Hello, Haiti

By Alexia NaderMarch 22, 2013

The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan M. Katz
Farewell, Fred Voodoo by Amy Wilentz

IN 1963, The Sunday Telegraph ran a feature on Haiti written by Graham Greene titled “The Nightmare Republic.” Haiti’s association with shadows and nightmares, with death, has only grown since. The Tonton Macoute death squads of the mid-20th century took their cues from the dark magic of Voodoo rituals, and their name from an ancient folklore bogeyman, a creature thought to be responsible for the deaths of children who were, in fact, dying from hunger and disease. Such visions of bogeymen, both real and imagined, plagued Haiti long before the earthquake that killed thousands of its citizens in 2010. The country is regularly shrugged off by both politicians and pundits as “The poorest in the Western Hemisphere,” and in these words are intimations of further death — the death of the country’s statehood and economy, and of even larger swaths of its population. David Brooks, writing in The New York Times in 2010, put this unsettling sentiment bluntly: “Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.” 

Two recently released nonfiction books offer more in-depth perspectives on Haiti; each is respectful and not overly deterministic. Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti by Amy Wilentz, a veteran correspondent to the country for Time and The Nation, among other journals, explores the legacy of Haiti’s revolutionary history and its influence on the country’s contemporary culture through a blend of reportage, social criticism, and personal writing, a journalist’s cri de coeur. The second book, Jonathan M. Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, provides an investigative counterpoint to Wilentz’s literary effort. An AP correspondent and the only embedded American journalist in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, Katz exposes the machinations behind the international reconstruction effort, weaving in a firsthand account of the day of the disaster. Reading the two books together, a fairly balanced picture of Haiti takes shape; it is much more nuanced than the prevailing clichés, those that tend either to circumscribe the country as an irredeemable mess, or to glorify it as superhumanly resilient. What emerges from Wilentz’s and Katz’s books are stories of a vibrant country struggling with, but not giving up on, the complex problem of how to achieve and sustain independence. 

In Haiti, the past infiltrates the present to a degree that many outsiders cannot fathom. This idiosyncrasy, Wilentz observes, explains much of the country’s cultural and political life. Farewell, Fred Voodoo opens in a helicopter, the author peering down at the Citadel, a fortress built by the Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe between 1805 and 1820. The stone stronghold was meant to protect the Haitians inside against, in particular, foreign invasion from the sea. A recurring motif in the book, the stronghold appears in one chapter in its literal reincarnation, erected by Haiti’s ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1990s. The Citadel represents a distrust of foreign intervention and a deep belief in the value of independence —ideas that are as present in the minds of contemporary Haitians as in the minds of the revolutionary slaves who built the stronghold. Wilentz explains that the Haitian Revolution’s “heroes and events show up in Haitian political talk with the consistency of morning.” She writes, “It’s as though every time an American talked about a presidential election, he were to launch into an analysis of Jefferson and Washington and Adams.”

There’s no way even a natural disaster could wipe out this sense of history, or the resulting culture. But a big idea floating around talk of Haiti’s reconstruction was that the disaster was a chance for the country to be a tabula rasa, on which could be imposed something entirely new. As if in response, Wilentz takes pains to describe in detail everything that was not lost in the event. She follows three young men around their Port-au-Prince neighborhoods — tent camps forming shantytowns — observing the “ravages of the earthquake” and recording her subjects’ views on the disaster.

In these scenes, the more modest details speak loudest. Spaghetti, for instance, is at the top of the list of things Jerry and Samuel, Wilentz’s guides in the camp, are sick of. (One of the only types of food available for weeks after the earthquake, spaghetti is not traditional Haitian cuisine.) We follow Wilentz deeper into a camp to a makeshift recording studio where men have composed a rap song about the earthquake; she describes the song as “full of pain and tragedy yet buoyed by a surging belief in the world’s strange mysteries.” One can’t help but remember these details when, later, Wilentz makes the important point that, for better or worse, people don’t stop being people because they are extremely poor. Living on rubble-strewn streets, in leaky shacks, Wilentz’s Haitian subjects have not allowed their culture to slip away. 

Nothing in Farewell, Fred Voodoo, however, is that simple. Wilentz’s humble reveries give way to a study of Voodoo, a more impenetrable — and for that, less endearing — aspect of Haitian culture, a practice that persists throughout the earthquake’s aftermath. Wilentz herself admits to having been deeply skeptical of Voodoo, with its bizarre invocations — zombies and werewolves, for example — and the way politicians, throughout history, have used it to manipulate and take advantage of Haitians. Yet Wilentz concedes that its pervasiveness in the Haitian collective consciousness is something a cultural journalist would be remiss to ignore: Voodoo, the author tells us, “has many lessons to teach outsiders.” Part of her project, then, is to interpret its theatrical elements, to show how they are meaningful politically and psychologically in ways that are both specific to Haiti and applicable to the broader world.

Consider the zombie, a figure that has recently fascinated Americans as much as it has Haitians, and perhaps embodies the two cultures’ deepest fears. Interviewing both a Voodoo priest and a self-identifying former zombie, Wilentz connects the current zombie lore in Haiti to the nation’s slave culture. Zombies are “people who had been drugged or, more often, were mentally challenged or suggestible enough to believe in their own zombification,” but who used to be — and are still, symbolically — “the very purest form of the slave, deadened, soulless, egoless, empty-eyed.” They are the shadows of the Haitian revolutionaries who refuted their slave status. In Haiti today, a zombie could be a worker in one of the T-shirt factories erected in the country, putting in long hours for next to nothing. Outside of Haiti, Wilentz explains, a zombie could be like “Apple’s Chinese factory workers […] like guest workers in European countries; or like employees at call centers in India or the Philippines — except he is not desperate, he simply is.”

Discussions of zombies, old fortresses, and voodoo make for an unconventional argument for a country’s bid for self-determination. But it’s a powerful one nonetheless: Wilentz convinces us that, despite the amount of aid the country receives from foreign governments and NGOs, the impulse for sovereignty is strong in Haiti. The mediating force between the will of the people and the influence of foreign entities, however, should be Haiti’s own government. Although Wilentz and Katz are rightfully critical of former Haitian president René Préval — and his popular predecessor Aristide — for failing to represent or help their constituency in substantial and sustained ways, we discover in Katz’s portrayal of post-earthquake reconstruction politics a belief that if Haiti’s government had heeded any of this popular sentiment, the international aid community would likely have pushed these concerns aside in pursuit of its own single-minded agenda. 

In The Big Truck That Went By, Katz cleverly theorizes about a division he has come to see as important in the international aid community in Haiti. Borrowing the terminology of the economist William Easterly, Katz divides the big players in the reconstruction scene into the planners (people who come to Haiti already thinking they know the answers to its problems) and searchers (people who think that Haiti’s poverty is too complicated to know any answers about it in advance). This idea is the key to understanding the weaknesses of many major development initiatives, for which, Katz reports, as much as $8.4 billion had been pledged over 10 years at a United Nations donor’s conference.

The best example of an initiative gone awry is the case of the Corail development project, which Katz investigates thoroughly in the book. At its base, with good intentions, are Bill Clinton and Ban Ki-moon who believe that Haiti needs to enter the global garment industry in order to rebuild its economy — largely because of a report written by a UN-commissioned advisor, Paul Collier, after visiting Haiti for five days. But almost every part of the plan — calling for establishing camps at Corail, a site outside of Port-au-Prince, and eventually building garment factories there for foreign manufacturers — turns out to be problematic. 

Katz discovers that a bid to secure land at the site is rotten, involving double-dealing within a government-led relocation commission. Sean Penn moves several people from his Pétionville camp to the one in Corail, only to have the inhabitants riot because they cannot procure food and water for their families. Several squatters set up around the camp, portending a new slum. Finally, the movement towards building factories on the site for a South Korean manufacturer stalls as a result of the many problems with land and the camps. The planners turn their attention to a new development scheme for garment factories on a fresh site, leaving this disaster behind in the wake.

The core of all this bungling is the project’s original wrongheaded thinking, which could give rise to an even longer-lasting disaster in Haiti than makeshift camps. It stems from an assumption that, because Haiti has almost no economy to speak of, it would benefit from any stimulant, even one reliant on the notoriously fickle garment manufacturing industry. Katz argues that Haiti’s economy is struggling, but not where most outsiders are looking. Theirs is an informal economy, one composed of vendors peddling wares on the street and performing small tasks for equally small sums. He writes: 

In Kreyòl, this type of work was generally known as cherche lavi — “seeking life” or “making a living.” Economists call it the informal sector. And nearly everyone in Haiti, even people with what Paul Collier would call a job, participated in it. It wasn’t jobs that Haiti lacked; it was stable, sustainable incomes — something the garment plan would do little to provide.

When pairing Katz’s assessment of the garment plan with Wilentz’s consideration of the makeover of Port-au-Prince’s Iron Market, one finds that many of the disconnects between what foreign organizations envision for Haiti and what works in the country comes down to aesthetics. Foreigners have one way of envisioning what a modern country should look like: clean, orderly, and regimented. That Haitians might have another idea about what they want is evident in the case of the old Iron Market. Once a domain for the informal economic sector with all its attendant chaos, the covered market has been revamped with money from an Irish businessman who owns Haiti’s largest mobile phone company. The new market, which Wilentz speculates was drawn “along the lines of the bright, air-conditioned warehouses of Panama’s free-trade Zona Libre, ” has security, a trash system, and working ceiling fans — each lacking in the old market.

Yet nobody shops there anymore, Wilentz reports. The residents of Port-au-Prince prefer the disorder of a new outdoor market, full of “flats of frozen chicken defrosting au soleil in the ninety-degree heat […] overflowing with vendors hawking shoelaces and knockoff Nikes.” This informal system “just keeps going,” she writes, “keeps extending, keeps filling up, responding to humanity’s every need.” Though it would be convenient to many of those wishing to help rebuild Haiti, a one-size-fits-all solution to reconstruction is a non-solution. Keeping the issue of sovereignty out of plans for Haiti’s reconstruction is debilitating for its citizens precisely because they are not mere objects of policy to be bent at will — not zombies after all.   

Where in this dialectic of outside intervention and inside resistance, in the country’s “existential dilemma,” as Wilentz calls it, does the American foreign correspondent fit in? In a way, journalism that simply exposes the country’s situation seems inadequate, though Wilentz and Katz would likely agree: they try hard to make their presumably American audience feel implicated in Haiti’s problems. In Katz’s view, one should at least want to know where the money donated to Haiti’s relief effort in the heat of the crisis has actually gone. Wilentz points out that Haiti’s history has been intertwined with the United States’ history since both countries’ beginning. (To wit: the victories of Haiti’s slave population against French forces at the turn of the 19th century disrupted the Caribbean colonial order, affecting the politics of the Louisiana Purchase; later, they inspired the American abolitionist John Brown to organize his own rebellion.) At the same time, though, neither author is Haitian; both are writing on behalf of someone else’s freedom. And perhaps even more importantly, both of their arguments about what would be best for Haiti now include a measure of retreat on the part of foreign organizations and countries — mainly the US — from Haitian domestic affairs.

The urge to tie the United States to Haiti seems contradictory to the authors’ shared aim. But when you think about what it would take for the powerful foreign countries and NGOs involved in reconstruction to let Haiti reconstruct itself, the value of both Farewell, Fred Voodoo and The Big Truck That Went By becomes clear. On the surface, Haiti in its current state looks indubitably like a “nightmare republic,” dying, in need of foreign resuscitation. But in order to have faith in a grassroots movement, one would have to appreciate something that’s difficult to see from here: fertile seeds beneath the land itself and, far more importantly, deep within the rich culture and history of the country. Presenting readers with unresolved questions, Katz and Wilentz’s books are essential to building a new perception of Haiti as a living place full of nuance, contradictions, and complications. Only by spending time with these problems can we gain a meaningful sense of possibility, a future for Haiti on its own terms.


LARB Contributor

Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and culture reporter from Miami, who now lives in Brooklyn. You can find her work on Kirkusreviews.com, the New Yorker's Page Turner blog, TheNation.com, and Guernica Daily.


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