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To Haiti, With Love and Squalor View other pieces in "The New York Times"
By Mark Danner August 11, 1991
Tags: Haiti Print

A Life in Haiti
By Herbert Gold
Introduction by Jan Morris
303 pp. Prentice Hall Press.$19.95

Driving south in Haiti one day in the spring of 1986, I passed a great 18-wheeled tractor-trailer speeding north, heard a volley of automatic weapons fire, and, craning my neck to look back, witnessed an absurd and amazing tableau: three tap-taps -- the brightly colored little pickup trucks that are Haitians' main means of transport -- were careering along at the truck's rear, their snouts glued to its bumper, and on their red-painted hoods five skinny and ragged men were crouching, rocking and teetering like contestants in a log-rolling contest as they looted the trailer of its sacks of flour and condensed milk, all the while bobbing and weaving to avoid the trailer's big metal doors flapping and crashing in the wind and the gunfire raining down on them from the truck cab far ahead, where a khaki-uniformed army guard, his face contorted with anger, clung to the cab door with one hand and fired his rifle wildly with the other.

Haiti, as I learned that day, is a land of amazements. As he tells us in "Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti," Herbert Gold was fated to learn the same lesson some three decades before, when he met in Paris "the teasing, laughing, flirting, Haitian bride of a black American friend" who informed him that she had grown up a stone's throw from the National Palace. "Haiti," asked Mr. Gold, already hooked, "has a National Palace?" Indeed, it has had several: the enormous tridomed neoclassical structure that, all gleaming white pillars and porticoes, floats in the swelter of today's Port-au-Prince like a ghostly mirage, and all of its various ghostly predecessors -- including the one that, one boiling August night in 1912, suddenly consumed itself in an enormous fireball, dragging the president and several hundred of his soldiers down to hell along with it.

The successor of that unfortunate gentleman endured barely nine months before expiring in his turn, apparently the victim of poison, and his funeral collapsed into chaos when two generals began shelling the cathedral: they were fighting over the succession. It was not the first time; for Haiti possesses not only a palace but also a vast and teeming history stretching back to its glorious independence from France, in 1804, when a half-million illiterate blacks defeated Napoleon's crack troops in what would be the only successful slave revolt ever recorded. Since then, while its Caribbean neighbors remained wards of colonial powers, a succession of home-grown dictators and tyrants has ruled the land, including one king, two emperors, and nine presidents for life. They gained the palace by insurrection, revolution, coup d'etat, and left it the same way: two were assassinated, one executed, one committed suicide (King Henry: he used a silver bullet) and 20 odd were violently overthrown. All the while, independent Haiti, which under France had been the wealthiest colony in the world, underwent a slow, inexorable economic decline, sinking into the swamp of incessant political turmoil to become the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth.

A young writer named Herbert Gold stumbled onto this unlikely panorama during the early 1950's, when he sailed into Port-au-Prince on a white Panama Lines ship. Broke after finishing his first novel, with a wife and two young daughters to support, he had remembered the laughing, flirting girl in Paris and gone to his hometown library in Cleveland, where he uncovered an available fellowship at the University of Haiti. He planned to lecture on American literature, stay a year and a half, have adventures; in the event, his lectures were canceled after the first one -- he had made the mistake of declining, honestly but impolitically, to place Haiti's premier novelist on a level with Tolstoy, igniting a diplomatic incident -- and he spent not the anticipated 18 months but "a part of every next day and night of my life." He became, that is one of the "fraternity of Haiti fanatics," a diverse lot whose numbers wax and wane according to the political weather, and whose unofficial headquarters was then and remains today the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a great gingerbread palace on a hill that had served early in the century as the summer residence of a short-lived Haitian president (a man who distinguished the office mainly by his manner of leaving it: in pieces, torn limb from limb by his infuriated constituents) and later as a hospital for the United States Marines, when they occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. Visitors find themselves becoming Haiti fanatics for many reasons: they are drawn to the sad beauty of the mountainous, ravaged country; or they are entranced by the creativity, comeliness and extraordinary bearing of its people (who often seem, by their very gait, to express their proud knowledge of Haiti's long-past national glory); or finally they are mesmerized by the unfolding political history itself, which, depicted as the endless struggle for freedom of a beautiful people doomed by despotism and corruption and tyranny, has all the fascination and improbability of grand operatic tragedy. Mr. Gold could not have chosen a better time to join the ranks of Haiti fanatics. In the early 1950's, the country's coffers were relatively full from wartime exports, and the ruler was the "laughing, drinking, womanizing President Paul E. Magloire." A staunch anti-Communist, Magloire was popular in Washington -- Time magazine "depicted him as a Haitian Eisenhower" and put him on its cover -- and though, as Mr. Gold puts it, he "occasionally killed opponents and certainly didn't confuse himself with concepts of free speech or honest government," his rule is remembered by many Haitians with some fondness, for not only did he murder few (particularly when set beside the man who succeeded him), but the relatively prosperous economic times during his first years in power helped sustain a burst of creativity in the arts, especially in painting, that began during the late 1940's and came to be known as the Haitian Renaissance.

Haiti, notes Mr. Gold, "is poor in all natural resources but the energies of imagination," but it took a political movement, begun under the black nationalist president whom General Magloire had overthrown, to set free those energies by healing the wound that from the beginning had cut through Haitian culture, dividing the highly sophisticated, predominantly mulatto elite that spoke French, attended Mass and followed Parisian fashion, from the illiterate peasants who knew only Creole, practiced voodoo and lived their daily lives as their ancestors had done in West Africa four centuries before. Mr. Gold came to know many of the most important figures of the Renaissance, including the poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy and the painters Enguerrand Gourgue and Andre Pierre. Mr. Pierre, a voodoo priest, had begun his career by decorating his own temple outside the capital. He can still be found there, working his canvases and swigging clairin, the harsh Haitian rum.

Even more than the painters and writers, however, it is the sensual discovery of Haiti, the surrender to its colors and rhythms and smells, that dominates the early chapters of "Best Nightmare on Earth." Mr. Gold writes like the novelist he is, roughing in scenes and characters with a few economical strokes: Port-au-Prince from the bay is "a low jumble of thick-walled colonial buildings and corrugated tin sheds nearby, and the smoking slum of La Saline, then the irregular slopes with spots of gardens, cloud-shrouded mountains rising into the distance above the town"; the old neighborhoods climbing the lower slopes are lined with "gingerbread dream houses which seemed to be made of spun wood"; the drums that "rocked and rolled us to sleep [are] as soothing as low thunder, and no more ominous."

After great effort, Mr. Gold persuades a voodoo priest to reveal for him a portrait of the great snake god, Damballa Ouedo, which no unbeliever may see, and is at last rewarded with a glimpse of a "photograph . . . dog-eared, frazzled, and woebegone, of Harold Stassen." He spends his afternoons taking coffee and chatting with a "Circle of Philosophers" headquartered in Kenscoff, a mountain village high above the capital, the Haitian Switzerland, then gets lost in the maze of streets near his house. "I would stop and ask for the street by name. No one knew it. Then I asked where the new white man lived, and was led home immediately by people who had never seen me before."

The evenings are spent drinking and dancing, and not infrequently he and his friends cross paths with fun-loving stalwarts of the regime -- from the General President himself, whom he spots in a nightclub surrounded by bodyguards, with his personal bottle holder stationed behind his chair, to powerful underlings like Col. Marcaisse Prosper, the chief of police who bore a diamond question mark on his tie and who was well known for his effeminate manners, his lavish mansion (worth millions and built on a $350-a-month salary) and his eager brutality.

The sexual commerce between Haitians and white visitors is also a theme of Mr. Gold's book, from the American expatriate fashion photographer who acquired the habit of marrying lovely Haitian girls when they were 11 or so and divorcing them when they grew too old (about 14), to the homosexual pimp with his salon full of pet monkeys and young Haitian boys in tight jeans, to the American ladies Mr. Gold dubs "the minglers" for their habit of circulating evenings in the Oloffson, casting a covetous eye on the attractive Haitian officers who line up at the bar in their dress uniforms like fruit ripe for the picking.

At home, Mr. Gold's houseboy becomes possessed by Ougoun Feraille, the voodoo god of war, and manages to recover only after a visit to his neglected mother and an offering of rum and cake at the local temple. Following a game of tennis, Mr. Gold's partner, a millionaire representative of American companies in Haiti, discovers on the front seat of his Buick a chicken, plucked and painted blue: a serious curse. The man collapses to the ground, his mouth foaming in rage. "You don't believe in black magic," Mr. Gold says to him, once the man has recovered. His friend shrugs. "Of course I don't. But it's bad for business if people know I've been cursed."

To believe isn't the point; the spirits of voodoo, a complicated and beautiful religion long trivialized abroad as malign mischief with pins and little dolls, inhabit the Haitian hills, dominate the Haitian consciousness from infancy. Mr. Gold writes: "The Haitian parent still warns his family against the werewolves that cruise at dusk in automobiles without license plates, leaping out to gobble up the souls of unlucky children. Kids at a birthday party automatically choose the piece of cake farthest away on the plate -- why be turned into a zombie? A woman of the elite makes fun of the baka, the loupgarou, those imps, werewolves, and malevolent spirits of the dead, and the tricky voodoo loa, gods; she was educated in Paris and had an automatic dishwasher in her kitchen; but one evening, this lovely and witty person told me she saw with her own eyes a peasant woman kneeling and praying in a field, carrying a plate in her joined hands. A star shook itself loose and fell into the plate."

Mr. Gold's two small daughters, he discovers one day, have secretly learned to speak Creole (a rich amalgam of various African dialects, French and a sprinkling of English); their servants and their neighborhood friends instinctively address them in "the natural language of children." One day, the mother of one of their favorite little friends comes calling: "'You like our daughter?'

"'Very much.' She was a lovable little girl, her hair done in braids with an assortment of ribbons.

"'Please take her with you when you go. Give her a chance.'

"We explained that this was not possible, we could not separate her from her family, it was inconceivable to us.

"'I love my daughter very much. I am willing to let her go home with you. I give my permission.'

"'Please,' we said. 'It's impossible.'

"'She will learn to clean your house. She is a good girl. If she does her work well, you could also send her to school.'


"Our neighbor gazed at us with grief. . . . Puzzled, just wanting information, she asked: 'You are racists, Monsieur et Madame?'"

Mr. Gold would have much to learn about the exigencies of race in Haiti. Ever present yet rarely discussed before strangers, the racial stratification of the society is at once the poisoned legacy of the French and a creation deeply, uniquely Haitian. An acquaintance of Mr. Gold denounces the American's new-found tennis partner, who happens to be blue-black in color, maintaining that the man owes his wealth and influence solely to his light skin. A young mulatto woman, daughter of a president, remarks during a sailing party that there are no "Negroes" in her family, asserting that she descends "from an infinite series of mulattoes."

Color in Haiti is not only skin; it is also "good hair," the right nose, the various facial characteristics that mark their bearer as a sacatra, a marabou, a grimaud, a sang-mele, or any one of the dozens of other racial categories worked out in colonial days. One constant, though, is the urge of an ambitious black to "put a little milk in his coffee," and an influential black man in particular is in a position to trade his power and position for a lightening of the family bloodline through marriage.

A mulatto -- the word describes a person who is endowed not only with a particular skin color but a certain place in the class hierarchy -- will be raised by black servants, will very likely have his first sexual experience with a black housemaid, will patronize black prostitutes during his early manhood; but it is very bad form at best, and disgusting at worst, for a highly placed mulatto to marry a black (and for a wealthy mulatto woman to do so, unless the groom is powerful indeed - a minister or president - is thought to be particularly offensive).

In a multitude of ways, the politics of race has propelled Haitian history; it certainly was a key to the rise of General Magloire's successor, Dr. Francois Duvalier, a self-professed "country doctor" and amateur ethnographer (specializing in voodoo) who was elected over his aristocratic mulatto businessman opponent in 1957, after almost a year of political chaos. (General Magloire, brought down by a general strike after several farcical attempts to cling to the palace, departed for three decades of exile in New York, having taken care to squirrel away, in the fashion of prudent Haitian rulers, $10 million or so of government funds in his offshore accounts.)

The Duvalier years, though much written about, still have their horrors to reveal, and Mr. Gold tries to do them justice. "Impossible to darken that night," as Graham Greene wrote in "The Comedians." Dr. Duvalier, an unsentimental black nationalist (with the inevitable mulatto wife), seemed benign enough: a doddering, mumbling little fellow, owlish behind his thick black spectacles, who favored black suits and black homburg hats and cryptic pronouncements about the country's true African character that few Haitians could decipher and fewer still comprehend.

Soon after being elected, however, (with the help of powerful army officers, who thought they had found a malleable puppet), Duvalier built up a personal militia called the Tontons Macoute; its foot soldiers were illiterate blacks from the slums -- ruthless, merciless and loyal only to Papa Doc. Clothed in ragged denim, red neckerchiefs (for the war spirit, Ougoun) and the inevitable black glasses, the Macoutes rooted out the doctor's opponents, or suspected opponents, with a thoroughness and brutality unmatched in the country's history. Whole families were massacred, babies burned in their cribs, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons carried off to the torture chambers to be mutilated, starved and shot. Eventually perhaps 40,000 perished and a million or more fled the country; New York, Paris, Montreal filled with Haitians until there were many more Haitian doctors abroad than at home.

In Haiti the Macoutes assumed these vacated places, spreading and expanding until there were Macoute bureaucrats, Macoute university teachers, even Macoute priests. In 1963 the United States briefly suspended relations and then withdrew its aid; embassies, crowded with terrified Haitians seeking asylum, scaled down to skeleton staffs; the economy collapsed, with money enough only to fill a few pockets at the top. Duvalier's "revolution" amounted to a brutal effort to expand the ranks of those who had always plundered the country; the plundering continued, with a few middle-class blacks invited to join the predators. At night the frequent power outages left the city eerie and dark; anyone foolish enough to venture out would, at the least, be shaken down by the prowling Macoutes (who, officially dubbed "national security volunteers," depended on extortion and robbery to earn a living), and at worst disappear forever into the night. Papa Doc, secretive and all-powerful, his fingers on the country's every filament like a spider at the center of his web, rarely left the palace; for many Haitians, the black-garbed little man had come to represent Baron Samedi, the lord of the graveyard.

Mr. Gold returned in 1963 and found that his beloved Haiti had become "a laboratory in the business of manufacturing paranoia." After a "clot of macoutes" roughs him up at one of their inevitable roadblocks, the sinister mayor of the capital tells him he has only Graham Greene, that "enemy of the nation," to blame for the Macoutes' enmity. "Perhaps . . . they don't like . . . writers whose names are colors . . . Greene . . . Gold. . . ." One of his friends has been made to drink the urine of his Macoute torturer and to lick his own blood from the floor ; another has had excrement smeared across his face. This friend, an electrical engineer, notes that Papa Doc "has performed an economic miracle for Haiti. Taught us to live without money, eat without food. .. . Taught us to live without life."

One night the palace is flooded with light: President Kennedy, Duvalier's archenemy, has been murdered in Dallas, and the doctor, who has long been fighting Kennedy by means of a ouanga, or voodoo charm, is claiming credit. (Mr. Gold, in the most painful of several historical slips, says Kennedy died on the anniversary of the great voodoo ceremony that set off Haiti's War of Independence, which in fact came in August -- an error, to Haitian ears, comparable to saying Americans set off their independence fireworks on the Fourth of October.)

Duvalier remained in power for 14 years until, having survived at least eight attempts to overthrow him, he died of a heart attack -- but not before he had left his country a little gift: his enormously fat, famously stupid 19-year-old son Jean-Claude, installed as President for Life. It is Papa Doc's final joke. Mr. Gold returns in 1973 -- like Greene, he had been banned during the doctor's later years for his criticism of the regime -- to find new money flowing into the country, most of it from the United States and other foreign lenders.

Jean-Claude, his father having made the "political revolution," is determined to preside over the economic one. American companies arrive to take advantage of the dirt-cheap Haitian labor force, making Haiti, among other things, the world's largest manufacturer of baseballs (though the game is unknown there).

A new younger generation of technocrats, this time preferring cocaine to champagne, raises its villas in the mountains above Port-au-Prince; Mr. Gold calls them the "Bon Ton Macoutes" (punning on the French expression for "good form" or "chic"). Haitians continue to starve, though now they run less risk of being murdered in the street. Mr. Gold can stroll through his beloved Port-au-Prince at night again, can run in the mountains above Kenscoff, can bring his daughter from a second marriage to see the gingerbread palaces here her stepsisters spent a dream year of their childhood.

Jean-Claude, familiarly known as "Basket head" for his vast and vacuous countenance and benefiting from the fear his father had attached to the family name, managed to hold power for 15 years. In 1985, six years after Jean-Claude married Michele Bennett, a nouveau-riche mulatto whose avarice and haughtiness quickly made her much more widely detested than the dictator himself, rioting began; finally, the United States withdrew its support, and the young President for Life flew off to an opulent exile in the south of France. Five years of intermittent chaos and hope have followed, during which five governments have held power. (It was under the first of these, when the Macoutes had withdrawn into hiding and the army was struggling to gain control, that I saw my highway robbery; the Macoutes soon returned.)

Mr. Gold, visiting in 1988 and 1990, writes about two of these "ephemeral presidents" (as the Haitians have learned to call their more fleeting heads of state): a plump political science professor brought to power by the army in a largely boycotted, fraud-ridden election -- and unceremoniously overthrown four months later -- and a clever American-trained general who had grown wealthy managing Jean-Claude's finances. He witnesses a man being burned as a werewolf, talks with a congenial big-bellied voodoo priest and former Macoute who is a firm believer in family planning and is handing that lesson down to his 54 sons (all of them were planned).

But in these later chapters the book begins to turn a bit sad. Mr. Gold dutifully describes what he sees, the blatantly faked election -- he, the white writer, is invited to vote, as often as he likes -- and the absurd celebrations staged to greet the clever general on his return from his one foreign venture, a trip to Taiwan to beg for foreign aid. But Mr. Gold's mind is increasingly in the past. "The ghosts of old friends haunted the Oloffson," he says. Some have left; most are dead. Haiti has long since frightened away even the most intrepid tourists. Mr. Gold has begun to look less at the present than at the Haiti he knew 30 odd years before. "I bring my children to Haiti," he writes, "because I need their help in the enterprise of remembering."

It is right that the book jacket features two pictures of the author, one of the handsome young man and budding novelist who arrived in Port-au-Prince during the early 1950's, and another of the "American graybeard" and well-known writer who looked sadly at the Haiti of the late 80's; for his memoir finally becomes an attempt to recover -- 30 years after he first sailed into Port-au-Prince -- what he fears has become a lost Haiti and, with it, his own lost youth .

He probably shouldn't worry: since "Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti" was completed, yet another president has entered the palace, this time by means of a real election. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a fascinating and extraordinary young priest, a populist and proponent of liberation theology who, whatever his failings, commands undeniable support, at least among the desperately poor people who still account for 9 Haitians in 10. He has accomplished no revolution. Haitians still starve, children with the swollen bellies and the pale orange hair of severe malnutrition still beg on the streets; but at least one can now venture out at night without fear of assault or arrest. And the annual Mardi Gras Mr. Gold so prizes has recovered its joy. No one who knows Haiti would deny that things might well get worse before they get better; but until they do, that this President even reached the palace must be taken as a slender sign of hope. Looking on the Haiti of today, one is tempted to remind Mr. Gold of his own words, describing the darkest days of Papa Doc: "Haiti's jokes, songs and stories, paintings, and laughter could not be extinguished, I believed; they were also a part of my metabolism, and for them to disappear would amount, for me, to a kind of suicide. I had fallen asleep too often to the steadiness of drums resounding over the hills. I loved Haiti as one could also love a woman -- despite the pains she inflicted. That's the truth. I have no excuses." He need have none now; even the American graybeard, had he been present to watch the unlikely young priest stepping through the palace's white portico , would have had no trouble seeing his Haiti. If nothing else, this improbable country still fits the description first supplied by Mr. Gold's oldest Haitian friend, the tall imperious black man in the white linen suit who first greeted the young traveler on the Panama Lines vessel : he called it "the land of unlimited impossibility."


Despite its vivid descriptions of locale and the customs of the Haitian people, "Best Nightmare on Earth" is more an autobiography, a story of personal discovery, than a travel book, Herbert Gold said in a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco. "Haiti is one of the greatest adventures a traveler can have. People who go there for a few days and think of it as a third-world horror story are missing a great deal."

Although the book is filled with extraordinary episodes, it is devoid of "gee-whiz" descriptions of even the most unbelievable, hair-raising happenings. Mr. Gold said the first voodoo ceremony he attended, which involved an animal sacrifice, was less shocking than he anticipated because of the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the ritual.

Mr. Gold, who is 67, also began discovering his own Jewish heritage there. "I have a rather ambiguous history as a Jew," he said. "I was raised in a totally non-Jewish household, but I discovered a great deal of affiliation between Israel and Haiti - because Haiti is isolated - a black nation in a white world, a Caribbean nation in a North and South American hemisphere -- and because, surprisingly, so many Haitians, including some of the elite, are descended from Jews, mostly adventurous traders and emigrants turned away from Ellis Island."

Will he return to Haiti? "I'll always go back. The place is so vividly, uniquely alive and hopeful. I go elsewhere, and I find myself lonely for Haiti."


© 2022 Mark Danner