Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Messiah Returned to Haiti, but It Didn't Help: Letter from Port-Au-Prince, 1953-2008

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Messiah Returned to Haiti, but It Didn't Help: Letter from Port-Au-Prince, 1953-2008

Article excerpt

Jesus is good, but Damballah is powerful. - Haitian proverb. Damballah, the great snake god, is chief of the Voodoo pantheon.

Unable to remedy an epidemic of murders and kidnappings, in addition to the familiar destitution and misery, plus the paralysis of government because the legislature couldn't agree on a new prime minister, the Haitian legislators decided to go on vacation in May 2008. But Haiti's leading newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, managed to find some good news. The Comme II Faut tobacco company responded to the crisis by announcing production of a new and cheaper cigarette, "Le Point," which was declared to be just as tasty as its more expensive products, those smoked by more expensive people.

Literal translation of the news release of 24 May: "Like all great enterprises, we work without rest in order to satisfy our clientele, our employees, and also to remain an enterprise of the highest civic virtue." (In French, a more elegant "hautement citoyenne.")

Felicitations, Comme II Faut! Although I no longer smoke, I was privileged to inhale this pleasure over breakfast at my usual post on the lovely, woebegone terrace of the Hotel Oloffson, which I have been addicted to visiting for over 55 years. In Haiti, I become once again a nosy student, bewitched by this tragedy one can dance to. On a hillside of Port-au-Prince, supported on the backs of its termites, the Oloffson has been my second home.

The news here makes it seem as if Haiti had been given to the world by the gods so that the merely poor and hungry of Africa and Asia can feel grateful for their good fortune. An old friend, a voodoo priest, answered my questions about the kidnapping epidemic by stating curtly, "My people don't talk about it." He pronounced "My People" with a sense of proprietorship and amended the sentence with: " - the so-called kidnappings."

During the late days of the regime of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest known earlier as The Messiah, a drug dealer named Jacques Quettant, godfather of Aristide 's daughter, was arrested in Miami, telling all. In the panic after news got out, helicopters flapped like giant crows over Port-au-Prince, surely rooting out traffickers from the sky. Aristide 's Lavalas party described his reign as "Authoritarian Democracy"; it seemed on the ground more like a predatory democracy. When street demonstrations broke out in Cap Haïtien, Lavalas emitted its warning: "Undertakers, open your doors."

A political commentator explained to me: "I like terrorists, I just don't like what they do." This stoic philosopher, who is also a medical doctor, has published a book about Haitians who did not die at the World Trade Center. Focus on Haitian matters often seems like paranoia to non-Haitians. During the fifties, the Cénacle des Philosophes, of which I was a foreign member, determined that Haiti should act as the mediator in the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. They believed that the young student from Cleveland, Ohio, was a CIA agent, urged me to command my minions in a suburb of Washington, DC. The CIA was also sending hurricanes to enfeeble the economy. Later, fearing swine flu, the U.S. did in fact hurt the Haitian economy by exterminating the "cochons noirs," the swift little black Haitian pigs which provided protein and a literal piggy bank for the poor. The U.S. substituted sloppy fat Iowa porkers, which were unable to dine successfully on garbage, and perhaps were also homesick. The Iowa porkers died.

Gertrude Stein wrote something like, "I am I because my litde dog knows me." In Haiti, I sometimes feel I am I because many of my friends, consoled by illusion and fantasy, don't know me. If I'm not CIA, why the devil do I keep returning for fifty-five years? Music, painting, nostalgia, and gratitude for distraction from a disastrous first marriage surely can't be enough, even if they are.

In 1988 I visited Marc Bazin during one of his campaigns to become President of Haiti. …

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