All the President's Men
The first sunset of the new year is flaming the bay and the electricity has just gone. We've had a good stretch these last few days. The boys in Electricité d'Haiti have been working hard over the holidays to put on a good show for the returning diaspora. There was power for most of Christmas Day and New Year's Eve - but now, at sunset on the first, it's gone. Tomorrow, the planes departing for Miami and New York will be full and there's a feeling that the party is almost over.
The 1st of January is the national holiday and the president, René Preval, is coming to Gonaives to celebrate Haitian independence. Out on the streets there is a simultaneous lull and excitement. Moto tap-taps loaded with three and four passengers rattle along the rubble cuff links of the road. A pig enjoys himself in a pile of rubbish. With his hide the colour of charred flesh, he might be the reincarnation of the man that was lynched and burned two months ago in Saint Marc. "Fuckers, all of us" he grunts, disturbing a pyramid of tins and a female that's weaning five piglets. Ultrasonic squealing follows as they gouge each other like bulls, until the male limps away. We're still a long way from the old Lavalas rallying cry of "poverty with dignity" and as long as the World Bank continues to direct the government to focus on "the energy and initiative of Civil Society, especially the private sector", it'll be a few more years before the dignity arrives. Civil Society means the elite in the Republic of Port-au-Prince, not the plebs in Gonaives.
Yet these people have shown remarkable energy and initiative. Only four years ago, hurricane Jeanne destroyed the city. In the wake of the storm the streets lay under 10 feet of water. Last week two gravediggers showed us around a cemetery where there is a memorial for the dead - a concrete slab 15 feet by seven feet. Metal wires rise into the air as support for columns that were never built. The money ran out. The two men recounted the week they buried 896 bodies. Names were taken, a record kept. Then 12 truckloads of corpses arrived. They were dumped "like rocks into a pond."
The Cuban medical teams were the only foreigners who stayed throughout that time. Relief trucks could not reach the town from Port-au-Prince, the road being swamped about 10 miles south of the city. They were cut off for a month. In makeshift hospitals, the Cubans carried out amputations without running water or electricity. The people remember that the Cubans stayed. It's one of the few things worth remembering.
South of the city, Route 1 passes through the "savane désole" wetland that cut them off. A raised road, two miles long, was proposed so that the trucks could reach them in future. The shell of this structure lies beside the existing rubble road. At dawn it is a peaceful place, almost beautiful. The sun glints on the water. White birds perch in the branches of drowned trees. Away from the road, a Toyota jeep lies face down in the water. The bare hide of the mountain burns red in the background. Somehow, the hurricane managed to carry fish into the wetland. Since then, men wade out into the warm water with homemade rods under their arms.
We met a foreman supervising a lone plasterer. "November," he said confidently. "We will be done by November." But only 200 metres of the two mile long structure have been completed in three years. Nothing but sunlight bridges the gaps between the concrete sleepers. In the two months that we've been riding back and forth over this area, we're seen work being carried out only once. Men tend to turn up at the end of the month when there's some chance of money coming through. But usually, there is just silence and dragonflies along this stretch. The foreman and plasterer make an odd couple - the latter in ragged t-shirt and flip-flops sweating in the sun, the former in neat dress, standing in the shade.
Back in the city, the streets have largely returned to the normality of poverty. The mess of the hurricane was slowly cleared away by hand. Lanes emerged from the mud. Stalls formed again like colourful plaques on the yellow teeth of the road. But recently many of the vendors have been evicted from their roadside. This was done, according to the UN, to improve hygiene and to allow traffic to flow. The plan is to move them permanently to concrete stalls that are being built at the end of Avenue des Dattes. This work is moving only a little faster than the bridge over the wetland.
But today is the president's day and all work has been laid aside. Security is tight. Helicopters dot the sky and convoys of trucks roll by in swirls of dust. Soldiers sit in the back of jeeps, their legs dangling over the edge, rifles aimed into potholes. The children pay no attention; they've learned the alphabet from the bold lettering of the convoys: UNPOL, PNH, MINUSTAH, UNOPS. The strangest vehicle is the truck with a machine gun turret. A soldier sits on a high seat holding ammunition, looking ridiculously like a duck in a shooting gallery.
Their presence is not liked but grudgingly tolerated. As our neighbour points out, the one advantage of having the UN around is that it's harder to bribe them because they don't speak Creole. They've brought an eerie calm to the town and the president badly needs their protection today. Gonaives is a troublemaker, always has been. It was here that the slaves fought off the French, it was here that independence was first declared, and it's here that the graffiti down our lane reads: Aba Préval (Down with Préval) and Préval Anti-Vodou.
Unemployment is running at around 80%, corruption is so much a part of life that they might well hand out MBAs in it, and gangs like the Cannibal Army and the Little Machete Army still control the red zones. But with the UN snaking around town in these convoys, the surface is quiet. It's likely to remain quiet until they leave the country and when that day comes the city will go up in flames again.
The history of Gonaives in the early 21st century has been chaotic, with gangs ruling the town and battling it out for domination. When the UN first rolled in, administrative staff stayed at the Hotel Chachou which was owned by a prominent "business man", the eponymous Chachou. In a farcical drama, UN personnel were given 24 hours to vacate the hotel, in advance of a sting operation. Chachou is currently in jail in Port-au-Prince but the shell of his empire can be seen Ozymandias-style throughout the city. Behind our house is the L'Ecole des Enfants de Chachou. Nearby is the Organization des Sports de Chachou. There is the Chachou supermarket and restaurant, and most importantly, in the grounds of the hotel, there is Radio Chachou.
With literacy still hovering around 50%, radio is the most powerful form of communication and control. Anyone at the microphone can tell the people whatever they need to hear - for some, Chachou is still a social worker. Large sums of money flowed through his altruistic endeavours. It's worth remembering that in the late Eighties, approximately US$700 million of cocaine passed through Haiti every month. It's impossible to know what the figure is today, but whatever the current situation, it's clear that it's been in the interest of many to keep Gonaives and other towns hobbled in poverty. With no functioning state there are no regulations, no laws, and no problems for traffickers.
Today, Préval will talk about progress and the future. But Gonaives is running out of patience, much as it ran out of patience with everyone who ever stepped into the political ring. And it is a ring. While US bullying certainly left former president Aristide in a politically paraplegic position, there is no doubt that he had to turn in murky waters in a last ditch effort to regain control of the country. His supporters present him as a saint - he is not. He too was guilty of many crimes, but those intent on diverting attention from the US and European role in the chaos close their ears to some uncomfortable details. Following the first overthrow of Aristide in 1991, the Organization of American States declared an embargo on trade with the junta that succeeded Aristide. President Bush exempted US firms from the embargo. During that time the interim government utilized paramilitary forces, such as the Front Révolutionnaire Pour L'Avancement et le Progrès d'Haiti (FRAPH) to exact violence upon its political opponents. The founder and leader of the FRAPH was a paid CIA informant, and following the fall of the interim government he was given a work permit from US immigration authorities and ended up living in Queens, New York. The records of the FRAPH were seized by the US military and names of foreigners who collaborated with the group were blacked out. On October 24, 2006, the United States District Court of New York, found the former head of the FRAPH to be liable for torture, attempted extrajudicial killing, and crimes against humanity. The truth is that everyone has blood on their hands. In Haiti, it is just a question of litres.
It was in Gonaives that members of the Cannibal Army, sometime allies of Aristide, turned against him when their leader, Amiot Metayer, was imprisoned in Port-au-Prince. After the custom house in Gonaives was burned to the ground in protest, the Aristide government returned Metayer to a jail in his home town. On August 2nd, 2003, the Cannibal Army drove a tractor through the wall of the prison, releasing their leader along with one hundred and sixty-nine other inmates. On September 22nd, 2003, Metayer was found dead on a side street of Gonaives. He had been shot at close range, once in each eye, and once through the heart. The country was in chaos. Factions were swaying and burning with the trade winds.
Early in 2004, the Cannibal Army, who had previously been funded by Aristide's government, took control of Gonaives and repelled a convoy of 150 heavily armed police officers sent from Port-au-Prince. Barricades of burning tires and auto carcasses were set up. Seven police officers were killed, one was lynched and the bodies of others were dragged through the streets. On 29th February, 2004 Aristide resigned and was flown into exile.
But this was the correct end game for many of the elite. Aristide's call for a doubling of the minimum wage did not please everyone. US AID, a federal government organisation responsible for non-military foreign aid, opposed the measure, writing in a report that the country should not squander its main "comparative advantage" which is its "low-cost labour force," i.e. the sweatshops owned by the private sector and Civil Society mentioned earlier.
Two years after the last major heart attack, Gonaives is quiet but hardly healthy. In view of this, there are checkpoints at most of the crossroads around town. Riding on a scooter we stop about a hundred metres from a group of Argentinian soldiers. One of them pushes his sunglasses to the end of his nose, peering at us, puzzled. When we ride by they wave at us, in the way that it's customary for all blancs to salute each other in a city that is generally hostile to white people. It is a Haitian police officer in kaki uniform who calls us back.
"Have you lost your way?" he asks wryly.
"No, no," Céline replies. "We're going to the cathedral; it's down this way isn't it?"
"Where are you from?"
"Bienvenue!" We depart with Cheshire cat grins.
The next checkpoint is manned by troops from Pakistan, Niger and Argentina. One of the Pakistanis reminds me of a Syrian friend of mine - the same goat beard, the same joking eyes and mischief. I recall the night I stayed up with Abdul to discuss East-West relations. "Your priests!" he roared. "No sex for your priests! Hah! Hah!"
Here his brother wears a bulletproof vest and paces back and forth toting a rifle. He spends most of his time telling kids on bicycles to turn around, frowning at them and making a pirouette motion with his finger. A younger fresh faced soldier has less success. One or two scooters get by. As he calls them back he looks awkward and inexperienced. The boys shout at him saying that they live on this street and that he can go fuck himself. He lets them through.
A tall dusky figure is in charge. He's busy shooing away locals from street corners but when he sees us his manner changes immediately. He knows us.
"Ahh, hello! Please bring your bike here," he gestures to a shaded patch of concrete by the railings of the Haitian Police Headquarters.
I wonder why he's speaking English, but then I remember that he's from Niger and English is the first language there. His ebullient warmth and comically polite English make it difficult to imagine him firing a gun or saying anything other than "please sir, might you kindly..." At least to a blanc.
Tap-taps go by, bursting with groups of young people wearing t-shirts marked "Kopa Party" or "The Agricultural Union of the Artibonite". They're on their way to the presidential parade. It's their day to stand tall while Préval talks about the future. But no one seems to know when or where he will be speaking. It won't be announced until the last minute for security reasons.
Standing on the balcony of the police headquarters is a figure in a blue suit. He stands motionless, behind dark sunglasses. An unsettling power leaks out of him as he surveys the city with an impassive, statuesque calm. As a chief of police, he's one of the few with an overview of the magnetic fields that govern the city. Everything here is magnetised. You feel it the minute you step onto the street. People are pulled this way and that, like metal filings lining up according to the shifting poles of the gangs, the police, the UN and the politicians. Wherever the fields overlap you will find bodies in the ditch. And here, standing on the balcony is the origin of one of those shifting poles.
Away from the police headquarters, high up on the mountainside, the zoom lens of our camera catches a girl in a white communion dress running across the viewfinder. Looking up, I can barely see her. She is no more than a grain. But in the viewfinder two boys in brown suits are running after her, pulling her pigtails. They disappear behind the walls of a hut. A black flag flutters from a galvanised roof.
It's well known the affairs of pirate ships were often determined by the democratic voting of the crew, the very opposite of the totalitarian state of the navy. Gonaives feels like such a ship, but its past is very much a naval state of slavery. Down from Hotel Chachou is one of the few remaining buildings from that time. An old colonial house, it sags like a dead elephant. Gone with the Wind verandas circle its flanks. A family of 10 live under a brittle roof that has somehow survived two centuries of hurricanes. There are few records of the plantations, at least not from the slaves. No body of letters or diaries to draw on. But this house is a novel in itself. A white family lived here. They owned acres of sugar cane, fields of cattle, hundreds of slaves. June was the month of balls, glittering affairs when the French families of the Artibonite came together for intrigue, dance and diversion. In the late 18th century, Hispaniola was the wealthiest territory on earth and it must have seemed that their world would go on forever. The fortunes of the plantations built palaces in France that stand to this day. They were too far away from Paris to worry about the rumblings that would soon engulf them. Here is a woman admiring herself in the mirror. She is the sweetheart of every bull's eye. In the mornings, the servants lay the table and draw water for her bath. In the afternoons, they wash her clothes in the river that's just out of view. But in the last year of that century, she finds herself hanging from a pole in the town square.
The slave revolt shocked the world - especially France. Four hundred and fifty thousand slaves rose up against the French in 1791 and attempts to re-establish control in 1793 lead to the first abolition of slavery in modern times. But while there was much bugling in Paris about liberty and equality, and the deputies congratulated themselves for being the first rulers to abolish slavery, the reality was that they were simply recognising a fait acompli. Few seriously considered that black Haitians could join the party, and Napoleon tried to re-impose slavery through the Peace of Amiens in 1802. Two years after the failure of that military expedition, the former slaves established the independent state of Haiti. France gave up on the New World and turned its eyes to Africa and Indochina. Even after Haitian independence, they insisted that the former slaves pay a large indemnity for having the impertinence of liberating themselves. To this day the two governments are wrangling about that fine. The French refuse to pay it back.
And what happened after independence? The white was torn out of the flag, heads rolled down the stairs, but as Zbigniew Herbert said "we know how quickly heads grow back." There's only ever room for a handful at the top of the stairs and the mansion of poverty grows bigger by the day. The majority of the peasants in the countryside around Gonaives still exist in a semi-feudal state that has not altered much since 1804, at least in political terms.
At the UN-Pakistani base all is quiet. A yellow wasteland yawns in front of the gates. Everyone has gone downtown to see Préval. He will be beamed onto a stage, Star Trek-style and beamed away again in a helicopter.
The silence is broken by a scooter cutting across the dry mud. It disappears down a maze of short cuts. A goat rests by the guillotine shadow of a wall and two boys are playing in burnt out cars. One of them sits on a steering wheel while the other turns him round and round. As we film this, another boy walks straight up to us and says simply "non!" Nothing else, just, "non!" Already he's learned that this is the only response to a blanc. Tracking away from the boys, the camera rests on a wooden kiosk of a lottery with "La Vie Drole" painted across the closed shutters.
Out on the bay road to Anse Rouge the city fades away behind us. Tucked away in the corner of the bay is the white triangle of the cathedral. Somewhere in there Préval is speaking and the crowds are cheering and heckling. Looking back along the road towards town, the slums rise up into the mountain. The wells are going salty and the land is turning into a desert. Last year, the government erected an electricity pole in this area but no power has flowed through the wires. There are angry people in that crowd by the cathedral. Standing in ragged flip-flops they listen to their president whose leather shoes are worth more than their entire possessions.
There is sand behind our eyeballs. We are tired and worn out from the day. Strutting down a mountain side is a woman in a short black dress. She stops by the road to hail a moto tap-tap and just as a scooter stops, a truck passes by and everything disappears in black fumes. As they re-emerge from the cloud, the woman is holding a handkerchief over her mouth and the moto driver waits for her. She sits side-saddle and her perfume cuts through the dust as they depart.
Through the chaos and collapse there is an abandon and a buzzing. Women walk languidly around town, proud of their beauty. Eyes alight on them like bumblebees. The usual polite constraints seem laughable when faced with the shotgun of the future. Playfulness and flirting are as constant as the sun and the eleventh commandment says that the senses must not be betrayed. This fragrance takes many forms. When we ask the kids on our lane how many brothers or sisters they have, they shrug their shoulders. They don't know and they don't care. Family means whoever lives under your roof. A local working for the UN will often support as many as twenty people - his own children, his wife, his mistress, the family of his mistress. A man convicted of killing his wife was released from prison because he had a good job and his large family would starve if he stayed behind bars. On our street there is a girl who works in a UN house, cooking and cleaning, for US$65 a week. This is an enormous amount of money in a country where most survive on one or two dollars a day. Every month, when she's taken some gourdes for food and phone cards she sends the rest to Port-au-Prince. A large clan of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, even uncles and aunts, depend on her for survival. After two years of a good salary, she hasn't a penny left over. When we asked her if she'd consider opening a back account to save a few dollars, she shrugged her shoulders. No one plans for the future when there is no future. But there is a selflessness at the bottom of the dry well. The question never arises as to whether she should or should not send the money home.
Another hum of abandon is the lucrative business of prostitution. There is now a profusion of strip clubs in Port-au-Prince since the UN arrived. Many blancs make the most of the situation and there are various grades of exploitation. The women that gravitate to the UN tend to be of a certain type; they are not the average Haitian. They speak French, English and Spanish when most only speak Creole, they have a basic education, they are young, attractive and often very ambitious. Some are prostitutes, some are girlfriends; most live in the blurred hinterland between two. But it is a dangerous game. A girl who becomes attached to the UN scene will often earn enough to become a target. Many end up being kidnapped. Some coordinate their own kidnapping in order to get a cut of the ransom. Others are murdered.
This is the chess board in the capital, but in a backwater like Gonaives, things are more like snakes and ladders. Difficult UN employees tend to be transferred here in the way Romans were banished to the Black Sea. Everyone hates the place, but the advantage for some is that there is little officialdom looking over your shoulder. During our time we knew of a Quebecker who would repeatedly bring teenage girls to his hotel room and dump them later that night by the roadside with a few gourdes in their pocket. Everyone knew. In fact there wasn't even an effort to hide it. He served a six-month contract and it was not renewed. No action was taken. This is normal in Gonaives. The whole city has the burning tinge of the fifth ditch of the seventh circle of hell.
Alejo was an exception. He liked the place. He was a Cuban doctors who lived in the commune opposite us, working day-in day-out in a building that had the air of a Napoleonic field hospital. The only orthopaedic surgeon north of Port-au-Prince, he ushered lines of patients through his room as though he were vaccinating sheep. He did his best, but it's hard to bear that kind of work for long. With his brutal compassion and polished stonework of internal organs, he'd call around to us for evening supper, still wearing his scrubs. We'd tell him to bring some of the others over but he'd mutter something about the others being busy. I suspect he didn't tell them so that he'd have more beer to drink.
With the face of a joking bull, he'd sop up his food with bread and drain his cans of beer like engine oil. Slowly he'd get drunk and start to hug us, with crushing embraces.
"Mi amigos. I love you all!" he'd roar; then turning to me, "Irlanda del Sur! I am happy!"
Eventually he'd put his head on the table, unable to speak. After that it was an effort and a game to lure him across the road with two cans of beer. He'd disappear into the commune, the dogs would start barking, and sometimes there'd be a crash as he collapsed at his door. In the morning he'd wave at us as he went to work, new as a stone on a river bed.
He withstood the land. He drank, he worked six days a week, he survived. But despite the mess, the Cubans did amazing work. In areas without Cuban medical collaboration infant mortality rates for children under one year old are approximately 80 per 1,000 live births. In areas with Cuban collaboration, the figure is approximately 21 per 1,000 live births. The maternal mortality rate in areas without Cuban help is approximately 520 per 10,000 births; in areas with Cubans, it is around 260 per 10,000 births. They provide a wide range of medical services. Since their mission arrived, they have performed over 70,000 surgical operations. They are proud of giving everything for free. "Todos libro, todos; medicament, operation, toute bagay!" they would say over and over again. But nothing is ever straightforward in Gonaives. Usually hospitals charge, and eventually the Cubans were also forced to charge; something they were not happy about. At night, they referred to the problems they were facing, always speaking in a roundabout way and a low voice.
New Year's Eve was a big event at the Cubans. Four pigs were roasted on a spit and the salsa music wafted over the walls with the smoke. But that night we avoided it all. It was as though we were waiting for something to happen - for a stranger to announce some official letter of celebration. None came; instead I poured rum into a glass and swirled the amber. It smelled of smoke. On a ledge under the metal railings we lay down in the dark and the dogs came sniffing around us. They ran through the bushes, chasing each other, whelping in mock distress. It felt good to lie there listening to the noise of the party just a few metres away. Shouting and laughter - the voices we knew, the Haitian girls, Alejo singing. But we didn't want to play that game tonight. It was enough to listen, to put our ear to the night like a radio. It felt good to be hidden, to be safe in the dark.
Above us, a forest of stars was electrified and an aeroplane blinked as it arrowed through the sea lanes. Up there in a capsule of luxury the passengers were sleeping with blindfolds over their eyes on their way to New York. Down here the people were exhausted after a day threshing rice in the fields. The dogs licked our ears wanting to know what was wrong.
The director of the hospital, called to the house, looking for us. She stood on the brightly lit porch and we watched her from the dark of the bushes. She had told us a few nights before how she, like most people, had trouble sleeping. She would wake up in the middle of the night hearing the siren of the ambulance. Now, she could not see us and we did not move. Gros Mal barked in the back yard. Something odd was happening. Gros Mal barked again and she left.
We crept back into the house and listened still more. Discos and drums in the city; gunshots and chanting, vodou and barking. Roosters crowded for the carnival crucifixion. We tuned in from very far away and fell asleep with the crackle in our ears.