Variations on Exile (Baby Doc, Part 3)


(To read Part 1 of this post click here, to read Part 2 click here.)

It’s been six days since I interviewed Baby Doc and I am still reeling—whirl-winded by the sheer size of the experience, the weight, the scope of opportunity that came so unexpectedly.

And, frankly, I’ve not digested the experience yet— it seems to have exhausted me; I feel depleted–confused by having almost “liked” the version of Duvalier I met that night.  What does one do with that realization?

Quite frankly I wish I were back in Haiti now. 

Certainly, I love our home in Lexington and enjoy seeing Sara’s happiness at being here, but I would do anything to be in Port-au-Prince when Aristide arrives.  The plane to return him from exile has already left South Africa; he’s expected to arrive in Haiti within hours.

But if I had to identify one overwhelming response to meeting Jean-Claude Duvalier, it would be this—a bit of dismay at how intrigued I still am by him—not Baby Doc the dictator, but Baby Doc the man, the details of ordinary around him. 

The fact that his house, though perhaps the grandest on his street, was not as spectacular as I had suspected it would be.  The couches in the living room seemed old and worn.  There were no fancy fixtures.  The wrought iron chairs on the patio needed paint.

But then again, that’s what we all amount to in the end—the peeling paint, the nicks, the scars.  The couches need recovering.

The bottom line is this:  the story of Haiti is largely one of exile and variations on that theme—coerced comings and goings, arriving unwillingly on a tiny island, you then don’t want to leave.

So it was for the slaves the Europeans brought from Africa, and so it was for Jean-Claude Duvalier, made president for life at age 19 when his father died, a job he didn’t want, a role he didn’t want to play.  He ruled for 15 years, was exiled for 25, and has finally come home to Haiti again.

And in some ways, so it is for Sara and me.  Though we came willingly to Haiti, we were not at all ready to leave, and having left feels like a loss, an amputation.  Haiti is the phantom limb, the one I dream about, the one that calls to me at night.

Eventually we all get kicked off one island or another.  A tribal council is convened.  The votes are cast.

And someone has to go–

My Old Kentucky Home


Having lived a year in post-earthquake Haiti and shipped 66 boxes worth of passion for Port-au-Prince ahead of our departure, my partner Sara and I, late last night, arrived home in Kentucky with 6 suitcases, 4 carry-ons, and two tired dogs in tow.

And today I am still too whip-lashed by re-entry (too shocked by easy access to electricity) to write much of substance, especially about my Saturday evening talk with Baby Doc, which in itself has left me dizzied with disbelief–clearly, the conversation of a life-time shaded by the half-light of infamy.

However, now that I’m back in the land of easy broadband, I can offer a few photographic highlights of our last days in Haiti:

Movers wrap everything, tables included, in cardboard

Lucy supervises shipping

Ralph visits Haitian vet to avoid US quarantine

Good bye party hosted by Sara's staff at Kalico Beach (near Cabaret)

Lucy oversees our departure for the airport

From atop Ralph's crate

Arrival at the Port-au-Prince airport

Lucy and Kathy wait at the gate

My talk with Baby Doc

Though I’m too tired to say much, I will add that, my 45 minute conversation with Baby Doc, would have been the coup of a life-time, were I a journalist in the traditional sense.  However, I was granted this access as a “friend of friend” and talked with Jean-Claude Duvalier, not about his recent arrest or allegations of wrong-doing, but about who he is as a man, as a president returned from exile, who sees his country suffering and is saddened by it.

I sat across the table and was stunned by the seeming humanity of an ex-dictator, some say committed crimes against humanity.   How could someone supposedly evil actually appear so warm, charming, and, above all else, humble?  I expected arrogance and experienced not one drop of it. 

Is this man maybe not what the world has judged him to be?  Are people capable of change, worthy of redemption?

Whoever Jean-Claude Duvalier is, he’s not what you’d expect.

Aristide is coming home—


—or so I’m told—

 And Sara and I are glad to be back on Planet Port-au-Prince, where a routine of strange and absurd leaves predictability-addicted ex-pats like us whip-lashed and dizzied.

Remember the epigraph that inspired “reinventing the event horizon”——

Haiti is not simply one more of those tropical dictatorships where to rule is to steal, and headless bodies are found by the road.  Haiti contorts time:  It convolutes reason if you are lucky–and obliterates it if you are not.  Haiti is to this hemisphere what black holes are to outer space.  Venture there and you cross an event horizon. (T. D. Allman, After Baby Doc, 1989)

From a much-too-short weekend in Miami, Sara and I have crossed that event horizon, come home to Haiti, where the streets are rocking with protesters— 

Literally—

Stone-throwing, tire-burning Haitians took to the streets on Monday, calling for the removal of unpopular President Preval, whose term ended yesterday, or should have, had he not decided to extend it by three months.

So it seems—————Preval is staying, Baby-Doc has settled in, and Aristide is on his way.

As journalist Emily Troutman tweeted yesterday, the only thing that would be weirder is if  “Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines came back too.”  (Both were Haitian revolutionary heroes who fought for freedom against the French more than 200 years ago.)

In the unfortunate (but sanity-maintaining) event that you are new to Planet Port-au-Prince here’s a recap of recent events:

–On January 12, 2011 an earthquake leveled Haiti’s capital, killing nearly a quarter of million, and leaving one and a half million homeless and still living in tents a year later.

–In October Hurricane Tomas hit Haiti, further complicating relief efforts.

–Also in October, a cholera epidemic took hold, and by now, 3 months later, has needlessly killed more than 4 thousand.

–On November 28, 2011 Haiti held a fraudulent presidential election, during which ballot boxes arrived at poling places stuffed with votes for the ruling political party’s candidate, Jude Celestine.

–After election results were announced on December 8, 2010 (identifying Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestine as the top two vote-getters who would run-off in a final round on January 16, 2011  and excluding popular, musician candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly from the second round), protesters took to the streets, rioting for an annulment of the election and leaving Port-au-Prince in a virtual lock-down that even closed the international airport for four days.

–In January 2011 the OAS (Organization of American States) reviewed election results and determined that they were indeed fraudulent and that Jude Celestine should be eliminated from a second round run-off.

–On January 16, 2011, the scheduled day of the original run-off, the delayed event was nearly forgotten when the former Haitian dictator (exiled in France since 1986) Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier arrived unexpectedly in Port-au-Prince.

–Two days later Baby Doc was arrested and released on charges of corruption.

–Also in January, when members of President Preval’s Unity Party refused to follow the recommendation of the OAS that their candidate Jude Celestine be disqualified, the US State Department revoked the visas of 12 top officials in an effort to force the issue.

–On February 3, 2011 the Haitian Provisional Electoral Council, following the recommendation of the OAS, announced the revised results of November’s election, determining by a vote  of 5 to 3, that the two candidates to run-off in a March 20th final round would be Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly.

–Though this announcement too was expected to result in rioting, the exclusion of unpopular Celestine left Port-au-Prince relatively quiet and calm.

–(In the midst of this, Sara and I left Port-au-Prince on Friday, February 4th for a long weekend on the beach in South Florida.) 

hundreds of jelly fish on South Beach

 –Monday, February 7th, the Haitian government issued a sting of its own to Duvalier supports, when  it announced it had printed a diplomatic passport for the still-wildly-popular and first-democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has lived in exile in South Africa since 2004.  (So he can return home, Aristide has been requesting a passport for more than a month.)

–(As Haitians await the imminent return of Aristide, Sara and I snuck back into Haiti on a nearly empty American Airlines flight (because few folks are stupid enough to return to Port-au-Prince during this time of political unrest with arch rivals Duvalier and Aristide waiting in the wings.)

So readers of my blog should be assured—I’m back on the job.

This week I’ll be formally accepting “awards” I’ve received during my holiday—the “Memetastic Award” (from Clouded Marbles) and “The Stylish Blogger Award” (from Wendy over at Herding Cats in Hammond River).  And I’ll pass along the “prizes” to other deserving bloggers in the next couple of days.

So I’m back at my desk—

Blogging from my home-sweet Haitian home on Planet Port-au-Prince.

Come play with me.  You too can have time-contorted and reason-obliterated!

Come wait for Aristide with me———————-

(I look forward to catching up with all of your blogs, as well.)

Graffiti: Inscribing Haiti’s Future on the Rubble that is Now


There’s a long-standing tradition of political graffiti in Haiti—one that began soon after the Duvalier dictatorship ended its 29 year reign of terror with the ouster in 1986 of now newly-returned Baby Doc.

 We’ve come full circle. 

Duvalier is back.  Aristide is on his way.

However, political graffiti isn’t gone.  In fact, it’s virtually everywhere in Haiti’s capital—buildings and walls defaced by political thugs given $35 (US) and some spray paint to propagandize Port-au-Prince—scrawlings in red, black, and blue—the names of presidential candidates literally littering the city in ink.

What’s different, however, is this: there’s a new kid on the block, a graffiti artist named Jerry Rosembert Moise, who began his brilliant work just hours after an earthquake devastated his city.

What’s also different is that Jerry’s graffiti is decidedly non-political.  It articulates the suffering of an otherwise silent city, whose pain is tented and tarped along rubble-strewn streets, where cholera rages and rioters react in a language of flaming tires—a solidarity of burning rubber.

Jerry, a twenty-five-year-old graphic artist by training, paints simultaneously with both hands.   By now he’s completed more than 50 pieces, beginning in Port-au-Prince proper, before moving uptown to Petion-ville where we live. 

Directly across the street from my partner Sara’s office, is a painting that looks like this:

Though getting good photos of this piece is now complicated by a billboad’s intrusion, you can still see the ball-holding boy, watching the world cup.  There’s a lot of watching going on here, the person on the street seeing the painting, the young man staring at the set.  Passively the world watches and plays games, while Haitians wait, forced to make furniture from rubble?  Who holds the ball here?  Are these the questions Jerry asks?

Just half way up the block, however, on the same side of the street is a piece that looks like this:

What’s Jerry’s message here?  The hand-holding couple walk in solidarity.  What makes them so sad, so tired?  Why do they look down instead of up or at one another?

Still further up the block and across the street from Sara’s second office is a woman leaning against the very wall she’s painted on:

Her gaze is directed over her shoulder and into the street, perhaps even across the road at the NGO where Sara works.  She wears glasses, smokes a cigarette in high heels that force her to stand on tip-toe, legs crossed—tentatively.  She’s suggestively watching what?  What does she need assistance seeing or saying?  When does “suggestively” become “suggest?” 

Not far from the block where these three pieces peer at televisions and NGOs, is an even sadder commentary of post-earthquake Haiti:

Here the boy in a wheel chair is watched by Santa Clause.  Santa, suited up in high holiday-fashion, is the passive on-looker.  The boy participates, waving a bleeding Haitian flag, popping a wheely—stunting for Santa. 

“I may be hurt,” he says. 

“I may be bleeding.  But watch me wave patriotically, while you stand idly by, hot under the collar in that stupid European suit!” 

“Why are all the ex-pats pissed?” he wants to know.

Santa may not know the answer.  We may not either.  But Jerry himself has this to say:

So Jerry’s message is one of hope, a belief that the youth of Haiti can and will make a difference, build a stronger future on the rubble that is now.

Tomorrow, an update on Jerry’s latest project! 

Stay tuned.

Stumping for Haitian Art: Gorgeous Gardens in Port-au-Prince


I had a close encounter with garden art last week—

An unexpected one at that.

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a visual artist—of sorts—self-taught, poor, and living in exile on a Caribbean island, where electricity is in short supply, political stability is even harder to come by, and cholera is spreading like good gossip in a gaggle of girls.  I’ve shared my work in previous posts.  I love art, support art, enjoy it in all its incarnations, shapes, and sizes.

But it surprised even me last week, when an artistic enterprise unfolded in my own Port-au-Prince back yard—one uninitiated by me.

Ever since last spring when Sara moved into our house on a hill—Morne Calvaire (where we’re told a new neighbor is Baby Doc Duvalier), the land-lady has promised a garden, and last week she delivered, arriving with a landscape artist who installed a stunning rock garden near our front door.

We were happy.  We were actually thrilled.  However, we were not prepared for act two, which unfolded the following day.

It was morning; the sky was clear, blue bold enough to brighten even the most bored of bloggers.  I was writing, enjoying light that angled through my wall of windows.  While I was working, however, the dogs alerted me to a noise outside, one I might have otherwise ignored. Thank God for canine clamor.

There on the hillside that slants down and away from our house, three men, our landscape artist included, pushed and pulled, grunted and groaned the most massive of stumps toward a wall and fence that border the back of our garden.

I couldn’t imagine why.  What was the purpose behind this effort?  Why had Sisyphus himself shown up on my Haitian hillside?

What concerned me most, however, from my interpretation of signs and signals being gestured below, was an apparent plan to heave the stump over the wall and through the fence cemented into it.  I watched and wondered, watched and wondered some more till I was sure the plan indeed involved such fence bull-dozing, before running out to get our security guard to intervene and interrupt this planned assault.  Within seconds Sonny came running, riffle gesturing the men away from ruining our fence.

It was soon discovered via a phone call to our landlady that, having forgotten the fence was attached to the top it, she had asked the men to remove the stump by pushing it over the top of the wall.  Our stump-movers extraordinaire interpreted her instructions quite literally, intending to force the tree through the fence in an effort to accomplish the task.  So much for common sense.

Stump removal ceased for the day.

The men then returned the following morning, removing a section of fence, forcing their burden over the top of the wall, lowering it with ropes into the back of a truck on the other side, and replacing the offending section of fence, before departing—

I assumed forever.

However, the following morning, while I was again writing, a horn honked outside our gate, the dogs barked like insane caricatures of canine companionship, and I soon heard the shouting of what turned out to be seven men.  Within minutes massive crashing commenced on the deck above, more shouting, still more housing-rattling crashes, shouting and crashing, shouting and crashing, until I simply had to investigate.

The stump had returned.

It was now living on our patio, puzzling me, puzzling indeed.  I like trees as much at the next semi-green ex-pat on the island, but REALLY, did we want this stump on our patio?

Over the next several days, however, Dicton Gaston, our new gardener guy answered that question for me, proving more and more a sculpting savant, as the stump morphed from this:

Into this:

Dicton Gaston is a gardening genius.

Dicton Gaston proves art emerges from even the most unlikely places.

Dicton Gaston proves that in Port-au-Prince, though ex-dictators may show up unannounced at airports, though they’ll be arrested and released and move onto the mountain where you live, art can come from equally surprising places, in delightfully surprising packages.

So, this week, as long as the ex-dictator can maintain his EX-dictator status, as long as protesters don’t take to the streets and shut down the city, as long as posts can go as planned, this week I’ll bring you a series on Haitian art, hoping to remind you—

Port-au-Prince may be leveled, reduced to a dead stump of its former self, discarded on a hillside, in ruin.  Haiti may be broken, lost, and nearly forgotten, but still, like Dicton’s stump, it can occupy a prominent place, a patio blooming, green, and living once again.

A work of genuine genius.

Bargaining for the Good Life: Duvalier and the Haitian Elite


As I’ve struggled over the past several days, trying to make even minimal sense of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return to Haiti Sunday evening, and worked even harder attempting to understand the Duvalierists I’ve discovered in my life since then, I’ve remembered why art is such a good way for me to grapple with complex issues, ones for which there are no easy answer.  When slugging through the muck and mire of not knowing remains the only way through a particular darkness, I, like both Aristotle and Shakespeare, find comfort in art and literature’s ability to “imitate nature,” be like the thing that’s bothersome, while, at the same time, not being the thing itself.

 So, in the midst of my Duvalier-induced dementia, I remembered a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  I’ve often taught this piece to composition students when wanting to demonstrate how “showing,” rather than merely “telling,” makes for stronger writing.  But yesterday Le Guin’s story reminded me why and how literature can become a way through confusion, especially in a place where more than a million remain homeless, cholera continues to kill, and ex-dictators come home to roost. 

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes a seemingly ideal city that hides a dark and disturbing secret (a dystopia, in literary terms).  Happiness and peace in Omelas depend on the suffering and misery of one small child, dungeoned in filth and despair.  According to Le Guin’s narrator, coming of age in this seemingly perfect place involves visiting this child and realizing, for the first time, the price Omelas pays for peace.

Clearly Omelas is not a perfect parallel to Port-au-Prince, since here the wealth and luxury enjoyed by an elite minority depend on the suffering of millions.  My Duvalierist friends may long for the good-old-days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc, an era when the lights stayed on and the streets were clean, but even now in Haiti the balance is shifted in favor of the privileged few.

 In the story’s final paragraph (click here to read the story in its entirety), Le Guin tell us about a few citizens of Omelas, but only a few, unwilling to accept this “bargain,” unwilling to exchange the suffering of an innocent child for their own well-being, to trade conscience for comfort.  These are, indeed, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” 

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

 For the same reason these few in Omelas walk away, here in Haiti some have come and  decided to stay, refusing, in their own way, to accept the bargained-comfort that is life back home.  But this situation is extreme. 

I wonder how this same unwillingness to compromise conscience plays itself out in your life.  What do you sacrifice, what do you say “no” to, because doing so is good and fair and just? 

 How is conscience alive and well in your life?

I Encountered a Duvalierist: Haitian Atrocities Then and Now


It’s getting to me folks. 

Really, really rubbing me the wrong way and getting this Confused and Befuddled Foreigner all up in arms and ready to kick some Duvalier ass.

Oops!  Did I just say that with my outside voice, my typing voice, my public, face-to-the-world voice?  Did I just threaten to kick ex-dictator-dying-to-be-dictator-again ass?

I’m what my grandmother would call “all riled up,” and “in a tizzy” over some Haitian’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude toward Baby Doc–

The attitude of at least two upper-middle class Haitian’s I talked with this week.

But what strikes me as odd is that both of these acquaintances shared a frighteningly similar perspective—one that scared the pro-democracy socks off of my oh-so middle-class American sensibilities. 

Obviously it’s important not to generalize from this small sample, but what amazed me was that both said the same thing—something I thought I wouldn’t hear—especially from well-informed and well-educated Haitians.

Both were pro-Duvalier.

I encountered a Duvalierist, two of them.

Both were not just neutral, both clearly supported someone who makes Saddam Hussein look like a Sunday school teacher.

Both said life was better during the Duvalier Era.  The streets were safer.  There was better infrastructure, more electricity, the lights stayed on longer at night.

“Okay,” I said, “but what about the oppression, the arrests, the torture, the killings?”

“That’s exaggerated,” both claimed, both in separate conversations.  Neither knew the other.

“Okay?” I said, half rhetorical question, half affirmation that I had heard them—heard the words at least.

I was dumb-founded.  I literally couldn’t come up with something to say. 

I still don’t know what to say, how to write about this, how to think.

But the stunned silence I’ve felt inside myself since those conversations has been telling.  I’m thinking, as I suspect most well-informed North Americans like me might, “So the numbers are inflated.  Then what’s a more accurate estimate?  Some say 30,000 Haitians lost their lives.  What would have been an okay number to have imprisoned, tortured, killed?”

Quite frankly I’m more than just confused.  I’m irritated.

Angry. 

Yes, I’m angered that people think this way. But I’m more angered by my own ignorance, my own naivety, my own not knowing how to talk or write about it.

How could I assume so wrongly?

Am I wrong to believe democracy is always best?  Are there indeed places on the planet where it won’t work?

I’ve long thought the Bush mandate to “export democracy” expressed many of the faulty assumptions Americans have toward the rest of the world.  I’ve known that Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, insisted Democracy depended on an educated citizenry—that the uneducated and ill-informed are poorly equipped to think about, let alone make decisions about good government.

But how does that apply here in a country where so few have gone to school, so many remain illiterate?  If education is the key—then which education, what kind, who decides?

I beginning to believe I am indeed in a place where other rules apply.  Life’s lived differently, and I don’t have the How-To Manual.

For so long Europeans and Americans have imposed their perspectives on Port-au-Prince.  Since the days of Columbus and the original “colonizing,” the conquerors have been wrong—

Done wrong.

Who’s the real dictator here?

Which are the true atrocities?

An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return from Exile


As events unfold here in Port-au-Prince around Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return from exile on Sunday, his being detained and charged with corruption by Haitian prosecutors yesterday, only to be released last night and returned to the Karibe Hotel having had his passport confiscated, I can’t help but repeat how surreal it feels—like living on the edge of a bizarre Caribbean twilight zone where reality contorts itself into a banana republic parody of all things right and just and  good.

In the midst of this twisting of right and wrong, caring and corruption, goodness and greed, I’m reminded of why I began this blog in the first place and why I called it “reinventing the event horizon.” I’m reminded of the quote from T. D. Allman’s After Baby Doc I cited in my first post back in November.  It bears repeating, as Allman associates Haiti with the same “convoluting” of reason we see happening here this week:

Haiti is not simply one more of those tropical dictatorships where to rule is to steal, and headless bodies are found by the road.  Haiti contorts time:  It convolutes reason if you are lucky–and obliterates it if you are not.  Haiti is to this hemisphere what black holes are to outer space.  Venture there and you cross an event horizon. (After Baby Doc, 1989)

Wrap your brain around that statement and you may begin to understand how Haiti feels this week—how this warping of the already absurd, not only wearies me, but worries folks the world over.

Remember, an event horizon is the edge of a black hole, a bending in the space/time continuum beyond which no light can escape—in many ways, a point of no return.

Was the earthquake an event horizon for Port-au-Prince?  Will cholera bend time and space so there’s no escaping the dis-ease that’s plagued this place for centuries?  Will fraudulent presidential elections and now Baby Doc’s return from exile push the Haitian people into further darkness?

Is there light for Haiti?