Haiti

IN THE SHADOW OF SUFFERING

The promise of democracy has vanished, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports

October 27 2003
Haiti

IN THE SHADOW OF SUFFERING

The promise of democracy has vanished, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports

October 27 2003

Haiti

IN THE SHADOW OF SUFFERING

The promise of democracy has vanished, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports

I WENT to Haiti in search of joy. I had never been to the Caribbean nation and one hears little news about it. But I have long entertained the idea that Haiti is just like Africa, and thought that I would find much of the same atmosphere there that I know and love so well in Africa.

Any news that does come out of Haiti these days chants out the failures and misfortunes that continue to befall the island nation of eight million people. I thought I would focus on the triumph of the human spirit in the midst of despair and abject poverty—the great joy born only of the worst misery.

I had seen this great joy in squalid shantytowns and poor villages all over Africa. I had seen the radiant smile of young beauties standing in the trash, amid disease and hunger; heard them singing, slumped over as they did their laundry in sewage ditches; admired exhilarated, naked children kicking around a plastic bag filled with rags with more passion than a World Cup soccer player. I had once travelled in the bar car on a night train winding through the African bush when it briefly halted in a remote village. A man outside called out to a passenger: “Beer, brother, I beg you.” Without hesitation, beer was poured out the window into the cupped hands of the villager, who funnelled the precious liquid as best he could into his mouth, shouting out in the darkness:

THE NATION has held its status of being the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere

THE BODY of Amiot (the Cuban) Métayer was discovered in a ditch off a country road in late September. It was not a pretty sight. The eyes were gouged out. The heart removed. The hot Caribbean sun had taken its toll. The Cuban was a neighbourhood boss, a gangster chief from the northern Haitian town of Gonaives. He was the rebel leader of the colourful “Cannibal Army,” which fought the military junta that seized control of the country in 1991, just seven months after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a

former Roman Catholic priest, became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader. Throughout much of the previous 30 years, Haiti had been brutally ruled by the dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, a follower of the voodoo religion that permeates the island, and then his son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc. In 1986, anti-government protests toppled the regime and Baby Doc fled into exile in France. A succession of leaders followed before Aristide’s election—and quick ouster.

Immense international pressure, including the landing of23,000 U.S. troops under the UN-sanctioned Operation Uphold Democracy, finally brought Aristide back into power in 1994, and ended the killing that had claimed nearly 4,000 lives in four years of fighting. But despite outside help, including US$2 billion in aid, Haiti is backsliding. Foreign funding has dried up, economic conditions continue to worsen even as the country retains its long-held status of being the poorest and most demoralized country in the Western Hemisphere.

At the same time, Aristide’s grip on power has become more authoritarian. Opposition radio stations have been firebombed by Aristide partisans. A corrupt police force in the service of the ruling party has been involved in mounting human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and summary executions. For the hundreds of thousands who lined the streets of Port-au-Prince on Oct. 15,1994, to greet Aristide on his return, the promise of democracy and a break with the country’s violent past has vanished. Many of those same people returned to the streets across the island last week to mark the ninth anniversary of Aristide’s return. But this time they chanted, “Tell the Americans to take Aristide back! We don’t want him anymore!”

Haiti has two chief sources of income. A large percentage of all drugs entering the U.S. come through the country. (Luxury homes and fancy cars are often the fruits of this clandestine trade.) As well, a huge number of Haitians now live abroad, including more than 70,000 in Canada, and every month huge sums of money are transferred to relatives on the island. Though substantial, neither of these sources profits the government much. And in truth, the government has very little impact on Haiti’s poor. In the slums, there are no health services, no public education, no working infrastructure.

The only real contact the government has with the masses is through the armed gangs that control the slums. They are paid off to ensure that the poor maintain some kind of allegiance to the central authority. In Raboteau, the Gonaïves slum where Métayer lived, the poor often turned to him for protection. Long an Aristide strongman, things began to fall apart a few years ago when the Cuban began speaking out against the government and landed in jail. But last year, in a dramatic turn of events, his supporters, using a bulldozer, rammed through the prison walls and freed him to continue his campaign against Aristide. Then, suddenly, he was dead.

I GO TO GONAIVES to attend Métayer’s funeral. Ever since his death, the city has been the scene of intense rioting. The drama has been building up; the slain gangster’s funeral is sure to be colourful—and tense. Most Haitians are Roman Catholic, but under pressure from the authorities and afraid of potential violence, no Catholic church has agreed to hold the event. Deep in the slums, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints opens its doors to the angry mourners. And from the getgo, the crowd packed into the Mormon church is worked up. People shout: “Down with Aristide! Aristide is a criminal! Down with the assassins!” I ask one of the mourners why the Cuban had been mutilated, wondering if a voodoo ritual was at work. The young man tells me: “His eyes had seen Aristide’s crimes, and his heart was with the people against Aristide.”

Despite the hot sun, the police sport black uniforms when they show up. Some wear body armour and ski masks. They wield shotguns and assault rifles. The police chief ominously tells me his officers will exhibit “zero tolerance” toward the crowd. Métayer’s coffin finally arrives, draped— curiously—in an American flag, carried by a rambunctious bunch into the church. A well-dressed young man tells me I should be careful in the crowd. “If something happens,” he says, “there will be a stampede.” Not a minute later, the police make an example of a boisterous young protestor and beat him so thoroughly he has to be carried away.

At this first sign of violence, the crowd panics and I jump on a fence to avoid being crushed. But people soon regroup and continue challenging the police. I climb up to the second storey of an unfinished cement building. My dapper friend, whose name is Délicien Hébert, follows me. My white pants are by now quite dusty, and Délicien tells me that if he was wearing such dirty clothing, he would be harshly judged. But because I am a foreigner, he says, it will be overlooked. Under his arm he carries a grade-school French grammar book. “I’m a teacher,” he says with a smile. I ask him what he thinks about his country. “A country? This is not a country,” he answers. “This is a project for a country—and the project is not getting off the ground.”

The church is too packed for me to go in. And anyway, there is no service, just shouting, shoving and chanting. A trio of Mormon missionaries in crisp white shirts arrive. They circle the building, then go in. At the centre is the open casket: the grimly exposed body of the mutilated man. The Mormons withdraw—abandoning their temple to the chaos.

A LARGE proportion of all drugs entering the United States come through Haiti

When the coffin is carried back out into the streets, Délicien tells me that, “as a symbol of protest, they will bury the Cuban beneath the main crossroads of our neighbourhood.” But, he adds, “the police will try and stop them.” I follow the mob. Sure enough, a huge hole has been dug in the middle of the street. A police car is parked beside it; four heavily armed riot cops posture menacingly. The crowd ignores them and swarms around the grave. Rocks begin to fly. The police car’s windows are smashed. Gunfire echoes as the police shoot just above the crowd. The mob stampedes in all directions. I retreat into a space between two shanties, and encounter a panicked woman who starts shaking me. “What the hell is happening?” she asks. “Who the hell are you?”

The police are clearing an exit route out of the neighbourhood by firing wildly into the air. But at the gravesite, men are already pouring cement into the hole. It’s done. There in the slums, beneath the poverty, the Cuban will lie.

Early the next morning, all around Raboteau’s outskirts, heaps of tires are burning. Wrecked cars have been dragged out to block the way. Rubble and broken glass are strewn across the streets. Gangsters glower on the corners. I enter the slum in search of Délicien; when I finally find him, he is overjoyed, but utterly disapproving when he sees my dirty shoes. “No, this just won’t do,” he says, shaking his head. Out comes the polish, and beside a wrecked car and an open cesspool Délicien brings dignity back to my footwear. “Do you know that I have to hide to learn here?” he suddenly tells me. “My own neighbours are suspicious of learning; students have been killed for studying. Then again, I don’t know why I am even bothering to try to learn things. There is no way out of this place without a powerful godfather or godmother to secure me any kind of job. This place is simply bestial.”

IN THE CAPITAL, Port-au-Prince, I find Réseau-Liberté, a brave Canadian outfit conducting a workshop for local journalists. The core of the program, here in a country where journalists have been killed, focuses on the ethics of freedom of speech. After sitting in on a seminar, I visit Fritz Aurélien, a radio journalist now in hospital. The previous day, he’d walked past the presidential palace without stopping as the flag was being lowered. For that, the police descended upon him with a vengeance. Now, Aurélien is hooked up to monitors and bags for his vital functions.

Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s famous slum, is a sprawling shantytown and a world unto itself. The authorities have little presence; taxi drivers won’t even go there. People laugh at me when I say I want to visit the place. “Bring nothing that you are not able to part with,” a man says, “and go there with God.”

On my arrival, and in the company of a photographer, I’m approached by Fosseur, a stocky little gangster. He is diplomatic, but tells me I have a choice to make: I can pay one person for “protection” while I’m there, or I can pay many. So I take Fosseur up on his offer for protection, and also enlist him as a guide.

People live near open sewers in cargo containers surrounded by trash, or in tattered shelters made of plastic and driftwood. Cité Soleil is the place where Haiti’s dire statistics seem most real: 60 per cent of the country’s inhabitants are malnourished, the infant mortality rate is the worst in the Americas, and human life expectancy is a mere 50 years.

As we make our rounds, we attract a number of young thugs. One of them jovially tells me his name is M.C. Couteau, and that he kills people who won’t give him money. They seem like caged lions, and I ask Fosseur how he manages to stay on top of his fellow gangsters. “Because I am a rude boy,” he answers. “And I’m not afraid to shoot first.”

The rich in Port-au-Prince live in luxurious walled homes in the hills surrounding the city. The masses below them fester in the hot, swampy lowlands, or on the slopes of steep ravines. Periodically, hard rains on the deforested slopes bring down landslides. During my stay in Haiti, the side of a hill breaks off and slides to the bottom of a ravine, obliterating some 20 shanties. The city makes a small effort to dig up the bodies, then gives up on the site. This happens often.

I visit another high-risk area on the steep slopes above where I am staying. There, early in the morning, Serge Labbé, painter and poet, carries water up the hill from the city pipes to his little hut perched a kilometre above. Serge’s hut is made of cinder blocks with an ill-fitting tin roof.

ANY NEWS of Haiti these days chants out the failures and misfortunes that befall the people

He rents this plot of land on a five-year basis, and is slowly trying to gather up enough money to expand his small shanty. I mention landslides, but I don’t push the question when he doesn’t respond. I sense that Serge cannot afford to think of the disaster that might threaten his family, his house and his entire world.

At my request, Serge shows me a “painting” of his. It looks like a big blank canvas. On closer examination I see that he has carefully drawn an animated scene of markets, mountains and people—all in charcoal. “When I get some more money I will put the paint on it,” he tells me. Serge’s work is known; he shows me a book on Haitian artists that mentions him. In it, he says: “I love flowers, butterflies and kites. I paint imaginary landscapes where the children are happy and there are beautiful colours.” He adds in the book, “I write poems for children. Here is one: I have crossed life in the shadow of misery. /No one comes to my rescue. / The day, the night, pass through me reflecting my innocence.” It speaks to the agony of so many Haitians. fi1]