Haiti’s Heritage of Chaos and Suffering

(From The Washington Post Book World — 4 June 1989)

THE RAINY SEASON: Haiti Since Duvalier, by Amy Wilentz. Simon and Schuster,  226 pp., $19.95



WHEN AMY WILENTZ first visited Haiti in January 1986, she carried a copy of Graham Greene’s The Comedians, the 1960s tale of oppression and uncertain life under the dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Wilentz was eager to report on a second generation of Greene’s tale in the rotting land of “Baby Doc” — Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude. There would be the impoverished slums of Port-au-Prince, gun-toting Tontons Macoutes, secret revolutionaries and champagne and cocaine parties at the Duvaliers’ palace.

89f-rainyseason-cover-picBut the Haitian people had risen up and were throwing out Wilentz’s chosen subject. “It seemed like a joke at my expense. I wanted to study tyranny and bloody violence; instead, I had a popular triumph on my hands,” she recounts
early in her book. “It took me a little while to realize that if you wait long enough in Haiti, and really not so long, the tyranny and violence is likely to return and that a people’s victory is not always in the end what it seems to be in the beginning.”

In that nutshell — and in most of her book — Wilentz seems nearly to share Greene’s conclusion from a quarter-century before: that while Haiti will fascinate and absorb a foreign visitor, it also will brutalize and wear out Western-educated liberals who come looking for changes. Indeed, in Wilentz’s portrait, Graham Greene’s readers will find the same oppressive Haitian atmosphere as in The Comedians, and even some of the same characters and settings — this time without the pseudonyms Greene gave them.

After several visits to Haiti in 1986, Wilentz moved to Port-au-Prince in early 1987 to live there for nearly two years. It is her time spent beginning to unravel complicated Haitian characters and their complicated society that makes The Rainy Season a valuable and readable insight. It is the characters of Wilentz’s ordinary Haitian friends who — working to cope with their troubles — give her the sense of hope that apparently led her to her title. “Rain,” she notes, “is hope in rural Haiti.”

Too much of the world’s public image of Haiti is forged by the episodic, almost convulsive, reporting of the Western press, whose reporters mostly ignore Haiti between the “newsworthy” riots or coups that send us scrambling for seats on the next flight from Miami.

Wilentz, sometimes dodging bullets or sweating out confrontations with machete-wielding men, paints many of the same scenes that have been sketched in recent headlines. Jean-Claude Duvalier and his beautiful wife scurry to Port-au-Prince’s airport in the middle of the night to be flown by a U.S. Air Force cargo plane to France. Gangs of Tontons Macoutes burst into a polling station or a church to massacre Haitians demanding democracy or social justice. Soldiers stage comical coups from which emerge heavy-set men in bemedaled uniforms to proclaim an era of progress for Haiti.

But The Rainy Season eloquently makes the point that there is more to understand here. The chaos and violence of Haiti are shocking, but perhaps more comprehensible when Wilentz reminds us how the country was born in an explosion of rage by illiterate slaves of French plantation-masters. “Other revolutions,” she notes, “were led by rebellious colonials, who established governments that in many ways resembled those of their mother nations. The Haitian slaves had no such political roots.”

Voodoo is mysterious, but perhaps less sinister when viewed as the creation of slaves and their descendants who suffered from the physical world and were simply looking for hope. An embarrassed member of the educated elite secretly summons a houngan, or voodoo healer, for a brother who is dying from AIDS: “When something is really too horrible to bear, you resort to the spirits. It’s funny, you know. People who really believe in voodoo — they go to the houngan until they are so sick that they figure, What the hell, I’ll give the white doctors a try. We simply do it the other way around.”

A CENTRAL theme of the book is Wilentz’s criticism of a U.S. foreign policy that is too concerned with stability and U.S. interests — and not enough with democracy and social justice for Haitians. History and American policy-makers help make her case. A U.S. Embassy official — who seems to see communists in every Haitian dissident — blithely suggests that the U.S. Marines’ occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 “worked fairly well” at establishing a stable democracy, when all the evidence makes clear it did nothing of the sort.

A U.S. project to produce needed rubber and sisal during World War II displaces 40,000 Haitian farmers and then collapses disastrously. More recent U.S.-supplied food aid depresses local food prices and puts more farmers out of business.

Since Duvalier’s departure, the United States has pressed Haiti’s military rulers to hold clean elections and return the country to a civilian government. Wilentz makes a cogent case that it could press harder, although she offers no alternative course and suggests no quick fix for Haiti.

Copyright © The Washington Post, 1989