on the beach at Petit-Grove. Again folks are beginning to wonder, "So, how's the weather in Florida?" The recent shipwreck won't stop them.

When I lived as a student in Haiti during the early 1950s, I enjoyed the castaway foreigners -- ex-Nazis, French collaborators, criminals on the lam, goofy anthropologists who fancied themselves voodoo adepts, lovers of all sexes who loved the various sexes, especially those who were young, black, possessed of special talents and grateful for a decent meal. Foreigners could do whatever they wanted. This so-called "golden age" was a time of permission, fast money to be made, a fast life to be enjoyed.

In a period of what a friend calls "terminoil" -- terminal turmoil -- a few adventurers still show up. There is a white-bearded, white-maned old pirate with a bandanna around his head. Rolf, a sentimental Nazi, opened a bar for a few minutes, but it failed and he got permission to return to Germany. There are a few European and American deaf men who don't seem to have heard of AIDS. Drug dealers, missionaries and NGO do-gooders are out in force. Jorgen Leth, Danish film director, poet, journalist, who has directed features in Haiti, left his Danish wife and settled down, is always good company, but during this visit he was fully engaged in trying to help an unfortunate jailed Danish sea captain.

In the great tradition of major visitor chagrins, the Danish sea captain landed in the lovely seaside village of Jacmel and found a lady, and she died two days later. He was charged with poisoning her. It turned out that she had had a botched abortion the day before their romance; no poison. But when asked if he had given her anything to drink, the unfortunate Dane replied, "A rum-Coke."

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He is accused of giving her rum and cocaine. Thus far the price for his release, several million dollars (American), is firm. The Danish consul in Mexico could do nothing. Jorgen Leth brings his compatriot food and kind words. The European Community has rallied around with urgent public declarations, but that's only background noise in Haiti, like the barking dogs or the roosters at dawn. I asked an official why the central government doesn't act. "Well, we're very busy with preparations for Carnival," she said.

Several million dollars (American) is a lot of money. A Haitian jail compares unfavorably with a Turkish prison. When I left, the Danish sea captain had been sitting there for 104 days.

The Haitian telejiol -- telemouth -- machine still provides news. A friend met the pope's son in Italy. My friend also knows the exact day, hour and minute when Aristide will return to power; he read it in his astrological charts and double-checked with numerological research.

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Haitian politicians don't need astrological charts to know who should be president. They wake up in the morning and see the anointed candidate in the mirror. There are 26, or maybe 36, political parties, each led by the future national leader, fervently supported by his driver. Although the parliament has been unseated by the current president, they still take their seats.

In 1986, Felix Morisseau-Leroy, poet and dramatist, was carried through the airport on the backs of his supporters and made one of the supreme un-Haitian speeches of his long career: "I have an important announcement! I am not a candidate to be president!"

The opéra bouffe of ungeneral general strikes, unseated seated legislators, is edged with misery, economic chaos. These abstract words mean: hunger, no health care, no improvement in schooling. Street crime is endemic. While I was in Port-au-Prince, a spectacular bank robbery, hostages taken, would have blocked most traffic in the city except that it is usually blocked anyway. The number in the gang and the number of hostages shot was listed as, respectively, one and none. But television footage showed a more ample crop of bodies.

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Democracy has brought little benefit to Haitians. The boiling joy of ending the rule of Haitian self-servers -- the Duvalier kleptocracy followed by the various thugocracies -- with the streets cleaned in a burst of civic enthusiasm and a democracy wall painted in downtown Port-au-Prince, has diminished to the point where only 5 percent of the population voted in the last election. The head of the electoral commission told me it would be a triumph if 20 percent voted in the next. Haiti needs investment, structure, roads, drinkable water, a functioning infrastructure. It needs the money promised by various foreign agencies but not delivered because there is no responsible party to receive it or live up to the conditions of aid.

When I lived in Haiti, the population was 2.5 million and the chief problem was overpopulation. A year or two ago the accepted figure was 7 million. Now experts think the population may be more than 8 million souls, with land denuded, agriculture wrecked, 80 percent unemployment in Port-au-Prince. I asked my friend who knows the pope's son to have him encourage his father to suggest birth control in Haiti.

Aubelin Jolicoeur, "Mister Haiti," the model for Petit-Pierre in Graham Greene's "The Comedians," former Duvalierist and stubborn enough to admit nostalgia for those times, brandishes his cane, fluffs his neckerchief and cries, "I live on miracle now! My country is hell! I live on miracle!"

Someone who saw me having lunch with Jolicoeur said, "You were with a very bad man today." But like Timothy Leary, who also did bad things to people, grinned over manipulations and cruelties, Aubelin is owed compassion at this late stage in his life. Like all of Haiti, he is an injured creature. No absolution granted; compassion, perhaps.

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During the time of RaRa, the voodooesque pre-Carnival Carnival, Ethan and I danced through the Champ de Mars and the Place des Heroes (usually pronounced "Zeroes"), followed a band, masked revelers (no Monica masks), a crowd leaping to the music. Of course, people laughed at the white guys sweating and hopping in the smoky evening past a food stand spitting fat and charcoal sparks, with a sign that declared "First Shishkabob In Haiti Always Best." Sometimes, kids grabbed our arms to touch our skin. Occasionally, young men offered to guide us, lead us, sell us something -- anything our hearts desired -- but in the holiday crowd we felt safe, protected by the gods of RaRa. Even if there is no bottom to the misery of Haiti, pleasure persists in the 200-year journey downward.

The peskiest guide-salesman-guard-pimp, scampering alongside as we danced, paused for a nanosecond when I said in Creole, "Leave me alone, I'm a journalist." He savored the idea and then put out his hand: "Dear colleague! I, too! A journalist all my life, and would you like to meet some nice girls?"

Professional courtesy demands kindness to visitors.

It was evening and time for an elegant dinner at Cascade, cool above the ant-heap city in the millionaire-stuffed suburb of Petionville. Cascade, with its paintings and sculpture, pond, aquarium, discreet warm lighting, attracts a clientele of foreign NGOs, international do-somethingers and bureaucrats preparing next year's budgets and Haitian MREs. Local lobster and fish, fine sauces, deferent service, clean johns, excellent wines. For me, the high tones of the ambience and the total gourmet dining suavity were diminished slightly by their forgetting to return my credit card.

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Former Tonton Macoute killers now come to dance at the clubs and sigh over the good old days, when coke smuggling was only a sideline to the main sport of brutalizing the folks. Extortion and torture don't pay as they used to; macoutes and attachés can't easily shift trades to data processing. This has led to diversification into U.S.-style street crime -- snatchings, jackings, robbings. Brian Concannon, an idealistic Boston lawyer, works in Gonaives to bring to justice those responsible for a famous massacre. The lovely Argentine forensic anthropologist, who went out every morning after breakfast at the Oloffson to analyze bodies in the murder pits, is still on the job. When I asked last year how she happened to take up this profession, she explained that she is Argentine. They too have a history.

In the darkness of an exotic, isolated, appealing and brave fragment of an island near the U.S. -- but far from the shores of reality -- leaders still compose lamentations in 19th century French style, soggy with quotations form Bossuet and LaFontaine, to be published as "Open Letters to Our Chiefs," while the country spins forever downward. It's no wonder people are again building boats on the beaches and seeking a fair wind to Florida.


Herbert Gold

Herbert Gold is the author of "Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life In Haiti."

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