Haiti's Agony

By George P. Clark

From The Courier-Journal & Times Magazine

September 26, 1971


The streets of Petionville, high on the mountain slope above Port-au-Prince, have been freshly swept this bright Sunday morning in July, and overhead from pole to pole swing countless strands of small red pennants bearing the likeness of the new young President. Around the Catholic church on the public square are crowded several thousand well-dressed Haitians in holiday mood, eager to catch a glimpse of their new leader as he arrives to attend Mass on this special day, the Feast of Saint Peter, patron saint of the city. The Mass will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the President's birth, July 3, 1951.

In the street before the church is drawn up an honor guard of the Volunteers of National Security, neatly uniformed in blue trousers and shirts and red neckerchiefs. A company of women volunteers in like uniform is among them, and as they stand at ease they banter good-naturedly with their masculine comrades. Beside them a military band strikes up now and then from a well-rehearsed repertory. Before each company stands a tall officer, splendid in great leather boots and golden epaulets and a sword that nearly reaches the ground.

Near the temporary arch of triumph through which the President will pass stands a detachment of the khaki-uniformed Presidential Guard who will surround their chief when he leaves his car. From time to time a nondescript truck drives up and a number of grinning men in civilian pants and bright-colored shirts leap down, casually managing the rifles and submachine guns which they carry. All about, on rooftops and balconies, armed men look down on the festive crowd. For all the display of weapons, there is no feeling of constraint, no heavy-handed crowd control. It is a gala day, enjoyed by soldiers and civilians alike.

Suddenly there comes the roar of motors, a shout from the crowd, and half a dozen powerful motorcycles, followed by official limousines, speed past. In a moment the tall, black, heavy-set young man that all have been waiting to see has left his car and, surrounded by a tight throng of dignitaries and bodyguards, is already quickly striding up the steps to the church. The crowd cheers and presses forward, and from within the applause is heard as the President, dressed in a dark, handsomely tailored business suit, takes his seat in the ceremonial chair placed in the chancel. Surrounding him are the officers of the general staff in full regalia: tall, massive, unsmiling, heavily armed men. They remain standing throughout the service and the President can scarcely be seen by most of the congregation that overflows the pews and fills the aisles. On the other side of the altar, directly across from the President, are seated the members of the new cabinet, dressed in white linen suits and black ties that are officially prescribed for this important occasion. The Te Deum Mass, celebrated by the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, a strikingly young and handsome Haitian, lasts nearly two hours, but the attention of the people never wavers. As the recessional begins, the President is quickly escorted from the building by a side entrance, again to the shouts and warm applause of the crowd. Not once during the entire ceremony has the broad, impassive face of Jean-Claude Duvalier, President for Life of the Republic of Haiti, revealed the slightest flicker of emotion.

It is not yet half a year since the death of Dr. Francois Duvalier, in title "President for Life" of the French-speaking Republic of Haiti and in fact absolute dictator, since 1957, of the five million black people of that tiny Caribbean country. Commonly it had been thought that at his passing there would be the same widespread violence that had accompanied practically every change of government in the republic's history and that a strongman probably would emerge at the top. Instead, the world soon learned, "Papa Doc" had arranged for his teen-age son, Jean-Claude, to succeed him as "President for Life," and the scores of newsmen who had poured into Port-au-Prince, the capital city, in expectation of carnage could write about only an orderly transfer of power.

The visitor to Haiti, months later, finds the "peace and order" that the old man had always promised. There are few signs of change, and the reason is obvious. Not only has the Duvalier family remained in the National Palace, but the key Duvalierists also have remained, and their control of civil and military power rests unshaken. Jean-Claude Duvalier, reared amidst the intrigues of the National Palace and accustomed to its perquisites of unlimited power, surely won't repudiate the regime that created him. This is the conclusion I have reached after a recent trip to Haiti in the course of which I observed the daily pulse of life in the capital and countryside, studied the press, and talked informally with many Haitians.

Haiti occupies the western third of the subtropical island of Hispanola, the rest of which is the Dominican Republic. Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1492 and planted a short-lived colony on the northern coast near the present site of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second city. Subsequent Spanish, French and English explorers and buccaneers opened the country, rich in timber and topsoil, to European exploitation, and planters imported the thousands of African slaves needed for exhausting work in the great fields of cotton, tobacco and sugar. Soon after the French Revolution, however, the slaves were able to win their independence from the French by force of arms and to establish, under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a black nation that has continued, with many vicissitudes from 1804 to this day.

A scant two hours by jet from Miami, Haiti is still terra incognita to most Americans, who would find on its beaches and mountain trails the tourist-free vistas and unpolluted air they once associated with their national parks. They would also discover the most compelling attraction of Haiti -- the character of its ordinary people. In this increasingly materialistic and insensitive era, it is reassuring to know that there remain those who are patient, uncomplaining, good-humored and gentle despite poverty and disease. There can be few places in the world where a stranger, whatever his color, can move so safely among the people, in city or country, by day or night.

Our government, however, sees something about the country that interests it more than the charm of its people. The strategic location of Haiti, hardly more than 50 miles across the Windward Passage from Cuba, has always commanded the attention of Washington, even before Fidel Castro made that island Communist. Now, with the growing threat of Russian naval power in the Caribbean, it seems all the more important to our leaders that the government of Haiti should remain non-Communist and friendly. Balanced against this need, the character of the black peasants and urban poor of the world's most underdeveloped country does not weigh heavily in State Department or Pentagon thinking. Nor does our government concern itself with the needs and aspirations of the Haitian middle class, among whose business and professional men, civil servants and intellectuals (many now, unfortunately, exiled) lies whatever real hope there is for Haiti.

"Youth of our country, this is the young leader that I promised you ..." So begins the text on the poster that ones sees these days throughout the land. The speaker on the poster is dying old Dr. Francois Duvalier, and he leans for support and benediction on the shoulders of his expressionless son Jean-Claude, already seated at his father's desk, ready to take over the affairs of state. It is not mere chance that Papa Doc's words somehow recall the scene described by St. Matthew when the Spirit of God lighted upon Jesus and a voice from heaven said: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased." The similarity between his mission and that of the Lord had already struck the President for Life, and he found it well-expressed in a prayer which his followers had composed for the Revolutionary Catechism. It began: "Our Doc who art in the National Palace for Life, Hallowed be thy name by generations present and future. Thy will be done in Port-au-Prince and in the provinces ... " In a superstitious country 90 percent illiterate, the poster also conveys simply by its picture that Papa Doc is handing over his supernatural power to Jean-Claude, just as the dying houngan, the voodoo priest, transfers his magic to his son.

The new leader of the Haitian Revolution (the Orwellian term for the dictatorship under which Haitians live) is a corpulent black man, not yet 21 years old and, as his press proudly points out, the world's youngest head of state. ("Youth is the springtime of the nation," asserts the inscription beneath a somber portrait of the President, displayed, with those of his father and mother, on the waterfront at Port-au-Prince.) His appeal to the young is expected to do much to make his regime acceptable, and this far nothing has been done to discourage the people from referring to him simply as Jean-Claude; those who prefer to call him "the boy" or "Baby Doc" do not do so in a loud voice.

Haiti has not always been so receptive to boy presidents, and when Papa Doc decided to turn over reins (and whip) to his son, he encountered the constitutional limitation that a president of Haiti needed to be at least 40. Once the problem was explained to the Chamber of Deputies, however, that body saw the wisdom of drastically lowering the age requirement to accommodate so promising a candidate, and a public referendum overwhelmingly (2,391,916 to 0) supported the action. Now any gifted young fellow fresh from his teens can become president of Haiti whenever Jean-Claude's life tenure comes to an end.

None of this manipulation of the electoral process surprised the Haitians themselves or Haiti watchers elsewhere, for it was all so much in the tradition of the Duvalierist Revolution. Since his election to the presidency in 1957 as a compromise candidate in the chaotic months following President Paul Magloire's ouster by the military, Duvalier has shown a genius for consolidating power.

Though born in Port-au-Prince, his experience as a public-health physician in the backwoods of Haiti had enabled him to know the powerful local section chiefs and to study the mentality of the peasantry in whose voodoo pantheon he became associated with the wily and dapper Baron Samedi, presiding spirit of licentiousness and of graveyards. Once in the National Palace, he immediately set about to undercut the army (which had been trained and equipped under the U.S. Military Assistance Program) by sudden and arbitrary transfers and demotions of the officer corps, leading in time to widespread executions.

Toward the United States he showed by turns of tolerance and disdain, as he accepted our foreign aid or castigated our racist society. Meanwhile, he actively assailed the mulattoes of his own country, the traditional elite, as racially impure oppressors of the black working class. Resentful of the influence of religious workers on his people, he engaged in frequent harassment of Protestants and Catholics alike, and for a time was excommunicated by Rome because of his arbitrary expulsion of priests and bishops from the country.

Although he had been elected for a single six-year term, Duvalier in 1961 -- two years before his term was to end -- was able to get himself re-elected for another six years by coolly announcing that ballots recently cast for members of the national legislature (all headed by his printed name) were also to be understood as votes for his renewed presidency. For a man of such resourcefulness, the next step was easy. In 1964 he declared himself President for Life, and "Doc a Vie" became the slogan of the rest of his reign.

His exercise of power was utterly ruthless. Whole families were wiped out just because one member opposed the regime, and periodically Latin-American embassies in Port-au-Prince (not our own, which does not offer asylum) were filled with former soldiers, politicians and private citizens seeking refuge from the tyrant. In 1967, he executed (personally, with gun in hand, according to a widespread report) 19 young army officers charged with treason; he spared his son-in-law, Col. Max Dominique (now an important figure in the new government), only at the intercession of the presidential family. Further purges accompanied the numerous unsuccessful invasion attempts that punctuated his presidency, and there were reports that his private triggermen, the Tonton Macoutes, were active even among refugee Haitians in New York City.

It was perfectly in character, then, that Papa Doc would wish to hand down his realm to his son and that he should find "constitutional" means of doing so. It happens, however, that Jean-Claude never did very well academically in the private schools he attended in Port-au-Prince, nor was he old enough to have had a university education. He would obviously need astute counsel if Haiti were to remain in the Duvalier family. The 11 new cabinet ministers who with his eldest sister, brother-in-law and mother supply this counsel are long-time Duvalierists, most of whom have already profited extensively from their allegiance to the family. Under control of this handful of ambitious and calculating people are all the resources of state, and most importantly its military and paramilitary muscle: the army (whose chief-of-staff, Gen. Claude Raymond, is brother of the secretary of state for foreign affairs and worship, Adrien Raymond), the VSN (Volunteers for National Security, Papa Doc's private militia), the police (now differentiated by their blue uniforms from the military) and the various gun-toting characters in civilian clothes that one still sees in the capital city (though Jean-Claude has disarmed large numbers of the macoutes, particularly in the Valley of the Artibonite, where their strength was menacing the Palace).

For their exercise of power, the ruling clique has what is indispensable absolute control of the press, radio and television. Since the death of Papa Doc, last April 21, the daily press and airwaves of Port-au-Prince have offered unceasing tribute to the memory of Le Grand Disparu (The Great Departed). He is extolled as Le Grand Leader, the Glorious Haitian Apostle of General Well-Being, the Great Revolutionary, and (a la Chairman Mao) the Master of Thought. Jean-Claude is hailed as his "worthy and well-beloved successor," and there is no hint in the public press of the apprehension many Haitians felt about their future under the boy president and his much older and far more sophisticated advisers.

The casual visitor in Haiti might well wonder why anyone would want to be master of so impoverished a land. Port-au-Prince, a city of perhaps 300,000 persons, has adequately paved streets only in the downtown section, and even there bursting water pipes, cave-ins and potholes are common sights. On the morning after a severe rain, the streets of Exposition City, on the waterfront, are filled with rich brown mud washed from the nearby mountains, long since denuded of timber. Piles of garbage litter the streets; dust stirred up by the noisy frenetic traffic, swirls through the downtown area, and at every turn one finds pitiable beggars and the homeless of the streets, hands outstretched for money, or perhaps cupped to catch water for washing or drinking from the gutter.

For the teeming poor who crowd the tiny shacks of the city, passable alleys are the best to be hoped for, and paved streets unknown. Even the upper classes and foreign residents in their comfortable, often luxurious homes, are likely to have rough, unpaved lanes leading to their doors. Water in many parts of the city must be carried from neighborhood fountains, and the central supply is shut off several times during the day even for the elite, as electricity blackouts stop the pumps. Given the problems of distribution in Haiti, it is unlikely that the much-heralded additional current to be supplied by the new facilities at the Peligre Dam will relieve the necessity for periodic interruptions of power.

In this ramshackle capital of a decaying country, however, there are many, not the least among them the Duvalier family and their henchmen, who have found gold among the ruins. It was especially plentiful from the time of Papa Doc's accession until 1963, when the Kennedy administration, exasperated by Duvalier's pocket-stuffing, clamped down on the flow of U.S. foreign aid, which had been averaging more than $10 million annually. Even so, our underwriting of SNEM (the anti-malarial project) continued, CARE still offered massive relief to the undernourished and starving in the provinces, and loans from the World Bank and other international agencies, as well as grants from the United Nations remained available.

A recent informed estimate is that U.S. aid to Haiti still amounts to $3.5 million per year. According to newspaper reports, our ambassador in Haiti, Clinton E. Knox (himself a black man), has recommended an increase. Such also was the recommendation of some of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's Latin-American experts when they visited Port-au-Prince in July 1969. The aid cut-off, they were reported as saying, was "only hurting these patient and wonderful people." One may be pardoned for thinking it unlikely that the "patient and wonderful people" of Haiti -- and there are millions of them -- will ever enjoy a better life as a result of money handed over by the American taxpayer to the Duvalier family.

A recent issue of the English-language News of Haiti jubilantly notes that the recent growth of assembly industries in Port-au-Prince has created 8,000 new jobs and that exports to the United States are expected to amount to $10 million this year, up $2 million over 1970. Even in this modestly expanding economy, the income of the business and administrative community can be expected to increase materially. With a candor not to be found in the French-language press, News of Haiti quotes an anonymous informant as saying, "Interior revolts seem distant because there is simply too much potential cash available." In Haiti, as elsewhere, there has always been plenty for those at the top, foreign aid or no foreign aid.

But Haiti is not mostly made up of people at the top. Quite the contrary: Of the five million Haitians, probably no more than 500,000 are urban and French-speaking. The masses are Creole-speaking peasants who live from the produce and animals raised on their small plots, who seldom if ever visit an urban center, who barely subsist in the best of times and in the worst die of malnutrition and famine. Their average life expectancy at birth is 47 years (the lowest in the hemisphere), their average per capita income about $75 per annum. They are proud but gentle people who have followed their way of life for countless generations, little affected by outside influences, particularly the politics of the capital. Their government has little interest in them, as little interest in the urban poor, and seems content to let foreign relief agencies extend whatever assistance the people are to receive. A great many Protestant denominations and Catholic orders are building churches, conducting schools and clinics, and managing farm and factory enterprises that enable common people to make a living and educate their children.

Except for New York City, with its tens of thousands of Haitian refugees, and Miami, the center for Caribbean intrigue, probably no American city in recent years has shown a greater interest in Haiti than Louisville. Much of this interest is due to the fact that the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky has been nearly a decade a companion diocese with that of Haiti. On several occasions, Bishop C. Gresham Marmion has traveled to Haiti to conduct confirmation services, and representatives of the Haitian church have participated in services at Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville. During the past three Lenten seasons, children of the diocese have collected for Haiti money saved by self-denial of luxuries, and over the years their parents have contributed scholarship funds, musical instruments, artificial limbs and school supplies. Particularly significant has been the assistance of the Kentucky diocese to the elementary school and the orphanage for crippled children directed by sisters from Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Each year several young people from this area go to Haiti to do volunteer work for the sisters. This summer, John Hoover, band director at the University of Louisville, and some young Kentuckians helped conduct a music camp and organize an impressive symphony orchestra among Haitian children.

Apart from the attention given Papa Doc's death, Haiti most recently appeared in the Louisville news when it was announced by the youthful organizers of Louisville Young World Development that Haiti would share in the funds collected by several thousand people in the 21-mile March for Development last May. Of the nearly $65,000 raised, 42.5 percent will go to support two nutritional centers for children in Port-au-Prince.

Despite his callous indifference to the quality of life of the common people, which gained him no friends in this country, Papa Doc always had a trump card to play in Washington -- our national hysteria about communism. The United States could always be counted on to tolerate his brand of oppression because of its fear of "another Cuba" in the Caribbean. Though he used it to bait the United States, Duvalier's fear of Communists was genuine; had they gained control, he probably would not have escaped with his life. According to a report in the New York times, Papa Doc shortly before his deathtold our ambassador that he feared the presence of the Soviet fleet in the Caribbean might "encourage Cuba to send Cuba-trained Haitian infiltrators into Haiti."

Not surprisingly, in his first address to the Chamber of Deputies, the new president assured his listeners that he would take necessary steps to protect Haitian youth against "atheistic communism." To Duvalier the word "Communist" covers a broad spectrum to include Roman Catholic clergy and all manner of liberal opposition. Nothing would please the Duvalierists more than to have complete and undiscriminating American support for the new anti-Communist military force (the "Leopards") whose formation Luckner Cambronne, the minister of interior and national defense, announced some time ago.

What should be done about Haiti? Some say nothing short of evacuating the people, bulldozing away all signs of human occupation and leaving the land to be rediscovered ages hence (a radical approach Americans may feel suitable for parts of their own country, as well). Our government, though sympathetic with the Haitian people, insists that nothing should be done to imperil the stability of the Duvalier regime and open the way for Communist subversion. Haitian refugees demand an overthrow of the Duvalierists, though they are by no means in agreement as to what then should follow.

Haitians within the country, unless they sympathize with the regime, dare not demand anything. Outside Haiti, many have urged that if a total change were not possible, at least something should be done to mitigate the tyranny, and there have been frequent calls for investigations of Haiti by such bodies as the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

But all such actions have remained ineffectual. Dr. Francois Duvalier died as a member in good standing of the international community, and his son enters upon his patrimony with its full official approval. Although Washington once questioned the legitimacy of Papa Doc's regime, the question died with him, and the United States immediately recognized his son as his rightful successor.

Whatever may be said, Haiti will continue to be a land of gross injustice to its people until effective means are found of aiding them without enriching their masters. The Kennedy administration concluded that it was impossible to do so, and no administration has tried since. Yet the monetary and human price we are willing to pay for "stable allies" can go very high, witness our support of rightist regimes in Greece, Spain and Taiwan -- not to speak of Vietnam. These is always the possibility that Jean-Claude will uncover an impending Cuba-based insurgency that only money can quell, or he may threaten that if aid is not forthcoming he will reluctantly have to make a deal with the Communists.

In the meantime, our attention will be drawn from the real need of Haiti -- a beneficent, representative government that will restore the basic freedoms and enable Haitians to live like the free men they have been nominally since 1804. Under such a government, thousands of educated and talented exiles might be expected to return and undertake the rebuilding of their country. No material improvement in the lot of Haiti can come about, however, if we continue to offer unconditional recognition and support for its present masters. Our tasteless toleration of the Duvalier government at the expense of the Haitian people perpetuates the misery of a pillaged land in comparison with which even Cuba under Castro seems progressive.

George P. Clark was United States cultural attache in Haiti from 1965 to 1967 and subsequently chairman of the department of English at Hanover College in Indiana.