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Postcard From the Land of Infinite Impossibility

Haiti: Exports down, jobs scarce, but an ample supply of misery, stasis and rumor.

January 26, 1998|HERBERT GOLD | Herbert Gold is the author of "Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti" and, most recently, "She Took My Arm As If She Loved Me" (St. Martin's, 1997), a novel

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The German tourist strolls about Port-au-Prince in his black leather jacket because it is winter, after all, and he is too stoned to notice that winter in Haiti is a time of sun under smiling Third World skies. He may be keeping his stash strapped to his body.

Coffee, sisal and sugar exports are scanty now, and so is the labor-intensive piecework that used to support many families, but laughing young millionaires in Range Rovers seen to be continuously celebrating the great success of the Clinton foreign policy. Misery, stasis and rumor continue to be the inexhaustible natural resources for the economy. On my first visit in two years, I found a gloom no longer mitigated by hope of salvation from the man people used to call "the messiah," Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest, president, deposed president and restored president, now waiting to be president again. His Lavalas movement has split into bickering factions. His protege, President Rene Preval, may or may not be keeping the National Palace safe for the return.

The U.S. policy, supported by the U.N., requires privatization of corrupt and inefficient state enterprises as condition for release of international loans and grants. The reforms are not taking place and the money is not arriving. "Privatization" sounds like a foreign capitalist scheme, but in fact the state enterprises, from cement plants to the telephone, have always been run for private gain. "Haiti for Haitians" meant "Haiti for the Haitian Oligarchy." People debate whether Once & Future President Aristide is paralyzing the government with his populist rhetoric or only pretending to do so. As a practical matter, there is no difference.

During my stay I have been watching a World Bank official on his daily rounds of trying to get a minister to send a routine fax that would authorize money and equipment for a reforestation project. The fax was sent just now, the fax was sent a few minutes ago, the fax will go out immediately. Oh, my dear friend, there are still some little details. Perhaps tomorrow.

As a distraction from watching the trees not get planted, I listened to the rich murmur of the Haitian telejiol, or telemouth, the nonstop rumor factories. A Canadian journalist was here investigating the Haitian angle on the Princess Diana story--the involvement of her consort, Dodi Fayed, and his father with the Duvalier kleptocracy. A local newspaper reports a plot to assassinate Manno Charlemagne, mayor of Port-au-Prince and the Bob Dylan of Haiti, whom I used to see heading off to work in the morning with his mayoral briefcases, aides and guards and then hear at night singing of love and loss in his dashiki in the bar of the Hotel Oloffson. Once Aristide's most glamorous ally, Manno is now his rival. Aristotelian-Haitian logic documents the assassination attempt (a lovely young woman, poison, foiled only because the poison-bearer was a fan who adored Manno's ballads too much to perpetrate such a heinous act). The conspiracy was confirmed when the unnamed plotters "refused to deny their nefarious scheme." We don't know what is happening here, do we, Monsieur Jones?

Tree-planting on the denuded hillsides is expensive, requires many faxes. The saplings grow delightfully for a few hours and then are cut down by peasants desperate for firewood. Short of a 24-hour guard for each tree, a solution might be to provide alternative fuel. When I lived in Haiti years ago, there was a mahogany-burning locomotive pulling a train from Port-au-Prince to St.-Marc. Now there is not much mahogany for the tourist salad bowls, but of course only the leather-clad German represented the tourist trade and he wasn't shopping for salad bowls.

On every trip to Haiti I learn something new. This time I learned that Hermann Goering was born here (to a German consular official) and that President-in-Waiting Aristide had a special road built to his special mansion in which he lives with his new wife and child. According to his press service, the house is not as big as it looks in photographs.

The days of the coup and the dream of salvation by the messiah are over. The brutal Haitian army is abolished, but the new U.S.-trained police don't yet have the knack of it. A diminished ration of political murder is balanced by increased street crime. Former allies of Aristide wonder why the drug trade has expanded during his return. The World Bank official wonders why the fax doesn't get sent. The German tourist wonders when Carnival begins and I tell him he's a few weeks early.

"Early for what?" he asks.

Haiti is still the land of infinite impossibility, where all good things are bound to happen either tomorrow or never. What was the question?

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