To mark the fifth anniversary of the massive earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, I’m republishing this review of Amy Wilentz‘s book Farewell, Fred Voodoo, originally posted in April 2013.
The lengthening aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti is at a telling moment in its history, as an occasion for international humanitarianism and as a public event in the awareness of the American public. On one hand, more than three years after the horrific event itself, enough time has passed that it’s possible to begin describing and assessing its impact on Haitian society and – at least equally – the impact of the massive international response. On the other hand, sad but not surprising to say, the American public’s attention has turned elsewhere. As a New York literary agent guilelessly told me in early 1995, in the wake of a previous Haitian crisis, “people’s interest in Haiti has peaked.” Thus, just as what can only be called the glaring and culpable failure of the international community’s response to the earthquake is being documented with irrefutable authority, it’s becoming more difficult to interest most Americans in that failure, what it means for Haitians, and what it says about us.
Did you text ten dollars to the American Red Cross after the earthquake? Half of U.S. households “gave to Haiti” then, an astounding factoid about what was not only a shocking natural disaster but also a phenomenon of 21st-century communications technology and global electronic interconnectedness. Americans do deserve credit for empathy and generosity, but we’re too quick to congratulate ourselves on that point. The phrase “self-indulgent overkill” may be harsh, but it sprang to my mind fairly soon after the earthquake, and it took on an especially pointed significance half a year later, when the annual monsoon hit Pakistan late and with unusual and abrupt severity, at one point leaving some two million people homeless and 20 percent of that large country underwater – and the American public scarcely noticed or, to the extent it did, felt free to dismiss human suffering in that case as unimportant or somehow deserved. (If you think I’m overstating this, read some of the comments on the Huffington Post version of my article “Pakistan Floods: Why Should We Care?”)
I addressed that contrast, which tells us little about either Haiti or Pakistan and all too much about ourselves, elsewhere some two years ago. The gist is in the connotation of the title of Paul Farmer’s book The Uses of Haiti: We Americans allow ourselves to use other societies as repositories for our own baggage – Haitians as objects of pity, Pakistanis as bearded bogeymen. Since then, others have produced documents that should spur all of us who “gave to Haiti” and/or watched it on TV to reflect on our role and our obligations. Unfortunately, much of what they’re documenting is unedifying and hard to swallow.
I haven’t yet read The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz, but people I trust recommend it, and the title is perfectly apt. I have read Farewell, Fred Voodoo and heard its author, Amy Wilentz, speak at Town Hall Seattle in January, and I’m relieved and grateful that it and she have given me an occasion to lay aside the misgivings I’ve long felt about the outsized influence her previous writings exerted, if not on Haiti’s own politics and recent history, then certainly on the parameters of allowable views on Haiti among bien-pensant Americans.
The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier (1989) was a good book, but its timing, bent, and reception conferred on Wilentz far more authority than should ever properly be granted to a young journalist and her first book. Perhaps Wilentz shouldn’t be faulted for having made the most of that opportunity to advocate for what was essentially a secular leftist Manhattanite’s understanding of Haiti; other willful (mis)understandings of Haiti – the cornfed Protestant “lay Jesus on ‘em” school, for example – have done more damage over a longer period. But throughout the crucial 1990s, Wilentz’s was, if not the only voice in the American debate, such as it was, on Haiti, certainly one of the most audible and influential. For the positions she advanced then, she should be held accountable. On the eve of the long-delayed U.S. invasion of Haiti in October 1994, for example, her conditional verb tense – arguing in The Nation that what we should hope for was “the transformation that would [my emphasis] come about when this regime is toppled from within, under pressure from the outside, and not for the cosmetic quick fix of intervention” – betrayed a moralistic wishfulness that the political and brute power of an imperial state could (because it should) be exercised on behalf of the helpless people of a poor and tiny nearby country. She was arguing, that is – albeit reluctantly, but quite explicitly – that, to serve a political purpose, Haitians should have continued paying the deadly human cost of the economic embargo that, in the real world, finally ended with the invasion.
But that is, on some levels, a very dated nit to pick at this point. Both tellingly and appropriately, at her Seattle reading the once ubiquitous and poisonous rhetorical war – “debate” is too polite a word – over the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide didn’t rear its head until I asked her about him, in the final question of the q-and-a session. “He largely hijacked my first book, is how I put it,” she answered. Then she went on to give Aristide his due: “He was a great spokesman for the Haitian people. … Whatever Aristide is personally he still is, for many Haitians, a symbol of their possible power. And that’s what [many elite Haitian and American] people fear.”
Aristide may have hijacked The Rainy Season, but it’s Wilentz’s book and she let him do it. By the same token, The Rainy Season was and remains crucially useful as perhaps the only thorough documentation of Aristide’s early career as a renegade populist priest, before his eleventh-hour decision to run in the December 1990 presidential election, which he won with 67 percent of the vote. Wilentz spent much of the ensuing painful and damaging period of recriminations and far worse that finally culminated, sort of, in Aristide’s February 2004 second overthrow courtesy of the Bush administration (“We’re glad to see him go” – Dick Cheney) awkwardly backing out of the corner into which she had painted herself. She eventually became very critical of Aristide, thus alienating him, but it was too late for her to regain the confidence of others who had been warier sooner about whether Haiti’s problems could be helpfully addressed in straightforwardly political ways.
Why does any of this matter, at this late date? In some ways it doesn’t, because other issues have become much more urgent, such as what exactly the vaunted “international community” has achieved with all its power, money, and suffocating presence in Haiti since the earthquake. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Wilentz addresses and partially documents the failure and, even more appalling, the damage wrought by international organizations and personalities who came to save Haiti and then overstayed their welcome. The title alludes to the dismissive monicker Wilentz heard fellow journalists using to refer to the hypothetical Haitian man on the street during her first stint in Haiti in the mid-1980s. Explaining the title at the Seattle reading, she said, “I wanted to be insulting; I wanted to be in the face of everybody. … These people who all thought they were helping, they were saying, ‘Fred Voodoo.’ … Outsiders thought they were fixing Haiti, remaking Haiti.” Anyone who has loved and learned from Haiti as long as I have can sympathize with Wilentz’s exasperation. It’s not for us to fix Haiti, and anyway, who’s to say Haiti is what needs to be fixed? Sometimes it’s important to get in people’s faces, or at least not to go too far out of one’s way to be polite.
Farewell, Fred Voodoo is not a tightly structured or fully coherent book, but it’s an honest and earnest one, and its publication represents the consummation of a long-cherished personal commitment. Any topical writer’s attention to the subject matter – that is, to the suffering human beings and societies – that he or she stumbles on early in life should be not only incisive but also sustained, as well as morally and intellectually honest. Farewell, Fred Voodoo thus is a triumph in a way The Rainy Season could never have been. “I thought I was done, and then Aristide became president,” Wilentz said in Seattle. “I thought, ‘Now I’m done, I’ve had my babies, I’ve written two other books.’ And then the earthquake happened. I felt I had an obligation to go back down to Haiti, see it all again.”
Farewell, Fred Voodoo hits hard on some truths that Americans need to hear, but – or rather, and – it’s not only (per its subtitle) a letter from Haiti, but a love letter to Haiti. If you “gave to Haiti” but haven’t read a book about it, start there and then keep going. Please do keep going; there’s a lot that you need to know. An excellent next stop would be the documentary film Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? directed by the journalist Michele Mitchell.
The hour-long documentary released in 2012 doesn’t answer its own question completely, but it certainly asks the hard question bluntly and effectively. In other words, it does what any work of journalism is supposed to do. Mitchell and her colleagues at Film at Eleven are not longtime Haiti hands, but they didn’t need to be to ask the question we all should be asking. The short answer is that a lot of it went to feed the bureaucracies of some of the most prestigious international organizations and the self-indulgent lifestyles of many of their employees. If that sounds harsh, watch the film and judge for yourself. The American Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services come off looking especially bad, but that might be partly a function of their hapless availability to the filmmakers; other groups Mitchell didn’t catch on film might well be just as bad.
And then there’s the United Nations, whose soldiers introduced cholera into Haiti, and which refuses to take responsibility for a bridge that one of its shipping containers destroyed near the new Partners in Health-run teaching hospital outside Mirebalais, when it came loose upriver. (I discuss the bridge, as well as the cholera epidemic, with Dr. David Walton of Partners in Health in my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, pp. 294-95.) “Every one of those ten thousand NGOs are here to live their own dream,” says the Dutch journalist Linda Polman, one of the film’s most thoughtful voices. “[Haitian] people are very poor, but they’re not stupid. They know that the money was raised from their suffering and their poverty, and it’s not being spent on them. … Like everything in life, it comes down to politics.” Adds Dr. Barth Green of the University of Miami and Project MediShare: “I can tell you that most of the money did not leave the United States.”
Another of the film’s memorable voices, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, says of the Red Cross: “They’re like the Halliburton of disaster relief, right? But that’s still no excuse. … There has to be some demand from the people for accountability from these organizations.” Clarke means in this case not Haitian people, but those American people – half of U.S. households – who “gave to Haiti” after the quake. She’s saying that there’s a responsibility implicit in our having done so. At screenings I attended in January in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, Mitchell echoed this point: “Take the time to follow your money,” she urged. “It starts with the donor. If we start holding them accountable for what they did with our money, then things can start to change.”
Late last year, to their great credit, Mitchell and her colleagues returned to Haiti, not to film but to screen the documentary in the camp where they had filmed much of it. The camp’s residents enjoyed seeing themselves and each other onscreen, she told us at the screenings I attended; and they told her, “Thank you for not forgetting us.” For her part, Mitchell said, “I didn’t want to be another white chick journalist who shoved a camera in their face and didn’t come back.”
Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? is an important film because it has a hope of reaching some measurable fraction of the American public with a truth that I know from my own Haitian experience and friends to be true: that the earthquake provided a novel occasion for the affluent outside world to do what it has always found an excuse to do, which is to use and exploit Haiti and Haitians. It’s fitting that those Haitians should be given the last word in this essay. “The NGOs pretty much focus on Port-au-Prince,” my remarkable friend Gerald Oriol Jr. told me as early as August 2010. “It would have been an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives in provincial towns. But the emergency period wasn’t well planned. Everybody was like, ‘Hey, Port-au-Prince is where all the journalists are,’ and since everybody wants to get their logo on national TV, the NGOs pretty much centered relief efforts on the capital.”
“Do you think it’s that cynical?” I asked him.
“Well, maybe I am being cynical,” he allowed. “But sometimes that’s the way you have to view it.”
My equally amazing friend Edrice Dely was more blunt. When I asked him about UN soldiers, he replied, “Peyi kote Nasyonzini ale nan mond, gen pwoblem.” Countries the UN goes to in the world have problems. “It’s not security that they provide,” he went on. “They look for the beautiful women, beautiful beaches, nice houses. If there’s insecurity, they’re happy. It’s their job: per diem, salary, car. Wherever there’s UN intervention, it creates problems. They give arms to twelve-year-old children. They trade arms with young boys for marijuana. They destabilize the economy. They make prices rise, because they have American money.”
As we talked, sitting on the grass near the picturesque ruin of the Sans Souci palace outside Cap Haitien, someone was broadcasting a speech over a loudspeaker in the market area nearby. I asked Edrice to help me understand what the person was saying.
“They’re talking about the reconstruction of the country,” he said.
“Is it political?” I asked.
“It’s the UN who’s talking.”
“Is it good or bad?”
“Good words,” he replied. “Bel pawol sans aksyon. Beautiful words, with no action.”