YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


In Aristide's Wake, a Land Long Divided by Class, Color Explodes

Looting and attacks on businesses and the rich could lead to deepening of the nation's poverty.

March 05, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PETIONVILLE, Haiti — From the palm-shaded swimming pools and marble terraces of this wealthy suburb's hillside villas, the distant squalor of Port-au-Prince looks like a tranquil, opalescent coastal setting.

The lavish comforts enjoyed here by Haiti's small class of industrial kingpins inspired former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to label them "rocks washed by cooling waters," while his people, the impoverished masses in the slums below, were "the rocks in the sun, taking the heat."

In a populist drive to show the rich how poverty feels, Aristide once urged his followers to drag the rocks from the river into the inferno -- a metaphorical appeal that lives on after his departure as armed supporters continue to loot and burn the businesses of the upper class in a frenzy of revenge.

"Aristide sold people that image, that we were the rocks in the water," said Michael Madsen, an industrialist of Danish descent who is the embodiment of the light-skinned elite whom Aristide demonized as Haiti's economic vampires.

"He told his people to take us out, to show us what it was like on the outside. Why didn't he encourage them to come themselves into the water? Because he was incapable of building anything. He only knew how to destroy."

Two days before Aristide stepped down, gunmen armed by his Lavalas Party broke into Madsen's Haiti Terminal port freight yard, he said, ransacking the offices to punish him for supporting the political opposition. It wasn't long before desperate slum dwellers began looting the shipping containers in the yard, which were filled with food, clothing and electronics.

In the torrent of reprisals unleashed against his perceived enemies in ideology, class and color as his power vanished, Aristide succeeded in sharing the pain of the poor with some of the elite that had never felt it.

But the strategy of sacking enterprises owned by Aristide's political opponents promises to only widen the social gap between the industrial dynasties that have controlled the economy for generations and the impoverished masses that will have even fewer jobs. As U.S. Marines patrolling the capital refuse to intervene to halt the looting, the damage could spread.

Aristide, who departed early Sunday, had long promised a "cleansing flood" -- his party's translation of the Creole word lavalas, whose close French derivation more accurately means "deluge." The inundation of the last few days has wiped out the workplaces of thousands and perhaps the gains of the relatively few blacks who succeeded, under Aristide, in penetrating the so-called bourgeoisie.

How much longer the attacks on the rich will continue is uncertain, but the damage has dealt a staggering blow to an economy that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and spiraling downward. At least $160 million in property has been destroyed, estimated Maurice Lafortune, head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce.

The loss could represent half this devastated nation's private investment, said importer Sandro Masucchi, whose Honda auto dealership was looted and burned on the morning of Aristide's departure.

The roots of the mob rampage run deep in Haitian history.

The minuscule population of whites and mulattos -- as those of mixed black-and-white ancestry are called in Haiti -- thought to be no more than 1% of the populace of 8.5 million, has long occupied a disproportionate position in the equally tiny echelon of the wealthy.

That is a consequence of landownership dating to Haiti's 1804 independence, when some offspring of French colonial masters and African slaves acquired property amid the panicked exodus of the Europeans after the slave revolt triumphed. With no redistribution of land, the haves and have-nots formed along racial lines. Color was so obsessively tied to status then that Haitians put names to 64 racial mixtures and assigned each a place on the social hierarchy.

In 1884, British Ambassador Spencer St. John wrote prophetically of the young state's racial fixation. "There is a marked line drawn between the black and the mulatto, which is probably the most disastrous circumstance for the future prosperity of the country."

Those now heading family empires insist that the color issue faded at the start of the last century, when the same waves of immigration that brought Irish, Italians and Germans to work in U.S. factories also infused fresh blood into Haiti. Business deals and marriage crossed racial lines sooner than in the United States, say the racially mixed third- and fourth-generation descendants of the immigrants.

During the 30-year dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, the mulatto industrialists prospered and paid little heed to either the poverty that afflicted the masses or the repression of the Duvaliers' political opponents. The elite's protectors and political delegates were the generals of the Haitian National Army.

Los Angeles Times Articles