Haiti in My Memory

Posted on January 22, 2010


“The whole of Haiti,” I wrote in my journal in October of 1965, “excluding a minuscule segment, is poverty-stricken beyond belief. We brought some people-to-people stuff in [humanitarian assistance in today’s jargon] but the dent it made was nil at best.”

I was a Lieutenant (j.g.),  the Weapons Officer on the USS Donner (LSD 20) making a port of call at Port au Prince forty five years ago. We were on a short cruise in the Caribbean after some refresher training at Guantanamo Bay after three months in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards. Philly in the summertime was fun for Navy types, lots of girls, cool bars in south Philadelphia with cold beer. Gitmo was hot, sweaty and work from before dawn until after dark. Port au Prince left me almost speechless.

Papa Doc Duvalier had been ruling Haiti with an iron fist since 1957 and the U. S. had been trying to isolate and weaken his hold on this impoverished land. One could hardly call it a “nation” as we understand that word, then or today.

If anything, I suspect political scientists and nation watchers would call it a “failed state.” I knew a little of this at the ripe old age of twenty-three since I’d been a history major in college and in spite of my natural inclinations to enjoy the life of an undergraduate to the fullest, had read quite a bit.

From that reading I knew Voodoo was big on the island, the Tonton Macoute were Papa Doc’s bullies and thugs who ran the island, and this was a place like no other I’d seen.  I had grown up in Lima, Peru and later lived in Plainfield, New Jersey, right next to “the city,” and in the Navy already made a few other cruises to the Caribbean, at least one to the Mediterranean deployed with the 6th Fleet, and, while no world traveler or raconteur, was not naïve totally about power and poverty in history.

A few years after my first visit to Port au Prince, while in graduate school in New Orleans in the late sixties and early seventies,  I read more, and even wrote a paper about the U. S. occupation of the Dominican Republic between 1916-1924.

The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola (anglicized from the Spanish name, Española), and I discovered that the U. S. had intervened in Haitian affairs also over the years.

Between 1915 and 1934, for example, the U. S. basically occupied Haiti. President Woodrow Wilson sent in a few hundred Marines to restore some order to the country and during the almost twenty year occupation, Americans helped Haitians build roads, introduce basic sanitation services, string electric lines, and train a national police force to help govern professionally and maintain order in the country. Woodrow Wilson—when not saving the world for democracy during the Great War—dedicated himself to teaching Latin Americans how to govern themselves democratically.

If stability and peace are two criteria for a nation, then under the rule of the Americans, Haiti started to move to a nation state. In other words, long before the phrase became current today, the U. S. was “nation building” in Haiti.

But, under the new “Good Neighbor” policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, inaugurated for his first term in 1933, the U. S. pulled out. Intervening in the affairs, and even occupying, another country did not seem to coincide well with being a good neighbor. That was then.

As we neared Port au Prince in the fall of 1965 I was vaguely aware that this place was like no place I’d ever been. I remember the night before we reached port, steaming along the dark coast, leaning on the rail late at night, before or after standing a watch on the Bridge, I forget—and thinking I could hear the beating of drums from the dark mountains in the distance. Some occult ceremony was being celebrated, perhaps an animal sacrificed by the light of a fire somewhere in those dark mountains, the blood drained and….My imagination was on overtime.

The next morning we slowly steamed into the harbor and gingerly tied up at a pier of this tropical capital.

“From our clean decks and spotless living quarters,” I continued in my journal, through binoculars, “we could see the men and women and children wander out of their thatched straw and clapboard hovels, to urinate and defecate with their animals in the yards, porches or whatever the squalid open spaces around their shelters can be called.”

I was stunned, probably as much by the contrast of life aboard a modern American warship and what I was seeing as we threw over the lines to the stevedores and tied up to the pier, as by the squalor itself. Could people really live like this?

There was more to Port-au-Prince than that, of course, but I still can see that slum through the eyes of the young man I was in 1965, young but not necessarily callow, seeing but not particularly wise.

When we went on shore leave, as liberty was called for officers, we were instructed to wear our summer whites. It was the only port I visited in the two years of service on the old Donner as she steamed to and fro in the Caribbean and Mediterranean where officers were required to wear uniforms ashore. Normally we could go on “shore leave” in civilian attire, while the enlisted men went on “liberty” in uniform. You couldn’t miss them in their traditional sailors’ uniforms, but we officers could sometimes blend into local society, especially of course if visiting one of our own ports in the U.S.

For some reason, perhaps to call attention to our presence as the first U. S. Navy ship to visit Haiti in years, perhaps to distinguish us as U. S. naval officers, perhaps to afford us some protection of sorts, we went into town and into the surrounding neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince in summer whites.

They were very white, comfortable, good looking uniforms, open necked shirts, short sleeves, heavily starched trousers, and some discrete insignia to identify you as an officer and a member of the U. S. Navy. Our caps were regulation white as well, with the gold and silver naval officer’s seal across the front. You couldn’t miss us either in uniform.

We went ashore and I do remember doing what sailors tend to do in foreign ports, playing a bit in the town. We toured a “rum” factory, toured the obligatory brothel, tasted the local cuisine, rode in taxis through the tropical night air, listening and smelling the intoxicating sounds and aromas of a warm city close to the water, close to the earth, given to rhythms and drumbeats and lights and shadows that set some of our imaginations aflame.

I knew something of the local political culture, dominated by the old style Caribbean dictator Papa Doc, who actually was a physician. He ruled largely through the persuasion of a personal army called the Tonton Macoutes.

Strangely, I sensed a malevolence just thinking about them, not thinking that they certainly did not want to provoke a U. S. warship! Still, terror and torture were the most common ways of the Macoutes, and it seemed very threatening to me. But I didn’t know much else.

I had read a little about Voodoo, a transplanted African religion practiced in Haiti, but aside from some James Bond films, and the eerie sense that drumbeats in the night somehow meant Voodoo rituals in practice, I didn’t know a heck of a lot more.

Over the years since the Americans left Haiti in 1934, we have returned occasionally to “stabilize” the country, suppress violence, and “restore order,”  lately in the 1990s and then continuing into the twenty first century.

A few years ago ex-President Jimmy Carter, a Wilsonian idealist devoted to his predecessor’s principles (both Wilson and Carter were Southerners; although I’m not sure of the significance of that fact), also stepped onto the Haitian stage, with the support of the OAS, to help oversee elections and cultivate democracy on the black island nation. But Jimmy, like his predecessors, was boxing with shadows.

In the globalized world of the times, the U. S. doesn’t do this alone anymore, but is usually part of a multilateral effort to inculcate democracy, which is another way of saying that the interventions are done by more than the U. S. Today the OAS, the UN, and other agencies I am probably unaware of, all supported with muscle by the U. S., are determined to instill in Haitians much of what Woodrow Wilson devoted himself to in 1915.

How successful have we been in ensuring stable, long lasting, political institutions consistent with representative democracy and a deep commitment to constitutional order? How well have we gone to eradicating the deep divide between the great majority of poor black Haitians and the small ruling elite of largely mulattoes and a few privileged blacks who have traditionally controlled the sources of wealth (largely exports of agricultural crops such as coffee and sugar), the military, and the national police? Has the ideal of political democracy been reflected in its concomitant, economic democracy? Have social and racial injustices been addressed throughout the state?

And then in January, 2010 the most destructive earthquake in the Western Hemisphere struck Haiti, reminding me of my contact with this beleaguered people.

Back in 1965, we formed a little part of the humane bridgehead between the U. S. people and the Haitian people, bringing in a pitifully small amount of foods and medicines, but initiating once again an opening between our government and Papa Doc’s then-censured regime.

Part of our visit was to cultivate good diplomatic relations, so when we went ashore, starched, white and golden in our uniforms, “we were entertained royally by the small American establishment,” I remembered. I forget where. Possibly the U. S. Embassy, always a nice little piece of America in all the foreign capitals of the world (except of course those we had broken relations with, such as Cuba, North Korea, etc.).

And I recorded we “in turn did our best to make our welcome aboard ship as wholesome and American as they [visitors curious about us] expected. I escorted the Colombian and Ecuadorian ambassadors around the ship on Sunday and managed a fairly passable intercourse with my third grade Spanish,” and I added, with the “Colombian Ambassador’s patient tolerance…diplomacy?”

In fact, my Spanish was pretty good. I had spoken it as a child growing up in Peru, and my mother was Chilean, so at least this gringo naval officer spoke like a native, even if his syntax and grammar might have been rather simple.

So, there you have it. My memories of Port au Prince.

I never returned to Haiti in person, although I have visited it occasionally in my reading, and even writing. But that for another time.

I am aware of efforts these past thirty or forty years to lift sectors of the Haitian economy out of the survival stage. Mini-loans for micro-enterprises, soil stabilization projects, reforestation, and scores of, probably, hundreds of missionaries and missions to encourage Christian values and build clinics, schools, churches in a country desperately in need of them all.

Occasionally the Marines have been sent in (2004 for example) to escort politicians (like the President) into exile, elections are “watched,” and humanitarian assistance from organizations such as the World Bank are turned on, or cut off as the case may be, in response to local conditions.

And now perhaps the most disastrous earthquake in the history of the Americas, following four hurricanes which hit the island in 2008, destroying more than 70% of Haiti’s crops.

The televangelist Pat Robertson said that a pact was made between Haiti’s rulers and the devil to rid themselves of the French and become independent. Satan agreed and they have ever since been under his thumb. Robertson thought maybe it was Napoleon III who the Haitians wished to overthrow. Napoleon III governed France about a half a century after the Haitian Revolution but I don’t think Robertson was going to let facts get in the way of his view of events.

So, where are we? Is the island doomed because of a pact made with the devil over 200 years ago by a few leaders? Are the French colonizers to blame for not educating their slaves to rule after independence? Are African religions, transmogrified into Voodoo, turning the face of Jesus Christ away and leaving the people and the island to suffer endless shame and defeat? Is the failure of Haiti due to political leaders, lacking in vision and devotion to constitutional principles?

Can a people truly rise above their physical, economic, social, racial and political circumstances and reach levels of sufficiency and even plenty? The answer is yes. Historically people have risen out of the ashes of war, or the poverty of the land, or any other manmade or natural circumstances of disaster and want, and created bounty where none existed. The question is how.

Haiti is today the focus of the world’s humanitarian movement. It has been mobilized on a massive scale. The Internet is alive with discussion. I have seen references to scores, maybe hundreds of books and articles analyzing Haiti and providing solutions, from the establishment of the basics—education, health, agricultural and technical developments—to the less objective but in the long run, more important areas such as the rule of law, equity in the distribution of resources, frameworks for the production of wealth, a deep commitment to stewardship of resources (how to do this, for example, in a country where ninety percent or more of the land has been denuded by deforestation?), and, most important, fomenting a culture of responsibility that transcends individualism and recognizes the value of all human beings.

I certainly don’t have answers. I simply go back to that fall day in 1965 when I witnessed a face of humanity I had never seen before.

I thought that it would have changed after almost half a century. It has, but apparently for the worse.

There is an old adage that a person living a depraved, sinful life, perhaps strangled by drugs or alcohol, has to reach rock bottom before recognizing their plight, and beginning the long climb up. In the Christian framework, this is called redemption, triggered by the grace of God who gives everyone a second chance, and provides for a new birth, a new beginning.

That’s true of a people as well. I would say Haiti is at that point. Now it is for the world, and especially for us in America, to reach out truly and help Haiti take the first steps to a new life. There is intelligence, good will, love, determination in the hearts and minds of all Haitians to make this happen. The question is, are all those ingredients in America—and the rest of our partners in the humanitarian effort–to make it happen in Haiti?

And the answer is yes. Anyone who has seen the collective and individual acts of charity, sacrifice, love and outpouring of good will knows this to be true. The question becomes: how to begin the institutional building of a new Haiti, a Haiti that has not seen prosperity since the eighteenth century when French planters and slave owners transformed the colony of Saint Domingue into the richest plantation economy in the western world, all built on African slaves. That prosperity ended with independence, and the slide down has been almost inexorable since then.

Now is the time to envision the new future. God be with Haiti and those whose responsibility is now to forge a new world for the island nation.

This article published in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday January 24, 2010.

Posted in: Haiti