Like everyone, I was very moved by the ‘Hope by Haiti Now: A Benefit for Earthquake Relief ’ telethon on Jan. 22, the epic international charity outreach organized by actor George Clooney. Hard to underestimate the power of a determined celebrity. Taking calls for charitable donations was a three-tiered bank of A-list Hollywood celebrities. The performances on sound stages in London, New York and Los Angeles were astonishing, both for the artists’ choices—mostly ballads and gospel—and for their emotional depth. Stevie Wonder’s version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ absolutely blew me away. So did Haiti itself when I visited 30 years ago.
“Haiti is a chunk of Africa that broke away from the Dark Continent, floated into the Caribbean and just recently opened its eyes to the 20th Century and the lucrative tourism market.” That’s what I wrote for Travel Agent, a trade paper covering the travel industry, in its March 17, 1980 edition. What a hapless dumbass I was. There’s more.
“Haiti is atypical of most Caribbean destinations,” I reported. “It has few beaches, almost no sports facilities and very little to recommend it as a tropical paradise where the winter-weary can get away from it all. Instead, the visitor is greeted by an island of raw beauty and confronted by primitive but friendly people descended from freed slaves who founded the hemisphere’s first black republic in 1804.”
After quoting several prominent hoteliers who testified to the island’s appeal (“The Haitian people are not anti-anything,” said one), I reached my conclusion: “For the first-time visitor, Haiti is difficult to hold at arm’s length. Its vibrant colors, primal energy and the all-pervading smell of mud, dung and citrus outside resort areas is overpowering.” At least I got the citrus in there.
I was young, just getting established as a travel writer. I didn’t know how to come to grips with the poverty, or how to properly describe it to professional sellers of travel products. I was living in New York at the time and knew from bad neighborhoods, but to see people without food, clothing or shelter—sometimes all three—was a shocker. Plus I got sick. In bed for two days with a GI infection. But at least I wasn’t on the street. I was in a very comfortable place.
El Rancho is located in Petionville outside Port-au-Prince, a lovely, spacious property with beautiful gardens and a swim-up bar in its pool. The owner, Alberto Silvera, had converted his home into a guest house in the 1950s, later adding dozens of rooms and luxury suites with carved mahogany furniture, Italian marble floors and other fine touches. Vibrant works of Haitian art brightened the walls and public spaces. A car enthusiast, Silvera parked a Rolls Royce out front of his low-rise hotel. I was woken every morning not by cocks crowing and dogs barking—the usual sun-up sounds in the rural Caribbean—but by the powerful rumble of Silvera’s Lamborghini, which he raced to the airport and back every day. Quite a contrast to a land where most had no transportation of any kind, much less shoes.
Once I felt better, I explored more of the island. At the northern tip of Haiti a 45-minute plane ride from the capital is Cap Haitien. First settled by a band of pirates in 1670, the town is the jumping off point for excursions to the ruins of Sans Souci Palace and also to the Citadelle, the crowning achievement of King Henry Christophe, the George Washington of Haiti.
Accompanied by a guide, I traveled up the side of a mountain atop a malnourished horse on the same road same road used by 200,000 men to carry up rocks and cannons for the construction of a fortress built to protect themselves against an invasion by Napolean. (Napolean never arrived and the Citadelle’s 12-foot-thick walls were never tested). The scale of the fort, the human toil required to build it, staggers the imagination.
I also ventured to the southern tip of Haiti, to Jacmel, a sleepy seaside resort town. Like the capital city before the earthquake destroyed them, Jacmel has “gingerbread” houses built by wealthy merchants in the 19th-century. Beaches are its main attraction: I remember strolling the black sand Congo Beach and thinking, is this really wave-washed volcanic ash?
I was invited to take another horseback trip from Jacmel to Bassins Bleu, where three pools of water are fed by waterfalls high in the mountains, but I did not have the heart to get back in the saddle. The horses were skinny. So was I back then, but still.
Even with my rudimentary French, I came to understand that the people of Haiti are independent and proud and have an indomitable spirit that cannot be defeated. From the very beginning, they have been victimized by their rulers, kleptocrats one and all. An Op-Ed piece by Mark Danner in the Jan. 22 edition of the New York Times documented Haiti’s tragic past and uncertain future.
Noting its place “as a kind of sacrificial victim among nations, nailed in its bloody suffering to the cross of unending destitution,” Danner said “there is nothing mystical in Haiti’s pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons.” Perhaps he was responding to Pat Robertson’s comment shortly after the earthquake hit that Haiti’s misfortunes are the result of a “deal with the devil” its people made in the 1800s.
Danner went on the catalogue the history of Haiti. Its against-all-odds triumph, when hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans rose up against their French masters to establish the world’s first independent black republic; the “shock, contempt and fear” registered by the great Western trading powers of the day, including the U.S., which “refused for nearly six decades…to recognize Haiti” (Abraham Lincoln finally did so in 1862). Trade embargos were fitted around the neck of Haiti like a noose designed to suffocate and kill it. Crushed by “the burden of these astronomical reparations, payments that…strangled its economy for more than a century,” Danner explained how, in the shadow of isolation and contempt, “Haiti’s peculiar political system took shape, mirroring in distorted form…the slave society of colonial times.”
Soon a new ruling class of mostly black and mulatto officers emerged. By forming a government designed to pluck the fruits and extract the wealth of freed slaves working small plots of land, politics in Haiti became “murderous, operatic, improvisional,” according to Danner.
In 1915, the U.S. Marines landed in Haiti to enforce continued repayment of the original debut and “stabilize” the Caribbean in the wake of German maneuvers in the region. The Americans built roads and bridges and centralized the Haitian state, but also set the stage for Francois Duvalier, a.k.a. “Papa Doc,” to come to power in 1957. Characterized by Danner as “brilliant and bloody,” this medical doctor used the dreaded Touton Macoutes (a violent military police force) to murder tens of thousands of his own people, increasing his might by publicizing his belief in Voodoo. Along the way, he cleverly exploited cold-war America’s fear of communism.
When I was in Haiti in 1980, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, a.k.a “Baby Doc,” was the residing dictator. From what I read at the time, he appeared to be ineffectual, overweight and dumb. And rapacious. Before his overthrow in 1986, he emptied the nation’s coffers and fled to a massive chateau in the south of France.
Given all that has gone before, Danner rightfully wonders about the prospects for a “new Haiti.” He says opening America’s markets to Haitian agricultural products could bring “permanent jobs, investment and income to Haiti.” (I’d like to mention that Barbancourt, a Haitian rum, is exceptional. Try the 5-star). Danner would also like to see some of the money pouring into Haiti go directly into the hands of the people who need it most. His hope is that with rising incomes and a decentralization of power, Haiti’s predatory state might disappear.
Since the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, what we have been shown around the clock by the news media are “colorful images of irresistible calamity,” says Danner. What needs to happen in the weeks, months and years ahead is for the people of Haiti to once again throw off their shackles and take charge of their country.
I vowed never to go back to Haiti after I returned to New York 30 years ago. I considered it a doomed place. Great people, but terribly disadvantaged. After listening to Springsteen and Sting and Beyonce and all the rest sing their hearts out on behalf of Haiti, I would like to return one day when the earth stops shaking to see with new eyes a nation unlike any other.
By the way, if you’re an American Airlines frequent flier, the carrier has teamed up with the American Red Cross to help victims affected by the earthquake. (The American Red Cross, through its partnership with the Haitian Red Cross, has made available relief supplies from its warehouse in Panama in addition to deploying disaster management specialists already in Haiti. In addition, American Airlines and American Eagle, its regional affiliate, have partnered with relief agencies and U.S. officials to continue humanitarian missions to Haiti).
Through Feb. 28, 2010, American Airlines will reward your generosity with an AAdvantage bonus mile offer. AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross. Go to www.aa.com for more details.