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?

Another “If only I (k)NEW(s)!” update from Haiti


I have a confession to make—

I’m a tad bit apprehensive here in Haiti today—

Since, as many of you know by now, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier arrived in Port-au-Prince Sunday evening.  If that doesn’t blow your ever-lovin’-Haitian mind, nothing can, nothing will.

It’s in honor of this less-than-happy happening, that today I offer another “If only I (k)NEW(s)!” update from Port-au-Prince.

First, a brief overview:

Sunday night former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier landed unexpectedly at the Port-au-Prince airport.  He had been exiled in France for nearly 25 years.  Duvalier, son of the infamous and brutal “Papa Doc” became “president for life” when his father died in 1971 and he himself continued to brutalize the Haitian people for 15 years, until exiled in 1986.  Many believe he may have ulterior political motives for returning at this time, wanting to fill the power vacuum left here after a fraudulent presidential election in November.

Duvalier history in Haiti:

–Francois “Papa Doc,” Duvalier, a medical doctor, served as president from 1957-1986.

–In 1959 Papa Doc established the Tonton Macoutes, a secret police, that terrorized Haitians for nearly 27 years.

–Papa Doc had political opponents imprisoned and/or executed.  Some estimate as many as 30,000  were killed.

–Papa Doc died in 1971, having named his 19-year-old son as his successor.

–Baby Doc continued the atrocities begun by his father: “prison camps, torture, arbitrary executions, extrajudicial killings . . .” in the words of Amy Wilentz (see her book The Rainy Season).

–In 1986 a coup exiled Baby Doc and his family to France.

–Haitians danced in the street, knowing he was gone.

Current developments:

On Sunday at 5:50 pm Duvalier, along with his wife, arrived in Port-au-Prince aboard an Air France flight from Paris.  59-year-old Baby Doc, wearing a dark blue suit and tie, is said to have kissed the ground upon deplaning.  From the airport, where he told reporters only, “I’m here to help,” Duvalier traveled in an SUV to Petion-ville’s Karibe Hotel.  (Petion-ville is the up-scale Port-au-Prince suburb Sara and I call home.)

Sources indicated that Baby Doc traveled to Haiti on a diplomatic passport, but it’s not clear which country issued it.  Though most find this hard to believe, a senior aid of current President Preval said it did not become clear to Haitian officials that Duvalier was returning until the plane he traveled on stopped on the Caribbean island of Guadaloupe.

It’s the timing of the former dictator’s return to Haiti that seems suspect, his arriving on the day a final run-off presidential election was to be held, one day before the head of the OAS (Organization of American States)  was scheduled to meet with President Preval to discuss the outcome of a vote recount.  The OAS findings were leaked to the press a week ago and suggested the OAS would recommend that Jude Celestin, candidate from president Preval’s political party, and Preval’s hand-picked successor, be eliminated from a final round of elections, due to massive election “irregularities”—namely ballot boxes having arrived at polling places already stuffed with votes for Celestine.

Because of this, some, both in Haiti and abroad, believe Duvalier has arrived for political purposes, hoping to fill a power vacuum here in Port-au-Prince.  It’s this fear that has lead the United Nations to restrict the movement of its staff until further notice (or until Baby Doc’s motives for coming can be clarified).

We can only wait ourselves, since Duvalier’s press conference scheduled for Monday was postponed and is expected to be held today, Tuesday, instead.

Finally and, perhaps, more importantly, some journalists and academic experts are asking if this return of Baby Doc’s will prompt Jean-Bertrande Aristide to come home, as well, or at the very least drive Aristide supporters to the streets demanding that their exiled hero be allowed to return.

A few good news articles you might want to read:

–“’Baby Doc’ Duvalier returns to Haiti in a surprise move”—a piece from CNN.com.

–“Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ in surprise return from exile”—at Yahoo news.

–“Duvalier Meets with Advisers as Haiti Holds its Breath”—from the New York Times.

Disclaimer:

Remember, as I’ve said before, that here in Haiti it’s hellaciously hard to get good news.  And by “good news” I mean accurate news.  More often than not I throw my hands in the air and exclaim in utter and complete newsless-ness, “C’est la vie, la vie.”  Indeed—whatever will be will be—cause I’m not gonna be able to change it and I’m sure as hell not gonna know about it ahead of time.

Dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier at Port-au-Prince Airport


The news here in Haiti just gets stranger and stranger. 

Within the last few minutes we got word that former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has returned to Haiti, landing at the Port-au-Prince, Toussaint Louverture International Airport at 5:30pm EST on an Air France flight from Paris. 

We don’t know yet what this means or why he’s here for the first time since exiled in 1986, but it’s hard to imagine this is a good development.

I’ll keep everyone posted as soon as I hear anything more.  In the meantime this article from the National Post might interest some of you.

If only I (k)NEW(s)!


Earlier this week my friend Lisa at “Notes from Africa” suggested I begin periodic news updates about Haiti.  I thought that a fine idea, as most of Lisa’s are, so today I’m here to deliver news, of sorts.

“Why ‘of sorts’?” you might ask.

A reasonable question—

For here in Haiti, the fact remains, it’s hellaciously hard to get good news.  And by “good news” I mean accurate news.  More often than not, I’m misinformed, ill-informed, or not informed at all.  More often than not I’m confused.  More often than not I throw my hands in the air and exclaim in utter and complete newsless-ness, “C’est la vie, la vie.”  Indeed—whatever will be will be—cause I’m not gonna be able to change it and I’m sure as hell not gonna know about it ahead of time.

In Haiti I think we have accurate news about like we have free and fair elections—rarely, if at all.

But here goes.  Here you have—

Haiti’s Week in Review:

Earthquake anniversary

If you’ve been reading this blog, you should know that January 12th was the one year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, an event which, I hear, got significant coverage in the US and around the world.  (I know the national director for Sara’s NGO here in Haiti was interviewed on CNN the night before last.)

–At least 230,000 were killed.

–More than 300,000 were injured.

–Only 5% of rubble has been cleared in the last year.

–Still 1.3 million are homeless in and around Port-au-Prince.

A couple of great articles on the anniversary have appeared at Time.com this week.  I suggest you take a look at:

                “Who Failed on Haiti’s Recovery?”

                “Haiti’s Quake, One Year Later: It’s the Rubble, Stupid!”

 Cholera

Not as much in the headlines this week, but I heard in an interview on NPR this morning that we are officially in the epidemic phase of the disease. 

–The death toll as of yesterday was 3, 759 according to the Haitian Health Ministry.

–Officially 181,000 have been sickened to date.

For more news on the cholera outbreak I recommend an article from the Montreal Gazette:

                “Haiti cholera toll tops 3,750”

Haitian Presidential Elections

Here’s where things get complicated and more than a little fuzzy.  And here’s where I wish I knew a whole lot more, not only because it’s important to the democratic process, but also because, in purely practical and selfish terms, what happens here over the next several days will impact my life most significantly.

First a bit of background in case you’re new to this issue: 

–On November 28th Haiti held nationwide elections, with 18 candidates running for president.

–Ballot boxes arrived at polling places stuffed with votes for the candidate from the ruling political party and soon-to-be son-in-law of current Haitian president Preval—Jude Celestin—causing most of the other candidates to accuse the government of fraud.

–Rioting broke out when election results were announced a week later and the top two vote-getters were Mirlande Manigat and Celestin—excluding hugely popular musician candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly from a run-off between the top 2 vote-getters on January 16th.

–Port-au-Prince streets calmed down when Preval’s government agreed to a recount of votes by the OAS (Organization of American States).

–The announced results of that recount have been delayed multiple times since December 20th, when they were originally to be made public, so the January 16th run-off has been delayed.

–Official results of that recount have yet to be announced.

However—and this is a big “however,” indeed—

–Monday results of that OAS recount were leaked to the press.  And BBC News reports that the OAS will recommend that the candidate from the ruling political party be disqualified from any run-off.  If this story interests you, check out the BBC piece,

                “OAS to give Haiti presidential election verdict.”               

 What does this all mean? 

There was actually some debate about this at a dinner party Sara and I hosted the other evening, but I will mention an idea discussed by folks who had just left a meeting with presidential candidate, Lesley Voltaire.

Our dinner guests mostly speculated which announced outcome would result in the most violence on the streets of Port-au-Prince and when that announcement might be made.  Some thought that announcement could come as early as last night, which didn’t happen, but was more likely on Sunday evening, January 16th.

Surprisingly to me, most agreed that more violence would result from Jude Celestin being left out of the run-off, since Preval’s government would pay protesters to take to the streets, despite the fact that few in the country actually support Celestin’s candidacy.  They said the omission of Martelly from the run-off would cause problems and likely riots, but fewer problems than Preval could pay the poor to incite on the streets.

So, there you have it, folks, the news from Port-au-Prince, as I know it.  Yes, I wish I  (k)NEW more—but I don’t.  We’ll just have to see what happens Sunday, whether an announcement is made then, and if so, who will be allowed to participate in a run-off.

The last time an announcement came, we were stuck in our house for 4 days because of city-wide violence.  For descriptions of that rioting and how it affected our lives you should click here and here  and here .

I’ll keep you posted———-

Happy Holidays from Haiti: a Christmas letter


Dear Friends and Family,

Sara and I, along with our dogs Ralph and Lucy, would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays both from our home-away-from-home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and from our home in Lexington where Sara will join me on Christmas Eve. 

2010 has been a challenging year for us, as we have tried to settle in yet another international location, tried to create a home for ourselves away from the family and friends we hold so dear and miss so often.

Though last year we didn’t make it home for the holidays, Sara and I spent Christmas itself on a stunningly secluded beach in central Vietnam, playing in the sun and sea, eating food so delicious we salivate now even thinking about it. 

However, just two weeks after that lovely holiday in paradise, the January 12th earthquake in Haiti brought our life in Hanoi to a premature end.  By the first week of February Sara was on the ground in Port-au-Prince, having had a mere 18 hours at our home in Lexington to transition.   Since that time she has still not had more than 5 consecutive days in Kentucky, not more than a week in close to 2 years.  And though, of course, Sara loves her work and is passionate about providing homes for those displaced by the earthquake, she’s saddened that time away from her own home distances her from those she loves, forcing her to think about  from far away.

I, on the other hand, was fortunate to spend most of February, March, and April in Lexington, with only 1 week during March in Port-au-Prince and 2 weeks during May in the slums of New Delhi with 12 University of Kentucky students (completing in a service-learning project with Habitat for Humanity India).  It was not until June that I, along with our two dogs Ralph and Lucy, transitioned to Haiti more “full time” or at least as close to full time as risk management allow.  Security challenges abound in Port-au-Prince, where there is at least one kidnapping a day and we have two armed guards at our house around the clock.

However, we DO have a lovely, mountain-side home in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petion-Ville—a home Sara’s left for only brief visits to the US and one longer trip to the Pacific Northwest, where we enjoyed 2 days in Seattle and a week with 12 other friends on Whidbey Island—a fabulous time of fun, feasting, and fellowship with a group of women we dearly love.

And though we feel fairly well-settled in Port-au-Prince by now, settled enough to have hosted a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for 24, Haiti itself is far from peaceful this Holiday Season.  Not only did the earthquake last January kill close to a quarter of a million, but it has left, still 11 months later, more than 1.3 million people homeless in the city of Port-au-Prince alone.  Not only did the Haitian people suffer destruction again in the wake of Hurricane Tomas, but they are continuing to fight a cholera epidemic that has killed and sickened thousands more.  Not only did they face fraudulent presidential elections last month—they have dealt with the resulting social unrest, especially in the form of rioting by people who have suffered unimaginable losses in the last year, people who feel disenfranchised not only by the international community, but also by their own political leaders who would steal their right to a free and fair election.  It’s sad for us to see so much loss and suffering in such close proximity to our own lives of comfort, surplus, and blessing.

Despite all of this, however, the Haitian people are strong.  They are resilient.  They persevere.  Sara and I are proud to call the beautiful people of this tiny island our neighbors, our friends, our family, and we would ask you to not only pray for us this Christmas, but more importantly to keep our new Haitian brothers and sisters in your hearts and prayers, as well.

As the mountains that circle Port-au-Prince brighten on Christmas morning, the Haitian people will be left with little to do but pray—

But we ask that you too pray for peace in Port-au-Prince streets—for peace in those mountains beyond—those mountains beyond mountains—

Please pray those hills would be alive with the sound of peaceful music–

A peace that passes understanding–

May God bring peace to you and your family this Holiday Season!

May God bring peace to Haiti!

With blessings from Port-au-Prince,

Sara and Kathy

Haiti’s Feast or Famine: the good, the bad, and an etiquette of greed


I got out of the house Saturday, in fact made it all the way to the grocery store, where I saw people—an assortment of real, honest-to-goodness, up-right-walking, human beings.  They were people on a mission—a singular mission, I might add—the search for sustenance.  Members of this group—more hunter than gatherer—were out for the kill—the thrill of stalking and slaying.  They were ruthless.

Blood was shed.

But, before I proceed with these graphic details of gut and gore, let me remind you how I got myself into this mess, in the first place.  To make a long story short, I came to Haiti with my partner Sara, who directs earthquake recovery efforts for a major, international, NGO.  I am an artist/writer/former-academic.  Since our arrival in Port-au-Prince, our two dogs in tow, we have survived a number of dangers that have included Hurricane Tomas, a cholera epidemic, and the ongoing threat of kid-napping.  In the past week things have worsened considerably, however, as in the aftermath of fraudulent presidential elections the country, Port-au-Prince especially, has been paralyzed by protesters rioting in the streets against a myriad of misdeeds on the part of the ruling political party, crimes that included blatant stuffing of ballot boxes and intimidation of voters at the polls.  It is this rioting that kept us house-bound for much of last week—housebound as all around us the city descended into chaos—buildings burned, people killed.   And it is this confinement that made us more than just a little merry to be out this weekend—even as far as the supermarket on Saturday—

—Where, indeed, blood was shed—

—Almost—

Okay, there may not have been literal blood in the aisles—but it was bloody in every metaphoric sense imaginable.  It was desperate.  It was deadly.  There should have been medical intervention, at the very least.

These human beings were hungry, as only housebound-for-days-with-pantries-depleted aid workers can be—a singularly ravenous group—I now know.

So here’s how it all went down:

Sara and I, wisely arrive at the super market early. Giant, as it’s called, opens at 8.  But we arrive around 7:50 with a strategy mapped out—divide and conquer.  By this time a small group has already gathered.  By 8 our number has grown.  By 8:10 we’re a small crowd.  By 8:15 we’re a ravenous herd thronging the gates of super market heaven, as Giant’s own Peter, raises the barrier.

This, I would argue, is what happens to humans accustomed to the food surplus that is America, Canada, Denmark, Kuwait—suddenly threatened—where anything short of feast is experienced as famine. Ironically, many of these aid workers feed the hungry by day, have degrees in food security, advanced degrees in hunger studies These food-spoiled-food-specialists have been housebound for days and know now that more isolation is inevitable, maybe even imminent.  These are the real survivalist, the professionally-programmed to gather, to stock pile, to horde.

Unfortunately, I participate in this parody.

Willingly—

Isles clog with carts— the meat department is particularly intense—shoppers grabbing chickens to roast, t-bones to grill, pork chops to fry.  These are carnivores galore, consuming the store.

I am no different—but I crave the carbs, have been on a diet for weeks.  And even during good times diets increase my cravings.  So when the few foods I’ve been eating for more than a month aren’t stocked by the store, I start to stress.  My anxiety soars—is still soaring two days later. 

On Saturday I do finally find a few favorite foods—pretzels, almonds, raisins, dates—the carbs I crave even on a diet.  This stockpile, however, doesn’t satisfy.  Sara and I still argue.  I know I’m over-reacting.

There’s too much uncertainty.  The airport has finally reopened, though American Airlines won’t resume flights before Wednesday—the very afternoon I’m scheduled to fly home for the holidays.  Almost daily for the past week American has promised to start flying again on a given day, only to announce the following morning the need to prolong their Port-au-Prince closure.  The only way I’ll get out with my dog Lucy on Wednesday, is if the airline does not delay again.

On top of this uncertainty, we’re not at all confident Sara will be able to leave Haiti on the 23rd—the date of her scheduled holiday departure.  The airports are expected to close again after the final results in the presidential election are announced on December 20th.  Many believe the country will slip into a chaos even more intense.

I know I should be mourning these facts on behalf of Haiti, when, actually, my grief is grounded in fear that neither Sara nor I will get home for the holiday, or even worse—that I will, but Sara won’t, and we’ll be apart on December 25th

It’s an ugly, selfish sadness. 

In fact, I am what I find most deplorable in citizens of rich countries.

Driven.

Greedy.

Vain.

I come from ugly America, a Mecca of meals with an etiquette of greed.   Am I an ugly American, ashamed but not changed?

Or maybe Alexander from Judith Viorst childrens’ book got it right after all.  Maybe it’s just

                “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

Cabin Fever Takes Hold in Haiti


(symptoms include: a dire need to make light of what is indeed a dire situation in Port-au-Prince, a flippancy induced by the inhalation of burning rubber, and a need to beg forgiveness in advance for any and all perceived irreverence)

Okay—it’s official—

I’m climbing the walls—

Not to mention ready to pull my proverbially-blonde-bob out by its not-so-proverbially-graying-roots.

Not a pretty sight.

Not only am I not able to leave the house and the confines of our small compound—fully equipped with two armed guards, two women madly in love, two dogs dearer that dirt, and, as of yet, no turtle doves to round out the group—but I’m at a virtual stand-still, as well.

I can’t get anywhere on the internet—anywhere that involves navigating beyond the breadth and depth of options offered on my Yahoo home page, options that include, but are not limited to, commentary on Oprah’s sexual orientation (she’s not gay), a discussion of what landlords won’t tell you (your neighbor is not his problem), an explanation of what makes stomachs growl (gases caught in churning digestive juices), and how to know he’s just not that into you (his arms are folded tightly over his chest)—if you really must know—clearly I’m well informed on all of these matters.

Then there’s the noise—yesterday multiple explosions and periodic bursts of gunshot—today the clamor of protesters close enough to hear, but not close enough to watch.  I’m sorry, but I simply must insist that all rioters on the Petion-ville side of Port-au-Prince, at least have the rioting decency to circle by my house once in the course of general looting and plundering—what any civilized plunderer wouldn’t have to think twice about.

Then there’s my neighbor’s music—

I can only say that it’s loud, Hispanic, and involves a lot of drumming.  And just in the last few minutes, they’ve added clapping to the percussion already well-represented in the piece.  The neighbors, too, could be suffering from cabin fever, as evidenced by an overwhelming urge to paddy-cake themselves to comfort.  But, actually, I think there may be alcohol involved.

Please be assured that the rambling nature of this rant is likely caused by cabin fever and won’t continue once the cabin has been put on ice, the international airport has been re-opened, and all aid workers have been evacuated and repatriated.

(Seriously, it’s really getting to me.  You probably should pray.)