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Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz

Posted: January 15, 2010 12:09 PM

Haiti and the Depths of Darkness

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It's the middle of the night and I'm trying unsuccessfully to locate friends in Port-au-Prince over the Internet. Nothing's getting me anywhere. I'm imagining the apartment building where I last saw Renald Clerisme, a former priest who was a hard worker in the cause of democracy and who was foreign minister under Rene Preval for a time. Renald is an old friend of mine and one of the great analysts of the Haitian scene, humorous and caustic even, and always quick to rip through hypocrisy. His place was in a new and modern apartment building, and I am finding it hard, as I scroll through Google Earth and the New York Times before-and-after photos, to believe it survived. I'm hoping he wasn't home when the earthquake struck.

I'm sitting right now under a painting I bought at the Hotel Oloffson in late January, 1986, on my first visit. The Duvalier dynasty was about to fall. The painting is by Pierre Joseph Valcin and it features the personifications (although I didn't know it at the time) of the voodoo figures Cousin Zaka and Baron Samedi. Zaka is a central agricultural figure, the god of the fields, and Baron is the lord of the cemetery. In the painting the two are meeting in a wooded but solitary grove, Baron atop a white horse. Both men are barefoot and the trees that surround them seem alive and full of a kind of spirited menace. The two men seem to be arranging something between them -- now when I look at it the painting seems to have some new awful meaning, and I've just noticed for the first time that Zaka has under his arm a tiny coffin. Read one way, it's a farmer leading the lord of the cemetery through the last forest of Haiti.

And of course one reason there are so many dead in Haiti is that agriculture in the countryside was no longer providing a livelihood for Haitian peasants; they moved in the thousands to the capital, they built shanties on the sides of canyons; all gone now. I won't go over the arguments against globalization for countries like Haiti here. Suffice it to say that Haiti, once the Pearl of the Antilles, once France's most valuable and productive colony, and still into the 19th century at least an important provider of the world's sugar, rum, and coffee, is now a net importer.

The earthquake did some very bizarre things, things that we can see very clearly, while Haitians on the ground may not realize what's gone. The absolute deflation of the National Palace -- one doesn't know how to feel about it, properly. So many bad things went on there. Papa Doc Duvalier did much of his wretched planning and conniving in that giant white behemoth. Baby Doc had parties there and lived in regal splendor with his babe of a wife, the witchy Michele Bennett.

After Baby Doc fled with Michele, I attended the installation of the National Council of Government (more like a US-installed junta, for all the fancy name) and watched in amazement as a panic tore through a ceremony and people knocked over their gold-painted, red-cushioned chairs as they tried to flee the room. When Aristide came into power, he spoke from the steps of the building to a huge crowd of Haitians who gathered behind the Palace fence.

A few days later, he took me on a tour, and showed me Michele Bennett's disco dressing room, as big as an American living room, and her refrigerated fur closet (in a tropical country!). There were always great fat geese wandering around the palace grounds in the back, and big men with guns patrolling. Now this imposing triple-domed edifice looks like three fat pillows that have lost their stuffing.

The earthquake has erased both the personal and political past. It's a terribly strange sensation, as if memory has been ripped away. Port-au-Prince's charm was always ramshackle. There were still gingerbread houses, as of Monday, and some old wooden construction downtown that had escaped fire and flood. Downtown, especially on Grande Rue, there was a kind of cacophony and chaos that still seemed to work; the people of Haiti are very very busy all the time because to cobble anything together there, anything of sustenance, takes a tremendous amount of energy. Now whole neighborhoods are gone. I read in the Tweets of friends in Haiti that all the places where we lived are flattened, and hundreds of the residents killed. One Tweet I read yesterday from Richard Morse, who sometimes blogs here and who runs the Oloffson, read simply "Bodies. Bodies. Bodies. Bodies...."

In the old days when I talked to my friend Renald, I would laugh at his optimism. It didn't matter who had been assassinated recently, or what economic crisis was happening, what flood. It didn't matter who was in jail or who'd been let out. Or which American president had imposed or removed what key tariff, or what Jesse Helms (a real hater of the Haitian people, like Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh) had said or done that day, that week, that year. Renald would just laugh his sibilant little laugh and drink his ginger tea and proclaim that things would get better and that Haiti would survive. He had a former priest's Christian attitude about resurrection and renewal, while I advocated for a kind of militant Jewish pessimism.

But now I'm on Renald's side. I don't see where you go with this kind of catastrophe, since the earthquake has made the choice so stark between despair and hope. I've decided to opt for optimism. Haitians have incredible reserves of defiance, resilience, and perseverance. I'm trusting that these sterling qualities -- combined of course with water, food, and proper medicine, all beginning to come into the country as I write -- will help the quake's hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of survivors get through the first weeks and pull the country out of the depths of this darkness.

 
 
 

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