Haiti: Return to Normalcy

The country’s sorry reputation is safe for now

THERE WAS A time about a year ago when it seemed that the Haitians had accomplished something remarkable, putting behind them not just thirty years of the Duvalier family but a whole history of brutal political culture. And then the moment passed. Municipal elections scheduled for last July were called off by the transitional military government, the Conseil National du Gouvernement. A wave of murders and political assassinations, fomented by Duvalierists whose privileges were threatened by the prospect of democracy, began in late summer and continued through the fall. In November the presidential election was canceled a few hours after the polls opened, amid nationwide intimidation of voters by the Tontons Macoutes, the terrorist paramilitary organization created by the Duvaliers. In response the United States cut off all non-humanitarian aid to Haiti, the poorest country in this hemisphere, hoping to pressure the CNG to disassociate itself from the Duvalierists. In January, Haiti finally held a national election, organized by the CNG. A fiftyseven-year-old political scientist, Leslie Manigat, was selected as the country’s new President, The opposition put the turnout at about five percent of eligible voters, although the government reported a figure of 35 percent. The obvious absence of voter enthusiasm reflected the general perception that the election’s result was a foregone conclusion.

Manigat was the director of the School of International Studies at the University of Haiti and a close associate of François Duvalier’s until, in 1960, he was charged with instigating a student strike at the university and was briefly jailed. He spent more than two decades in exile after that, teaching at Johns Hopkins University, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, the University of the West Indies, and, finally, Simon Bolivar University, in Caracas. While living in Venezuela he formed his own political party and mobilized a small army, with which he planned to invade Haiti. He returned home after Jean Claude Duvalier fled to France, in February of 1986. In a truly free vote Manigat’s background as an exile and his intellectual credentials would probably have made him a plausible candidate. No one, however, could have won the January election without striking some sort of deal with the CNG. Whether Manigat will be the army’s puppet remains to be seen. Pierre Bayard, the editor and publisher of the Haiti Times, told me recently that he thinks Manigat has a Machiavellian streak that may help him in bargaining with the army and with the Duvalierist element. But then what? “I know of his dictatorial character,” an acquaintance of Manigat’s in Port-au-Prince said. “At least from an intellectual standpoint he has a very good grasp of the country’s problems, but he’s totalitarian, very selfish. His theory is that popularity does not confer power but that power confers popularity. He makes me afraid.”

The Haitian presidency has historically turned even reformers—like Papa Doc Duvalier—into corrupt tyrants. Indeed, Haitians have known little but autocracy and destitution since winning independence from France, in 1804. Beginning with the nation’s first governorgeneral for life. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti has been ruled by an almost uninterrupted procession of megalomaniacs. The government has nearly always been under the control of a small black military caste, even as Haiti’s wealth has been in the hands of a small Francophile mulatto elite; most of the rest of the population has lived in poverty in the countryside. The virtual absence of a usable national past is symbolized by the numerous street signs in Port-au-Prince bearing the names of famous foreigners: avenue John Brown, avenue Martin Luther King, boulevard Harry Truman, rue Jose Marti, rue John Paul II (formerly rue Jean Claude Duvalier).

The Creole word that Haitians use to describe the removal of Jean Claude— dechoukaj, which means “to uproot”— suggests how well they understand the need to make a fundamental change in the character of the country. After Duvalier’s departure, everybody who was gotten rid of—members of the government, members of the Tontons Macoutes, voodoo priests, personal enemies—was said to have been dechouké. But the eviction of Jean Claude did not signify a larger uprooting. The government apparatus—the ministries, the bureaucracy, the military, the courts—substantially remained in the hands of the same people who ran the government under the old regime. “Don’t use the word revolution,” a political analyst at the U.S. embassy said of the dechoukaj. “It was simply a transfer of power.”

AN OLD CREOLE proverb says, “The constitution is paper, bayonets are steel.” Practically speaking, the military is the only law in Haitian communities, where there is no distinction between the army and the police; indeed, even the local fire brigades are part of the army.

One day last year I was driving up to the port city of Gonaives. Just beyond the town of Cabaret, formerly Duvalierville, the road was blocked by what I assumed was one of the impromptu tolls that Haitian villages set up to extort a little money from passing drivers. A soldier stood in the road, gripping his rifle. As I slowed to a stop I saw that it was not a toll at all. Behind the soldier a man lay dead on his stomach, in a pool of blood. His eyes were wide open; he seemed to be staring at some point down the road behind me. The soldier pointed his rifle and spoke sharply in Creole, ordering me to move on. I never found out what happened, but what has stayed with me about the incident was how it seemed to represent the horrible dailiness of violence in Haiti—most of which is perpetrated by the military or by the Macoutes, who were officially disbanded after the dechoukaj but still operate as a mercenary army employed by the Duvalierists.

Haiti’s economy, like its politics, is characterized by chaos. There is still some manufacturing around Port-auPrince—baseballs and basic clothing are mainstays—but the work force in Haiti is so unskilled and the country so unstable that foreign investment has ceased. The leeward side of the law offers an opportunity for some. Jean Claude Duvalier’s father-in-law, the notorious Ernest Bennett, pioneered the use of Haiti as a transshipment point for cocaine on its way from Colombia to the United States; with the departure of Duvalier the drug trade has if anything increased. It is an open secret that influential members of the army and the government have ties to the American Mafia and are laundering drug money by using it to finance a thriving traffic in contraband consumer goods. Colonel Jean-Claude Paul, the commander of the army’s largest battalion and a man who is said to have played a principal role in coordinating last November’s election-day terrorism, was indicted in March by a grand jury in Miami for narcotics trafficking. Meanwhile, criminals in the United States are using Haiti to ship American goods to countries that for one reason or another are embargoed under U.S. law: guns to Libya and South Africa, computer equipment to the Soviet Union. “Here it’s open borders,” says Antoine Izmery, one of Haiti’s leading food importers and a vocal opponent of smuggling. “You can steal anything and bring it to Haiti and send it to anyplace.” With virtually no navy and a tiny air force, Haiti cannot police its borders.

Until its eclipse by the electoral chaos that began last June, smuggling was the hottest topic in Haiti. Since the end of 1986 smuggled consumer goods have been flooding into the country; according to some estimates, as much as half of all the goods being sold on the street are contraband. In Port-au-Prince, for example, the sidewalks of the busy shopping streets around boulevard Dessalines are crammed with electric fans, most of which are assumed to have been smuggled in from Panama and Jamaica. Out in the countryside peasants on bicycles are now a common sight, whereas as recently as two years ago such a thing was hardly ever seen. The bikes are stolen by organized rings in the United States, shipped down from Miami, and smuggled through a provincial port like Gonaives. The retail price is about $30 a bike. This open trade in contraband keeps consumer prices artificially low and creates tens of thousands of jobs in the black market. But it is also beggaring the national treasury, driving legitimate retailers out of business, and crippling whole sectors of the national economy.

The most damaging smuggled imports are of basic commodities like rice, flour, sugar, and cooking oil, in all of which Haiti has attempted to become self-sufficient. Bootleg rice illustrates the problem. Rice is a staple of the Haitian diet, and the smuggled variety, nicknamed “Miami Rice,” sells for far less than domestically produced rice, enabling Haitians to eat rice more often. However, rice is an important cash crop in the Artibonite Valley, one of the few fertile areas left in the country, and the takeover of the market by contraband has had a ruinous effect on farmers there.

Smuggling certainly existed under the Duvaliers, especially in luxury consumer goods like scotch and cigarettes. What is different now is the openness with which customs evasion takes place and, more important, the volume of goods coming into the country. “You don’t have to have friends,” Izmery said. “You just give the customs inspector some money. It’s open. There is a lot of stolen merchandise coming down here from the States. You will find a brand of Libby’s luncheon meat that sells for twenty-one dollars a case in the States selling down here for fifteen or sixteen dollars. It’s stolen.”

THE UNITED STATES has been a presence in Haiti since 1915, when the country was invaded by U.S. Marines in order to guarantee the repayment of Haiti’s debts to American creditors and also to keep the deepwater port at Mole Saint Nicholas from being leased to Germany. The nineteen-year U.S. occupation that followed was a very mixed blessing for Haiti. Some consider the period one of the only times in the country’s history when it enjoyed anything like enlightened rule. The experience was nevertheless humiliating, and the animosity remains. Haitians today cannot help feeling the gravitational pull of the United States, although the French and Canadian governments also have a degree of influence. The United States has for years been their most generous foreign benefactor—before the aid reduction last fall, U.S. assistance had been about $100 million a year. The U.S. mission in Port-au-Prince is said to operate with an unusual degree of independence, because the State Department is preoccupied with developments in Central America. The events of the past year could suggest that the embassy was caught off guard, through either neglect or naiveté. It is hard to find evidence that the U.S. government took an active role in maintaining the army in power, though many Haitians believe that it did. Haitians see the hand of the United States behind everything that happens in their country, and many consider the U.S. embassy to be a virtual parallel government in Port-au-Prince. “We’re accused of any number of things,” Linda Morse, the deputy director in Port-au-Prince for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), told me. “We’re accused of trying to kill domestic agriculture and put everyone into factories to make baseballs for the United States. We’re accused of killing all the pigs. We’re accused of in general not caring, not listening, not understanding true Haitian needs. We even reached the point where someone claimed that the trees we planted were killer trees that were sucking up all the nutrients from the soil. And then the Marines would come to protect the trees.”

The pigs that Morse referred to have for the past ten years been one of the touchiest issues between the U.S. mission and most Haitians. In the late 1970s an epidemic of African swine fever swept through the Creole pig population. Because of fear that the disease would spread to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and perhaps even to North America, nearly every pig in Haiti was slaughtered. There is much disagreement about who actually pressed for the extermination program, but Americans, Canadians, Dominicans, and Haitians were all somehow involved in implementing it. The program affected almost every peasant family, or about three quarters of all families in the country. When it ended, in 1984, a repopulation effort got under way using breeds of pigs not indigenous to Haiti. Creole pigs were hardy and foraged for what they ate. The new pigs—often derisively referred to as “Iowa pigs”—require a level of care and a diet that would be the envy of the average Haitian. Some 27,000 pigs have been imported as breeding stock to replace the one million that were killed, but Haitians haven’t been able to maintain them all and have slaughtered many for food. AID is at pains to point out that the eradication program was an international effort, but the average Haitian sees it as an American initiative, one whose real objective was to open up the Haitian market for American hog farmers.

Economic policy in Haiti, or at least economic policy as it is pursued by foreign development agencies, assumes that Haiti’s economic future lies in agriculture. But the land has been ravished. Hispaniola was once the most naturally blessed of all the Caribbean islands— “the pearl of the Antilles.” But the pressures of population—on average, there are some 580 people per square mile in Haiti—have worn out the land on the western, or Haitian, half of Hispaniola. Deforestation is a serious problem throughout the Third World, but in Haiti the condition is in its terminal stage. During the 1920s some 60 percent of Haiti’s land was under forest cover. Today the figure is two percent. In 1987 a report on Haiti’s ecology which was funded by AID observed that “few countries in the world face a more serious threat to their own survival from environmental catastrophe than Haiti.”

It has been a long time since Haiti was an exporter of timber. Seen from the air, the mountains resemble the furrowed brows of a crowd of bald-headed men. The absence of trees affects rainfall patterns, inducing drought; the prevailing color of the landscape is a powdery beige. Haiti loses about a million tons of topsoil to erosion every year, and from the sky one can see how this silts up the rivers. Drought and silted rivers wreak havoc with the country’s electrical system, which relies heavily on hydropower. On some days the power level is so low that factory machinery must be shut down, and blackouts are common.

The main reason for Haiti’s deforestation is that wood, especially in the form of charcoal, provides 85 percent of the country’s energy for heating and cooking. Wood and charcoal are important cash crops for Haitian peasants; the smell of charcoal is always somewhere in the air. Foreign development agencies plant about 10 million trees a year in Haiti. Half of them die and most of the others are chopped down before they reach maturity.

Such shortsighted land use is commonly cited as an example of what is fundamentally wrong with the way Haitians think and act. But it also illustrates the difficulty of changing behavior that may be less a product of ignorance than a natural response to real conditions. Finding enough food to eat and enough fuel to cook it is a daily struggle in the countryside, and the urgency of this struggle overwhelms the logic in planting trees for the future, or in letting land lie fallow to restore itself, or in sowing crops that can’t be harvested for five months. Another problem is the tradition of tiny landholdings, which are less efficient than larger, cooperative farms would be. But a long-standing claim to a small parcel of land is the most valuable thing that many families have. And they cling to a tradition of widely dispersed land ownership in a country where record-keeping is at best haphazard and where the legal system is corrupt.

IN THE SPIRIT of regeneration that followed Duvalier’s flight, Haitians were constantly talking about mentalité. The idea was that turning the country around would require Haitians to change their behavior and their beliefs. The goal was sometimes called a “dechoukaj of the mind.” Lawrence E. Harrison, a development expert who spent twenty years directing programs for AID in Latin America, said of Haiti when I spoke with him not long ago, “It’s a country very largely without structures or institutions, and the few that do exist are in the hands of the government. The Church is an alternative, but it’s far from a satisfactory one.”Furthermore, Harrison said, the culture’s values, ingrained since the time of slavery, are “anti-progressive.” “On top of this is voodoo,” he added. Voodoo, in his opinion at least, “basically teaches that what happens in the world is a consequence of the capricious acts of several hundred very capricious spirits.”Harrison’s opinion is a common one among North Americans and Europeans, and it frequently puts them at odds with Haitian intellectuals. Even Harrison concedes that voodoo may help people on the margin of survival to keep going.

Educated Haitians commonly say that there is scarcely a problem in Haiti that does not somehow come down to questions of mentalité. The army, it is said, has a mentalité that understands only force and admits no concept of civil rights. Smuggling is attributed to a mentalité that confuses democracy with ignoring the law and doing whatever one likes. Paranoia and suspicion are said to be key elements of the popular world view. Under the Duvaliers fear ran so deep that people were afraid to speak the ruling family’s name. Even now people stumble on the name Duvalier. When they talk of the past, they use locutions like “Before February 7” and “Under the old government.” If they do say “Duvalier,” they appear very selfconscious about doing so; one half expects them to cross themselves. George Celcis, a Haitian businessman, described the outlook of his countrymen this way: “We are like people who are handicapped, like people who have polio.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that there are no positive elements in Haiti’s national life these days. There are a few. Since the flight of Jean Claude Duvalier an aggressive and independent press has thrived. On the radio—the most powerful medium in Haiti—religious groups have mounted an ambitious effort at l'education civic. It is estimated that one million Haitians left the country during the Duvalier period; some of them are returning home with new skills and new ways of thinking. Above all, the Haitian people, though exhausted by the events of the past year, are committed to the idea of democracy. Their hope is pervasive, and is immediately apparent to every visitor.

But so is everything that makes Haiti so discouraging. About 120 babies die for every thousand that are born, and still the population is expected to double within thirty years. Nearly 80 percent of all Haitians are illiterate. Sanitation is primitive and malnutrition a way of life. Haiti is a country that needs so much—it needs just about everything— and no one seems equal to the task of putting it right.

—Kevin McDermott