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.


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?