A Vain Fascination: Writing from and about Haiti after the Earthquake
|Raoul Peck—a leading member of the the pro-2004 coup G184 and Collectif Non!
AbstractIn the wake of the huge earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, Haiti instantly became the focus of media attention across the world. At that moment, the tropes that had imprisoned Haiti for two centuries (barbarism, savagery, vodou, the land-that-God-forgot, etc.) began to resurface. Some Haitian intellectuals sought to combat those images, but in so doing they inadvertently revealed their complicity not only in the negative discursive construction of their country, but also in the economic and military re-colonisation of Haiti over the last decade. Adept in the fabrication of replicas of ‘post-political’ discourse, These Haitian intellectuals are in reality a subset of that country's morally bankrupt political class.
IntroductionHaiti is a country that rarely registers on the consciousness of news media—outside of the USA and Canada at least—unless its president is being deposed or it has been hit by a hurricane. But after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti late in the afternoon of 12 January 2010, the world's media cast a spotlight on that country that continued to shine for several weeks, a spotlight that has been re-lit on each of the three subsequent anniversaries—albeit with diminishing intensity. However, that spotlight left some important issues in the shadows. My purpose in this article is to cast a little light into those shadowy recesses. For reasons that I will explain shortly, Haiti was immediately represented in the world's media by a small group of writers who enjoyed some name-prominence in France, Canada and, to a lesser extent, in the USA. Their neutrality or objectivity—not to mention their ‘authenticity’—appeared to be guaranteed by the simple labels ‘writer’ or ‘intellectual’ or ‘educator’. But as I will attempt to show, they had a history.
Reaping What You SowHaiti is the quintessential subaltern: deprived of the right to speak and subject to decisions taken by the elites both inside and outside of the country. Haiti has always been ‘known’ primarily through the narratives constructed about it in the centres of imperialist power. In finally defeating Napoleon's expeditionary force in 1803, Haiti endowed itself with a symbolic power that far exceeded its actual strength: throughout the nineteenth century, the great dread of the French bourgeoisie—haunted by memories of the Parisian mob during the French Revolution—was the ‘haitianisation’ of the popular classes, and if Haiti was not recognised by the Land of the Free until 1862, after the secession of the South, it is because of the dangerous example it had set in destroying the institution of slavery. As the Haitian sociologist Jean Casimir has noted, Haiti has always been a country that ‘disturbs’ (quoted in Dubois, 2012: 11).
But Haiti provides another quite essential measure of the world—that of creativity. Because we have also forged our resistance to the worst by the constant transformation of pain into human creativity. In what René Char called ‘the sanitary virtue of misfortune (la santé du malheur).’ I have no doubt that we writers will continue to impart to the world a particular savour. (Lahens, 2010a)In fairness, Lahens retracted that view in the autumn of 2010, seeing in it a fascinating lure –‘I will say, contradicting a very fashionable discourse, that artistic production will not save us. To repeat that it will is to inscribe ourselves within the logic of a vain fascination (une séduction stérile)’ (Lahens, 2010b: 156)—although she does appear to have forgotten that she herself had contributed toward making that discourse fashionable in the first place… Her colleague Rodney Saint-Éloi is less circumspect. Here is Saint-Eloi counselling his friend, the polymathic creator Frankétienne: ‘Nothing has changed. Don't allow yourself to be intimidated by the earthquake, carry on doing what you know how to do. Culture is the only thing that can put the country back on its feet’ (Saint-Éloi, 2010: 83). And again: ‘Only art possesses the energy that we need to pick ourselves up again’ (Saint-Éloi, 2010: 83).
Rich and poor alike are in this boat that is sinking towards the abyss. They shake hands with each other, afflicted by the same sense of desolation. ‘Tout moun jwenn’ [everyone gets their share/their slice of the pie] says Jean [the taxi-driver]. Why did it take an earthquake for people to want to make common cause, to have a collective project and to feel this desire to form a crowd and to be fully engaged in their history? Is catastrophe the only thing capable of bringing people together? (Saint-Éloi, 2010: 120)It is true that the earthquake did not discriminate on social grounds when it struck: if anything, the middle classes were disproportionately affected, as they were the ones most likely to be buried under the concrete of collapsing office blocks and administrative offices. But those 39 seconds of dreadful equality passed in the blink of an eye: the very moment the tremors ceased, the chances of survival were conditioned by money, power and influence. The filmmaker Raoul Peck reports that the instant going rate for digging somebody out of the rubble was $6000—in a country where 80 percent of people live on $2 per day (Peck, 2010).
The Disavowal of ResponsibilityIn October 2010 the Quebec publisher Mémoire d'Encrier put out a 400-page volume of essays titled Refonder Haïti? The volume contains 43 pieces written by those who like to think of themselves as Haiti's ‘qualitative majority’: novelists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, film-makers, journalists, political scientists. The selection ignores the old inside–outside rivalries between Haitian intellectuals: the contributors are drawn from Canada, France and the USA, as well as from Haiti itself.
Re-found what? Should we rebuild on the basis of the devastation that has been left by the earthquake, or re-found on the basis of the past and of history in order to create the anchoring points of renewal, making whatever breaks with the past are necessary in order to construct a fair and just society (une société juste)? (Buteau et al., 2010: 5)The editors of the volume recognise that Haitian society was broken long before the earthquake provided a physical analogue of that dysfunctionality. The task now is to identify the constructive and destructive elements of the past with a view to building a ‘common sphere of citizenship (une sphère commune de citoyenneté)’. (Buteau et al., 2010: 5). The range of ‘elements’ discussed is impressively broad: inequalities in the education system; discrimination against Kreyòl, against women, against children; the undervaluation of popular culture and religion; the need to reform journalistic practices; the need to involve the diaspora in the political life of Haiti; ecological disaster; the importance of good diplomacy [sic!]; the need to eradicate gender-based violence; the need to decentralise, etc. But very few of the contributors appear willing to go directly to the root causes of the situation in which Haiti found itself in the wake of the earthquake. One of the best-informed essays in the volume, and one of the few that articulates the reality of Haiti's situation clearly, is ‘Construire et reconstruire Haïti? Acteurs, enjeux et représentations [To construct and reconstruct Haïti? Actors, stakes and representations]’. The piece was penned by Émile Brutus and Camille Chalmers. Describing himself as a ‘political militant’ in his biographical note, Chalmers is a highly educated socio-economist who is the co-ordinator of the Haitian Platform for an Alternative Development (PAPDA), one of Haiti's longest established civil-society organisations. In their article, Chalmers and Brutus develop the unsurprising view that Haiti is the historical ‘laboratory’ of the neo-liberal project, and provide a succinct summary of Haitian actuality:
A tiny minority, just one percent of the population, owns more than 40 percent of national wealth and puts in place a state system of predation and repression against the majority—the peasants and the urban popular classes—with the support of a proteiform petty bourgeoisie and some imperialist powers. (Brutus and Chalmers, 2010: 35)Unlike many of the contributors to Refonder Haïti?, Brutus and Chalmers are sceptical about the idea that the earthquake might represent a watershed in Haitian history, let alone a ‘tabula rasa’. They point out that the USA and the World Bank had been pursuing the reconfiguration of the Haitian economy for many years prior to the earthquake (when that project was rebaptised as ‘reconstruction’), beginning with Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative, through the waves of liberalisation of 1983, during the years after the departure of Baby Doc in 1986–1990, throughout the first Préval presidency (1995–2000), right through to Hope 1 and Hope 2 (2007–2008), the latest Poverty Reduction Strategy (2007–2010) and the Collier Plan (2009). In that context, it was obvious that the Post Disaster Needs Assessment of March 2010 would not bring forth any new ideas for the ‘reconstruction’ of Haiti, let alone its ‘re-foundation’ (Brutus and Chalmers, 2010: 41). Instead of the authors' preferred remedy—democratic, popular socialism—the Haitians have, since 2010, simply seen more of the same: the accelerated development of Free Trade Zones, high-end tourism, the liberalisation of foreign trade (the further lowering of import tariffs), privatisation of the few remaining state-owned enterprises, the further erosion of the prerogatives of the Haitian state and the slashing of the public sector.
A Haitian worker earns less than five euros a day. I had taken risks with that man when the government [of Aristide] was using banditism as a political weapon and was sliding towards totalitarianism in the first half of the 2000s. It looked as if the Haitian bourgeoisie was finally accepting that it was not possible to build a modern society without tackling the glaring inequalities that forbid Haitians access to a common sphere of citizenship. Once the government had been overthrown, that bourgeoisie simply returned to its old habits of exclusion and unregulated exploitation (exploitation sauvage). I reproach myself, I reproach all of those people, people of the left, who had participated in that movement, for not having been more vigilant, for not having forced these champions of exclusion masquerading as democrats to make the effort of humanity that would show that there is more to them than their appetites and their desire to continue enjoying their rents and their privileges untroubled by the slightest pang of guilt (sans état d'âme). (Trouillot, 2012: 208–209)One is left almost speechless by the bad faith on display in that quotation. Could Trouillot seriously expect his readers to believe that he was disappointed and surprised to see this anonymous businessman (in fact, the sweatshop magnate Andy Apaid Jnr.) oppose the raising of the minimum wage? Had he perhaps been looking the other way when, after Aristide's re-election in 2000, Apaid, along with virtually every businessman in the G184, had opposed Aristide's attempts to raise the minimum wage, as they had the first time he was elected, in 1990? It is no more credible that Trouillot should have been surprised that Haiti's so-called MREs (Morally Repugnant Elites: the clue is in the name) should have reverted to their ‘habits of exclusion and unregulated exploitation’. As a connoisseur of Kreyòl proverbs, Trouillot is doubtless familiar with the phrase ‘bourik swe pou chwal dekore ak dentèl’ (lit: the donkey sweats so that the horse can be adorned with lace). As for Trouillot himself, he emerges with his credentials as ‘man of the left’ and ‘champion of the downtrodden’ enhanced by his denunciation of the perfidy of his erstwhile comrade in arms (‘I had taken risks with that man’).
Aristide must go immediately. The Haitian Platform to Advocate for an Alternative Development (PAPDA) praises the courage and foresight of the Haitian people who are mobilising in greater numbers every day to demand the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. PAPDA is happy to associate itself with this demand and reiterates its conviction that President Aristide's departure constitutes an essential element of any real way out of the crisis facing the country today. (PAPDA, 2004)The press release is headed, in large capitals: ‘PAPDA is opposed to the intervention of any multinational police or military force on Haitian soil under the pretext of re-establishing order’. He might just as well have handed to the French, Americans and Canadians—whose intentions were by then quite clear (Hallward, 2007: 91)—a handful of bullets, saying ‘but if you use them, I take no responsibility for the consequences!’ Ultimately, Chalmers' complicity in a situation of oppression that he now decries, seriously weakens the moral force behind his article in Refonder Haïti?.As I move towards a conclusion, I feel that I should address a foreseeable criticism of the foregoing. This article was not conceived as a paean to Aristide or to what was left of Fanmi Lavalas by 2004. I hold no personal brief for Aristide: I tend to think that he was a quite seriously flawed leader. But this is not about the personal qualities of Aristide, nor even about the success or failure of his administrations. It is about a people who twice glimpsed a fleeting chance of empowerment, only to see that chimera evaporate before its eyes. One obstinate fact remains—and it is a fact that sticks in the craw of the unelectable Apaid, and the unrepresentative Trouillot: Aristide was democratically elected by a huge popular majority in 2000; a mature, responsible opposition would have allowed Aristide to see out his mandate and would have put their alternative vision before the people in the next election. As it is, in not only calling for the departure of Aristide but actively working for his removal, they sent the message that democratic elections were fine, but only so long as their result was acceptable to the Haitian elites and the US State Department.