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After Duvalier : Haiti: A Scary Time for Voodoo

March 07, 1986|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A few days after the ouster of President Jean-Claude Duvalier, a mob looted the home of a voodoo priestess here, shattered bottles of herbal medicine, tore apart her altars and stripped the house to bare plaster.

On a wall outside, across the street from a mural depicting the blood sacrifice of a goat, vandals scrawled the message: "Down With Voodoo. Free the Zombies."

At about the same time, in the northern town of Gonaives, a neighborhood hero paraded through a salt-marsh slum wearing a cape and grasping a toy horse, a voodoo symbol of war.

The youth had fought the Duvalier police, and adoring townspeople reached out to touch him, to place their hands on his head. His head was damp with a voodoo potion reputed to give courage.

Conflicting Feelings

The two incidents--voodoo scorned and voodoo triumphant--reflect the conflicting feelings toward Haiti's predominant religion that have surfaced since Duvalier fled to France a month ago.

Although voodoo practitioners have won some credit for supporting demonstrations against the dictatorship, voodoo is also under attack for its connections with the Duvalier family, particularly the ousted president's father, the late President Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

Vigilante campaigns against Duvalier officials and associates have spilled over into assaults on voodoo priests who in one way or another were linked to the regime.

Near the port city of Cap Haitien, 10 priests and priestesses have been reported killed. Mobs shouting the anti-Duvalier battle cry "Uproot!" ransacked several homes and temples in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

Priests' Double Role

Reasons for the attacks vary. Occasionally, ties to the Duvalier government are clear, for some priests doubled as members of the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier's feared network of armed enforcers and spies.

In other cases, the motivation was personal vengeance, often based on belief in the occult power of voodoo to do harm. A northern farmer complained that a sorcerer brought a relative back from the dead and turned him into a zombie doomed to eternal bondage under the priest.

"This is a very delicate time for voodoo," said Max Beauvoir, a Cornell-educated biochemist and voodoo priest in Port-au-Prince. "I fear there will be bloodshed."

According to Beauvoir and other voodoo priests, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christians are campaigning against voodoo as part of a never-ending contest for the hearts and souls of Haitians.

"This is an ongoing thing in our history," said Herard Simon, a Gonaives voodoo priest, or houngan, as they are known in the Creole patois.

Despite these fears, it is by no means clear that there is an organized crusade. Rather, the violence seems to be part of the general wave that emerged after Duvalier fled. Among the targets are government officials, businesses, the food warehouses of charity organizations--almost anything and anyone identified with the past.

In Port-au-Prince, young vandals who destroyed the home of Madame Pierrot, a well-known priestess, charged that she consorted with Duvalier's secret police and probably cast spells over Duvalier's enemies.

Exploitation Charged

Others in the group said they hope to eliminate voodoo from their neighborhoods and make Haiti a Christian nation.

Still others said simply that Madame Pierrot, who escaped the attack, exploited worshipers by charging excessive fees for her services, which range from marrying to telling fortunes. There were 32 rooms in her home.

In Limonade, a small town near Cap Haitien, a judge said there was no common factor, except for voodoo, in the 10 deaths among voodoo priests there. In one case, a priestess was said to have celebrated a black mass with a Duvalier official during which they ate rice mixed with blood.

In another case, a mob accused a voodoo priest of poisoning a farmer at the behest of the local Tontons Macoutes. How did they know the priest was guilty? "The people consulted with another houngan and he told them," the judge, Menard Dessalines, said.

Family Association

Several voodoo priests recognize that they have an image problem because of voodoo's association with the Duvalier family.

"The connection is imbedded in the minds of many people and will be difficult to erase," said Simon, the Gonaives houngan.

Voodoo, a religion with many gods first brought to Haiti by slaves from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, has a turbulent history here. It has been alternately embraced and rejected by rulers, and campaigns against it have been bloody.

In the 1930s, a law was enacted forbidding the practice of voodoo, and in the 1940s the authorities tried to stamp it out by repression, only to set off an outbreak of religious violence. Periodically, the authorities imposed heavy taxes on voodoo priests.

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