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The Struggle For a Democratic Haiti View other pieces in "The New York Times Magazine"
By Mark Danner June 24, 1987
Tags: Haiti Print
THREE HOURS OUT OF NEW York, I start awake to find myself floating over a grotesque landscape - the sickly, reddish-brown hills of Haiti, wave upon wave of blood-dark corrugations, thickly marbled with white sand. Haitian peasants have long since uprooted the once-dense covering of trees and underbrush, selling the wood for charcoal and leaving bare white canyons through which, month after month, year after year, the rainwater flows, carrying tons of precious topsoil to the bottom of the Caribbean.

While in the cities of ''Haiti liberee'' a new political universe suffers a painful and confusing birth, the land, farmed to exhaustion, eroding, continues its slow and spectacular death. During the last three decades - while the nation was ruled first by Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude - the land began to disgorge its dependents, sending them streaming to the slums of the cities.

Faced with the 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. One committed suicide; one was executed; two were assassinated; seven died in office, and 18 were violently overthrown.

The most recent was Jean-Claude Duvalier, who, in the early hours of Feb. 7, 1986, with his elegant mulatto wife, Michele, boarded a United States Air Force jet and fled to the south of France. There he rejoined an expatriated fortune estimated at $400 million to $600 million -equivalent to about twice Haiti's annual budget -and left behind the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth. In 1985, 90 percent of Haitians subsisted on less than $185, while the wealthiest .5 percent received almost half the national income of about $2 billion a year.

In Haiti today, the world's first independent black nation is enduring another of the periods of disorder, guarded optimism and sporadic violence that so often in its history has bridged the fall of one ruler and the rise of the next. Expatriate Haitians in Miami and New York celebrated the anniversary of Duvalier's fall with parties and parades, but in the capital city of Port-au-Prince - where I was spending the latest of three visits to post-Duvalier Haiti - the day was greeted with a deathly silence broken only by the sirens of armored vehicles patrolling deserted streets.

The head of the interim Government, Gen. Henri Namphy, who had served as Duvalier's army chief of staff, warned last June that the country was on the PAGE 149 The New York Times, June 21, 1987 ''brink of anarchy,'' then promised Haitians ''a fair, good and firm transition to democracy.'' Local elections are promised for next month and presidential elections in November. Scores of Haitians have been noisily campaigning for the chair Jean-Claude hastily vacated.

On every corner, Haitians selling mangoes or cassettes will tell you in disgust that the candidates think only of what they can steal, just like Jean-Claude; that the very idea of elections is a grim joke in Haiti - a country in which a vote can be bought for a swig of rum; so-called political parties flourish for a season before fading away with the candidate's name, and the notion of politics as a means to further the public good is utterly unknown.

Partly as a result of this pervasive discontent, the ''official'' process has acquired a shadow, a shifting, amorphous and divided opposition. The backbone of this ''democratic sector'' is the Catholic Church, itself divided, which rallied the people during the six months of social upheaval leading to Duvalier's flight. Hundreds of popular organizations, claiming to give voice to workers, peasants, neighborhood leaders and others, form what Leslie Manigat, a prominent presidential candidate, calls the ''counterpower in the streets.'' That counterpower surfaced dramatically in March, when Haitians overwhelmingly approved a new Constitution that strips the Government of its power to administer the elections, creating an independent commission for the purpose; and that forbids ''ex-Duvalierists,'' from running for public office.

Everywhere in Haiti, one hears talk of ''development,'' and vague warnings of Communism finding a breeding ground in misery. Today, no guerrilla groups are concealed in the Haitian mountains, and in 10 years Duvalier's overthrow - and the consequent political reshuffling, now in progress - may be seen as the beginning of real improvement in the lives of the people. Or it may be recalled as a 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.

It is common wisdom that avoiding such a future will depend on ''building democracy'' and ameliorating Haiti's poverty, causes for which the United States will donate more than $100 million this year, most of it through the United States Agency for International Development. But the weight of American influence is not without its own risks; it provokes a deep strain of Haitian nationalism, and thereby aids precisely those forces the United States, and its allies among the Haitian elite, most fear.

Indeed, for those looking for test cases, Haiti should be a cautionary tale. Traumatized by a political psychosis that predates its independence, Haiti today presents vivid examples of the obstacles to ''democracy-building'' and the resiliency of history and class.

SOON AFTER DUVALIER'S DEPARTURE, A thick growth of graffiti crept over Port-au-Prince. For the one Haitian in five able to read, a history of ''liberated Haiti'' can be found scrawled in paint on its aqua and salmon walls.

''Dictatorship Uprooted!'' ''Democracy Peace Justice!'' At the intersection of Avenue Haile Selassie with Avenue Martin Luther King, are reminders of the first tumultuous weeks, when delirious crowds methodically stripped bare the great houses of the dictator's cronies, and mobs beheaded, stoned or burned The New York Times, June 21, 1987 alive the more murderous of his denim-clad Tontons Macoutes militia.

''I stood and marveled at the justice of the people,'' Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an influential priest, told me. ''These Macoutes, they were the devil incarnate. The people were doing God's work.'' Meanwhile, the most notorious criminals escaped the country, apparently with the interim Government's connivance, underscoring what Haitians had known all along - that the justice of the mob was the only justice they could expect.

How to control a land long ruled by terror, when the terror is abruptly removed? Driving north of the capital one day, I witnessed a highway robbery: groups of men balanced on the hoods of moving pick-up trucks as they looted the back of a great tractor-trailer of donated flour, while a soldier hanging out of its cab fired his rifle wildly at them, the whole bizarre hybrid creature - the big 16-wheeler struggling to twist free like some great fish beset by parasites - hurtled along at 50 miles per hour.

Afterward, a furious army captain, one of the 7,000 or so soldiers and policemen who suddenly found themselves, after the Tontons Macoutes had been disbanded, with an unruly populace of 5.5 million to manage, shouted at me: ''It is disorder! Next time we will shoot them down like dogs!''

Driving around the Champs de Mars park, I stopped near the Bois de Chene, one of the ravines, deepening with each rainfall, that have been eroding Port-au-Prince.

The walls of this ravine had been shored up with concrete. Twenty or so young men were cleaning out the mud that recent rains had left, working in traditional Haitian ''coumbite'' style: standing elbow to elbow, each man carried his shovelful a few inches before he dumped it in front of the man beside him, in this way slowly passing the mud down the line. The Ministry of Public Works was paying them $3 a day.

I asked about the interim 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!'' a young man added, noting that all the talk of ''uprooting'' Duvalier is misleading. ''The Duvalierist system was not uprooted,'' he said. ''Only the top of its head was cut off.''

I drove down to the port to see the statue of Columbus, who discovered the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Or rather, to see the pedestal, the statue itself having been slung into the sea by unknown parties who left a scrawled message: ''Pas de blancs en Haiti!'' (''No whites'' - or foreigners - ''in Haiti!''). Haiti's first constitution, in 1804, declared that ''no white man will set foot on Haitian soil as owner or master,'' a provision reaffirmed in succeeding documents until the American Marines arrived in 1915, beginning an occupation that would last until 1934.

Later, I passed the slum of La Saline, a vast catacomb of rusted sheet metal, partly obscured now by billows of 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.''

AS ONE MOUNTS the road to the chic suburb of Petionville, higher and higher above the boiling city, the air grows cooler and the ranks of the great houses begin. Here cluster the Beautiful People of Haiti: graceful, rich, and most of them 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 one of the richest colonies in the world before the slaves they ruled revolted, throwing out the last of the French in 1804.

''In Haiti, with all our poverty and misery, we have had one striking success: we have been able to create a true elite,'' Georges Salomon tells me. Salomon served as Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Washington under Duvalier. ''The talent and charm of this elite is something we should be proud of.''

Even before independence, the beginnings of today's elite were well in place. Many of the mulatto sons of French planters and their slave women had been educated in France; some already owned plantations themselves. After the revolution, the land was redistributed to the former slaves, and Haiti became a nation of small landholders.

''The only way of getting an income out of agriculture without being a peasant was by taxing the goods produced . . . and this source could be tapped only by government,'' wrote Mats Lundahl in ''Peasants and Poverty,'' his study of Haiti's economy. ''. . . 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. . . .'' Duvalier was only the latest boss of the kleptocracy. Meanwhile, the country has remained divided between the strongly African peasant world containing three-quarters of the population - illiterate, Creole-speaking, voodoo-practicing, isolated - and a Europeanized, French-speaking, Catholic urban elite.

The charm of the Haitian elite is on full display on Saturday nights in Petionville. The restaurants brim with well-dressed people, chattering in French and English. A beautiful, cultivated woman remarks that Jean-Claude and Michele were ''nouveaux riches, of the very worst sort.'' But now, adds another woman, 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 rush to pick up their kids from school.''

An elderly mulatto woman says that ''what this country needs - if you'll pardon the cliche - is a good dictator. Look at what Trujillo accomplished in the Dominican Republic. I know, I know, he killed many people. Of course. But at least he built a country. The Duvaliers killed as many, and look at what they have left us.''

As she speaks, I picture the harsh concrete world of the National Cemetery down below, where 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 Duvalier. Mobs had swarmed over the tomb but apparently found it empty - the son having taken his father with him.

In 1957, the mumbling, bespectacled doctor was elected president - with the good wishes and presumed electoral help of the army officers presiding over that ''transition to democracy.'' During the next 15 years, Duvalier engineered a black nationalist ''political revolution'' that left perhaps 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands exiled before he bequeathed the country to his son, then a very fat 19-year-old, in 1971.

The elder Duvalier, the black nationalist who had written about Haitian voodoo and drawn much support from the countryside, had created the Tontons Macoutes as a revolutionary mass movement and used them to smash the power of the army, to kill or exile many of the elite, and to expel or murder the foreign-born clergy.

Jean-Claude, dreaming of an ''economic revolution,'' had urged many elite technocrats to return; had opened the country to foreign businesses; had become dependent on American aid and thereby vulnerable to American pressure to reduce human-rights violations. Finally, he allowed the clergy to raise its voice; as the economy collapsed, poor Haitians began to listen.

LESLIE DELATOUR, A 39-year-old economist, formerly with the World Bank, is now one of Haiti's most powerful officials - certainly one of the most unpopular - the Minister of Finance. A slender man with wire-rimmed glasses and a mustache, Delatour looks and acts like a graduate student - which he was, first at Johns Hopkins, later at the University of Chicago - and his radical ''free-market'' economic policies helped transform him into a national demon soon after his appointment in April 1986.

''Look,'' he says, at his two-story home just below Petionville, ''the fact that Duvalier left has not overnight increased the overall wealth of this country.''

Almost alone in a stagnant interim administration, Delatour has acted boldly to confront Haiti's catastrophic economic situation. He has stanched the hemorrhaging of public funds, closing, amid enormous protest, two large state enterprises - a cooking-oil factory and a sugar mill - that had helped serve as conduits from the public treasury to private pockets. He has reduced the tariffs that protected the monopolies making up Haiti's structure of ''crony capitalism'' and slashed export taxes on coffee and other commodities.

Delatour claims to have eliminated ''the fundamental and systematic plundering of public resources,'' by cutting ''the massive allocation of funds that went to the National Palace'' and ferreting out thousands of ''zombie checks'' that have traditionally been issued in the name of nonexistent public employees, to be claimed by others who receive several checks, or who never work at all.

Delatour's policies have delighted his former employers at the World Bank, as well as officials in the United States and the other countries and international organizations that contribute more than a third of the money Haiti's Government will spend this year. But for many Haitians, this ''Chicago boy'' is the orchestrator of the ''American plan'' for Haiti, the man trying to realize Jean-Claude's dream of making Haiti into ''the Taiwan of the Caribbean'' by ''selling the country to the Americans.''

By closing state enterprises, his critics say, Delatour has put Haitians out of work and made the country more dependent on foreigners. By slashing tariffs, he threatens domestic industry. And by failing to stop the huge influx of black-market goods into the country since Duvalier left - especially rice, sugar and cigarettes -he has gone far toward destroying what is left of the Haitian peasant economy.

''When I hear these people talking about dependency and so on, I say all this is bull,'' 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. 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. ''Those on the left hate my guts for ideological reasons, and those on the right because they have a problem with a guy who doesn't like monopolies,'' he says. ''I want to make sure that the next president can't just 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 president when he orders him to go arrest and torture someone in the night.''

''As far as the guy in the street is concerned,'' he concludes, ''what Delatour is doing doesn't affect him -except that the cost of the basic things he needs is going down.''

HE'S LYING, YOU know. You cannot believe this devil who sells our country.'' Father Aristide leans forward until his face looms inches from my own. I have descended to the noisy, echoing hallway of the Church of St. Jean Bosco.

''What you see over there is only one end of a structure of corruption,'' Aristide says, gesturing in the direction of La Saline slum nearby. ''You must understand the 'American Plan,' the plan of Delatour and the rich. First, they want to destroy our agriculture: to destroy our rice and all the crops Haiti produces. Why? So the people will come here from the land to work in those American factories for almost nothing.''

Out near the airport, two large industrial parks -rows of hangarlike buildings surrounded by chain-link fences - stand as the crowning glory of Jean-Claude Duvalier's ''decade of development.'' At Pine Brook Lingerie Company - which has closed since I was there - I watched Haitian women adroitly sewing black lace trim on bright red silk. The material had been flown in that morning and would shortly be flown out again in the form of sexy ''teddies,'' destined to enhance the charms of daring American women. Haiti is one of the world's leading producers of bras and other ladies' underwear, but no local materials are used. Haiti is a leading producer of baseballs, but no Haitians play the game.

''Do you know there is a factory out there with 800 workers,'' Aristide says, ''and every worker must assemble 1,343 electronic pieces to earn his $3 a day, and every piece sells for $12? You can imagine how good this is for America. What is the difference between the $3 they pay the Haitian and the $50 they would pay an American? I'll tell you.'' Aristide pushes his face very close to mine. ''The difference is our blood!''

But they are jobs, aren't they, jobs in a country in which unemployment exceeds 50 percent? ''Yes, yes, they are jobs,'' Aristide says angrily. ''And after Duvalier left, the owners became frightened of unions and we lost 12,000 of them. As long as we depend on such jobs, we aren't independent. For me, the first step in solving our problems is that we have an independent country.''

For Aristide, as for other prominent opposition leaders, the kind of development envisaged in the United States Agency for International Development and World Bank reports, the development pursued by Delatour and endorsed by many of the presidential candidates, is nothing more than a sanitized version of Jean-Claude Duvalier's American-aided ''decade of development.''

To see Aristide preach in Creole on a Sunday to a packed church, a white-robed figure hectoring a congregation full of adoring faces, is to observe him directly further what he calls ''a democratic process that is being written within the framework of struggle.'' He speaks of repression and misery and the short-sightedness of the rich. And he speaks of guns:

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.

Aristide waits for ''a collective uprooting, a second Feb. 7.'' Right now, he says: ''Duvalierism is wrapped around the people's throat. They are struggling to breathe in democracy, like oxygen, but those in power won't let them. The Government may be pregnant with these elections, but you cannot expect such a government to produce a normal baby.''

THE MAIN STREET in La Saline has a concrete open sewer now. But on a hot day, the stench - of raw sewage, greasy cooking smoke, sweat - still overpowers you. On the day I first visited La Saline, I was greeted by two skeletal gatekeepers, toothless women in dirty floral dresses who were sweeping the black earth, staggering in and out of the billowing cooking smoke as if enacting a scene from Dante.

They guarded the mouth of a shanty-metropolis that seemed to stretch out endlessly, like a vast smoking hive. Overhead, black high-tension wires cut through the air trailing bits of blackened plastic: tattered kites, the ragged playthings of the ragged children of La Saline.

On that first visit, these children - naked, big-bellied, with the dark red hair that signals extreme malnutrition - danced around me, surrounding me, finally frightening me with their shouting, laughing, relentless entourage: ''Blanc! Blanc! Give me a dime!''

Your first visit to La Saline shows only degradation. Skinny beings lurk everywhere: people crouching on their haunches, eating; half-naked women bathing themselves with basins of dirty water; emaciated people struggling at the act of love.

Your second visit reveals an elemental economic life. Men pound out tin cans to make oil lamps; women pack tiny bits of detergent, enough for one wash, in bits of plastic, which they resell for a penny; men carve wood sculpture to sell to merchants at the Iron Market downtown. A shirtless man, his chest glistening, feeds bits of scrap metal - tin cans, twisted wire, part of a crankshaft - into the mouth of a glowing cauldron.

Long before you see it, you know by the blackened earth that you are nearing the great charcoal storage yard. ''Haiti loses 15,000 acres of land annually to erosion,'' Linda Morse of the United States Agency for International Development had told me,. ''and still 40 million 'tree-equivalents' are consumed every year.'' Many of those ''tree equivalents'' come to La Saline, carbonized and packed in huge dirty bags stacked as far as you can see.

Women carry the bags, which weigh at least 100 pounds, balanced marvelously on their heads (and thus old Haitian women are stooped, their spines deeply curved). As I survey the mountainous dark landscape of geometrically stacked bags, a group of mostly naked children threads its way through, one tiny girl dressed only in a tattered raincoat of fluorescent orange.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, questions about politics elicit resentment and disinterest; in La Saline, they evoke mute incomprehension. Candidates, elections, government - why should this blanc ask them about such things? Near the glowing metal cauldron, I ask about Freedom, the neighborhood committee responsible for the new sewer, whose headquarters lies 200 yards away. One man thinks he's heard of it. Another, 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 think you're a devil.''

AT A HOTEL IN Petionville, I attend a fund-raiser for Marc Bazin. After a sumptuous buffet supper, the crowd -the women in gowns, the men in fine suits - settle back to hear the great man, the leader of the Movement to Found Democracy in Haiti, speak.

A tall, big-shouldered man with a deep voice, Bazin talks about good government, about sacrifice, about the need for Haitians to master their own fates. He keeps his hand in the pocket of his checked suit-jacket, a mannerism I thought partly accounted for his nickname, the ''Haitian Kennedy.'' But it is due equally to his view of government, his call to Haitians to build a country that does not yet exist, he says - not because Haiti is fated to be poor and miserable, but because of the failures and cupidity of past leaders.

It is an appealing speech, especially to an American. Bazin is regarded as the ''American candidate,'' and many in the popular organizations deeply hate him. Educated in Paris and Washington, he is a modernizer and a technocrat who spent a distinguished career at the World Bank. When I tell him that many think the military will ''negotiate'' the elections, he seems deeply offended.

''I am trying to build support for the electoral process through my candidacy,'' Bazin tells me. ''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.''

Yet Bazin's policies are essentially those that have earned Leslie Delatour (who worked under Bazin during the latter's brief tour as Duvalier's Finance Minister) such widespread antipathy. In particular, he would continue eliminating the tariffs and other protections 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? ''I fully support the principle of making the cost of living cheaper for the average consumer. But you have to do these things gradually. You can't just do it like a commando raid, which has been Delatour's mistake.''

Bazin would continue Delatour's efforts to eliminate corruption, and to make the well-to-do pay taxes. ''Haitians have been undemocratic not because they were necessarily fascist, but because they were dishonest. I might not make the country rich, but I will make it just.''

BAZIN'S APPEAL IS essentially to what he calls the ''responsible elite'' - ''Haitians who live in cities, speak French and wear shoes,'' as an American diplomat put it - who he hopes will recognize his obvious qualifications, his honesty, his experience. But like the other serious candidates of the center, Bazin's shoulders are burdened by the weight of history, and the basic social - and political -facts that come with it.

Any president who emerges next November must govern under a popular Constitution that, in its careful and relentless circumscription of executive power, reads like a negative print of the last 30 years. It re-establishes, for example, the independence of the army, which had been rendered virtually powerless by Papa Doc. The officers will have the power to select their own leader without interference from politicians, and the next in line is Namphy's No. 2 man, the widely-hated Minister of the Interior, Gen. Williams Regala.

General Regala told me the army was ''the guardian of a way of life, of the integrity of the nation. When political institutions begin to collapse, the army has a duty to take over.'' Whoever the next president is, he will face what was, before Duvalier, a recurrent problem for Haitian rulers - the separate power of the army. As in so many things, Duvalier dealt with that problem decisively - by creating the Tontons Macoutes.

WHEN I THINK OF the future of Haiti, two resonant scenes come to mind. In the Artibonite Valley, north of Port-au-Prince, I asked a group of straw-hatted peasants what they thought of Duvalier's overthrow, and received blank looks. Finally, one tall shirtless man shyly ventured that, yes, they had heard that Jean-Claude had left, but no one knew why.

A few days later, at a rally for one of the presidential candidates, Hubert de Ronceray, in the slum of Cite Soleil, a young woman suddenly stood up and confronted the man who promised to do something for her.

''When you are president, you must not just go to parties in Petionville, like the other presidents do, driving up there in your big car, talking only to rich people,'' Claudette Fleurisme shouted in peasant Creole, her voice quavering. ''You must think of us. We have nothing: many children with nothing to feed them, no schools to send them to, no work to do. Our children are hungry, and we have nothing to give them.''

The suave, Paris-educated politician, a former Duvalier official, was clearly not accustomed to hearing such speeches in the Haitian slums. Claudette grew up in the country. But there was a drought there, and she was starving. She is 18 years old and has eight children. That she spoke at all - not only that she could overcome her fear, but that she felt her words might somehow make a difference - represents a slender bit of change. It is change that will be difficult to stop, though it is impossible to say what form it will take.

''I like what he said,'' Claudette said of the candidate later. ''But I don't know what he'll do.''  


© 2022 Mark Danner