papadocratic caucus

Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti’s former President-for-Life and son of François Duvalier, in appeals court. 28 Feb, 2013.
Photo by @etiennecp.

One hot February afternoon last year I was sitting under one of the broad, white tents that was often erected on the National Palace grounds for special events — inaugurations, visits from foreign heads of state and the like — waiting for a promised interview with Haiti’s then-Foreign Affairs Minister, now Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe. One of his aides, an omnipresent Canadian, came and sat down next to me. The aide pushed for details on what questions I wanted to ask Lamothe, stressing that there’d “only be time for one,” and asked if he could shoot video of my interview. I declined the strange request and said, vaguely, that I wanted to talk to him about the campaign to re-brand Haiti’s international image and the many challenges on that particular road. What kind of challenges, asked the aide, barely concealing his alarm. I laughed that there would be quite a number of bumps in any Haiti brand makeover. Shaking off negative stereotypes to attract investors would be tough — chief among them, the long associations with instability, inequality, and Duvalier. An investigating judge had just recently ruled not to bring human rights charges against the former President, who had returned from exile the year previous. The government aide scoffed at the D word.

“Don’t ask him about that,” he said sternly. “That’s the past. We’re looking to the future.”

I didn’t get my interview that day after all. But despite repeated attempts to shove the Jean-Claude issue aside, a year later the Duvalier name is on airwaves, printed in newspaper pages and slips off people’s tongues every moment of every day in Haiti. Even the Senior Duvalier, François, has been pulled back into conversation, with sharp local reactions this past week to an adoring memorial penned by his grandson, Nicholas.

In the case of Nicholas’ father, Jean-Claude, the human rights violation charges may have been dropped, but certainly not forgotten. I’ve been following the appeals process in a downtown Port-au-Prince courtroom since hearings began in late January, where alleged victims of his regime spend their Thursdays giving personal testimony of their unlawful arrests, solitary confinement, beatings and other tortures. The process is long, and few are optimistic about Haiti’s judicial system, but at least this particular piece of Haiti’s history is not being laid to rest, or rebranded, any time soon. Some of those testifying will participate in a number of memorial services tomorrow, April 26 — a day that is significant for a number of reasons.

Fifty years ago tomorrow was, according to documentation, a particularly evil day in a period that was already deeply marked by violence. Papa Doc was in charge. From Red Heat, the context: post-Trujillo President Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic calling for François Duvalier’s ouster, mass arrests and tortures of student protestors in Port-au-Prince, John F. Kennedy mulling over whether to invade or support a coup lead by ex-Macoute Clément Barbot, and a nascent mutiny astir within the Haitian army. Duvalier Sr purged the army and threw himself a party to mark his apparent unfuckwittableness. And then:

Amid the celebrations, on 26 April, a limousine was taking two of Duvalier’s children, fourteen-year-Simone and eleven-year-old Jean-Claude, to school. Two blocks from the National Palace, another car slowed down alongside the limousine. With perfect precision, three shots were fired. The driver and two Tontons Macoutes, the children’s bodyguards, slumped down dead where they sat. The assassin did not fire on the children, who scrambled out and ran into the school, unharmed.

General Constant and Duvalier’s physician, Jacques Fourcand, begged him to calm down, lest he have another heart attack. “The children aren’t hurt,” said Fourcand. “You have time for sober reflection.”

Sober reflection was not Duvalier’s strong suit. Instead, he ordered sixty-five of his officers to be shot immediately without trial. The Tontons Macoutes were unleashed. Guns cocked, they swaggered through Port-au-Prince, shooting and killing anyone whose car was the same make as the assassin’s. Hundreds of civilians disappeared that day. By nightfall, bodies littered the streets.

The sharpest shot in the Haitian army had been one Lieutenant François Benoît, though he had been purged the previous week. In a blind fury, Duvalier became convinced–without evidence–that Benoît was the only man in Haiti capable of pulling off such a feat of shooting. The Macoutes went to look for Benoît. Twelve hours previously, he had escaped into the Dominican embassy. Instead, they went after his family. A squad arrived at the Benoît residence with submachine guns, and killed his father, his mother, a family friend, their servants, and their dogs, before setting fire to the house. Benoît’s baby son, Gérard, perished in his cradle.

(Barbot, as it turned out, had been the shooter. Not Benoît.)

This was followed by an aggressive stand-off at the Dominican embassy, flaring tempers in Santo Domingo, and plans for a sped-up U.S. invasion. Explanatory leaflets were printed in preparation, and American, Canadian and British warships convened in the Gulf of Gonâve. The OAS sent a team of investigators, and Duvalier ordered a carnival parade be hurried together to entertain them. To them he turned and asked, “If the OAS claims the right to intervene because of repressive internal conditions, why don’t they land troops in Alabama?”

There was no intervention, of course. Papa Doc carried on, and when he invited a group of journalists to the palace some weeks later, a group forever prone to promoting negative stereotypes about Haiti, he assured them: “The country is calm and peaceful.”

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if the bear starts eating you, it is no longer being defensive


I saw an elk for the first time a few weeks ago. We were both out in the rain, a cool layer of mist hiding the mountain peaks from view, darkness creeping up close behind. Wandering along the trees and lost in conversation, I didn’t notice her at first, but nearly dropped my phone when I did. She was so close. Long neck bent toward the grass, her thick coat carrying the honey of a spring that still seemed shy in coming to the Rockies.

I spent part of the past while nestled high in the mountains as a resident of the Banff Centre, where the days stretched out forever and the first grizzlies and black bears were just beginning to stir from their long slumber. I drank in that air like I’d never taken breath before. Before that, it was the Toronto Island for days and nights of writing, listening to the crash and lull of Lake Ontario, and a massive cleansing equinox bonfire. I’d follow coywolf prints on long walks along the beach, and some nights I swear I could hear them yipping demurely in the distance. Thick ice gave way to grassy fields and flowers, and red-winged blackbirds played host to my first vernal welcome in years. I’m lucky to have access to this kind of gentle exile.

Other luxuries: wading through thick snowfalls on soft sand; the intimacy of tall firs and spruces and pines; admiring high tide’s red earth designs along the shore; a hike up Sleeping Buffalo Mountain before sunset; watching storms crawl in and daylight fade away beyond the peaks, beyond the horizon, a disappearing act. It was stunning, in icy shades of blue and grey, but it all felt utterly unreal to me at the time. Beautiful, uncomplicated fictions that demanded nothing.

(I was wrong, of course.)

I’m now back home in Port-au-Prince, where the days grow warmer and the evenings are sticky with rains. There is no other word for PAP right now but home; I haven’t hung around any where this long for at least the past decade. But, familiar as it may be, the city still challenges me. Port-au-Prince is an all-consuming place, the churning centre of a country that extends far beyond its borders, but that can still be difficult to grasp from inside. The Haiti peanut gallery is vast and opinionated, and the daily barrage of radio rumour, political gossip and packaged press releases can only be tuned out while in exile — and even then, much too much noise seeps through. Too many different versions of the same place, and they are all alive and true. I think. While at a distance, the various Haitis changed size, shape and temperature in my mind. Many of the conversations I had about them did not.

“Oh, Haiti?” said Old or New Acquaintance. “You don’t hear much from there these days…” With those last two words, trailing, I’d see their gaze shift and dissolve, mirroring the struggle of an imagination that couldn’t call up any current, concrete vision of this far-off place. There’s a lot going on, I understand. And for many, it is Haiti that’s unreal.

Dark, formless, incomplete pictures of suffering, violence, something vague about a natural disaster. Was it an earthquake? (It was.) Have people recovered? (Not quite.) I take this to heart, as a Port-au-Prince-based journalist, that I’m not doing my job well enough. (Perhaps I’m not.) But even with the wealth of stories already out there — fiction and documentary, earnest and self-serving, saccharine PR and nightmarish condemnation — it remains difficult to break this other hollow, malformed mould. It is a challenge to absorb new visions and versions in a space that’s already occupied by shadow-casting stereotypes, and to know which one of them to trust. When asked, I hardly know where to begin. Even long-time residents may only ever live in one Haiti, tucked away on the mountain or in a dusty compound, confined to a world of VIPs or pats on the back. Seeking and digesting multiplicity requires some faith.

(And, you know, I’m cool with it. Growing up between worlds, between languages, a cultural and class go-between, has served me well. But my own forever-shifting identity, in the context of a place where I’m an “expat” and not an immigrant or diaspora, and the baggage and privilege and strange social circles that come with that, is a separate conversation.)

This is why, in part, I’ve stuck around. Though these places try my patience and break my heart again and again, there are still more to see and meet and taste and berate and dance with and be confounded by. There are ones that have not yet deceived me, charmed me, or beat me at dominoes. There are places and stories that take their time to emerge. They unravel, fleck by fleck, moment by moment, even as they take care to unravel you.

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groundhog days

A decade of concentrated assistance and hundreds of millions of dollars of international investment on the part of the United Nations, international development banks, and bilateral donors, does not ensure the successful installation of ______ ______ and ___ ____ _____ in a poor country with fragile democratic institutions while in the process of nation re-building. The international donors bear significant responsibility for this failure as a result of their overly optimistic presumption that huge external resources and concentrated international expertise, with little consideration of absorptive capacity or measure of the true interest in change, could quickly transform a nation. Haiti provides a textbook case of the difficulties that can follow naïve and unrealistic levels of intervention.

This paragraph is nearly ten years old. Specifics blanked out by me, as this can apply to rule of law, justice, land tenure, agriculture, infrastructure, water, sanitation, housing, etc. Its original heading, “Lessons Learned,” seems rather impolite.

Speaking of which — please forgive my six month silence on this thing. I’ve been occupied with a Canada Council-funded project (she’s still finding her legs) and a new-ish gig, but am still here. Still in Haiti. Still watching, smelling, waiting, breathing, tasting, smiling, listening.

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history rolls in and out and back with the tides

First published in 1993, Lillian Allen’s collection of poetry “Women Do This Every Day” included this not-so-blind item, made less scathing — and, in some ways, sadder — with events and non-events of this past year and a half:

(for Haiti)

the dust that makes you will someday
turn to mud in the rain
and fertilize land for the peasants
its fruit shall bear no resemblance of you
only a song of the past about evil days
long gone
shall we remember your name

Evil days, not long gone, but parallax. A long conversation on a longer car trip recently had me listening to these words come out of my own mouth:

“I don’t know how I feel about right and wrong anymore.”

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welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

One positive outcome: I’ve been compelled to finally start writing about my neighbourhood.


Continue reading

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strange theatre


I snapped this photo at about a quarter to four on the afternoon of March 29. A friend had called me up an hour or two earlier, saying — Hey, the ex-military are going on parade, do you want to join them? We were there within the hour, the only journalists in sight. This image was taken just down the road from their base. I posted it to Twitter with the following caption: “Ex-FAdH military en route to #PAP. Crowds cheer. Just a regular Thursday afternoon in Carrefour…”

I remember hearing about ex-military training and recruitment camps in March of last year. They were called Lame Woz, President Martelly’s pink army, held up by some as evidence of his fascist, repressive tendencies. Busy with other matters, I mostly ignored the reports for a full year. When the militarized groups began to clash with the national police two months ago, I finally paid them a visit.

A few of my shots from March 29′s parade were picked up far and wide. I saw them pop up in a handful of Haitian newspapers and sites, and the above shot especially made quite a few rounds on Facebook. A neighbour emailed it to me days later, saying: “You can thank [our electrician] and his Blackberry for this photo, taken on Canapé Vert.”

The photos stirred up some panic. These men and women in army green look armed, but they were not armed. They were not aggressive. They were playing out a scenario, in the theatre of Port-au-Prince.

The military term “theatre” is apt, as so much of what I’ve seen unfold over the past two and a half months has involved some level of acting, posturing, and scripted conflict. But I no longer know who is benefitting. I no longer know who, if anyone, is controlling the curtains.


I put together a doc for CBC Radio One’s Dispatches, but as is always the case, a few points got left on the cutting room floor or didn’t make it into the final script at all.

One is that this military narrative has changed over time. They’ve gone from cursing the tactical units of the national police to praising them as brothers. I accompanied them to the same police station they had once threatened to take by force, and they were hugging and shaking hands with the officers, smiles all around.

Another is that they feel they’ve been lied to. They’ve long said that the current president — a long time fan of Haiti’s military — had encouraged them last year, and even paid them a visit during his campaign while they were training at a different base. These men (and women) say they were encouraged to continue drilling and recruiting so that they could be ready for when the army is officially re-instated. Now the official line is that these groups must be dismantled, and the plan for a modern army revival is to be shelved for a time.

Today, May 18th, Haitian Flag Day, they’ve promised to ride the streets again. They say they’ll bring their guns out. Some of them, feeling bolder, say they’ll meet resistance with violence. They’ve been painted variously as a menace or as a band of clowns. I’m not sure they’re either.

There’s always more to it than that. This is about pride, about past, and to an extent, about sovereignty. This is about plot twists that could have been. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, in today’s act, nothing more than a few already-bruised egos get hurt.



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sispann pedi

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

/james baldwin

I landed back in PAP a few weeks ago after a short time away, and returned to a city floating in a strange, grey, time warp limbo. My American Airlines flight hadn’t bothered to update to Haiti’s new timezone, so their clocks were still behind. When its plane full of clapping passengers touched down, joyed to arrive alive, they were already an hour late. President Michel Martelly’s office had announced the timezone switch late on a Friday evening in early March — a heads up of 30 hours for a population mostly deprived of electricity — to match the springing-forward of the north. None of this seemed to matter to the airline; early, late, it was all immaterial. The sky looked heavy as I walked outside. Thick air, humid and choked with car exhaust, smoke. It was uncomfortable. The long, uneasy week that followed was without sun, flush with rowdy rains day and night. Everything seemed more tense. Everything seemed more weird.

It wasn’t always like this. There had been some optimism early this year, a different energy, a feeling that, slowly, things might get better. I know I didn’t imagine it. I hope I didn’t imagine it. That mood began to wobble around Carnival, in February. A slap on the wrist for ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier after a year-long investigation, gossip-fueling feuds between the president and prime minister, defiant bacchanale excess in Les Cayes, and finally on the 24th, the resignation of the four-month-term head of government. Political turmoil, it was called. A string of high-profile murders. An early start to rainy season. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I can pinpoint when it fell apart.

It began the week the earthquakes came back.

The evening of March 7 , a Wednesday, I was at a friend’s place in the high hills of Petionville when the quake hit. I didn’t feel it, but even if I had, I don’t have traumatic memories to draw on. This small tremor sent people running into the streets, panicked, the apocalyptic horror of douz janvye flooding back like no time had passed. It was enough to give many Port-au-Prince residents a sleepless night and to keep them on edge for the days that followed.

And like clockwork, two senators went on the radio the next day to stoke that tension. They announced, separately, that there would be a mad panic in the capital soon, and advised listeners to be home by 4 pm for the sake of their safety. Rumours had already swirled for weeks that former President Jean Bertrand Aristide would be arrested, and the announcement of a sudden, mysterious press conference at the National Palace did nothing to allay the frightened chaos. When I went out later that evening, the streets were ghostly. Not a single police patrol in sight.

After that came Friday, the 9th. The day played out slowly, gingerly. There had been no catastrophe the night before. People went back to work. Vendors spread their fruits and cell phone cables and dried biscuits out to sell. Tap-taps and taxis laboured up and down their usual hills. Another minor earthquake hit — and this one I felt. Another high-profile assassination. That evening, at 8:23 pm, an abrupt announcement from the office of the president landed in my inbox, decreeing the adoption of a new timezone the following night. The chatter over the left field time change overshadowed another drama — a standoff between national police and rogue paramilitaries in Carrefour. The bizarre scene played out for hours on 104.9 FM: demobilized soldiers and their new recruits from three bases spread across the metropolitan area threatened to storm a police station where one of their own was being held, arrested on a traffic violation. A nameless national palace representative ordered the police to release their suspect, a former sergeant went on air to order the enraged paramilitaries back to their respective bases, and a temporary peace was declared. Not their last public flexing of power.

A weekend of disquiet.

Monday morning opened with a morbid editorial digest in Le Nouvelliste: ”Haiti is open for… crisis?” The insecurity, the murders, the political bickering, and the unsubtle “Trojan War” being scripted by so many professional tragedians had convened to crush the last remaining optimism of a new year. Haiti’s positive re-branding campaign seemed empty. There was a heavy, disappointing sense of being trapped in a familiar time warp. The mood “is gloomy, and the old demons will come back to haunt this country if we do not take lessons from history.”

Two months later, I don’t know how to measure the mood anymore. I do not revel in the negative. My mind often wanders back to those intense 72 hours in March, though there have been many more highs and lows since: a new prime minister and Cabinet, a surge in cholera, a reduction in IDP camps, increased settlement south of Titanyen, disappearing rubble piles, a corruption scandal involving the president and a DR senator, more kids in school, road-choking protests over a police officer’s murder, gold medal beer, rain, rain, rain. I’m told that American Airlines has adjusted its timezone for Haiti by now. At least the time, if not the timing, is right.


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takeoffs and landings

Tomorrow marks 10 years since peace returned to Angola. From 1961 to 1975, the war of independence. Then, nearly three decades of cold, cold civil war. But stretched out before either were hundreds of years of Portuguese occupation, colonization, slavery. A successful ceasefire agreement between former nationalist-guerilla-groups-turned-civil-war-rivals on April 4, 2002 changed all of that. This is the simplified version of events, in any case.

It’s been a very long road.

If you know me, you know how badly I wish I could be in Angola right now. My family’s history is tied to that place, tied to those wars. But for lack of finances, and at least a few unlucky missed opportunities, my time to visit has not yet come. In the meantime I read things like Judith Matloff‘s “Fragments of a Forgotten War,” a warm, beautifully written memoir of Angola’s false peace ten years earlier, in 1992. It took months (and at least two unscrupulous eBay sellers) to track down a copy, but it was well worth the effort. Matloff, a former Lisbon correspondant now based in Apartheid-era South Africa, arrives in post-ceasefire Luanda. Roads, railways and buildings had been obliterated during the wars, vast swaths of the country were littered with slumbering landmines, but offshore oil infrastructure remained intact. The ceasefire brought with it a frenzy of activity, new hopes, old demons, opportunism, and an uneasy chaos that I’m well familiar with in my own corner of the world:

Suddenly, small shops were opening and people were plastering over the bullet holes and painting their houses. Foreigners were coming in, looking for good business deals. Suddenly, too, there was a proliferation of cars–and traffic jams.

Bars were opening everywhere. The favoured one at the time was the Bar Aberto, or Open Bar, which was on a rooftop and played the latest techno-rap music from New York. I never ceased to marvel at where all these trendy people in tight black outfits appeared from; you never saw such hip well-dressed characters on the streets during the day.

The optimism that followed the Biçesse accords led to talk of physical reconstruction. Consultants and experts flew in to calculate how much it would cost to repair the shattered country. The World Bank estimated it would take a decade to fully rebuild the roads, bridges and other infrastructure. One of the more ambitious projects was reviving the Benguela Railroad (estimate: $340 million). Portuguese citizens visited factories and farms that had been nationalised with a view to buying them back.

Another negative side of peace, for the MPLA at any rate, was that it could no longer blame the ills of urban life on the enemy. Earlier it was UNITA which had thrown the city into a waterless dark by sabotaging electricity pylons and water tanks. But now that the rebels were in Luanda the MPLA had to assume responsibility for the deficiencies of city life.

These deficiencies were myriad. The MPLA as administrators embodied the worst of Portuguese bureaucracy, African lack of training and Marxist-Leninist inefficiency. Luanda had become a monster of a city.

For most of the population — and one-fifth lived in Luanda — there was no proper health care or education. Public services had all but broken down. I saw this most clearly at the city morgue, which I visited by accident. I was suffering from symptoms of malaria and a friend took me to the military hospital to be tested. I was advised to take my own clean needle to avoid the possibility of contracting Aids from the used ones they had at the hospital. When one entered the clinic one became keenly aware of one’s mortality: it was right next to the morgue. The building emitted a terrible stench. As the Cuban doctor pricked my finger for blood I heard what sounded like a small explosion.

“What’s that?” I asked. Another noise followed.

“Oh, it’s probably a body at the morgue,” the doctor said nonchalantly. “When the electricity goes off the refrigerators go warm. Then the bodies swell up and pop.”

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konstitisyonally speaking

With the possible exception of the interpretation-obsessed U.S., I’ve never lived in a country so devoted to its constitution as Haiti. The 25th anniversary of the 1987 manman tout lwa was marked on Thursday by marches–by grassroots activist groups, by people under ex-President Aristide’s Lavalas party banner, and by former members of the demobilized national army. The first group called for citizens’ basic right to housing under article 22, highlighting in particular the plight of the hundreds of thousands living through their third rainy season under ratty tarps and tents. The second group protested for Martelly to step down due to his alleged dual nationality, which is forbidden under article 15. The third group defied government “orders” to stay confined to their (illegally occupied) military bases, and paraded their constitutionally-enshrined right to exist, citing articles 263 through 266.

In honour of these and other ongoing constitutional quarrels, here are some “scans” (er, photos–if you live in PAP and have a scanner, kindly let me know) of an illustrated Creole guide to the constitution. Click the right/left side of the image to go forward/back. Decentralization, dual nationality, the division of powers, provisional vs. permanent electoral council, physical abuse of cheeky journalists, it’s all laid out. Thanks, National Democratic Institute!

Konstitisyon 1987

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to clarify

I wrote a story last week for TIME on the second earthquake anniversary in Haiti. Specifically, about Titanyen, a new settlement on what was ostensibly claimed “public use” land just north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.  To be even more specific, it is the Titanyen that is north of Grace de Dieu, which is north of Mon St. Christophe, which is north of Jerusalem, north of Canaan, north of Onaville, north of Corail-Cesselesse, which is north of La Plaine, north of Bon Repos, north of Crois-des-Bouquets. (But that’s not the real Crois-des-Bouquets, some locals will say.) And this Titanyen is south of the tiny village Titanyen, which is where I stopped one day to have a tall Coca-Cola by the side of the road and has, I can tell you, been around for a minute.

(People began to move to not-the-village Titanyen in November from Tabarre, Delmas, Cite Soleil, Cabaret, Santo and other places after they heard via SMS and radio that free land was available. Free land! For a first family home or an escape from a camp, who wouldn’t want to come?)

This Titanyen is a mass grave site. It is not where the earthquake memorial took place this year or last (that would be Mon St. Christophe), but rather it is where the dead are (and continue to be) buried en masse. There is still an open pit; when new bodies are dropped in, dirt from the towering mounds that surround the pit is pushed in to cover them. A few metal crosses remain from memorials past, some fallen forgotten in the rocky earth, among the last solemn physical reminders of what this place is.

Kijan rele zòn sa a? ”What is the name of this place?”

The answers were different each time I asked. The most popular, Titanyen, was the one that stuck. “No, I think this is Sous Pyant,” a few people said, recalling the name of the sulphur springs across the road and down the way. No one south of here seemed to want to claim the name Titanyen anymore; they had all taken on new names, baptized into their new lives. Someone had already tried to baptize this place, too.

“This is Bethlehem.” One man tried to convince me, showing off a hand-painted sign propped up on a hillside, but the name hasn’t gained much traction yet. Bethlehem. Birth place of Jesus, his saviour, and in keeping with the Biblical names taken on by his neighbours to the south. Bethlehem. Until the name sticks, adopted by a critical mass, the name Titanyen remains. Given the still-open grave, it seems fitting.


We are spoiled in the North/West by our expectation of hard and simple truths, boundaries, statistics, names, spellings. How big was the protest? How many dead? Who won the election? The most recent theme taken up by the international media has been this gem: Where did the money go?

Covering demonstrations is nearly always an exercise in managing manufactured appearances. So much is done for show, for influence and marketing power, but how do you report that the few hundred people that showed up with neat, pre-made protest signs in English at the anti-UN demo were actually bussed in and paid to attend by local politicians, narco traffickers and pro-army lobbyists? (Sometimes a three-for-one deal.) Is a protester still a protester if all he wants is some lunch?

My friend and colleague Maura O’Connor has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the prickly dispute over the earthquake death toll that is worth a read. It astounds me, naïvely, still, how striving for accuracy in numbers can make you so many enemies. I’ve countered claims of overblown head counts by activists and journalists–claims of several thousand demonstrators at a protest when I see with my own eyes no more than several hundred–that has caused some friction, as well as one (so far) low-blow Twitter tussle. The idea that, by wanting to report a lower number, this somehow hurts “the cause.” But doesn’t reporting a flagrantly exaggerated number hurt credibility? And in the case of death or sickness counts–cholera, quake, or otherwise–cooking the numbers for political or financial reasons can have far graver consequences than a simple ego bruise. Choosing which numbers to report, and whether or not to include backstory details, isn’t always easy to navigate.

We measure the strength of movements and public opinion by how many bodies are in the street, with no distinction between the organic and the engineered. We also measure success in reconstruction, it seems, by similarly arbitrary numbers.

WHERE DID THE MONEY GO? Last week’s headlines, ledes and nut graphs screamed this question. An American reporter brought it up on a USAID teleconference, her delivery particularly indignant: where did all that money go? $10 billion pledged, $4.5 billion pledged, only half delivered, dispersed, spent, $155 per Haitian, $173 per Haitian, $200 000 for a country director salary, and people are still in tents, where did it all go?

Underlying much of this talk are a few major assumptions. The first, and most revealing, is that spending fixes things. The money that was pledged — Was it not enough? Was it too much? If all those billions of dollars had been spent, rather than just some of them, would Haiti be in top shape by now? There is no nuanced breakdown of how money is spent in a program, of how much is actually needed to deliver specific services or supplies. I’ve seen NGOs struggle with enormous AmCross grants, overwhelmed over how to spend tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars in a set period. Other programs, meanwhile, have languished for lack of financial support–not to speak of the chronically cash-starved state.

The money must be spent! Restricted funds, unrestricted funds, emergency response funds, development programme funds. There are submenus to be explored in this monetary breakdown, and sub-questions to pose. Stepping back further: What does the charity spending impulse reveal? What does the bang-for-your-donated-buck demand reveal? Pouring money into a fractured aid system and then being upset that bothersome problems like homelessness and poverty haven’t been solved after two years is a cocktail that gives me the worst kind of headache.

The self-directed resettlement and reconstruction happening in Titanyen struck me as extraordinary for a number of reasons, one of them being that it is not extraordinary at all. In the face of everything, in the face of mismanagement of funds and expectations, life must go on. People must eat. People must sleep. Some of the most striking personal stories I heard had little to do with the earthquake. The man who had his arms and head disfigured in a machete attack in Freres two decades ago. The woman who put her two children in an orphanage after her husband died, losing all contact with them after they were sold away in a German adoption years ago. At least, she thinks they’re in Germany. Information, she said, has been hard to come by.

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