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The New York Times Magazine

Original Version: The Struggle for a Democratic Haiti

By Mark Danner
June 01, 1987

Three hours out of New York, I start awake to find myself floating over a grotesque landscape – a vast, sun-baked slab of rotten meat. The plane’s shadow creeps slowly over the sickly, reddish-brown mornes of Haiti, wave upon wave of great blood-dark corrugations, thickly marbled with white sand. Haitian peasants desperate for cash have long since up-rooted the dense covering of trees and underbrush, selling the precious wood for charcoal and leaving bare white canyons through which, month after month, year after year, the rain-water flows, carrying tons of precious topsoil to the bottom of the Caribbean. 

While in the cities of “Haiti liberee” a new political universe is suffering a painful and confusing birth, the land, oblivious, farmed to exhaustion, stripped bare, eroding, continues its slow and spectacular death. And while the land dies, those struggling to wrest their living from it steadily multiply, further swelling one of the most densely populated countries on earth. During the last thirty years – the years of the Duvalier dynasty – the land began to disgorge its dependents, sending them streaming to the great, swarming slums of the cities, or boarding rickety boats bounds for the riches of the south Florida 90 miles away. Today three Haitians in four remain peasants: illiterate, malnourished, isolated, every year struggling to plant subsistence crops farther up the steep slopes and mountainsides, and every year clawing out less and less to eat.

Faced with the slow trickling away of Haiti, the 35 emperors, kings, “presidents-for-life,” and dictators of every stripe who have ruled the land have preferred to think of other things. They passed the time intriguing among the tiny elite to whom they owed power, savoring the fruits of corruption that were its perquisite, and worrying over their political futures. One committed suicide; one was executed; two were assassinated; seven died in office, and eighteen were violently overthrown. The most recent of these was Jean-Claude Duvalier who, in the early hours of February 7, 1986, with his elegant Mulatto wife Michele coolly smoking a cigarette at his side, maneuvered his prized BMW through the crowds of photographers and reporters at Francois Duvalier International Airport, boarded a waiting U. S. Airforce jet, and fled to a luxurious exile in the south of France. The fashionable couple went off to rejoin an expatriated fortune estimated at $200 to $900 million – the latter figure equal to about four of Haiti’s national budgets –and left behind the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth.

A year after Jean-Claude’s departure, in the confusion of what is now Port-au-Prince International Airport, the polite Mulatto customs lady asks where I will be staying, then sternly wags her finger. Impossible: the city center is “hot” today … some kind of demonstration … the soldiers came … a little girl was killed … mobs are rioting and smashing windshields. Emphatic, but businesslike: reciting such litanies has become part of her job.

Outside the terminal I am met by the usual blast of heat and noise and glare, the usual crush of bodies, the usual forest of outstretched black hands – hands reaching to carry bags, gesturing to decrepit automobiles, proffering would carvings and iron sculpture and cheap paintings, insistent hands pushing and pulling and guiding and begging. But the kids hawking “Haiti Liberte” T-shirts and other souvenirs of the great “dechoukage” (or “uprooting”) of Duvalier, inescapable when I passed through this airport in March and June, have vanished, and the mood of national renewal, of political rebirth after 29 years of Duvaliers, has turned to the accustomed, but suddenly loud-voiced, discontent.

In Haiti today, history is “en parenthese.” The world’s first independent black nation is enduring another of the parentheses of disorder, guarded optimism and sporadic violence that has so often in its history bridged the fall of one ruler and the rise of the next. While many of the one million expatriate Haitians in Miami and New York and Montreal celebrated the anniversary of Duvalier’s fall with parties and parades, in Port-au-Prince the day was greeted with a deathly silence broken only by the whining sirens of armored vehicles patrolling the deserted streets. The soldiers in whose hands Duvalier left the country responded to opposition calls for demonstrations by issuing two harsh communiques warning against “brigandage and terrorism,” arresting several popular leaders and searching the houses of two others, and declaring the day a national holiday, thus keeping businesses closed. All in all, a relatively delicate touch on the repressive instrument Duvalier so painstakingly constructed; but after 29 years and 40,000 dead, it was more than enough to keep people off the streets.

The show of force “definitely paid off,” Col. Williams Regala, the Minister of Interior and number-two man in the interim government, told me. Opposition figures had published “a resolution … asking people to march in the street against the government … You don’t have a right to ask people to do that ... We have liberated many things: given freedom to talk, freedom to act, but the problem when we direct the police and the army to respect people’s rights is that many people don’t know where their rights stop.”

The head of the interim government, Gen. Henri Namphy, who served as Duvalier’s Army chief of staff, had promised “a fair, good and firm transition to democracy,” with presidential elections in November, and scores of Haitians are noisily campaigning for the chair Jean-Claude hastily vacated; a few are plainly talented and thoughtful men, articulate, well-traveled, perfectly well-equipped, it seems, to begin to confront Haiti’s misery.

“But no one believes this government can preside over fair elections, elections that will mean anything,” Jean-Claude Bajeux, a recently returned exile and director of the Ecumenical Centre for Human Rights, whose entire family was massacred by Francois Duvalier in 19TK, told me just after the anniversary. “They have given no sign of it. Those now in power are plainly not interested in changing any of the basic structures that created Duvalier. Anyone elected today would become exactly the same thing.”

On March 29, Haitians overwhelmingly approved the country’s twenty-third Constitution, a peculiar hybrid document containing the traditional complement of absurd and grandiloquent promises – such as a guarantee of universal education and health care – but offering also a dramatic reflection of Haitians’ deeper suspicions. The Constitution formally strips the Ministry of Interior of its power to control the elections, creating an independent electoral commission for the purpose, forbids “ex-Duvalierists,” loosely defined, from running for public office; and reflects in almost every line the one political sentiment Haitians in the nebulous opposition share: a profound distrust of government, of politicians, and especially of centralized, personalized power.

Haiti has seen many noble Constitutions, scraps of paper full of pretty words which, in their very distance from the Haitian reality, seem almost to advertise their own meaninglessness – their essential character as theatrical declamation, not binding law. (“Constitutions are made of paper, but bayonets are made of iron,” the Haitian proverb says.) The new Constitution – the first to be written in Creole, the language which most Haitians actually speak, rather than French, which perhaps a fifth understand – may well take its place in this tradition. But its affirmation – and especially the fact that many opposition groups who had originally denounced the proposed draft as a product of the government, in the end urged affirmation of the completed, and very different, document – demonstrates that the political game in Haiti has changed, that what Leslie Manigat, one of the leading presidential candidates, calls “the revolt that wasn’t finished; the compromise with power that weighs on the country to this day,” will be felt in the conduct of the election, and the struggle to govern the country that follows. 


Outside of the party headquarters that seem to have sprung up on every corner, near the kids peddling newspapers now filled with political debate, Haitians selling mangoes or candy or cassettes will tell you in disgust that the candidates are all thieves; that they think only of what they can steal, just like Jean-Claude and his despised wife; that the very idea of elections is a grim joke in Haiti – a country where few people in the cities and almost no one in the countryside can read; where a vote can be bought for a dollar or a swig of rum; where so-called political parties flourish for barely a season before fading away with the candidate’s name; where electoral institutions are non-existent and the notion of politics as a means to further the public good is utterly unknown. Ask about the candidates, about the policies they offer to develop the country, and these Haitians, squatting over their goods spread out on the bustling downtown streets, respond simply that the people still live in misery, that they have heard the pretty words before, that nothing whatever has changed.

People know that, amid the disorder and the newly-expressed discontent, men representing powerful groups familiar to all Haitians – the military officers who ushered Duvalier out; the technocrats and businessmen and intellectuals, many of them returning exiles, who are emerging as the important presidential candidates; the songs of the elite who have always drawn their income from the government bureaucracy – were busily constructing a new official politics, a “transition to democracy” which would be administered by the military government and cushioned by an infusion of foreign aid and expertise, especially American. 

But partly because remembered history, hanging over Haiti like a dirty cloud, makes too many of the words seem depressingly familiar, and partly because the uprising that overthrew Duvalier unleashed new forces in Haitian politics, the official process has acquired a shadow, a shifting, amorphous and unstable opposition whose strength remains uncertain, and whose future is very difficult to judge. It is this shadow that affected the drafting of the Constitution in its final stages. The backbone of this “democratic sector” is the Catholic Church – especially the priests, and, to a lesser degree, their bishops – which had been instrumental in rallying the people during the six months of social upheaval leading up to Duvalier’s flight. Hundreds of “popular groups,” or “mass organizations,” formed since last February and claiming to give voice to workers, peasants, neighborhood leaders, former political prisoners, professionals and others, form what Manigat calls the “counter-power in the streets.” Most of these organizations, while trying to direct and channel the pervasive resentment and dissatisfaction in the country, regard the intentions of the interim government and the candidates themselves with a common cynical disgust. Some surrendered part of their staunch anti-electoralism by endorsing the Constitution, seeing it as an opposition document; others doggedly urged abstention, viewing it as a trap that, by implicating them in the inherently corrupt world of Haitian politics, would end by destroying the popular movement.

Today, the candidates find themselves awkwardly situated between the government and this elusive opposition; they are unwilling to alienate the military, the traditional kingmakers without whom they cannot win an election, yet they are beholden also to the people, without whom they cannot even complete. In October, most candidates urged Haitians to boycott the elections in which the writers of the Constitution were chosen; in March, they endorsed the document those elected had produced; come November, the man that is elected will be sorely tempted to abrogate at least some of its provisions - for, if he doesn’t, he will have great difficulty in governing at all, let alone improving the lives of the Haitians, the only standard against which his work will be judged. And then, perhaps, the cycle will begin anew.

I asked Marc Bazin – a leading presidential candidate and articulate economist who acquired the nickname “Mr. Clean” during the six months he spent in 1982 as Duvalier’s Finance Minister, trying very publicly to clean up corruption until he went too far and the dictator fired him – which candidate he considered his strongest competition. “My strongest competition?” Bazin looked at me for a moment, then gazed at the chaotic street in front of him. “The system itself.”


Everywhere in Haiti today, in the speeches of the campaigning candidates, in the communiques of the popular groups, in the press conferences of the interim government, one hears familiar phrases about “democracy-building,” about development as the only answer to the people’s long-ignored demands, about Communism finding a fertile breeding ground in misery. Haiti lies sixty miles east of Cuba across the Windward Passage leading to the Panama Canal, and, in 1985, 90 percent of Haitians subsisted on less than $185 a year, while .5 percent received almost half the national income. Life expectancy hovers around fifty, and near a third of Haitian children die before their fifth birthdays.

Today the mountains that cover Haiti conceal no guerrilla groups; it is possible that in ten or fifteen years Duvalier’s overthrow will be seen as the beginning of real improvement in the lives of the Haitians. It is equally possible that it will be recalled as a clear sign that the country was marching inexorably toward a long season of bloodletting, what one Haitian journalist described as the “Salvadorization” of Haiti: the familiar cycle of violent rebellion, brutal repression and prolonged guerrilla war. For those looking for test-cases, Haiti should be a cautionary tale. Traumatized by a political psychosis that predates its independence, wholly dependent on foreign aid that can succeed only in slowing its progressive immiseration, Haiti today presents vivid examples of the obstacles to “democracy-building” and the resiliency of history and class.

For the one Haitian in five able to read, a history of “liberated Haiti” can be found scrawled in paint on the aqua and salmon walls of Port-au-Prince. Soon after Duvalier’s departure, a thick growth of graffiti crept over the city, and a tour reveals enough of the intricate palimpsest of misshapen letters and misspelled words to chart a clear downward trajectory. As I try to negotiate my way through the chaos of Avenue Haille Saillasie’s meeting with Avenue Martin Luther King, I catch sight of remnants of the first delirious weeks – “Dictatorship Uprooted!” “Democracy Peace Justice!” The words call up a series of vivid snapshots: Delirious crowds “uprooting” and methodically stripping bare the great houses of the dictator’s closest associates; mobs of young men beheading, stoning, or burning alive the more murderous of his denim-clad “Tontons Macoutes” militia; gangs of machete-wielding peasants swooping down on fields to reclaim land seized by cronies of the old regime.

“I stood and marveled at the justice of the people,” an influential Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, told me. But could he countenance mobs burning people in the streets? “These macoutes, they were the devil incarnate. The people were doing God’s work.” The politics of public score-settling, of mob justice, of uprooting and smashing and looting, has a long history in Haiti. The military did little to top the lootings and killings, and when it was over what Haitians had known all along became clear: that the justice of the mob was the only justice they could expect, that righting wrongs according to some abstract standard of law was not the government’s business.

Off the choked commercial avenue of Delmas, the painful reality that began to dawn in Haiti like a dull hangover is recorded on a turquoise storefront, before which a gaggle of teenagers compete to “wash” my car with filthy rags: “Uproot Poverty!” “Uproot Illiteracy!” More pictures: of workers defiantly demonstrating for the first time in 30 years, demanding Haiti’s minimum wage be doubled, from $3 to $6 a day, of contingents of clean-cut young boys, some belonging to “Christian Youth” groups, destroying voodoo temples, harassing and killing voodoo priests; of groups of men, highway-robbers, balancing precariously on the hoods of brightly-painted little pick-up trucks as they loot the back of a great tractor-trailer of its donated sacks of flour and powdered milk, while a soldier hanging out of its cab fires wildly at them and the whole bizarre hybrid creature – the big sixteen-wheeler struggling to twist free like some great fish beset by parasites – hurtles along the highway at 50 miles an hour.

After witnessing this last scene on the highway just south of San Marc, I spoke to that city’s furious Army captain, one of the 7,000 or so soldiers and police who suddenly found themselves, after Duvalier’s ruthless Tontons Macoutes militia was disbanded, with an unruly country of more than five million to manage. How to control a seething land that had so long been ruled by terror, when the terror is abruptly removed? “It is disorder!” he shouted at me. “Now they have become accustomed to shots being fired over their heads. Next time we will shoot them down like dogs.”

In full view of the huge white mass of the National Palace (built during the Occupation years of 1915 to 1934, when the United States Marines ran Haiti, as they did the Dominican Republic next door, Nicaragua, and other countries in the region) is scrawled a reminder of the fall of the first interim government, in March  “Down With the Duvalierists!” Prominent criminals of the old regime had been helped to flee the country, one allegedly disguised as a nun, or secreted in a crate of mangoes, another turning up on an island off the coast of Brazil. Near the mustard-colored, turreted Dessalines Barracks behind the Palace is a remnant of the major crisis in June – “Down With Delatour!” –when marchers demanded the dismissal of two powerful ministers, and Gen. Namphy responded by warning that Haiti was “on the brink of anarchy,” then announced his government’s “electoral calendar.”

Driving around the Champs de Mars park, with its statue of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (the country’s founder and first emperor, assassinated in 1806), I park near the Bois de Chene, one of the largest of the ravines that, until recently were gradually eroding the mornes on which the city of Port-au-Prince is partly built, each year consuming a few more of the buildings clinging to their lips. In 1982, the pillar of Haiti’s vast and varied “development community,” the United States’ Agency for International Development, housed in its pale orange palace on Avenue Harry Truman, funded a project to shore up the Bois de Chen with concrete. Today twenty or so young men are cleaning out the mud that yesterday’s afternoon rain left, working in traditional Haitian “coumbite” – or cooperative – style, standing elbow to elbow, each man carrying his shovelful a few inches before he dumps it down in front of the man beside him, in this way slowly passing the mud down the line until it reaches the wall of the ravine, where it is hauled up in buckets. The Ministry of Public Works is paying $4 a day to keep the rainwater flowing and a few more Haitians working. (Estimates of unemployment vary – in Haiti, all statistics vary – but start around 50 percent.)

I shout down questions, and receive in return a helping of the current slogans, a whiff of the rhetorical atmosphere breathed by the group of idle young men clogging the streets. The government? “Duvalier is gone, but the Duvalierists are still here!” The candidates? “They think only of power, never of the country!” “We want a president who is popular, and revolutionary!” “But not a communist slave system,” a young man in a Tufts University T-shirt quickly adds, noting that all the talk of “uprooting” Duvalier is misleading. “The Duvalierist system was not uprooted,” he says. “Only the top of its head was cut off.”

I drive down to the port to pay my respects to the statue of Columbus, who in 1492 discovered this island of Hispaniola. Or rather, to pay my respects to the pedestal, the statue itself having been slung into the sea last April by unknown parties who left in its place a simple message: “Pas de blancs en Haiti!” (“No whites – or foreigners – in Haiti!”) Haiti’s first constitution, promulgated in 1804, had declared that “no white man will set foot on Haitian soil as owner or master,” a provision that was reaffirmed in each successive document until the Marines arrived.

In truth, however, the country had been in thrall to foreign creditors and merchants for much of its history, beginning with the enormous reparations it agreed to pay its former colonial master, France, in exchange for belated recognition in 1825. As Franck Etienne, a well-known playwright, painter, and founder of ZANTRAY, an organization to protect Haitian culture, told me, Haiti was always the ‘valet’ of foreign imperialism: of France in the nineteenth century, the United States in the twentieth. Jean-Claude’s was a deeply pro-American regime; the Americans were forced to sweep Jean-Claude out to short-circuit a growing popular movement – which they feared could evolve into a revolutionary movement – and thereby protect the system and the government.

Continuing along the waterfront, I swing by the great slum of La Saline, a vast catacomb of rusted sheet metal, partly obscured now by billowing smoke from the charcoal-fed cooking fires. Near one entrance to the “bidonville” – “tin can city” – where the paved road ends and the dirt track and open sewers begin, are carefully printed a few simple words: “Nothing Has Changed.”

I drive up Avenue Dessalines and then begin to mount Avenue John Brown. Up, up, up, higher and higher above the boiling city, where the air grows cooler and the skins grow lighter, the ranks of the great houses begin. Here cluster the Beautiful People of Haiti, charming, attractive, articulate, graceful, rich, and predominantly (but not at all exclusively) light-skinned. The cafe au lait complexions, the startling green or blue eyes, are legacies of the sexual preferences of the French colonial masters, who made of Haiti the richest colony in the world before the slaves they ruled revolted, throwing the last of them out in 1804 after a fantastically brutal revolutionary war that laid waste the island and left a large proportion of its people dead.

“In Haiti, with all our poverty and illiteracy and misery, we have had one striking success: we have been able to create a true elite,” Georges Salomon told me, while delicately sipping his lemonade. Salomon, a longtime diplomat, now retired, served as Foreign Minister, Minister of Religion, and ambassador to Washington under Duvalier. “Our elite was already well-established during the 19th Century” – when Salomon’s great-grandfather took his turn as president – “while many African countries have not succeeded in creating a true elite to this day – which is why so many Haitian technicians and doctors and nurses went to work in African countries after their independence during the 1960s. The talent and charm of this elite, the culture we have produced, is something we should be proud of.” And can this elite manage a fair election? Pleasant laughter. “Will elections here suddenly be organized in a democratic, perfect and fair way? No, no, that grace of heaven will not fall on poor Haiti this year.”


Even before Jean-Jacques Dessalines ripped the white middle from the French tricolor and declared Haiti an independent, black nation, the beginnings of today’s elite were well in place. Many of the Mulatto sons the French planters had got on their slaves had been educated in France; a good number already owned plantations of their own. Shortly after the revolution, the land was redistributed to the former slaves, and Haiti became a nation of smallholders, as it remains today. The Mulattos, prevented from inheriting their fathers’ rich plantations, and joined by a new black elite drawn from the officers who had commanded the revolutionary army, could not support themselves with rent from peasants working large estates, as did the landowning rich in many Latin and Central American countries. Instead, they taxed the coffee and sugarcane and sissal the peasants produced on their own small plots.

“The only way of getting an income out of agriculture without being a peasant was by taxing the good produced or consumed in rural areas and this source could be tapped only by the government,” writes Mats Lundahl in his study of Haiti’s economy, “Peasants and Poverty.” “Accordingly, the former landowning classes went into politics instead … The Administration was turned into a generator of legal and illegal incomes accruing to the followers of the politicians who happened to be in command at the moment, and the supremacy of this group was always contested by others fighting for their turn.”

I had watched Lesly Manigat, looking like a huge, handsome, tribal chieftain, writing slowly on a green blackboard at the headquarters of his Assembly of National Progressive Democrats (RDNP) party headquarters in Delmas, as he carefully divided Haiti into a “two-world system.” Manigat, a former professor of international relations in Paris and Venezuela, was lecturing in Creole to a hundred or so of his earnest young party cadres who, dressed in their Sunday best, had traveled by bus from all parts of Haiti to receive a few square meals of rice and beans and the political wisdom of the party’s leader. His massive black face slick with sweat, gesturing with his huge hands, Manigat ticked off the attributes of the two worlds of Haiti: the rural, peasant world, which contains the great part of Haiti’s people, depends on agriculture, and remains wholly black, illiterate, voodoo-practicing, Creole-speaking, closed to the outside world, and administered, since before independence, by military sheriffs. The urban world, including. Salmon’s elite, which depends on commerce, and is disproportionately light-skinned, literate, Catholic, French-speaking, open to the outside world, and governed by a civil system.

Manigat was describing the fundamental political reality of Haiti to his young followers: its division into elite and peasant classes, European and African cultures. Merchants form the link between the two, buying coffee and other staples from the peasants and selling them for export, after paying taxes to the government. Haiti’s transformation into a “kleptocracy” began early on; the steady subdivision of landholdings that came with population growth, and the erosion, together with the elite’s disinterest in the accelerating impoverishment of the countryside, did the rest.

The charm of the Haitian elite is on full display on any Saturday night in the chic suburb of Petionville. The bars and restaurants are filled with attractive, well-dressed, mostly light-skinned people, chattering in French and English. Many are doctors and lawyers and engineers and government bureaucrats, or students on vacation from their university studies in France, or the States, or Canada. Down below, amateur artists depict the overthrown dictator as a pig, or a dog with horns; here a beautiful, cultivated woman, a middle-aged teacher of literature, remarks with a laugh that Jean-Claude and Michelle were “nouveaux riches, of the very worst sort.” ChiChi Chinet, a pretty young woman who works as a clothing designer in one of Petionville’s smart shops, throws up her hands and says, “the whole system is rotten; it needs to be cleaned out. The only candidates who have any value are some of those returning from abroad. But everyone up here is scared now; no one knows what will happen.” Marie Chislaine, the manager of La Coraille restaurant, agreed Petionville residents are frightened. “When there is the smallest rumor of some demonstration in town, the grilles on the shops slam down and the mothers hop in their cars and rush down to pick up their kids from school.” An elderly Mulatto woman who returned to Haiti three years ago after living in New York for two decades told me in disgust that “what this country needs – if you’ll pardon the cliche – is a good dictator. I know how that sounds to you and I hasten to emphasize the adjective: a good dictator. Look at what Trujillo accomplished next door in the Dominican Republic. I know, I know, he killed many people. Of course. But at least he built a country, for God’s sake! The Duvaliers killed as many, and look at what they have left us. We need a dictator who will actually build something.”

As she speaks I picture the harsh concrete world of the National Cemetery down below, where skeletal beggars languish in the shadows of the brightly-colored tombs, and a ruined heap of white bricks is all that remains of the grave of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the mumbling, owlish, bespectacled middle-class doctor and amateur ethnologist who, in 1957 – with the good wishes and electoral help of the army officers presiding over that “transition to democracy” – was elected president, and proceeded to engineer a black nationalist “political revolution,” complete with Tontons Macoutes shock troops, that left perhaps 40,000 dead and hundreds of thousands exiled before he bequeathed the country to his son, then a very fat 19-year-old, in 1971. Mobs had swarmed over the tomb like ants but apparently found it empty – the son having taken his father with him – unlike those of some of Papa Doc’s unfortunate cronies near by, whose corpses were disinterred and burned.

But the graffiti scrawled near the old man’s tomb mostly referred to Jean-Claude and his wife, especially to their alleged homosexual preferences, and to their reputed fondness for cocaine. During the fifteen years in power, after the fourteen houses and the fleet of racing cars and motorcycles, the $5 million wedding and the absurdly opulent parties and costume balls – “It was like Nero had been reborn and come to Haiti,” a Haitian journalist said – the ruling couple had finally become utterly separate, decadent, no longer even Haitian. I had met a black Dominican prostitute – who recounted to me, wide-eyed, how Michelle Bennett, the decadent Mulatto, would prowl the streets in her limousine and snap up young girls, bringing them back to the palace, having her way with them, and then – the girl drew a finger sharply across her throat – discarded them like soiled clothes.

The elder Duvalier, the black nationalist who had written studies of Haitian voodoo and drawn much of his early support from the countryside, had murdered many more Haitians than his son. He created the Tonton Macoutes as a revolutionary mass movement – “the strong rigid spine supporting the Haitian nation,” as Clovis Desinor, the elder Duvalier’s Finance Minister and right-hand man, and now supposedly a clandestine presidential candidate, described them to me – and he used them to frustrate a series of attempts to overthrow him, to smash the power of the army that had helped him gain power, to kill or exile many of the elite, and to expel or murder the foreign-born clergy. Papa Doc had even defied the Americans and kicked the A. I. D. people out of the country.

Jean-Claude, dreaming of an “economic revolution,” had opened the country up to foreign businesses attracted by Haiti’s cheap labor; he had become dependent on American aid (“an A.I.D. junkie,” as Jean-Jacques Honorat, an opposition leader, called him), and thereby vulnerable to American pressure to reduce human rights violations; he had let the clergy, which his nationalist father had ruthlessly “Haitian-ized,” raise its voice; had urged many of the elite technocrats, exiled by his father, to return; and, with the help of his Mulatto wife, had spent his stolen money in spectacular style while the countryside continued its long decline and the economy collapsed, shrinking almost ten percent during his last five years in power.


I stop short of Petionville, turn down Rue Christian, and park in front of a large two-story house, fronted by an incongruous wooden staircase. Inside, in a pleasant room with Haitian paintings displayed on pale orange walls, Mrs. TK Delatour serves me Haitian coffee and makes delicate small talk. The family was often abroad during the Duvalier years, in Latin America and Africa, while her husband, an engineer, who designed and built the house, worked on his projects. One son has taken after his father to become an architect, another is a filmmaker, still another a political officer in the Haitian embassy in Washington; and finally, there is Lesly, the 38-year-old former World Bank economist and now one of Haiti’s most powerful officials – certainly one of the most unpopular – the Minister of Finance.

Delatour makes his entrance, a tall slender man, light-skinned, with close-cropped hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a moustache, dressed in matching white shirt and pants. He looks and acts like a graduate student – which he was, first at Johns Hopkins, later at the University of Chicago – and his delight in aggressive argument, his impatience with political rhetoric that denies what in his view are simple economic facts, helped transform him into a national demon soon after his appointment last April. “Look,” he tells me, when I mention the discontent that seems to well up everywhere in the streets, “the fact that Duvalier left has not overnight increased the overall wealth of this country … If development was just a matter of spending money you don’t have, there would be no poor countries.”


Almost alone in a stagnant interim administration that has mostly been preoccupied with keeping itself in power and the country from falling apart, Delatour has inarguably done something to alter Haiti’s catastrophic economic situation. He has cut government spending, closing, amid enormous protest, two large state enterprises – a cooking oil factory and a sugar mill – that helped serve as conduits from the public treasury to private pockets. (Originally built by an Italian firm for Idi Amin Dada, the Darbonne sugar mill was on the high seas on its way to Uganda when Amin was overthrown. Duvalier, attracted by a juicy personal “commission,” snapped it up for Haiti, although the mill’s inappropriate design meant that it was fated to be a constant drain on the Treasury.)

Delatour has reduced many of the tariffs that protected the monopolies comprising Haiti’s peculiar structure of “crony capitalism,” which inflates the price of many staple products, making them more expensive than they are in the United States. He has slashed the taxes on coffee and other commodities. Finally, he has reformed the income tax, boldly declaring his intention to do something unheard of in Haiti: make the well-to-do pay into the government, instead of drawing money out of it. 

Delatour’s policies have delighted not only his former employers at the World Bank, but officials in the United States, and in the other sovereign states and extra-territorial entities that together contribute about a third of the money the government of Haiti will spend this year. But for many Haitians, Delatour, the “Chicago boy” fresh from the World Bank, looms large as the orchestrator of the “American plan” for Haiti, the man who is trying to make Haiti into “the Taiwan of the Caribbean” by “selling the country to the Americans.” (The latter expression evokes an unpleasant snicker in the American embassy and at A.I.D. “Even if he was trying to sell,” one diplomat joked to me. “We aren’t buying.”)

By closing state enterprises, his critics say, Delatour has put Haitians out of work and made the country even more dependent on foreigners. By slashing tariffs, he threatens what domestic industry exists by opening the country to cheaper foreign products. And by failing to stop the huge influx of black market products that has flooded the country since Duvalier left – especially rice, sugar and cigarettes, but also clothing bicycles, even second-hand Mercedes, all shipped over from Florida or smuggled in through the border with the Dominican Republic – he has gone far towards destroying what is left of the Haitian peasant economy, as well as the industry that depends on it, such as the Hasco sugar mill, the country’s second largest employer, which closed its doors on April 10.

“When I hear these people talking about dependency and so on, I say this is bullshit,” he says. “This country’s going to be dependent regardless of who’s in power; the only thing that is in question is whether it will be dependent on the Americans or someone else. I mean, Cuba and Nicaragua are clear examples of this.”

Delatour claims to have decreased the cost of living for all Haitians by destroying the monopolies that the Duvaliers distributed like Christmas gifts to their friends.

“Two groups really hate my guts,” he tells me. “Those on the left for ideological reasons, and those on the right because they have a problem with a guy who doesn’t like monopolies – that is, they don’t like competition. These powerful guys tell me to my face that I’m ‘destroying national industry.’ Let’s be serious. What national industry? Besides, in a country where the state is already so powerful vis a vis civil society, why the hell do you want to give it control of the production of goods and services? I want to make sure that they next guy who is going to be president cannot just pick up the phone, call the state flour mill, and say, ‘Send $10,000 to Captain So-and-So over at the barracks,’ so later the Captain will be more likely to obey his generous president when he asks him to go arrest someone in the night. I don’t want the next president to be able to say, ‘Give the contract for importing flour bags to my wife’s Uncle So-and-So,’ who just happens to charge twice as much per bag as the nearest competitor, which will just happen to make flour even more expensive.”

Delatour says he has eliminated the “fundamental and systematic plundering of public resources,” both by cutting “the massive allocation of funds that went to the National Palace every month” and ferreting out thousands of the “zombie checks” that have traditionally been issued in the name of public employees who don’t exist, to be claimed by others who may be receiving several checks for one job, or who never come to work at all.

His new budget shifts public money to education and health care. “The education budget increased by something like 60 of 65 percent – in one year! Yet now we are spending something like $5 a year per capita on education, which is still dreadfully inadequate in a country where you have 75 percent illiteracy. Which is the significant factor: that we have increased spending in one year from $3 to $5? Or that it’s only $5?”

“As far as the guy in the street is concerned,” he concludes, “what Delatour is doing doesn’t affect him – except insofar as the cost of the basic things he needs is going down.”


“He’s lying, you know. He’s just lying. You cannot believe this devil who sells our country.” Father Aristede leans forward until his narrow face, hypnotic eyes unblinking behind their gold-rimmed spectacles, looms perhaps five inches from my own, close enough for me to feel his breath. I have descended from Petionville road – a few miles that transport one as far on the scale of wealth and poverty as it is possible to travel – and come to the noisy, echoing hallway of the Church of St. Jean Bosco, a few years away from the great slum of La Saline. When this tiny, slender man dressed in neat khaki, perhaps the best-known priest in Haiti, preaches about “la misere,” as he often does, it is no abstraction. Neither, for him, are its causes, beginning with the “great devil” Duvalier, and the men to whom he left power, including Gen. Namphy, Col. Regala, and Lesly Delatour.

“What you see over there,” he says, gesturing toward the slum, “is only one part of a structure of corruption. You must understand the American Plan, the plan of Delatour and all the rich. First, they want to destroy our agriculture: to kill our pigs, which they’ve already done; to kill our chickens; to destroy our rice and all of the crops the country produces to eat. Why? So the people will come here from the land, so they will work in those factories for almost nothing.”

Out near the airport two large industrial parks – row upon row of grey aircraft hangar-like buildings, enclosed by chain linked fences – stand as the crowning glory of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s “decade of development,” the years in which the dictator created an industrial sector in Haiti which employed, on the eve of his departure, 40,000 workers. At Pine Brook Co., a division of Barbizon, I watched Haitian women adroitly sewing black lace trim on bright red silk. The material had been flown in that morning – “silk, thread, labels, elastic, hangars, everything,” George Martinez, the Filipino manager, himself imported, told me – and would shortly be flown out again in the form of sexy “teddies,” destined to enhance the charms of daring women in New York or Chicago. Along the walls of the huge open building, with its rows of women bent over their sewing machines, stood clothing racks festooned with white slips and black bras and unidentified frilly things in peach. Haiti is one of the world’s leading producers of bras and other ladies’ underwear, but no local materials are used, and to purchase these products Haitian women will have to search them out on their shopping trips to New York or Miami. Haiti is the world’s largest producer of baseballs, but, apart from the occasional game among U.S. embassy workers of Americans from “the development community,” no baseball is played there. Haiti exports electronic gadgets of every description, but contributes to their manufacture nothing more than busy, and rock-bottom cheap, Haitian hands.

“Do you know there is a factory out there with 800 workers,” Aristede says, “and every worker must assemble 1343 electronic pieces to earn his $3 a day, and every piece will be sold for $12. You can imagine how good this is for America. But what is the difference between the $3 they pay the Haitian and the $45 or $50 they would pay an American in the U.S.? I’ll tell you.” Aristede pushes his face very close to mine. “The difference is our blood!”

But they are jobs, aren’t they, jobs in a country where most people don’t work? Three dollars a day works out to almost double Haiti’s per capita income of $350. When I asked him about the striking workers, the Finance Minister had snapped, “Look at the country’s income profile: those guys are in the top 25 percent. When everyone here has a job paying $3 a day, then I’ll worry about raising it.” 

“Yes, yes, they are jobs,” Father Aristede says angrily. “And after February 7, we lost 12,000 of them. Where did they go? The owners became frightened of unions. Their pockets were full enough, so they just left. Don’t you see that as long as we depend on these jobs, we aren’t independent? I am Haitian, and for me the first step in solving our problems is that we have an independent country.”


Frank Etienne had made a similar point. “When the economic sector is controlled by foreigners, we no longer have an independent government,” he said. “If Washington doesn’t like the look on our faces, a pull on the string and the government falls. Delatour is just a pawn in the American plan to make of Haiti a source of cheap labor for American enterprise. Economically, it won’t work, because with these industries they will never truly succeed in developing the country. But from the cultural point of view it will be absolutely fatal.”

For Aristede and Etienne, as well as for the economist Jean-Jacques Honorat and other opposition leaders, the kind of development envisaged in the World Bank reports and the A.I.D studies, the development being pursued by Delatour and endorsed by many of the presidential candidates (particularly by Marc Bazin, another former World Bank official for whom Delatour worked during Bazin’s brief tour as Minister of Finance under Duvalier in 1982), is nothing more than a sanitized version of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s American-aided “decade of development.” 

“All the IMF and World Bank reports assume Haiti has no other resource but its people: cheap labor. They want to break the back of the peasant economy,” Honorat told me, “to create a plentiful labor pool in the cities. But Haiti is an agricultural nation: we must create jobs where people are, not move them to cities. Under Duvalier there was no real investment in agriculture. Indeed, the peasants themselves don’t invest in their land, not only because they are poor but because they don’t officially own it. It begins with a political system in the city, and the oral system in the countryside. The peasant is fundamentally insecure: Anybody with friends in the government can seize the peasant’s land at any time.”

I remember a peasant I met near the town of Verrettes in the Artibonite Valley, Marcel, bare chested, was lolling on a cane chair in front of his mud shack, gazing at ten or twelve straw-hatted peasants who, bent at the waist, scythes swinging rhythmically, were busily harvesting a beautiful field of rice. It was Marcel’s rice, planted on land rented to him by the Duvalierist regime, who had seized it from these peasants in a land reform in 1975. After Duvalier’s fall, they had come, with their machetes, to take it back. Marcel readily provided me with a history of the successive seizures of the land, back to President Estime’s time, during the late 1940’s. But now, he said, maybe it didn’t matter; the American contraband rice flooding the country from Miami meant he would lose money on his crop anyway.

Max Paul, the director of the National Bureau of Ethnology, follows Franck Etienne and other Haitian artists and intellectuals in seeing Delatour’s economic policies as a cultural threat. “It comes down to a question of what kind of development we want for Haiti,” Paul told me. “Do we want everyone living in the cities with Mercedes and television sets? Is that the only way to develop the country? Look at what’s become of Puerto Rico: is this the future we want for Haiti?”

PARAGRAPH TK ON VOODOO WARS IN COUNTRYSIDE

Aristede does not believe there will be elections in November. He waits for a “collective uprooting, a second February 7. Right now, Duvalierism, like a tight cord, is wrapped around the people’s throat, strangling them. They are struggling to breath in democracy, like oxygen, but those in power won’t let them. The people are still the primary actor. The democratic groups, the mass organizations, want nothing to do with elections. The government may be pregnant with these elections, but you cannot expect such a government to produce a normal baby.”

Aristede had attended the first “National Democratic Congress,” a large convention of mass organizations in February, and a rival convention of more radical groups in March. He had done so, he told me, to lend his support to “a democratic process that is being written completely within the framework of a struggle.” To see Aristede preach on a Sunday to a packed mass, a white-robed figure, arms outstretched Christ-like, hectoring a congregation full of rapt, adoring faces, is to see him further this process more directly. “All those who are trying to do something for the poor are doing what Jesus did,” he had told me, and I remembered these words as I heard him preach about Moses, a powerless man until he received God’s power and struck down the evil-doers in power who oppressed his people. He spoke of repression and misery, and the short-sightedness of the rich; and he spoke of guns. The climax of his sermon was a stirring litany:

Vive la guerre! So that we will all have bread.

Vive la guerre! So that we will all have houses.

Vive la guerre! So that we will all have land.

Among the audience were the poorest of the poor, some of them looking in from outside, pressing their faces against the concrete grillwork or craning their heads over the bodies packed into the doorways. But most of Aristede’s audience hunched forward in the pews looked a bit better off, students, schoolchildren, dressed in their best clothes, some of them holding little cassette recorders in front of them so they could listen to the words of Pere Aristede later on, and play them for their friends.


Outside the little schoolroom where Aristede and I talked, Michel Legros, Jacques Champagne and other founders of the Haitian League for the Implantation of Democracy (LHID), one of the smaller and more militant mass organizations formed shortly after Duvalier’s overthrow, are sitting on the little wall before the dusty school courtyard, where students play soccer with a decrepit ball. Depending on whom you ask, LHID has anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred members, young people mostly in their twenties and early thirties, who meet in the little room donated to them by Michel’s sister, a lawyer, next to her offices on the rue Pavle, and discuss how to “democratize” Haiti, how to build the political and civil structures that are lacking. They help organize neighborhood committees in the slums, showing local leaders how to mobilize their people to act; they recently published a pamphlet, TK, setting out their plan for a “government by the people” in Haiti.

“You have to understand that parties do none of this here; they are really nothing but pretty names chosen by the candidates themselves,” Michel Legros tells me. “Once the candidate is in power, the parties collapse.” I mention the lecture I attended at Manigat’s headquarters. “Yeah right, they tell me Manigat is serving five dinners a day. I’m not surprised you saw people there. Look, we believe the true people’s organizations in the country – the labor unions, the neighborhood committees, the other grassroots organizations – these should be the forces governing the country.” Evans Paul, a leader of the Committee of Democratic Unity (KID), a much larger mass organization that claims to represent 10,000 Haitians, told me much the same thing, that the governmental “program must come from the people. Our goal is to get to the center of the people and discover what they want their country to be.”

Michel Legros is a well-to-do Mulatto whose father, a lawyer who supported an opponent of Duvalier’s in 1957, died in one of the dictator’s prisons. Michel, 30 years old, bearded, studied physics at Stonybrook and now teachers math and physics at what he wryly calls a “bourgeois school”; his older brother, Hubert, was arrested in the United States for trying to buy arms to overthrow Duvalier. Michel returned to Haiti after February 7 and helped organize LHID.

Michel attended the National Democratic Congress, which brought representatives of 284 mass organizations, peasant groups, professional and neighborhood committees and unions from all over Haiti together at the Salesians Fathers conference hall south of the city. Organizers of the four-day event claimed it was the first true Congress to represent all Haitians since 1804. Though impressed with the organization, Michel was distrustful of the intentions of the organizers who late in the congress became “the secretariat.”

“The organizers of the Congress dominated it like the party secretariat does the Soviet Union. Now they are clearly making plans to run for political office, maybe even the highest office. They just want to use the popular movement to further their own ambitions.”

At the Congress, I had watched groups of young people – representatives of peasant organizations and trade unions, of women’s groups and neighborhood committees – engage in ardent debates about the Constitution as the sky darkened above the huge concrete conference hall: should the people be counseled to vote no, or simply to abstain? In the end, the Secretariat had urged a yes vote, and claimed, as one member, Jean-Claude Bajeux, told me, that the approval “of the most liberal constitution we ever had” was a victory for the popular movement and a necessary step in its strategy of “realpolitik.” An American diplomat had remarked to me at the time of the conference that, despite the fact that the popular groups had specifically excluded the official candidates, he hoped the gathering would be the beginning of a “national left party, which would be a very positive step for Haiti.” The diplomat believed that the popular groups, or at least some of them, would recognize that the elections would go forward, that their anti-electoralism was inherently sterile, that the only way they could truly affect politics in Haiti was to “jump into the game with both feet.”

For Michel, however, a vote for the Constitution represented a “vote for Duvalier, a political appropriation of the popular movement.” LHID had urged abstention, as had KID and a number of other groups. The behavior of the opposition leaders had confirmed all of his darkest feelings about politics in Haiti, about the inevitable victory of personal ambition of communal action, about the inability of Haitians to put the slow, careful development of lasting political structures that will give real voice to the people before the immediate need to satisfy individual greed. It also confirmed the Church in his mind as “a basically conservative institution,” despite individual exceptions like Aristede. “If there is an analogy to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, it is the Church; it controls the trade unions and the popular organizations. But day after day the militant youth are beginning to recognize the tendencies of the Church as a basically conservative force, and to take their distance from it.”

He thinks the economic policies of Delatour will severely circumscribe the freedom of the next president, whoever he is. “Even if Haitians elected Rene Theodore” – the head of Haiti’s small Communist Party – “what could he do? The contraband is very popular in the cities – it brings lower prices and so on, and it is pouring money into the ‘hot spots’ like Gonaives – but it is destroying our industry, our agriculture, and any government would find it very difficult to escape this position of dependency.”

Michel told me LHID no longer organized much in La Saline, the slum where I had first seen them work. “The government went in and bought the neighborhood committees: they took not that La Saline was a hot spot, so they put money in, created jobs. One committee, ‘Freedom,’ was almost affiliated with us, but the government gave them money to build houses and sewers, so now the committee distributes jobs. I eat three times a day, how can I ask them to sacrifice that?”



The main street in La Saline has a new concrete open sewer now, bright and shiny against the garbage-pocked dark earth. But you still smell the slum before you see it, and on a hot day the stench – of raw sewage, rotten food, greasy cooking smoke, sweat, and sickly-sweet human decay – overpowers you, overwhelming your senses the way loud, pounding music does in a packed disco. On the brutally hot March day, shortly after Duvalier’s fall, when Michel first took me to visit La Saline, we had been greeted by two skeletal gate-keepers, toothless women in dirty floral dressed who were sweeping the earth with tattered brooms, staggering in and out of the billowing cooking smoke as if enacting a scene from Dante. Like hags from the underworld, they guarded the mouth of a shanty-metropolis that seemed – party, perhaps, because the roofs of the rusted sheet-metal shacks, packed so closely together, seeming almost to collapse on top of one another, rarely reaching higher than six or seven meet – to stretch out endlessly before me, like a vast smoking hive. Overhead, black high-tension wires cut through the dirty air, trailing bits of blackened plastic: kites, the ephemeral playthings of the ephemeral children of La Saline.

On that first visit, these children – naked, big-bellied, with the dull red hair that signals extreme malnutrition – had frightened me; unlike many of their parents, who looked up dully from whatever their business was, noted the “blanc,” then quickly looked away, the children danced around me, forming a shouting, laughing entourage: “Blanc! Blanc! Give me a dime!” Nauseous with the smell and the smoke and the heat, I felt huge and white and vulnerable, and was seized by the sudden, absurd fear that the dancing, laughing, starving children would close in and consume me.

Today, after several visits, the fear is gone: and there is the new sewer and even, in a tiny dirt square deep in the catacombs, a new outhouse built of cinder blocks and roofed in new sheet-metal. Honorat had told me the density of humanity here is 60,000 people per square kilometer, and though there is no way to verify it, it is easy to believe. Skinny beings lurk everywhere in this dark world of grays and blacks and browns: people crouched on their haunches, eating; half-naked women bathing themselves with basins of dirty water; people stretched out just inside the hanging-blanket doors, sleeping on the dirt floors emaciated people struggling at the act of love. Pitiful, skinny chickens peck at the greenish slime in the open sewers.

Your first visit to La Saline will show only degradation. (“How can they live like that!” a Petionville woman had grimaced in disgust when I told her I had gone.) Your second reveals an elemental economic life. In a square where several of the tiny dirt paths meets, men are pounding out tin cans to make oil lamps; women sitting cross-legged on straw mats are packing tiny amounts of detergent soap, enough for one wash, in bits of plastic, which they will resell for a penny; men are carving wood sculpture to sell to merchants at the iron market downtown, where they will be palmed off to the view tourists still visiting Haiti. In a tiny metal hut off one of the paths nearby, a shirtless man, glistening with sweat, feeds bits of scrap metal – tin cans, wire, what looks like parts of a crankshaft – into the mouth of a glowing orange cauldron; next door, another shovels dirt into boxes, making molds for the great cooking pots, destined also for the markets downtown.

Long before you see it, you will know by the blackened earth, and the blackened people, that you are approaching the great charcoal storage yard in the heart of La Saline. “Haiti loses 15,000 hectares of land annually to erosion,” Linda Morse of A.I.D. told me, “and still forty-seven million ‘tree-equivalents’ are consumed every years.” Many of those “tree equivalents” are right here, backed in the huge dirty bags stacked as far as you can see: the wood of Haiti, keeper of the land, is dirtying the air all around me. Women carry these bags, which must weigh at least a hundred pounds, balanced marvelously on their heads (and so many old Haitian women are bent over, their spines deeply curved). Or men, sweating like animals between the traces, pulling ten of them heaped in a cart, grunting loudly for the dime fee. As I survey the black land in front of me, with its geometrical stacks forming a mountainous landscape of passes and valleys, a group of children threads its way through, one of them dressed only in a tattered raincoat of fluorescent orange.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, questions about politics elicit resentment and hopelessness; here they evoke mute incomprehension. Candidates, elections, government – why should this blanc ask them about such things? Near the glowing metal cauldron, Isander Metessier, frustrated, finally cries out in guttural Creole, “Don’t you understand that this is the last place in the country? The end of the earth? These people, they don’t know about anything in the city. They think you’re a devil.”

I ask about “Freedom,” the neighborhood committee responsible for the new sewer and the outhouse whose headquarters is two hundred yards away, and get blank looks in response. One man thinks he’s heard of it, but doesn’t know what it does. (A few days before, near the town of La Chapelle in the Artibonite Valley, I had asked a group of straw-hatted peasants what they thought of Jean-Claude’s overthrow a year earlier, and received similar blank looks. Finally, one tall shirtless man had shyly ventured that, yes, they had heard Jean-Claude had left, but no one knew why…) “It’s hard to organize in La Saline,” Michel had told me, “where people don’t work, where they have no discipline, where they don’t eat…”

But near the tiny tailor shop of Olivier Joseph, the president of “Freedom,” I find a row of new houses made of wood. There had been fires – in La Saline, with the constant cooking and the houses packed together, there are always fires – and hundreds of houses were destroyed. The Committee, encouraged by LHID, wrote letters to the architecture school at the university, and students there agreed to provide technical help. They asked for money from various sources, and received some, including $5000 from the American Embassy, and $30,000 from Lesly Delatour’s Ministry of Finanace. Finally, in July the Committee staged a concert, to which the well-known singer Farah Juste donated her talents, and $11,000 was raised. And so the houses, 240 of them, were built.

Michel had spoken bitterly of how the government “bought” the Committee, and some of the money did come from there; but Joseph and his colleagues had initiated it all. The program to fix the main street, and build the new sewer, La Saline’s first, was funded by an agency affiliated with the United Nations. It would employ about twenty people, hardly enough, in itself, to placate the “hot spot” of La Saline.

But Joseph, a big, stocky man, very black, wearing a constant, grim smile, did not talk much about revolution, or about politics at all. The Committee he heads was founded in 1984, and named after the local football team – “So we could cheer ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ without being punished,” he says. Yes, things in La Saline had improved a bit, but only because they had organized to help themselves. He grinned cynically when I asked if the Committee would agree to the candidates. “I don’t see why. It’s just a bluff. What do they have to offer to us anyway?” He said nothing about revolution, or about taking to the streets. He had enough of politicians and organizers, and of journalists as well. He offered only to show me the new houses, the faint scent of whose freshly-cut wood was just discernable behind the other smells of La Saline. 


High above Petionville, at a hotel called Ibolele – named for the voodoo loa, or saint, who resembles the crowing cock – I attended a fundraiser for Mac Bazin. After a sumptuous buffet supper, the glittering crowd – the women in gowns and jewels, the men in fine suits – settled back to hear the great man, the leader of the Movement to Found Democracy in Haiti (MIDH), speak.

I had heard rousing rhetoric before, had heard Manigat, for example, declare with great emotion that “the objective of any Haitian government must be to ensure that every Haitian eats at least once a day!” I had heard Hubert de Ronceray, a former minister of social affairs under Duvalier, recount to a dull-eyed crowd gathered in a concrete cock-fighting ring in the slum of Cite Soleil how he had worked hard for them when he was minister, but how the dictator, jealous of the popularity de Ronceray would gain, blocked all his fine projects. I had heard Louis Dejoie II, son of Duvalier’s Mulatto opponent in 1957, describe the Haiti he would build with billions of dollars of American aid.

But Bazin’s speech had none of that. It was an appeal to the elite, pure and simple, an eloquent plea that they join together and build Haiti, before it is too late. A tall, big-shouldered man, with wire-rimmed glasses, speaking in a deep voice, Bazin talked about good government, about sacrifice, about the need for Haitians to master their own fates. He kept his hand in the pocket of his checked suit-jacket, one of a number of mannerisms that I had thought accounted for his nickname of the “Haitian Kennedy.” But I realized now that it was equally his view of the government, his call to Haitians to build a country, a country that did not yet exist, he said – not because Haiti was fated to be poor and miserable and unjust, but because of the failures and cupidity and greed of past leaders.

It was an appealing speech, especially to an American. It is one reason Bazin is regarded as the “American candidate,” and why many in the popular organizations deeply hate him. He was educated in Paris and Washington: a modernizer and a technocrat who spent a long and distinguished career at the World Bank working in development throughout Africa, and who hasn’t lived in Haiti, apart from his brief stint as Finance Minister, for almost twenty years. When I told him that many complained that the military world would “negotiate” the elections, or, as Salomon put it, “the government in place would have its say in who is chosen for power, as it always has,” he seemed deeply offended.

“There are many people here who don’t want the country’s problems solved through elections,” he said. “They are either Macoutes or Communists who hope to take over through a popular uprising.” I remembered a comment Bazin made to me two months after Duvalier’s fall. “The left is very active here,” he warned, and cited as an example the squads of young people who were banding together in a public clean-up campaign organized by the neighborhood committees around the country. When I pointed out that most of the participants I had talked to were young schoolchildren who seemed to know little about politics, he replied: “If they don’t know they’re the left yet, they’ll know it soon.”

According to Bazin, the Church, except for its most radical wing, has finally woken up to what he sees as the dangers on the left. Meanwhile, the more mainstream part of it – the left of Bajeux and Honorat and perhaps even that of Rene Theodore, the leader of the Communist Party, who endorsed the Constitution – seems about to enter official Haitian politics in some way; another part, that of Aristede and Michel Legros and Evans Paul and many others, will continue their work outside of it – or perhaps against it, depending on what direction the country goes.

“I am trying to build support for the electoral process through my candidacy,” Bazin told me. “The simple fact is we need more social justice if we want this country to remain stable. The way to achieve that is through honesty, competence, and dedication to the public good.” When I asked him why he had accepted a job as Duvalier’s Finance Minister, Bazin leaned forward and said passionately, “Because I wanted to show the people of my country another image of the Haitian public servant: a Haitian who, put in the place of public trust, would not cheat and steal, who would do his job competently, who would sincerely try to do something for his country. And in the months I was there I believe I showed them that.” He said Haitians truly, deeply, wanted such leaders, that the vote for the Constitution was a vote for “solid and normal institutions, for democracy against dictatorship, an eloquent demonstration of this country’s willingness to do better in the future than in the past.”

Yet Bazin’s policies are essentially those that have earned his protege, Delatour, such widespread antipathy: In particular, he would continue the “reconversion” of domestic industry begun by Delatour, eliminating the tariff and other protection of the local market – “to de-Duvalierize the economy, dismantle the entire system by which those connected to the government were making money at the expense of the Haitian consumer.” But what about the contraband, the cheap sugar and rice and other products that were destroying the peasants and other local producers?

“Oh no, that’s bad, bad, bad, one of the dangers of a reconversion policy. The contraband becomes so bad there is no real chance of reconversion. I fully support the principle of making the cost of living cheaper for the average consumer. But this takes time; you have to do these things gradually, helping domestic producers adjust. You can’t just do it like a commando raid, which has been Delatour’s mistake. It is not a job for a provisional government.”

Bazin would continue Delatour’s efforts to eliminate corruption, and to make the well-to-do pay taxes. “The two go hand-in-hand,” he told me. “People are never going to pay if they think it just goes into some minister’s bank account.”

“Corruption makes justice impossible; accountability is absolutely the first prerequisite for democracy. Haitians have been undemocratic not because they were necessarily fascist bust because they were dishonest. Under Duvalier the whole dirty business of torture, repression, killing was built up to keep them in power – in order to make money. Jean-Claude was in office because he wasn’t accountable. I might not make the country rich, but I will make it just.”

“And remember: it is so easy to exploit poverty, to exploit injustice. In ten years time, this country could be Nicaragua – if we don’t stop the deterioration of the political structure, if we don’t somehow put in place a government that respects the majority, that provides some semblance of social justice, that offers education and jobs. If we don’t somehow provide that sort of government, the Left will have a free ride.” And, he added, as if to confirm Michel Legros’s disgust, the Church had realized this, had realized the dangers on the Left.

“The demand for change here is real. Either the responsable elite understands that they must take action to reduce 182 years of injustice, or the mass organizations, or something they like even less, will take over.”

Powerful words, powerfully expressed. The details are laboriously set out in MIDH’s “Program of Action for the Future,” an impressive 55-page document printed in the party’s blue and white colors: Encouragement of agro-business based on exports in the countryside; a liberal industrial policy; heavy investment in education and health: “Because of Haiti’s scarce natural resources we must invest in people,” he says. “I see a crash program of $100 million to create jobs in health, education and housing. For example, 3,000 jobs to build 3,000 classrooms.”

MIDH has just had its party congress, which brought 2,000 delegates and interested parties to Port-au-Prince, where they selected the party leader – Bazin – and planned strategy for the rural elections in July. Bazin told me that in many areas several candidates would be running with the party endorsement for the same seat – “because we have no way of knowing who is truly popular. In areas where there is strong competition from the other parties, we will have to make a choice. But where there’s not, we will give money and help to more than one. You have to understand that we’re starting from scratch here.”

Bazin’s appeal is essentially to what he calls the “responsable elite,” to the people of education in the country – “Haitians who live in cities, speak French, and wear shoes,” as an American diplomat put it – who he wants to recognize his qualifications, his honesty, his experience, to see that all of that can make a difference in Haiti. But like the other serious candidates of the center – Manigat, Dejoie, Gregoire Eugene, perhaps de Ronceray – Bazin shoulders are burdened by the great weight of history, and the very basic social facts that come with it. In the countryside, as the leader of the socialist party, Serge Gilles, told me, “People don’t want to hear rhetoric and speeches; they want to talk about their crops, and they want to see real improvement in their lives. Nothing else will satisfy them.”

Yet any president who emerges next November must govern under a Constitution that, in its careful and relentless circumscription of executive power, reads like a negative print of the last thirty years. It re-establishes, to take on important example, the independence of the Army, which had been rendered virtually powerless by Papa Doc with his Tontons Macoutes. The officers will have the power to select their own leader without interference from politicians, and the next in line, as Michel Legros pointed out, is the current, and widely hated, number-two man, Col., now Gen., Williams Regala.

“Even if a Raul Alfonsin was elected here,” Michel said. “There is no way he could clean out the Army, or punish Duvalierist criminals, not with Regala running the Army.” Col. Regala, a handsome man with a shock of gray at the top of his dark hair and a large gold identification bracelet on his wrist, explained to me that the Army was “the guardian of a way of life, the last guardian of the integrity of the nation. When political institutions collapse, the army has a duty to take over.” It doesn’t take much imagination to realize what Honorat means when he says that “regardless of their ideology, any of the candidates will become prisoners of a system, another Duvalier. That is all they can be: a strongman to maintain the concentration of wealth and the division of Haitian society into rich urban dwellers and peasants from nowhere.” Or much knowledge of Haitian history to realize that many of Duvalier’s early repressive moves were intended to destroy the separate power of the Army.


On a wretched road in the Artibonite Valley, not far from the town of La Chapelle, at the foot of the Montagnes Terribles, I asked a group of peasants returning from the fields whether they planned to vote for the new Constitution. They looked at me dumbly, in disbelief. Finally, one slender man, dressed in white athletic shorts, pointed to the almost impassable road, the collapsed concrete bridge, probably built by the Marines and not repaired since. “Vote. Vote? Why should we vote. We don’t even have a road here!”

It was an unusually articulate response from a Haitian peasant, one of the forgotten ones that make up three-quarters of the population. In the cities, men and women argue politics with eloquence and passion, and both sides claim to speak for him, to borrow his unquestioned legitimacy. But during the time of Duvalier, many of these peasants came to the city, and they live there still, in La Saline, Cite Soleil, and the other bidonvilles. I remember a young woman at the de Ronceray rally in Cite Soleil who suddenly stood up and confronted the candidate who promised to do something for her. “When you are president,” Claudette Fleurrime shouted, “you must not just go to the parties in Petionville, like the other presidents do, driving up there in your big car, talking only to rich people. You must think of us. We have nothing: many children with nothing to feed them, no food to send them to, no work to do. Our children are hungry and we have nothing to give them.”

“I liked what he said,” Claudette told me, “but I don’t know what he’ll do.” She is from the country, but there was a drought there and she was starving. She is eighteen, has eight children.

I think of Claudette when I think of Haiti, and of Pere Aristede. And I remember what Michel Legros said: “How do I know how long it will take? In politics nothing is easy. It takes a long time. How long was Lenin at it, making that revolution? That took years…” When I ponder Bazin’s “responsable elite,” how articulate, charming and impressive they are, a picture comes ineluctably to mind. It is of the charcoal, the charcoal of La Saline, ripped from the land, and the glimpse of that child, naked but for an orange raincoat. I had just a glimpse of his face, and his orange hair, before a cloud of smoke obscured it.


© 2017 Mark Danner