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Month: April 2013

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.”

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

sleepingbuffalo

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.