The Day You See Me Fall
Is Not the Day I Die
One black peasant woman fell upon her knees
with her arms outstretched like a crucifix and
cried, "They say that the white man is coming to
rule Haiti again. The black man is so cruel to his
own, let the white man come!"
--Zora Neale Hurston (1938).
The tyrants wanted everyone happy, that first carnival after the coup d'etat in September 1991. They wanted celebration and, when it was not forthcoming, set about to manufacture it themselves--because the contagion that had infected Haitian society had been cut away, gouged out with less than surgical precision: the disease called Lavalas was in remission, the malignant Aristide removed, and the status quo revived. No single social event was more important to the Haitian people, high or low, elite or peasant, than carnival, and carnival was the government's responsibility, a once-only chance to exercise its deformed sense of noblesse oblige. But when the tyrants sent the musicians to Champs du Mars to inaugurate the seasonal jubilation, inconceivably, no one came.
There were many reasons for the people's absence, but the foremost problem, the putschists determined, was the music--the music wasn't working. The regime had hired compas bands, when what they really needed was a racine band, but racine was Aristide's music, roots music, the music of the masses. Racine was the sound of uprising and revolution; a regime-sponsored racine performance would be analogous to Bob Marley playing for the Republican National Convention. But for the moment nobody had the heart for compas; its simple upbeat melodies and trivial lyrics were like a funeral dirge for democracy. Nobody much wanted to release themselves to it except the attaches, the killers, the macoutes--the ones who, when they danced, danced in blood.
To control a country as fucked up as Haiti, you had to wrap your hands around the throat of everything--the language, the music, especially the songs and the potent rhythms of the songs, because in the people's centuries-old war against the tyrants, drums were weapons, words were deadly ammunition. And so the generals decided they had to get a racine band out on the Champs du Mars, the quicker the better. One Friday afternoon before Lent began, they summoned Richard Morse, a young Haitian-American musician who ran the Hotel Oloffson, to the Ministry of the Interior--the administrative headquarters for Haiti's brutish police and new paramilitary security forces. The duty officer directed Richard to a large room crammed with about fifty or sixty red-eyed attaches--it must have been payday for the assassins--and Richard's thinking, God, what's going on? These guys have probably been killing people all week and they're waiting to get paid and here I am.
After about ten minutes, one of the vultures finally said, Get RAM a chair--RAM was the name of Richard's band--and so they sat him down and then a lieutenant sauntered in and told him he wanted Richard to do a concert, and Richard said, Fine.
The lieutenant said, If a crowd doesn't show up, I'm going to arrest you.
Richard returned to the hotel and gathered the band for a debate. Pro-Lavalas musicians were being shot, disappeared; bands were going underground, going into exile. The troubadour Manno Charlemagne had been arrested and tortured before taking refuge in an embassy. In Haiti there was never a good answer, never a right answer. Richard kept soliciting advice until the most logical thing somebody said was, Play your songs, don't say anything, and get the hell out.
That night, spreading out from the band shell on Champs du Mars, there were people as far as you could see, ten thousand people, and cars all the way down to the palace. The stage was surrounded by FADH--the Haitian army--a company of helmeted, well-armed soldiers, and two more truckloads of troops were parked on the street. When RAM started playing, anyone in the audience who raised his arms into the air to dance was swarmed by plainclothes cops and dragged away; two songs into the gig, and Richard had counted a dozen arrests. Good God, he thought, I'd hate to leave this party and have them think I'm part of all this. The intensity escalated, and suddenly everything was quiet, everything was bad, ten thousand faces staring at Richard, the lead singer, the man out front, wondering what he would do next as he stepped back over to the microphone.
He listened to his New York-accented Creole booming, echoing beyond the palace, beyond the Holiday Inn where the macoutes and the journalists congregated, filtering down into the slums, where most of his band members lived. "Join us," he said, signaling to the female vocalists, who began, a cappella, to deliver the band's first of many subversions throughout the years of the regime--an old ballad, a traditional part of Haiti's oral culture of resistance. Kote moun yo? Pas way moun yo. Thirty seconds later, realizing what the band was singing--a parable, in a sort of peasant code, about Aristide--the soldiers pulled the plug.
The sun had gone down long before; now there was no power, no stage lights, and it was pitch black in the park. Behind Richard onstage, a row of drummers hunkered over their handmade congas, RAM's vodou rhythm section. He turned to tell them to keep drumming, full force, a spontaneous decision that would evolve into a strategy, a method of survival, to be repeated in the difficult years ahead whenever the lights went out and the horror descended. By the time Richard turned back around--fifteen seconds--thousands of people had disappeared into the night. The girls took up the song again, their voices clear and strong in the darkness. The drums were drumming, you could hear their thunderous report throughout the terrified city as RAM played on, drums and vocals, as if nothing were happening, as if this weren't a nightmare and the dream were still alive.
Petro drums, which beat out the rhythms of Haiti's ethos, maronnage, the rhythms of the new world, Haitian-born among Indians and slaves--the rhythms of the slaveghosts and vodou and insurrection. Petro was the percussive language of blackout and embargo. Not rada drums--the rhythms of ancient Africa, the mythic Guinee the lost land beyond the sea--because rada rhythms had proved impotent against the French colonials, rada's power had dwindled in the Middle Passage. But petro--petro lived, thrived. When you heard petro drums, what you heard, what you knew you were hearing, was war. Petro was the rhythm of war.
Drums and vocals--Kote moun yo? Where are the people? Pas way moun yo. We don't see them. Meaning Lavalas. Meaning Aristide. Meaning the multitudes who had vanished into the sea and the thousands who, since the coup five months earlier, were already dead or missing.
Richard Morse counted governments, not years, to measure his time in Haiti since 1987, when he had taken a lease on the most famous hotel in the Caribbean. Fifteen, sixteen? Governments went up and down like tin ducks in a shooting gallery, here at the boneyard carnival that was Haiti.
He had come here by himself from New Jersey, a tall, twenty-eight-year-old, sleepy-eyed, surly-faced Princeton grad, his mother a renowned Haitian dancer and his Anglo father a Latin American scholar at Yale--a kid who had grown up in houses with many, many rooms. He had been playing bass in a New Wave band that worked the downtown clubs in Manhattan--pursuing a vague desire for different rhythms, something like that--when he landed in Port-au-Prince in September 1985, and suddenly they're shooting people everywhere. There's a mass uprising--the dechoukaj, or uprooting of all things Duvalier. By February, Baskethead--Baby Doc--was aboard a United States Air Force jet, headed for France to play tennis, twenty-nine years of vampirism and dictatorship out the window ... then back in again, a phantom, six months later, now in the guise of narcotraffickers and military clowns. Still, a true metamorphosis had taken place during the dechoukaj, not from totalitarianism to democracy, but from the bondage of the spirit to the release of the imagination.
Overnight the country seemed intoxicated with possibility, and Richard attached himself to the Hotel Oloffson, a whitewashed, multitiered tropigothic monstrosity nestled within its own private jungle in a high-walled enclave in downtown Port-au-Prince. The Oloffson, by its very architecture and its ceiling-fan ambience, created an indelible vision of faded authority and exotic intrigue, but it was built atop a history that didn't quite match the Kiplingesque groove of the white man's burden.
Instead, the Oloffson was a native hybrid, a reproduction that became authentic through the grind and twist of desperate events. In The Comedians, his novel about the Duvalier era, Graham Greene described the grotesque impression the Oloffson, alias the Hotel Trianon, made on one's senses--"You expected a witch to open the door to you or a manic butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him"--and New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, a frequent guest, modeled his trademark haunted houses after the hotel. A folly, a travel writer once wrote, "of spires, crotchets, finials and conical towers." The structure was the grandiose vision of the Sam family, who constructed the mansion at the end of the nineteenth century and inhabited it until 1915, when the family's dubious contribution to the nation, President Guillaume Sam, was dragged into the street, shot, his body torn apart by a mob, and the pieces paraded around town skewered on the ends of poles. Waving the Monroe Doctrine and growling about Germany's increasing influence in the West Indies, the U.S. Marines seized the occasion as an excuse to invade. They marched into the capital the next day, the Sam family residence--the future Hotel Oloffson--their hospital until they left, nineteen years later, serenaded by Richard's maternal grandfather, Auguste, a popular resistance singer still remembered for the songs he composed to taunt the American soldiers and their iron-fisted occupation.
Haiti, back in the early seventies, when Baskethead inherited the national palace from his ghoulish father, enjoyed a brief but profitable tenure as an off-the-path destination for the rich and famous (Jackie Onassis, for instance, who became a major collector of Haitian artwork). But once the dechoukaj flamed over the countryside, once Club Med closed its doors in 1986, the blancs--foreigners, white people--wouldn't come anymore, not as tourists anyway. For generations, there had been the killings, the state-sponsored violence, the crushing and ubiquitous poverty, the incomprehensible polyglot of Creole; now the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta made matters worse with a bogus AIDS-epidemic alert, although sex tourism had indeed brought the virus to Haiti's shores.
Each of them for their own shameless reasons, Hollywood and the missionaries and the Duvaliers demonized vodou, an ancient polytheistic view of the universe based on the idea that everything in one's world, animate and inanimate, possessed a spirit or soul. In 1986, I came across the stationery of one of the island's evangelical missions--Haiti, it read, 6 1/2 million souls in witchcraft and Catholicism. And always there was the racial dynamic, a permanent and insurmountable barrier to the majority of whites contemplating a tropic vacation, and so the tourist trade, never more than a golden trickle, dried up, and Haiti, as was its common fate, fell off the map of civilization.
The Oloffson survived it all by serving as a crash house for bohemian reporters--journotrash--and aid entrepreneurs, some checking in for the sole purpose of carousing with the highly literate chameleon Aubelain Jolicoeur, the hotel's most curious and enduring artifact. Aging spy, former Duvalierist apparatchik, dapper gallant, and gossip columnist for Haiti's only daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, the spry Jolicoeur was transformed only slightly by Graham Greene into the fictional Petit Pierre. Upon the occasion of the novelist's death, Jolicoeur wrote in 1991 that Greene had enhanced his reputation "to such an extent that some fans kneel at my feet or kiss my hand in meeting a man living his own legend."
Year after year, you could sit on the Oloffson's airy veranda and observe Jolicoeur, his spidery body impeccably suited, a silk ascot at his throat, mount the hotel's diamond vee of steps to hold soirees in the wicker-and-rattan drawing room. Women were often attracted to the gleam of his bald head and gold-knobbed cane, and he stroked the femmes with lacy prose, prying himself away from their heavenly perfumes to play backgammon with cronies from the CIA. Jolicoeur had been a fixture at the hotel for decades, just as the foreign correspondents had returned on their migrations, year after year, dining on the veranda at twilight, their collegial discourse interrupted by rude bursts of automatic-weapon fire down the street at the national palace, where, in the long march toward democracy after the dechoukaj, coup after coup unfolded, each journalist hesitating with fork in midair, wondering, Didn't I order a double?
Bartender, s'il vous plaît. Five-star Barbancourt, encore.
When Richard signed a fifteen-year lease on the Oloffson in November 1987, the country, snapping out of its post-Duvalier daydream of better times, had fallen apart again. Driving from Petionville, the elite suburbs up the mountain, down to Port-au-Prince after sundown was considered insane--random shootings, burning tires, vigilante roadblocks, bodies in the street. But Richard was operating on the theory that if there were elections and they went well, there'd be democracy, and tourists would come to the hotel. And if the elections didn't go well, the rooms would fill up with journalists. But the elections, foisted prematurely upon a population forever yearning but ill-prepared for such an exercise by the Reagan administration, were catastrophic. Voters (and journalists) were slaughtered as they queued up at polling stations, and everyone bugged out. The entire nation reeled from one near-death experience to another, everybody's head filled with a kaleidoscopic blur of violent images, while the Americans kept pushing elections, Band-Aids in the trauma unit.
In 1989, George Bush wanted to try the democracy thing again and this time guarantee the result. The White House's handsomely financed candidate, Marc Bazin, an economist and former World Bank executive, was slotted to ascend to the national palace under the sunny skies of Haiti's first free and fair election, which would be overseen by Jimmy Carter, whose own bias for Bazin and antipathy toward Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Bazin's main opponent, was transparent. The subsequent election--in 1990, just as Richard was forming his band--was in fact a triumph for real democracy. The Haitian people, by an overwhelming and euphoric majority, chose for their new president not Bazin but Aristide, a young leftist priest from the slums given to provocative anti-American rhetoric, a disciple of liberation theology, whom the FADH couldn't seem to assassinate, though they burned down his church and hacked to death many of his congregation. What kind of priest will such earthly trials make you, what kind of president?
Inaugurated in February 1991 for a five-year term, Aristide lasted only seven months before the military pitched him into exile and took to murdering anyone who even dared to mention his name--Titid, little Aristide, Haiti's apparent messiah. President Bush, underwriter of the island's nascent democracy, swiftly announced that the coup would not stand, then just as quickly receded into embarrassed silence when informed by his staff that his own crew in Port-au-Prince not only had foreknowledge of the putsch but had allowed it to advance without a word. The United States had been Janus-faced in its intentions toward the island ever since, its policymakers split between statesmen who at least professed to support democracy (and its noisy consequences) in Haiti, and the spies and diplomats, the holy rollers at State and Defense with no vision beyond the institutional culture of the American government--still hard-wired for the cold war--who refused to assign any legitimate meaning to the will of the Haitian masses or to accept the fact that Haitians democratically chose Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the only Haitian president who ever attempted to lead his people out of darkness: the only Haitian chief of state who ever seemed to display an ideology beyond self.
Ironically, early on in the coup that deposed Aristide, as the terror began to coalesce into a system, RAM prospered. The band was putting hit singles on the radio even though people were afraid to come to their concerts, afraid to be identified with racine, with the politics of the petro rhythms. Until the mandarins woke up to the band's agenda, the group had been showcased on the government-run radio and television stations, but then the generals began to censor their tapes, and the military sent attaches out to the Oloffson to interview Richard: What do you think about what's happening here? What do you think of this situation?
Uh ... what situation?
Military coup d'état. And the attaches would take Richard's hand and make him pat the guns tucked into their hip pockets; they wanted payoffs, and Richard would give them RAM T-shirts and twenty bucks.
After the fiasco on Champs du Mars, the macoutes at last understood where RAM stood in their cosmology, and the band was blacklisted by the government. Then filmmaker Rudi Stern's documentary on the coup, Killing the Dream, was picked up in Port-au-Prince via satellite, and the generals couldn't believe it. There was this shithead from RAM sitting in his office at the Oloffson, saying the coup looked planned, that the elite families were involved, that they raised the blood money. Saying the military had tried to make it look like Aristide was a man who had to be stopped for the good of the nation because Aristide was a lunatic, a man who talked poetically about the beauty of necklacing, a man who gave a speech advocating crimes against humanity, and so what else could the military do but make it seem that they had whipped up a coup on the spur of the moment. After that, too often when Richard picked up the phone, somebody was calling in a death threat. Then he was summoned down to police headquarters to be interrogated by Evans François, the brother of Colonel Michel François, police chief and prime coup leader, who carefully explained to Richard that there were a lot of people in Port-au-Prince who would be only too happy to waste him for fifty cents. But they let him walk.
What Richard hadn't yet figured out was that he and RAM, by their very defiance, were proving to be valuable assets to the tyrants, window dressing for their faux-democratic posturing--freedom of the press, freedom of speech; subterfuge for the idiot Americans who were trying to bargain their way back toward some gloss of decency and moral rectitude without having to actually go the distance with Aristide. But there were limits to even faux tolerance, and Richard Morse, for whatever reason, seemed particularly slow to get the message.
RAM went into the studio to record their first album, and out it came: Aibobo, a vodou term equivalent to Hallelujah or Amen. A song on the album--"Fey"--which Richard knew would create a scandal, was positioned at the end of the tape; he released a politically innocuous single--"Ibo Lele," later included by director Jonathan Demme on the sound track of the movie Philadelphia--and let the album work its way slowly into the market. By the time the de factos--the coup leaders--discovered "Fey," it was too late. The song was all over the airwaves, people were singing it in the street, and the regime started closing down radio stations--but only outside of Port-au-Prince--and raising the ante on Richard by threatening his wife, Lunise, a beautiful dark-skinned former dancer whom he had made the lead female vocalist in RAM. This was 1993; the tension was vile, unbearable. Aristide's champion in the ruling class, a wealthy businessman named Antoine Izmery, was hauled out of church one morning, during a memorial service for those killed in the 1988 attack on Aristide's church, and murdered in the street. A UN-brokered agreement was being hammered out on Governors Island in New York: Aristide was supposed to come back in October and play the dummy in a power-sharing arrangement with the tyrants. "Fey" was getting played and the rumors were flying: Lunise had been kidnapped, Lunise had been killed.
The band--slum kids mostly, Lavalas diehards--had grown to believe nothing bad was going to happen because Richard had this envelope, these force fields--white guy, American guy--which protected them from harm. Now his phone kept ringing, friends calling to find out if he was dead--Just checking to see if you're alive, Rich--and what was he supposed to do? Go away? Go where? Grad school? Some pickup job back in Jersey with a lounge singer? He had Lunise, two kids, the hotel, the band. He had become a strange variation of vodou impresario, so wrapped up in the rhythms that they existed within him at the cellular level, they percolated in his blood, and the alternatives were incomprehensible. Life or death--were those the options? What if the options, the true options, were really democracy or repression? He was trying not to get anyone shot, but if you started retreating, where did you stop? Where were the Haitians themselves going to stop, because just about everybody he knew would jump overboard off this festering, floundering slave ship of a nation if they could. Like, Fuck it, let's just get out of here, two hundred years is enough, let's just go somewhere else.
Ultimately it would be to the regime's advantage if he left. He understood that, but he had roots in Haiti, old and new, he had insights that maybe Haiti needed. Still, his family, Lunise and the babies--risking their lives was his biggest fear. If anybody hurt them he might mobilize, go down blazing, but he didn't even know if that's really what he would do. He prayed it would never come to that, but it was getting close, getting very close, and like everyone else in Haiti, he was wondering, Where are the Americans?
To ask a Haitian, Where are the Americans? was not unlike asking a grief-stricken child, Where is God? Everywhere? Here but not here? Everywhere but with me? It's not as if the Americans weren't in Haiti already, weren't always there in one role or another, as wardens, patrons, carpetbaggers, saints, and thieves. They were like invisible spirits--the vodou loas--or like saviors--Jesus Christ was a blanc, oui?--like bullies and like big-time fools and like the fountainhead of all good and all evil in the world. America was a steely monolithic turbine on the horizon, which spewed into the air a sickly emission of hope and provided an ominous background hum to the island's tribulations. "Imagine," marveled William Jennings Bryan in 1920, "niggers speaking French." "I don't care if you dress them up and put them in the palace," opined the commander of the earlier Marine occupation, "they're still nigs." John Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller all but coronated Papa Doc after the dictator cast the deciding vote to keep Castro's Cuba out of the OAS.
"Repression works," John Kambourian told a businessman in Portau-Prince early in 1993. "It worked in Russia for forty years." A strange acknowledgment of the efficacy of authoritarianism, coming from the embassy's special assistant to the ambassador--a euphemistic title the CIA uses to whitewash its station chiefs, which is what Kambourian was in Haiti from 1992 through October 1994.
Repression works, and especially well, in countries like Haiti. At the expense of the rule of law, innocent lives, and freedom, repression creates order and wealth for an elite ruling class and misery for everyone else. Repression works and has been a not infrequent by-product of American foreign policy ever since the Spanish-American War, when the United States first began modeling itself after the European colonial powers, landing on the backs of the people it had ostensibly come to rescue--in that case, Cuban and Filipino independence fighters and their popular support, described with bitter and intended irony by Mark Twain as those shoeless multitudes "sitting in darkness," yearning for missionaries and a better class of masters. Guys like Colonel Lansdale, the original ugly American. Guys like Kambourian, maybe.
It goes without saying that in a moral universe, repression is abhorrent, but within the shifting moral boundaries of cold war realpolitik, repression was merely another tactic of containment, however distasteful, a tool in the strategic kit to be employed in the service of one's national interests, actual or imagined, economic or elusive, parochial or plural, vital or--especially in the backyard of the Caribbean Basin--vindictive. With the notable exception of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and Japan, between the fall of Berlin and the fall of the Berlin wall American statesmen generally found it more pragmatic to collude with third world strongmen and despots ("He's our son of a bitch") than to risk championing the world's downtrodden masses, who in their ignorance gnawed away at institutional structures like termites and seemed congenitally predisposed toward the clumsy deconstruction of society with hammers and sickles.
But the masses have always had bad press, halfhearted endorsements, double-crossing emancipators. In truth, we displayed scant respect or patience for the will of the majority when the majority draped itself in rags and scrawled its name with an X, and accommodated instead the epaulets of absolute control, the fine linen of social rank, the lusty aroma of wealth--in short, the worst elements in a place like Haiti.
On my first visit to Haiti, in the spring of 1986, the heyday of the dechoukaj, I had attended a showing of The Comedians, a belated premiere of the film adaptation of Graham Greene's previously banned novel about life under the stormy rule of François Duvalier. At strategic corners throughout the capital, movie posters advertised the event, the bloody red lettering stamped on a black background: THE TERROR OF THE TON TON MACOUTES! The film was playing downtown at the Triomphe, a once grand movie house. In the theater's musty darkness, I had my choice of seats. The tinny sound track was dubbed in French, and during the violent scenes, what audience there was--about thirty-five neatly dressed youths and a scattering of whites from the foreign-aid community--remained solemn, even bored. They had seen it all before. The rage had blown through their quotidian lives, jading them to the artifice of the screen. But one scene finally provoked a reaction: when Richard Burton is assaulted by Ton Ton Macoutes, their dirty work is interrupted by a matronly tourist--a bonneted, purse-clutching dowager, a paragon of silver-haired indignation: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Mom--who makes the bloodthirsty thugs wither by simply mentioning that were the President of the United States informed, he would not look tolerantly upon this sort of low-minded behavior. The audience erupted in laughter--the old white woman's threat was profoundly funny, because everyone in the Triomphe knew the Duvaliers had snookered the State Department, the Department of Defense, the U.S. embassy, and seven U.S. presidents as if they were green schoolboys, with a cynical ingenuity few heads of state would dare to match, crying wolf about communists whenever the White House showed signs of queasiness about its commitment to the Duvaliers, and the audience knew that with the exception of military aid, the open spigot of American taxpayers' money was almost never spent on what it was appropriated for but instead gushed rather than trickled into the coffers of the FADH and the macoutes and the national palace, to be squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts, squandered on shopping sprees to Paris, invested in Miami real estate. What the audience didn't yet know, however, was that the future to which they aspired would be indistinguishable from the past; that here in the spring of 1986, on the threshold of freedom, they were entering an era that would be described as Duvalierism without Duvalier.
Baskethead and his parasitic entourage had left behind an economy, an ecology, and a human landscape traumatized to the brink of no return, but he was hardly worse than most of the other thirty chiefs of state, strutting chanticleers of misleadership and kleptocracy, who had preceded him. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, revered today as the father of Haitian independence, crowned himself emperor in 1804 and waged a civil war against the light-skinned mulattoes--the ever-present elites in Haiti's all-important hierarchy of race. Almost without exception, the men who followed Dessalines contributed enthusiastically to Haiti's mythic legacy of avarice and tyranny and, like Dessalines himself, were subsequently assassinated, or deposed by insurrections and shipped into luxurious exile. If any single feature--other than its pariah status--had defined the nation throughout the course of its independence, it was a lack of political self-discipline. On and on, the country marched in place, dirtied and shunned, bearing its perpetually dismal image of sauvagerie. The truest aspirations of Haiti's founding fathers, modeled on the libertarian doctrines of the French and American revolutions, failed to conjugate. For almost two centuries, there had been only one overriding point of view in command--singular--and one verb tense--present. Me, now. The ideology of infants.
When the movie ended, I followed the audience outside and watched as they strolled toward a line of expensive cars parked along Rue Capois. There was no official curfew, not yet, but almost everyone withdrew behind locked doors shortly after suppertime. On the sidewalk in front of the Triomphe, a coterie of die-hard hucksters and beggars surged forward, enslaved to the tenuous enterprise of survival in this city where tens of thousands of people lived on the streets, in this nation where not even a quarter of the urban population earned a salary.
How's it going? I asked. Como ye?
They gave the standard response: N'ap boule. We're boiling. We're on fire.
Several days after the premiere of The Comedians, I journeyed north to investigate how Cap Haïtien, Haiti's second-largest city, had fared during the upheaval of the dechoukaj. Nine years later, after the U.S. invasion, I would come to know this road well, Route Nationale One--this beautiful, perilous road, my nightmare road--the road American soldiers would nickname Highway to Hell, commemorating its misery on what else but a T-shirt. But for its travelers, Route Nationale One was memory lane, the road always hurrying you backward into history.
Its point of origin was the fetid, suppurating, inexplicably inhumane harborside slums of Port-au-Prince, where the hemisphere's poorest families bathed in sewers, slept on dirt, walked daily through pestilence and desperation, surviving solely, it often seemed, on fear and rage, hunted, in the years ahead, by the army and the police and macoutes and attaches and FRAPH, a place where homeless children would one day fight each other for the feral right to lick the gummy residue out of the brown plastic pouches of MREs--spaghetti and meatballs, pork chow mein--they'd scavenged from the U.S. military's exotic proliferation of garbage.
Here the road boasted the world's biggest pothole, dredged out by runoff from the eroding mountainsides--a death trap during storms, as I would learn one harrowing evening, trapped in a long line of vehicles during a downpour, the cars ahead of me swept away one by one into the flooding darkness and the air filled with screams and thunder. Every day, hours-long traffic jams billowed diesel soot--the mucus in your nose turned black with it--and along the quayside it was not unusual to see, throughout the infinite years of the tyrants--white, black, and mulatto; colonial or modern--bodies bobbing in the otherwise tranquil harbor.
Yet everywhere here the roadside was thick with human vitality, thousands of marchands and stevedores, teamsters and brute laborers, energetic with need and gifted with tenacious earthy humor, hawking and trading mostly what a world they had never seen had thrown away, a national yard sale of grease-caked junk and tattered hand-me-downs, a Sisyphean economy of rejects, of endless seconds and thirds.
From city center the road slanted west and north, past the walls of the old Fort Dimanche--"the epicenter of Haitian oppression"--where for twenty-nine years the Duvaliers in their madness had murdered friend and foe alike; past the warehouses and the wholesalers and the foreign-owned assembly plants (baseballs, bras, electrical components) and the sugar refinery; past the airport with its derelict fleet of Haiti Air DC-3s.
Past what would one day be the United Nations compound and a newly paved highway--October the 15th Boulevard--commemorating the date of Aristide's return from exile (the best road in Haiti, it would lead past the President's private residence and up the mountain to Petionville), then, farther along, the Barbancourt rum factory and the roadside artisans--cabinetmakers and coffinmakers, wrought-iron craftsmen and welders and tinsmiths--then past the junction leading to the central plateau--Mirebalais and Hinche--and the Dom Rep border, past the once stately neocolonial Ministry of Agriculture, bigger than a football field, one half of the structure roofless and charred from a fire, the other half still occupied by bureaucratic zombis ... until finally, through the reckless dodge of traffic--eighteen-wheelers and dump trucks and Pathfinders and tap-taps; bicycles and donkeys and pushcarts and an unbroken stream of peasants all clogging the two-lane highway--the road arrived at the leafy outskirts of town, a small village called Tintayen, near an enclave of descendants of Polish soldiers who had fought for, and then against, Napoleon. Tintayen was also the name of the vast coastal plain nearby, mostly methane-whiffy mangrove swamp, where the Haitian military would dump its cargoes of victims, the corpses eventually shrouded by land crabs and consumed by free-ranging pigs.
The capital and its singular degradations left behind, Route Nationale One arrowed ahead, the road pinched between an impressively barren ridge of arid mountains and the nearby but inaccessible coast, past the former Duvalierville and the tawdry lure of its absurdly grandiose cockfighting pit, like the flared concrete canopy over the entrance of a cheap Las Vegas hotel; past Archaie, where the blanc-hating Dessalines, both the George Washington and the mad King George of Haitian independence, tore the white from the French tricolor to create the island's sovereign flag; until, an hour northwest of Port-au-Prince, Route Nationale One passed the Cote de Arcadins, Haiti's all but deserted beach resorts--Club Med kept its local staff on retainer for nine years after the dechoukaj, reopening as a duller, politically correct version of China Beach for American GIs.
Skirting amethyst-blue shallows, you steered around dripping young fishermen, who stepped into the road holding lobsters or a string of pan-size fish. Occasionally you glimpsed crescents and commas of empty golden beaches, and high walls enclosed the ti paradis--little paradises, the seaside hideaways of Port-au-Prince's oligarchy, its shoulder-board putschists, its drug kingpins, the commissars of trade and terror. Beyond was the once lovely port of Saint-Marc, occupied by the British during the French Revolution. Here, as you left town and traveled inland, you began to notice in the palmy hamlets and bare hills the frequency of hounfours--vodou temples, identified by their gay high-flying flags and crude or magnificent wall paintings of the spirit world, bright cartoons of mythic good and evil--and then the road flattened out through the Artibonite valley, vivid green rice paddies from horizon to horizon.
Beyond the fecund Artibonite, the cactus and thorn acacia of the savanne desolée spread up and through and past Haiti's Philadelphia--the port of Gonaives, city of perpetual rebellion and elusive independence, a dusty decayed ugliness so extreme it seemed a prototype of Hollywood's vision of the postapocalyptic. Here in Gonaives, after twelve years of slave insurrection, French republican revolution and counterrevolution, foreign invasion, civil war, and homicidal anarchy, during which the Black Jacobins repelled and defeated two major expeditions from the two greatest powers of the day--the British and French both lost more soldiers during these campaigns in Saint Domingue (as Haiti was then named) than at Waterloo--Dessalines declared independence for the colony in 1804. He rechristened it with the Amerindian name Haiti--Ayiti--and, at the urging of three Englishmen in attendance, who offered the British Crown's trade and protection in return for French blood, committed himself to Haiti's greatest and most enduring tragedy, branding himself, his people, his newborn nation, and its future with the indelible stain of racial genocide: the bitter, purposeless extermination of all remaining whites on the island, save for a handful of British and American agents and a few skilled craftsmen.
"Haiti," the historian Robin Blackburn wrote in praise, "was not the first independent American state but it was the first to guarantee civic liberty to all inhabitants," an achievement made much easier once you erased the other from your midst. No matter that, after generations of the most obscene and unspeakable atrocities, the whites had it coming. The French had gone berserk in Haiti, devolved into beasts, spiritually infirm and twisted by uncontained greed. Then came the French Revolution, and the insanity escalated to a new level, the whites and freedmen splintering into murderous factions and dueling atop the powder keg of a half-million slaves, mostly African born, unable to speak two words of French: gran blancs battled petit blancs, merchants intrigued against planters, royalists shot populists, the colony wrestled with the metropolis, ancien libres executed nouveaux libres, the white/black north and east warred against the mulatto south and west, the Spanish and British monarchies assaulted the French revolutionaries, alignments swirled and mutated and about-faced and re-formed, and each faction armed the slaves against its enemies and promised a hierarchy of freedoms to black and half-caste officers. Then the powder keg exploded, until the slaves were forever liberated and the whites were forever gone.
The pitiless Dessalines, himself a barbarian, a mirror to slave owners' inhumanity, abandoned the moral heights so painfully won by the true father of Haitian statehood, Toussaint-Louverture, one of history's great makers of war and peace, a former slave (and slave owner) with the military genius of Hannibal, the world-altering statesmanship of Nelson Mandela, the righteous eloquence of Martin Luther King (Louverture's proclamations were composed with the aid of white secretaries on his staff, since the governor general's French was "vigorous but ungrammatical"). Black Spartacus, Black Consul: "From the First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites," he wrote Napoleon Bonaparte.
Toussaint battled slavery and, however ambivalently, the ancien regime to the point of collapse. Napoleon--to the relief of Thomas Jefferson (the "annihilation of black government," the French Consul promised the British and Americans)--destroyed Toussaint and with him the ideology of reason and enlightenment that had fueled the French Revolution. Dessalines slaughtered the whites and--also to the relief of Jefferson--France's dreams of a New World empire. Yet ultimately what Dessalines's vendetta most dismantled was the nascent integrity and ideological discipline of his own nation, making Haiti anathema to the Western powers, who would forever after hold the island, its tragicomic leaders, and its emancipated but exhausted people, sworn to liberty or death, in contempt.
On Gonaïves's northern perimeter, its Nevada-like arroyos and rocky brown mountains were a shock, here in the balmy tropics. A few miles past the city, though, you began the radical ascent into the mountains of the north, greeted at the summit pass by chilly winds, grounded clouds, and burned-out wrecks, the road a continuous challenge of switchbacks and plunges, blind curves, and dizzying views into the impossibly rugged interior. The road slalomed past packs of uniformed schoolchildren on their daily vertical treks to and from literacy, the busted pavement attenuated by swaths of drying coffee beans, diving toward transparent rivers, their stony bars quilted with laundry, and up again toward a bowled horizon of overcultivated slopes and lush shadowy ravines, until it wound through the village of Plaisance, once considered a center for "more advanced" (French-speaking) slaves.
During the American occupation, it was always in Plaisance that I'd start getting the war zone vibes, a feeling of menace that would only increase as the road roller-coastered another thirty or so miles to Limbé, which had the reputation of being the unfriendliest town in Haiti. It would not be much of an exaggeration, or historically inaccurate, to say that everything bad that had happened in Haiti had started in Limbé and its surrounding areas.
A few miles past Limbé, Route Nationale One crested a final ridge and foreshadowed its terminus on the tranquil shores of the Windward Passage between Hispaniola and Cuba. Straight below, to the north and east, spread the idyllic vista of the coastal savanna--the Plaine du Nord--and its ghostscape of atrocities, of long-destroyed plantations, the fertile land that once made Haiti France's greatest and most lucrative colony, responsible for two-thirds of its overseas trade. The road quit at Cap Haitien--Le Cap--certainly the most exhausted, depleted city in the Americas. Even in its heyday, when its grand theater could seat twelve hundred of the world's wealthiest planters and merchants to enjoy a continental melodrama, Le Cap's streets were sewers, strewn with shit and garbage, a barnyard where livestock roamed through a maze of gambling dens, brothels, and dance halls, and where violence was too commonplace to draw any but the most prurient forms of attention.
For the owners, slavery was a type of spiritual sugar; they gorged on it, and it rotted their character and decayed their conscience. The founders of the colony of Saint Domingue had been buccaneers, convicts, renegades, warriors. A century later, their descendants, by then handsomely dressed and finely housed, had devolved into one of the most decadent, soulless societies ever to inhabit the earth. A German traveler noted in his journal that he sat down for dinner with a colonist's wife, "beautiful, rich, and very much admired," who earlier, irritated by the mistake of one of the kitchen slaves, had ordered the hapless cook pitched into the oven.
I want an egg, a colonial child announced one morning at breakfast. There were none. Then, answered the child, I want two.
From the crest beyond Limbé you could also see, to the northwest, the pendant-shaped bay where Columbus first dropped anchor and praised this once most Rousseauan of isles. Setting foot for the first time in the New World in what would later be known as the Bahamas, Columbus asked the Amerindians there the one question that would soon obsess Europe: Gold? The aboriginals answered, Ayiti.
In less than twenty years, hundreds of thousands of Haiti's Amerindians were dead from forced labor, murder, disease, and deliberate famine, the near total destruction of a society during one generation, the genocide slowed by the only European in the New World who might seem at first to qualify as a human being, the Dominican priest and self-appointed conscience of the conquistadores, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who in 1517 convinced Charles V of Spain to take the pressure off the sixty thousand Indians still alive in the colony by importing fifteen thousand African slaves. "Thus," wrote historian C. L. R. James, "priest and King launched on the world the American slave-trade and slavery." By the eighteenth century, Negro slaves had been shipped to the New World by the millions.
The Spanish word cimarron meant "wild, unruly," and the French adopted its derivative, maroon, to refer to both slaves and livestock that had broken loose from the sugar plantations. Thus the fugitives had a name and a brutish stereotype, and by the latter half of the eighteenth century, tens of thousands of runaways had taken possession of the Haitian highlands. Only once in the century preceding the French Revolution did the maroon bands manage to organize themselves and rise up against the whites, but the revolt--led by the maroon chieftain Mackandal, a Guinea-born slave from Limbé--had a profound and lasting impact on the already addled psyche of the colonists. For six years in the mid-eighteenth century, Mackandal, the maroons, and their coconspirators throughout the plantations of the north pursued the torment of their collective dream, the massacre of every white in Saint Domingue, building a network for a mass uprising, poisoning whites as well as traitors in their midst. Poison was the great weapon of the maroons, a legacy of Africa, bush medicine, and the animistic rituals that were known and practiced on both sides of the Atlantic. Mackandal's island-wide rebellion was to commence with the poisoning of every white's household water supply, but before the plan could unfold, Mackandal was betrayed, captured, and roasted alive.
"The Negroes," reads a planter's memoir published in 1789, "are unjust, cruel, barbarous, half-human, treacherous, deceitful, thieves, drunkards, proud, lazy, unclean, shameless, jealous to fury, and cowards."
"The safety of the whites," wrote a colonial governor of the same era, "demands that we keep the Negroes in the most profound ignorance. I have reached the stage of believing firmly that one must treat the Negroes as one treats breasts." But beasts were in fact treated better, and the colonists had little regard for the blacks even as purchased property. It amused whites "to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger." The decapitated heads of rebellious slaves, jammed atop stakes, had once lined every road in the north. By the time the Parisian revolutionaries had stormed the Bastille, every heart in Haiti had turned to stone. The colonists, wrote the historian Mirabeau, slept on the edge of Vesuvius.
The economy of prerevolutionary France and the livelihood of millions of its citizens depended almost entirely on the colonies and slavery. "Sad irony of human history," wrote Jaures. "The fortunes created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave trade, gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation."
As in the motherland, so in the colony: The revolution in France was a catastrophically divisive event, setting into conflict contradictory forces and irreconcilable interests: the monarchists against the so-called patriots, the great whites against the small whites, civil bureaucracies against military administrations. The beginning of the end for Saint Domingue began in Paris, when the revolutionary assembly began a self-serving debate over the rights of man. Abolition was not seriously entertained, but well-educated, propertied mulattoes argued persuasively for an end to their murky legal status. Were they not citizens of France? Were they, or were they not, entitled to political rights?
The colonists followed the debate with an increasing sense of horror and outrage. They had meticulously constructed a classification system to identify and control the offspring of blacks and whites, based on 128 divisions of skin shade and ancestry. The sang-mêlé, despite containing 127 parts white to one part black, was still a colored man, a nigger, and thus voiceless in the political life of the colony, although he could, as could all mulattoes and Negro freedmen, acquire wealth and property and own slaves--which many did. The mulattoes and slaves in fact loathed one another, the former arguing for their rights in order to unite with the whites to keep the slaves in line, and the whites conscripted mulattoes to join the maréchaussée, a civilian militia, forerunner of the macoutes and attachés, whose job it was to track down fugitive slaves and fight the maroons. Mulatto women were destined for an equally unsavory service: of the seven thousand half-caste women on the island in 1789, five thousand were either prostitutes or kept mistresses.
As the parallel revolution on the island evolved, property became the common bond between the mulattoes and big whites in a counterrevolution against the slaves and the little whites, until the mulattoes, with arms and ammunition purchased in the United States, revolted in 1790. The white revolutionaries and white counterrevolutionaries immediately reunited to murder, lynch, and mutilate the mulattoes, no matter that the crushed and dismembered leaders of the rebellion would be regarded as heroes when news of the action reached Paris. "It was the quarrel between bourgeoisie and monarchy that brought the Paris masses on the political stage," wrote C. L. R. James. "It was the quarrel between whites and mulattoes that woke the sleeping slaves."
Of the half-million slaves in the colony in 1789, two-thirds were African born, which meant that fourteen years later, when, after eradicating the whites, Dessalines declared the independence of the Haitian state, he had created not just the first free black republic in the world but the world's first multiethnic pan-African nation, its precolonial Africanness sealed into a time capsule of neglect and isolation and delivered to the twentieth century. In 1791, it was Africa that went to war with imperial France, with imperial Britain, with imperial Spain, and it was Africa that won.
By the end of 1789, the French Revolution had seriously fractured the structure of Haitian society, propelling its contradictions and divisions to the forefront of daily life. At night, slaves had begun holding mass meetings in the forests surrounding the Plaine du Nord. By 1790, the mulattoes themselves had split into opposing factions, and by the new year, the slaves throughout the north had organized into clandestine cells, sworn to death in a conspiracy against the whites.
Vodou was their medium of communication, and a houngan named Boukman, the physically immense headman on one of the sugar plantations, was their leader. Secrecy and solidarity were the cornerstones of Boukman's genius. His organization was vast, his intent devastatingly simple: On a given night, slaves on the outskirts of Le Cap would set fire to the plantations, and upon seeing the flames, slaves in town and across the savanna would massacre the whites, and Boukman and his corps of warriors would seize the colony. Command and control were essential to success, coordination and discipline vital, and "isolated efforts were doomed to failure."
In early August 1791, the slaves in Limbé jumped the gun, "rose prematurely," and were swiftly decimated. The roads into Le Cap swarmed with bands of slaves, haphazardly attacking whites. Boukman could wait no longer, and according to Haiti's most potent legend, on the night of August 22, he assembled his men on Morne Rouge, the mountain overlooking Le Cap, in the midst of a violent storm, to conduct a ceremony that would inaugurate the twelve-year war. In a lightning-blasted, rain-swept clearing in the forest, thunder rolling out across the plain, a green-eyed mambo slashed the throat of a pig in offering and drank its blood, summoning the loas of destruction with her prayers, which Boukman called the voice of liberty.
By the time the sun rose, the north was a whirlwind of flames, the plain a vortex of fire. The slaves, James wrote, destroyed tirelessly. For three weeks, the people of Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night, while a rain of burning cane straw, driven before the wind like flakes of snow, flew over the city and the shipping in the harbor. Regardless of their eternal prejudice against the blacks, young mulattoes began to join the uprising against their common enemy, and soon enough the insurrection controlled the countryside. One month after the revolt had begun, the uprising, exhausted by the very wantonness of its destruction, paused to collect itself and reorganize, and when it started up again, one of its many new leaders was Toussaint-Louverture.
"Like their more educated white masters," wrote James, "the slaves hastened to deck themselves with all the trappings and titles of the military profession. The officers called themselves generals, colonels, marshals, commanders, and the leaders decorated themselves with scraps of uniforms, ribbons and orders which they found on the plantations or took from the enemy killed in battle, ... yet, despite these absurdities," the leaders of the uprising were men born to command; "nothing but an iron discipline could have kept order among the heterogenous body of men just released from slavery," many of whom went into battle entirely naked, or draped in pieces of silk and satin pillaged from the plantations, armed with only a hoe, a sharpened stick, a piece of iron, a rusty sword. Early on in the conflict, the slaves couldn't even use the cannon they captured, applying the match at the wrong end of the barrel.
There developed a grisly competition between the two sides, to see who could display the most heads atop their stockades or on pikes along the roadside. This was a game Boukman lost, his own head stuck atop a pole in Le Cap. The colonists, in their panic, began to slaughter all black men, women, and children on sight. In a few weeks, ten thousand slaves rebelling became one hundred thousand. The south and the west joined the fray, and one hundred thousand became everybody. Alliances formed and melted in kaleidoscopic patterns, until it seemed the entire white world had come to Saint Domingue to murder itself, after it had annihilated the slaves. Whites against whites. Whites against mulattoes and blacks. Whites and mulattoes against blacks. Blacks, mulattoes, and whites against whites. Blacks and mulattoes against blacks. Blacks against mulattoes, blacks against blacks. The Spanish and the blacks against the white French. The Spanish against the blacks. The British against the French against the blacks against the revolution against the counterrevolution. Everyone took a turn as Judas.
The atrocities were endless and unimaginable and mutual: a fetus cut from a pregnant mulatto woman and thrown into a fire; black children deliberately infected with smallpox; white children impaled on pikes and carried as standards into battle. They fought and they fought, on and on, and when they had finished, when the blacks had defeated what was then the Western world and won their freedom, even then they had not truly finished or truly won, and they replayed the struggle among themselves, an endless loop of fighting from which there was no escape, no respite, and no glory. They fought on, surrogate masters, surrogate slaves, and it never stopped.
"I fly to vengeance," wrote a mulatto leader early in the rebellion. "Long live liberty, long live equality, long live love."