From Soul in a Bottle, by Madison Smartt Bell
This article first appeared inCreative Nonfiction #10, 1998
Copyright 1998 by Madison Smartt Bell
All Print Rights Reserved
Photographs by Alex Roshuk
Back to Sa'm Pedi
Action de Grace
Madison Smartt Bell
Every time I went to Haiti I felt I was going to die there. It wasn't because I wanted to or intended to court the risk. I was as far from being a cowboy as I had ever been. I had a prosperous life to return to. I even owned mutual funds, for God's sake. Each time, before departure, I calculated the risk, and if it had ever seemed more than negligible I certainly would have stayed home. Still the feeling always persisted. The inclination to wind up one's affairs before the flight. In Haiti I had once been possessed by demons. Before my first trip I had photographed myself in a mirror (to use up a roll of film); the print shows the flash exploding at the center of my body, burning the core of me away....
Probably these fears were not so unusual among other blancs like me, and maybe even among Haitians (perhaps especially among Haitians). Also I now knew that the fear would dissipate soon after arrival. Once you stepped outside the airport you had so many things to do and take care of and pay very close attention to that there was no room to be afraid. And the longer you stayed in Haiti the more you felt that death wasn't so important anyway, at least not there; in Haiti death was only a translation of state.
There was something else behind it all too, which perhaps began with the observation that in Kreyol the word for death, deriving from the French "la mort," was almost indistinguishable from the Kreyol word for love, also derived from the French, "l'amour."
Yo fe kouri!
Kouri is the Kreyol term for running around all over the place, which happens at several different levels of intensity. If it gets really serious it turns into a soulèvement, which can result in personnel change at the palace. But for blancs it always begins at the airport. To minimize the problem you learn to move with rapid and savage determination from the fence that encloses the airport proper to the fence enclosing the car rental across the road, because in the open you're vulnerable to swarms of people who want to sell you stuff or carry your bags or pick your pocket. The car rental office is a bubble of calm, but on the lot you get swarmed again by people offering useless services of one kind or another; they keep swirling all around you, jabbering in several languages, and you can't let them shatter your concentration because there're a whole lot of things about the jeep that have to be very closely examined before you try to drive anywhere. I had learned some highly useful Kreyol sentences such as "Fe bak! Kit'm trankil! M'bay anyen!" which helped to regulate the problem.
Further experience of kouri could be had on the descent from the Citadelle, when the people selling crafts and military detritus ambushed you. On the way up they would be fairly discreet, showing you their wares with only mild persistence, but on the way down, when you couldn't move very fast unless you wanted to snap the tendons in your knees and perhaps go hurtling over one of the cliffs, they would swarm all over you in ways which could induce mild panic, especially as your small bills ran out. There was no danger involved whatsoever (nobody wanted to make it so awful that tourists would never come) and you could probably prearrange it with a guide so that it hardly happened at all, but... in fact I bought some rather nice stuff. Yet there were so many of them, you couldn't buy from all of them, and you knew they were hungry too.
All of this was mild enough, but during the manifestations when they blocked the roads, the kouri could turn a whole lot nastier as it evolved into a soulèvement. The thing they wanted to sell you stopped being flutes and necklaces and started being the service of not smashing the windows on your car or, if they were seriously annoyed, setting it on fire. If you ran out of money, you could have a real problem.
But the archetypal kouri of all time occurred in 1793 when ten thousand insurgent slaves swarmed down from Morne du Cap, the tremendous mountain immediately behind the old colonial town, burned Cap Haïtien to the ground and killed every white person who didn't manage to make it onto a ship. This concept had stayed in Haitian politics ever since. If you felt a desire for a change of government, the thing to do was start a large soulèvement in the north and then bring those hordes of people howling down onto the capital.
Grace à Patrick Vilaire
The woman hung in an iron cage. Her body was bent in a posture of sleep, knees slightly folded, her torso tucked in. Reposing in this fashion, she seemed to dream. She was as if suspended between two poles at top and bottom of the cage. The lower pole was a pillory yoke to imprison the hands and head of slave enduring whippings or other tortures. The higher pole was a device, known as a headstall, to be locked over the head of a slave thought to be an escape risk: great metal antlers sprouting from the caged head would snag on brush and vines and prevent the slave from running through the forests to the mountains.
The woman turned slightly to one side, as if she would roll over in sleep. Her posture suggested that perhaps invisible hands were lifting her under knees and shoulders, or that she was slowly turning in an ocean wave. She was sustained in her position by many, many fine filaments of wire which criscrossed and networked all over the the space of her enclosure. The sculptor, Patrick Vilaire, intended to confirm each of these intersections with a brass bead which would mark the crossroads, kalfou.... or perhaps you might understand them as synapses in the brain.
It was, Vilaire explained, an Oeuvre sur la Memoire, part of a series of sculptures he was completing on that same theme. He spoke to us a little about the sculpture, but truly if you knew something about Haitian history and Haitian religion, the artifact explicated itself. It was simultaneously the image of the Haitian mind and of Haitian circumstance, hovering between an awful history and an unknown future, closed in a network of interconnections which might in the long run open a path of liberation.
Au dessous de l'insecurité
In leaving town to go up north, you needed to know which kalfou and which hours to avoid. Otherwise you would fall prey to zenglendo, the bandits who blocked the roads at night to rob and sometimes murder travelers, who also burglarized houses at night and sometimes murdered people in their beds. Much of the widespread violence was of this private-enterprise variety. The majority of the zenglendo were supposed to be former military men, who'd taken their weapons up the country to set up shop as robbers.
By chance I met one of those former soldiers, who was wraithlike from malnutrition, who lifted his shirt-tail to present still more convincing evidence that he was perilously near to starving to death. He had four children, he told me, who were no better off than he. Still, he had not become a zenglendo, but was trying to scrape by as an occasional groundskeeper at the various hotels. On the flesh of his cheek was a deep, perfectly circular scar, about the size of the rim of a water glass. I did not want to know how he had acquired the scar, though its appearance reminded me powerfully of red hot iron.
You had to figure that many of the decommissioned soldiers had not been all that vicious or cruel. The military had been a job to them, a means of feeding their families, a passport to a slightly higher standard of living than the Haitian norm. Now it was gone, and in its absence, the gun might be the most obvious meal ticket that remained....
The security problem was at the root of everything, but beneath the security problem there was sometimes simply hunger.
Grace à Michel Rolph Trouillot
Before we started the drive up north, I posted a sheet of paper on the rear window of the jeep, fastening it carefully with duct tape. The paper read, in largish letters:
Laté vlé di Respe
Laté vlé di Espoua
Laté vlé di Libete
This text was adapted from a Kreyol history of the Haitian Revolution by Michel Rolph Trouillot; I had changed the tense to make it applicable to present-day conditions in Haiti. I posted it on the jeep because it was a beautiful sentiment, because in my heart I truly believed it, and because I thought that it might dissuade people from smashing my windshield in the event that politics started happening again up north.
Grace à Alex Roshuk
Sometimes it was hard to persuade people to go with you to Haiti because some people believed that it was dangerous or unhealthy, perhaps both at the same time, but Alex had agreed immediately, even though I had not actually seen him in almost ten years. Alex was someone I trusted completely, which was the most important requirement, and after living in Montreal for a decade he was functional in French, which was also important. Alex was a Russian-American Francophone filmmaker, arts organizer, lawyer, handicrafts entrepreneur... and he also knew how to fix cars. He had the affect of a large but amiable Russian bear, which had a calming, relaxing influence on people in his presence. It was charming to be able to sit down so genially in the company of the bear... also you naturally wanted to be as nice as you knew how, so that the bear would remain in a good humor.
Alex spoke French slowly, with a brutally American accent, but he always managed to make himself understood, and he often understood what other people were saying a whole lot better than I did. I knew from past experience that he could be an excellent, trustworthy guide on spiritual pilgrimages. Also it was Alex who knew what was going to happen on January 23nd, which was the day, by whatever chance, that we chose to climb the Citadelle.
La vue en panorame
At first I had not wanted to go the Citadelle, because it was ever so slightly outside the historical period in which I specialized, because it was the most notorious tourist attraction in all Haiti, and because everyone kept telling me to go there. Also it seemed that the spirits had not wanted me to go there either because when I had set out in that direction my way had been barred by the demonstration at La Fossette. But today there were no such impediments.
The road to the Citadelle, which was made of heavy square paving stones, was the most durable road in Haiti-- having lasted more or less intact for about two hundred years. You needed your four by four to mount it, and even the jeep wouldn't make it all the way. After you abandoned the jeep there was another mile or so of steep, convoluted climbing, to the height of Morne La Ferrière and the fortress proper.
If you were blanc you didn't make that climb all in a rush... not if you wanted to survive the experience, so we made frequent halts, during which we could admire the view. To the west there was the vast fertile expanse of the Plaine du Nord (burned from end to end during the first slave insurrection in 1791) and at the limit of the plain, the city of Cap Haïtien which had itself been burned to the ground two times in the course of the Revolution. At the time of the second burning, the city was commanded by the black general Henri Christophe, later to become the architect of the Citadelle. Since the first fire, the town had been rebuilt by the free blacks who now occupied it to an even higher level of opulence than it had known during the colonial period. But when Napoleon's invading fleet sailed into the harbor, Christophe (under orders of Toussaint Louverture) set fire to the town with his own hands, beginning with his own palatial residence. He fought the French bitterly across the coals and ashes of the destroyed city, and then retreated into the mountains.
The New Age
At twelve thirty-five on January 23nd, we had not quite made it up to the Citadelle proper; there were maybe two more turns on the path to go. Alex stopped suddenly, pulled out a picture of his mother (a saintly Russian Orthodox believer who had been dead for fifteen years) and showed it to everyone in the immediate vicinity. For the first time in five hundred years all the planets arranged themselves in a single straight line. The last time such a thing had happened, Ayiti had still been the home of the Arawak Indians; Columbus had just barely arrived. Today, in 1997, the age of Aquarius had officially begun. The youth who was helping us find our way reached into his pocket and pulled out a tarnished button from one of King Christophe's uniform coats. The button was embossed with a phoenix surrounded by this legend: je renais de mes cendres.
Les oeuvres de la Mémoire
History had never stopped happening in Haiti. The Revolution seemed to have taken place only yesterday. That phenomenon was partly explained by the compressed sense of time of an oral culture, and partly by the fact that Haitians, by means of their religion, had regular opportunities to meet the spirits of the revolutionary dead face to face, and partly by the other fact that nothing had really happened, politically speaking, since the Revolution-- the same patterns had kept on repeating themselves, over and over, as one feudal baron replaced another.
Xavier himself had taught me a good deal about the Haitian sense of time. When we first met he told me that his grandfather had been a Revolutionary officer. Of course that was literally impossible, but I figured it was just Xavier's manner of speaking and that he really meant to identify his great-great-great-great-grandfather or some other forebear about that far back.
But as we got to know each other better I heard more of the story. It turned out that Xavier really was talking about his actual grandfather, who had been a Caco-- a member of the guerrilla resistance movement against the occupation of the American Marines during the 1920s. But the truly interesting thing was that Xavier didn't make any distinction between that struggle and the Revolution that ended in 1804. In the eternal circlings of his mind, those two events had merged into one. When Xavier finished describing his grandfather's career as a Caco he announced that at the end his grandfather had been killed by the French.
Such was the state of mind so tellingly represented by Patrick Vilaire's sculpture, that dreaming woman suspended there, removed from the stream of time. In Haiti, history had turned into dream. But Haiti was also the country where dreams really happened, in real life... and sometimes, quite frequently, those dreams were nightmares.
Mes reves m'instruisent
The whole time I was in Haiti I only had one dream, at the hotel in Hinche. I dreamed that I dove into some gloomy river and hid under swamp gunk on the bottom, intending to impress my friends and admirers with how long I could stay down there. Then I realized that in fact I couldn't seem to tear myself off the bottom. There was the familiar shredding sensation, accompanied by panic, but finally I unstuck myself from the bottom of the river, surfacing from the dark water at the instant I surfaced from the sleep. Dawn light was gray on the walls of the cement block room, and the little Haitian roosters were crowing all around the perimeter of the wall. In fact I had slept rather well, and was content to find that all three of us had survived the night (though I was mildly worried about the numerous, hungry Hinche mosquitos, which I thought might carry untreatable dengue fever). The dream was slightly worrisome, but at least I didn't think I'd need a psychoanalyst to tell me what it meant.
Otherwise I didn't dream in Haiti. There was very little time to sleep, and besides there was no point. It was later, back in the States, that the dream stuff would move back behind my head and begin trying to teach me something, but all the time I was in Haiti everything that usually happened in dreams had flipped itself over to the other side and was happening in my waking life, not behind my eyes, but before them.
The deeper that you went into Haiti, the more its religion seemed to be true. Your own behavior became more ritualized, conforming with the customs of the country. Certain rituals were practical necessities (the exact order of steps in brushing your teeth) but increasingly it was the ritual itself, and the prayerful state of mind in which you performed it, that seemed efficacious. Perhaps I believed as much as Xavier that the Church Slavonic prayer had purified the water....
There were many things that happened in vaudou that could be accounted for, blanc-style, by depth psychology combined with the action of hypnosis. But these explanations didn't explain the phenomena away. The further you went north, the more the power of what was happening increased, and the less it mattered what you chose to call it.
Besides, the spiritual logic of vaudou wasn't really all that alien from the Western tradition, if you thought about it. At the Episcopal Church I attended at home, the congregants would raise their open hands and sway and mumble spontaneously in an effort to invite and receive the Holy Ghost. In the States, I had difficulty lending myself to such practices, but in Haiti I could feel, in my body and soul together, the experience of living faith.
Vaudou is generally thought to be a syncretism of Catholicism and African religious practices (as Kreyol is mostly a synthesis of African grammar principles with French). The element of ancestor worship comes from Africa. In vaudou, the dead ancestors are known collectively as les Morts and les Mystères-- a vast reservoir of spiritual energy from which the archetypal personalities of the loa differentiate themselves, in order to make their appearances on earth. Haitian cemeteries are sacred to Les Morts and les Mystères, and sometimes you could feel their presence powerfully, for instance at the pastel-shaded necropolis of Dondon, in the north, across the river from the road, overgrown with damp green dripping jungle. There must be many spirits there, I said when I stopped the car to gaze, and Xavier murmured his assent: ouias, sé la bokou bokou d'espri....
In any case I was quite consciously a vaudou pilgrim. At the sacred waterfall of Saut d'Eau I wet my fingers and touched them to my temples, hoping perhaps that with this mark I would receive the spirit I was seeking. I muttered small warlike prayers in Kreyol at the river crossings: fé konfyans! --an urgent whisper, each time I entered the ford. When we discovered that we had reached Cap Haïtien on the faintest smell of gas, Alex and I both cried to the heavens with great sincerity, Dieu nous protège! The time I failed and drowned the motor, Alex and Présumé and I all joined our minds in silent prayer to make it run again....
On the way back south to Port au Prince, I climbed the sacred hill of Morne Saint Jisse, which stood solitary in the desert north of Gonaives. The hill was round and white and solitary in a wide flat plain of pale dust and jagged stones. A hard dry wind was blowing from the south, which made it difficult for me to climb. I'd seen Haitians running up and down like goats, but now the wind seemed strong enough to tear me off the path, and soon I was creeping on all fours, and finally, about thirty feet short of the summit, I stopped altogether.
For one thing, considering my wonky knees, I was beginning to worry about getting back down; for another, a Haitian face had peered at me briefly from just above, and I didn't want to intrude on the Haitians there-- it might have been very unwise to do so. Not quite arrived, I crouched on the trail, tucking myself against the stones, and prayed the best I could to Legba, the loa who controls the crossroads where the world of spirits meets the world of men.
Attibon Legba, ouvré barriè pou moin
Leu m'pasé, m'remesi loa....
That was all I could remember; and also I had to improvise the Kreyol. The dry wind kept blowing, stronger and stronger, tugging at my hat and shirt sleeves. The air was hazy from dust in the wind, but I could still see quite along way across the desert. At the horizon, beyond Gonaives, was the vague blue color of the ocean.
I managed to get down without breaking a limb, though one minor fall bruised my hand so badly I couldn't drive for an hour or so. Leaning on the jeep, I looked back toward the mountain. There was the sound of voices behind me, and when I glanced toward the road I saw a party of young women coming down out of the northern mountains to market, huge baskets balanced on their head, moving at a rhythmic synchronized trot that was more like dance than running, and singing songs I couldn't understand. They seemed to be in a state of trance (when Xavier ran after them to ask the name of a shrub they ignored him totally, as if they could not either hear nor see him); with their eyes fixed rigidly ahead they sang and danced their way past us, down the road.
I looked across the dusty plain of the cactus-like raket trees, the tough scrubby baroron. Halfway between me and the sacred hill, a mambo had appeared out that thin brush, out of nowhere really; she drove two immaculate burros ahead of her, both loaded with beautifully woven straw panniers toward, towards the south. She herself was clothed in a long red dress, her red headscarf topped with a straw hat. She moved in an eerie silence, keeping her head turned all the while to look toward me, through me, and beyond. Once she took off her straw hat, displaying the red mouchwa têt which was the emblem of the war god Ogun. Then she was gone, following her burros into the dust-caked thickets of raket and baroron. Her regard had been impassive, indifferent; she looked through me like the running women had looked through Xavier; her gaze went through and beyond me toward eternity. Her gaze said that I was nothing to her, no more than a stone or a torn tire by the roadside. I felt a certain sadness at that, as if my prayer had been denied. After all I could come no closer, I could never become Haitian, I would not ever reach the summit of the hill.
Later on, though, I began to believe that maybe I had meant something to her after all; maybe she had come on purpose, at that moment, to inhale my spirit....
Below Milot, below Morne La Ferrière where the Citadelle still vaunted the power of Henri Christophe, first king of Haiti, the ruins of his royal palace lay in the cool light of evening. Portions of the facade still stood, and remnants of shattered carvings round the ruined fountains. The entrance to the tunnel which led all the way to the Citadelle had been sealed by the state, as being too dangerous. Swinging his legs from a broken arch, a schoolboy recited a lesson in French, laboring to get it all by memory. At the borders of the ruins small lakou had sprung up, and goats and cows came grazing downward over the foundation stones of Christophe's casernes. It was very peaceful there, and beautiful even though destroyed.Guidel Présumé conducted us through the splinters of the palace. He showed us the stone markers which had taught Christophe's soldiers the goose-step, and he showed us the room where Christophe finally shot himself (in the face of a rebellion, finding himself too ill and weak to lead his soldiers into battle) and he showed us a grassy place where a room had been in which Christophe might have tortured (in Présumé's phrase) quelqu'un qui a caché quelque chose derrière sa tête. In Kreyol, when you conceal a secret, you have something hidden behind your head-- the same head the loa climb on top of, to possess you.
Pas de politique
"But after all there are no political problems here," the Belgian doctor suddenly declared, over rum at midnight at the Oloffson Hotel. "There are no political problems here because there is no politics!" He stared around the table, slightly vibrating. Then all of us suddenly burst out laughing and went on until we wept.
La doublure Haïtienne
The most fundamental problem for every Haitian head of state since Christophe had been those hordes of jet-black maroon-descended paysans up north who had next to no need at all for a government. They were living fairly nicely off the rich, rich land, which allowed them to provide for all their own needs by themselves. Justice was administered in tribal council; community projects were handled by tribal konbits, all religious needs were met by vaudou. Basically, it was Africa.
Meanwhile, down south, the conventional economy (such as it was) and especially those sectors that had some connection to the rest of world outside Haiti, mostly remained in mulâtre hands. It had been so since the Revolution, which the mulâtres had entered with a large head start: the colored class had European education and also wealth-- many mulâtres had themselves been slavemasters. Most of the country's wealth was still concentrated in their hands (there were perennial rumors of the Forty Families who constituted a secret and permanent government) but nevertheless they were insufficiently numerous to control the whole country all by themselves.
Therefore it was always necessary for the class of wealthy mulâtres to maintain some alliance with a strong black faction, comprising politicians and (especially) military men. From this necessity, the black Haitian "political class" was formed. It was for this reason also that entry into the political class had always frankly meant permission to thrust your claws into the till. There was no politics in Haiti; politics meant a share of the spoils. Thus evolved what was called la doublure-- a situation where the goverment was evidently run by coal black Haitians... although mostly for the secret benefit of the wealthy mulâtre class.
But no single black robber baron could maintain his place at the trough for all that long-- too many others were jostling to get up there. Therefore, Haitian governments fell very frequently.
If you resented not getting your share, and wanted to engineer a change of government, what you had to do was start a soulèvement-- a groundswell of turbulence among the Haitian rank-and-file, who tended to be jet black wherever they lived, and most of them lived up north. If you were able to get these people excited about your cause you could bring them howling and swirling down on the capital in a plausible replication of the slave insurrections of 1791. The mulâtres, scared witless, would dive in their bunkers for the duration (it wouldn't be safe for them to show their pale skins on the street) and whatever robber baron had been occupying the palace would beat feet for the airport with his satchels of gold.
Afterward, most of those hordes of people in the soulèvement would cool off and go home. They would have enjoyed a strong catharsis and afterward they would be calm and relaxed and peaceful-- moods changed so quickly and drastically in this country. Up north, where they could live off the land, they wouldn't care how well you lined your pockets down in Port au Prince. Most of them barely understood what money was anyway. So you didn't have to worry about them much.
The only problem was that the next time they came swarming down on the capital it would be somebody else, your rival and enemy, who had brought them there.
dans tous les sens
In order to start a good soulèvement you had to get your lines connected all over the country, and the best way to do that was through vaudou -- although the Church was also possible, as Aristide proved. Since colonial times, the nationwide structure of vaudou had been so precisely similar to a cellular political network that the whole thing might well have been copied out of Carlos Marguella's Mini-Manual. There were zillions of little hounfors all over the country and they and their congregations were all cross-connected to each other, like the beads in Patrick Vilaire's Oeuvre sur La Mémoire. Information, plans and activities could spread through the vaudou channels like a virus through a nervous system-- indeed that was how the Revolution had started in 1791. The catch was that vaudou was so thoroughly decentralized that it was difficult to control from the capital. It was very hard to intimidate or do away with the leaders because there were too many of them; in fact every believer was capable of becoming a strong and dangerous leader, for a god might mount the head of any believer at any time.
But everything in Haiti was like that. Nothing was merely what it appeared to be. The paths didn't go where it looked like they went. All spaces and directions were highly confusing, especially if you were blanc or had (like many mulâtres and black politicians) adopted blanc habits of mind. Nothing was regular, direct or foursquare. Cultivations weren't laid out in rows but travelled around in straggling loops, following veins of fertile ground. All Haitian spatial arrangements were sort of like that-- even in the airport you had to follow a madly intricate spiral pattern to pass all the security checks and get all your papers stamped. In Port au Prince you were almost always lost because directions and landmarks were fairly unevident and there was so much confusing activity and so many things to watch out for.... Also the people you were with almost never went and returned by the same pathway because in principle they preferred to execute some sort of a wavery circle. Moreover if their regular habits of movement became known to others, that could be very dangerous for them.
Up in Cap Haitian the whole idea of a blanc street system had almost completely been junked. The names of the streets existed in theory (dating from the colonial period) but in fact you had to go by kalfou: 16B or 20A. The streets were marked in that way, on the corners. This system put you within a block of whatever it was you were looking for, and if it was a business that was close enough for you to find it. If you were looking for a person, the people you asked would begin smelling you all over and presently that sought-after person would begin thinking about whether he would let you find him or not.
Kalfou meant something; the roads between them did not. The further you went into the interior, the more the map-drawn roads began to disappear, replaced by faces of raw stone, or fantastic lunar landscapes of dried mud. You had to ask your way at every intersection, and although the people who answered your question could tell you that Cap Haïtien was down that road, they had likely been no further than the next kalfou, themselves.
So finally I understood the whole difficulty of sustaining any kind of nationwide organisation for very long at a stretch, whether it as vaudou, political, or anything else. Here was the practical weakness of national vaudou organisations, no matter how good they might look on paper. It was the connections that meant something, not the wires that led between them. Yes, somebody could organise a whole lot of hounfors up the country so that all the synapses fired at once and strange powerful things happened on a very large scale-- indeed this had been the normative method of national power transfer for about two centuries-- but you couldn't get it to stay that way. After a day or week or month all the connections would rearrange themselves and turn into something else, so that the principal puppet master (in the Palace, let's say) would no longer know exactly where his strings were attached at the other end. If he was severely mistaken or misunderstood something, it could all bounce back and blow up in his face. The next time all the synapses fired at once it would be himself frantically trying to reach the airport before it closed....
Of course the big exception to this principle was macoutisme.
Papa Doc Duvalier originally came to power on the wave of a populist soulèvement, like just about every Haitian chief of state before him. The difference between Duvalier and his predecessors was that he held power for fourteen years and became the first Haitian ruler since the Revolution to die of natural causes while still in office. Clearly, he knew something the others had not known.
Your problem as a Haitian leader was that you could always be overthrown by the same methods you had used to overthrow your predecessor; Papa Doc studied this problem with intelligence and care. He knew that he couldn't trust his "own people" very much. The army (as the people who hired armed security nowadays kept learning, to their sorrow), had a way of turning on its employer from time to time. Also you couldn't hold the entire country down forever with merely military force.
Duvalier, who was well-educated, scholarly, and cunning, had apparently made a study of Hitler's political strategy; on this basis he invented macoutisme. Yes, he would station soldiers all over the country, but wherever the soldiers went (everywhere) the macoutes would also go. The macoutes were a nominally civilian paramilitary group, very much like Hitler's Brown Shirts. They were as well armed as the army, and like the army were licensed to rape and rob, but they were not part of the army-- instead they reported directly to Papa Doc Duvalier. Therefore if the soldiers started cooking up any sort of conspiracy, the macoutes would inform on them straight away, while the soldiers would certainly inform on the macoutes in their turn, if the macoutes looked like they were up to anything. It was all so beautifully simple.
There remained the religious networks, church and hounfor, which were always capable of turning revolutionary. To a considerable degree Duvalier purged the Catholic clergy, murdering or exiling legitimate priests and installing macoutes in their place. In a peculiarly elegant example of doublure he also let it be known that he was a bokor himself: he always dressed in the ritual costume of Ghede or Baron Samedi, and early in his rule he summoned every houngan and mambo to the Palace, appeared before them in ritual garb, and informed them all that he was their master.
Because he understood that vaudou could never be extirpated entirely (or at all) at the same time that Duvalier gave it his public support, and at the same time infiltrated it with macoutes. No one wanted to talk about it, but everyone still knew that macoutisme was intimately involved with Bizango, vaudou's black magic, terroristic cult. The two were natural partners and, under Duvalier, went comfortably hand in hand. It was for this reason that, during the dechoukaj that followed the flight of Baby Doc, the hounfors thought to be allied with macoutisme were destroyed.
la doublure américaine
The daylight face of the American intervention (known in Haiti as le debarquement) was bathed in sweetness and light. The intervention appeared to be a rare example of political altruism, for the U.S. had no oil wells in Haiti to protect. The intervention was an unselfish effort to do good to a small and suffering neighbor country, and especially to strike a blow for human rights in our hemisphere: in that sense it represented the first deployment of military force for purely moral reasons in the history of United States. Right?
In its moral luminescence the intervention was also plausibly Clintonesque. President Clinton was a genuine idealist. He was capable of being influenced by moral suasion: the hunger strike mounted against the coup by Randall Robinson, the efforts of Taylor Branch to present the case of Aristide, who in his exile had become Clinton's neighbor in Washington DC. In the end Clinton had yielded to these moral imperatives and performed an action for good.
However, it was also probable that Clinton had something hidden behind his head, namely the state of Florida, which during the period of the coup was well on the way to establishing its own foreign policy, and which controlled an important number of electoral votes in presidential elections. During the coup, Florida had increasingly been overrun by boat people coming from Haiti: the live ones screwed up the state economy and the drowned ones washed up on the beaches and discouraged tourism. Florida wanted Haiti safe for Haitians. Clinton wanted Florida's vote. After all, there was a political interest in Haiti.
Meanwhile, the left hand of the U.S. government had been groping in the darkness of the Haitian night for much longer than Mr. Clinton had been in office. There had always been the Windward Passage, the deep harbor at Cap Haïtien, the excellent naval harbor at Mole St Nicolas, at the end of the peninsula which extended toward Cuba like the finger of God, in the Sistine Chapel painting, reaching for the hand of Adam. America didn't really need those harbors (the harbor at Mole had been on occasion proffered by Haitian governments in return for economic aid) as long as it could prevent its enemies from getting them. Therefore the U.S. had always tacitly supported the right-wing conservative Duvalier regime with its left hand, sometimes simultaneously shaking its right forefinger at the Duvaliers for their human rights abuses.
For these reasons the lefthanded area of the U.S. government was perturbed by the fall of Duvalier fils, and then downright unnerved by the rise to popularity of Aristide. There were vast sectors of the American political machine (the permanent government, they were called by some) and especially those sectors involved in covert operations, that remained frozen in the habits of cold war politics, even though the cold war had already ended. These sectors feared populism because it probably led to socialism which would undoubtedly turn into Communism-- almost upon our very shores! ... like Cuba. Therefore Aristide was a dangerous man.
Hard on the heels of Aristide's election came the coup. The generals moved into the palace, and the macoutes who had survived the dechoukaj reconfigured themselves as attachés or members of a new right-wing terrorist organization called FRAPH, which oddly enough turned out to be partially sponsored by the CIA. Thus throughout the period that Clinton's right forefinger solemnly wagged at human rights abuses on the part of the generals, the left hand of the U.S. government was at least implicitly involved in the terror taking place in Haiti. In Washington at the same time, the CIA was laboring mightily to discredit Aristide, who they claimed was unstable, crazy, and dangerous; it wasn't safe to listen to him.
One of the first things the American troops did during the intervention was to seize the government records for the period of the coup. These records, which are presumed to document military and FRAPH atrocities still remain sequestered in Washington, despite the strenuous efforts of the present Haitian government to recover them. In another context this behavior on the part of Washington might well be described as obstruction of justice, and yet there was a lofty moral reason for the witholding of the records: their release might provoke reprisals against former FADH and FRAPH members and so, behold-- oh horror! --human rights abuses. On the other hand it was probably also true that if an explicit connection between FRAPH and the CIA did exist, the sequestered records would be likely to reveal it. It was all so beautifully simple.
Miroir trop clair
The Belgian doctor was certainly right; there was no politics in Haiti, or at any rate Haitian politics persistently failed to perform according to First World paradigms. Perhaps it was unwise to imagine that Haitian politics would ever fit such paradigms; nevertheless the advisers and fund managers continued to exhort Haitians to evolve into a First World style democracy.
There was a country where politics had failed, where over half the electorate had grown too disgusted to bother to vote, where political corruption was endemic everywhere in all parties and at every level, where an uneducated unemployed underclass was rapidly growing, and growing more irascible day by day. Certainly, such a country existed, but was it Haiti or was it the United States?
Attacking vaudou was one way to secure power in Haiti, once you had gained it, but the difficulty was that vaudou could neither be completely destroyed by repression, nor completely corrupted by macoutisme. Vaudou was like a banana plantation or the lianas in the jungle or anything else with runner roots. Anywhere it touched the ground it would sprout up all over again. If you let one single vaudouisant survive, the whole religion would resurrect itself in time, complete with all its networks and political hazards.
As Captain-General Leclerc had written to Napoleon, "If we are ever to retake this island, we must kill every negro man above the age of twelve."
Vaudou was so thoroughly intertwined with the independent peasantry of the north and its tradition of marronage that the one could not uprooted without the other. Therefore, Duvalier lent himself very heartily to the clearcutting of Haiti's forests. By the end of his reign the effects of this policy had begun to be felt: Subsistence agriculture was becoming less and less tenable. With fewer trees there was less and less rain. The jungle died and the old maroon territories began to be replaced with escarpments of bare rock.
Not all of this environmental damage could be laid to the door of Duvalier. Observers of the colonial period were already noticing problems with deforestation and erosion, caused by brutal, get-rich-quick, colonial cultivation tactics. Then there was the population bomb. Under French rule, the slave population had failed to reproduce itself due to a staggering toll of murders, abortions, suicides and infanticides, but the roughly half million freed slaves who survived the Revolution had stopped dying and lent themselves enthusiastically to the project of reproduction. The land could not support such a population explosion indefinitely. The small family plots into which most of the country had been divided following the Revolution could not be infinitely subdivided. Also just about everyone cooked with charcoal, which also continued to be a cash crop for the peasantry-- charcoal burning was still playing a large part in the environmental destruction of Haiti.
Duvalier could not have accomplished all that deforestation by himself, but he did recognize that it coincided with his interests. Like the government headquarters of many Third World countries, the Presidential Palace of Haiti intentionally provides wide open fields of fire in all surrounding directions, for the convenience of defenders within whenever they might find themselves beleaguered. Deforestation extended these fields of fire up Route Nationale 1 past the Duvalierist killing grounds to the beach hotels, and up Route Nationale 3 to the far side of Morne Cabrit. A mouse would have to go thirty miles north of the palace before it could find a scrap of shade.
The whole concept of marronage, which fostered the soulèvements that kept perpetually overturning Haitian governments, depended on the ability to vanish in the jungle. If there were no more jungles, there would be no more vanishing. The more the mountains became barren, the more people would be forced down from the hills toward the capital, where Army and macoutes could could control them more easily. Xavier said there were six million people living in Port au Prince; the official report was usually two million, and the truth was probably somewhere in between (it was difficult to imagine an accurate census in areas like Cité Soleil). At any rate, people kept pouring into the capital. They could swell the hellish bidonvilles of Port au Prince, and while they were at it they could assemble baseballs, or Pocahontas pajamas for Disney. This trend had suited Duvalier very well, and it also seemed to agree with the IMF, whose reports predicted that freehold agriculture was doomed in Haiti. Workers would be obliged to move into "light industry." In this fashion Haitians would join the world economy.
In Haiti, land means respect; land means freedom; land means liberty. Duvalier understood this principle too, which was why he had made the land itself his enemy.
Au dessous de la faim
The security problem was at the bottom of everything, but beneath the security problem was starvation. Some of the zenglendo were undoubtedly disaffected former fat cats, gran manje, but others were simply dying of hunger. Beneath the problem of hunger lay the destruction of the land.
It wasn't merely a matter of fertility, though that was a large part of the issue. The Haitian mountains had once been rain forest (as was still the case in part of the Dominican republic over the border, and on some other Caribbean islands). Trees made rain, that was simple; there was even a Kreyol proverb that said so. Rain was water that grew the crops, and rain was also meant to provide a clean and sufficient water supply for human use; most of the country's gruesome health problems went straight back to the shortage of clean water for drinking or cooking or washing one's food.
la vue de la Citadelle
When you flew over Haiti, said a historian I knew in Le Cap, the sight of the bare mountains murdered your heart. But on the plane you were too high up, too far away-- you couldn't see the pockets of fertility hidden under the clouds in wrinkles of the mountains, areas still capable of growth. From the Citadelle the view was dizzying, vertiginous, but still you could see more closely, and in the mountains around Dondon, Limonade, and on back in the direction of the Central Plateau, there was a reasonably healthy tree cover-- spotty perhaps, but it looked like the trees were coming back. Christophe had set his fortress in the heart of maroon country, and that heart had not been murdered yet. Even Papa Doc could safely come here only in a helicopter. Ruin had not reached quite this far. Although the winter rains were supposed to be over, it was still raining in this region; even now, from the Citadelle, we could see clouds gathering for an afternoon shower. There was still hope for regeneration.
I had wanted to be in Cap Haïtien for January 23nd because I figured that one way or another the houngans would be informed of the planetary event and there would be important ceremonies that night-- for vaudou usually happened after dark. But when we reached the height of the Citadelle I realized I had underestimated the houngans. The ceremonies had been timed to coincide precisely with the planetary event at 12:35. The drums were still rolling, the sound carrying nicely in the still damp air, a long way below at Limonade.
In the U.S. a monument like the Citadelle would have been festooned with railings and fences and safety precautions, but here in Haiti there was nothing of that kind; you were free to walk right off the edge of the thing, like one of Christophe's soldiers. Présumé, warning of "la vertige," kept well away from any edges, but I was determined to see the whole view, so I walked Christophe's aerian parade ground to its limits. Later on, when I was back in the States, the whirling vacuum of those drops would would reappear from nowhere to suck so powerfully at my mind that I would (though safe in my own house) wrap my arms around myself and crouch in terror, but at the time my need to see and know was greater than my considerable fear of heights, and from this eminence the whole history of the country was laid out very plainly. You could see in all directions without impediments; finally you could see it all.
Indeed the height was so great and the air so clear that you seemed to be able to see all the way to the United States -- where, it was increasingly evident, the Third World was coming our way whether we liked it or not, from Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. How were we going to adapt to these changes? Perhaps the barbarians were at the gate and it was the end, or the beginning of the end, of the whole American empire.
Yet I thought of Patrick Vilaire's Oeuvre sur La Mémoire, and wondered what might happen if the sleeper awoke. What if Haiti, and the ideals of its First Revolution, were to come out of that two-hundred-year-long enchanted sleep? There were some real advantages to this place: a culture with integrity, a religion that worked at all levels of society... Haiti was the only country in the Western Hemisphere where black slaves had made an end to their own slavery; it was the only country in the world, so far as I knew, to have theoretically abolished the concept of race. The crossroads where the cultures of Africa and Europe and aboriginal America all met was found both in Haiti and the United States. The U.S. too had been stuck at that crossroads, for roughly the same two hundred years. From the height of the Citadelle, it was possible to imagine that the Haitians might be able to lead our way out.
If Haitian politics could somehow be stabilized, the enormous resources of Haitian history, culture and religion might become available to the whole Western Hemisphere. Sure, the country was not quite ready for tourism, due to deficiencies of the infrastructure and so on, but it could handle at least a few more vaudou pilgrims. There were plenty of people in the States who were accustomed to go searching for mystical insights and spiritual wisdom in countries like India and China, and these travelers were already trained in coping with Third World health conditions. The religious resources of vaudou were fully as rich as anything to be found in Asia... and Haiti was much more conveniently nearby. You imagined some sort of cultural renascence beginning here, some comprehensive religious synergy expanding outward through the hemisphere, a New Age worthy of the name....
Regard en arrière
As we drove all over north Haiti in January of 1997, I began to believe that our transit itself was a magical act. (Haiti is conducive to megalomania, it seems, especially though not uniquely in white people.) I believed that I was drawing a magical diagram, a veve, on the earth itself with the jeep I began to believe that the mere display of Trouillot's lines in the jeep's rear window would win over hearts and minds and save the country. In hindsight, that latter belief was quite evidently insane.
Yet saving Haiti could be so simple, easy as falling off a log. There was just a handful of ideas to grasp. Aside from politics, the country's worst problem was the water shortage, the curtailment of the rainy seasons. If you could make the rains come back, so many problems would be alleviated. With clean drinking water the disease problems of Haiti would be greatly reduced. With sufficient rain for crops, the country could easily feed itself, and more, it could feed other countries.
Latè vlé di Respè
Latè vlé di Lespoua
Latè vlé di Libeté
In June 1997, I returned to Haiti, with reduced expectations... but I had the same slogan posted on the back of the jeep. When we had to stop to repair a tire on the way south out of Gonaïves, I parked the jeep across the side street from the repairman's stand. Presently an enormous bus pulled in and began disgorging passengers from Port au Prince. The bus blocked my view of the jeep, so I crossed back over to where I could keep an eye on it. A white-haired gentlemen wearing a guayabera was studying the motto on the back window with close attention. When he noticed me (and my red headcloth) he asked if I had put the slogan there; I admitted that I had. He pronounced each phrase slowly and then asked me what it meant. I told him that I had taken the lines from Trouillot's Kreyol history of the Revolution and that in that context they referred to the importance of land issues in the revolutionary struggle but that I also felt that nowadays the lines referred to the importance of preserving the land, environmentally and agriculturally, in order to preserve Haitian freedom. When I had finished he looked me all over very carefully, lingering, once more, on my red mouchwa têt. Then he produced a grubby scrap of paper and meticulously copied down the slogan, every word, tucked the paper in his shirt pocket and then went on about his business....
The third essay in this series, "Soul In A Bottle," appears inCreative Nonfiction # 14, 2000