Papa Doc's Haiti -- A Paradise Lost

By George P. Clark

From The Courier-Journal & Times Magazine

November 3, 1968

"Papa, you buy from me, no? See, good wood carving." The Sunday cruise tourist, already self-conscious beneath a garish straw hat, looks doubtful. "Papa, I hungry, I got six kids. I give it you real cheap -- one dollah, Papa ... I give it you fifty cents ... give me a chance, Papa."

But tourist and wife are already in their taxi, part of the package deal that includes lunch ashore at a deluxe hotel in the mountains, a "voodoo" dance exhibition, and a tour of the leading rum distillery, with time, naturally, for conscientious sampling of the product.

At dinner back on C Deck, the tourist has already dismissed Haiti from his mind, though the ship has not yet raised anchor for its evening departure from Port-au-Prince. He does not know he has just set foot on the island that Christopher Columbus himself endowed with the magic name "la Ysla Espanola" -- Hispaniola.

The tropical island of Hispaniola lies 700 miles southeast of Miami, hardly two hours away by jet airliner, between Communist Cuba to the west and American Puerto Rico to the east. Its eastern two-thirds are occupied by the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, the western third by the Creole-speaking Republic of Haiti. Independent since 1804, Haiti is the oldest self-governing black nation in the world and is second in age only to the United States in our hemisphere.

Haiti used to appear regularly in our news columns, for American Marines intervened there in 1915, when Haitian masses murdered a despotic president, and remained in occupation until 1934, restoring order and protecting American interests -- and arousing highly mixed emotions in the Haitian people. Of this period a leading Haitian intellectual recently wrote that such an occupation could hardly be pleasant "even by the Swiss Guard ... under the command of the Pope himself."

Today we are likely to hear of Haiti only when yet another group of international adventurers tries to drive its "President for Life," Dr. Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, from his gleaming white palace in Port-au-Prince, as happened early last summer, or when a popular novelist selects it as the scene of a romance, as Graham Greene did in The Comedians, a somewhat flawed reflection of the dark side of the Haitian moon, later made into a movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Americans should know much more about Haiti, however, for this tiny country, packing over 4,600,000 people into an area about that of the state of Maryland, offers much of interest to discerning tourist and student alike. The politics of the Latin American population explosion make it seem likely that our government one day will revise its present policy and render massive aid to Haiti.

Before the French Revolution, Haiti's slave economy and fruitful soil made it the richest of France's colonies. Today, almost all the superlatives one can apply to Haiti are negative. Life expectancy there is about 33 years, the lowest in Latin America. It is the only hemispheric country that has no urban sewage-processing plant whatsoever. It has perhaps the highest rate of infant mortality in the New World. Half of all children die before the age of five in this land where there are only seven doctors for every 100,000 people -- by far the lowest ratio in Latin America.

Not even the appallingly low cost of labor (a full-time household servant earns as little as $10 a month) makes Haiti attractive to foreign investors, who feel themselves unduly constrained by government excises and red tape, and competitively handicapped by all the physical limitations of the country.

Before the rise of President Duvalier's tightly controlled regime in 1957, Port-au-Prince was a major tourist port of call in the Caribbean. Today its handful of first-class hotels are almost all pathetically empty. Yet its very poverty and its political history make it seem to some people more interesting than the sugar-plum resorts of both hemispheres, which seem bent on denaturizing the local scene, smoothing out all distinctiveness so that the blase tourist can feel comfortable an close to familiar luxuries.

Haiti is for a hardier breed of tourist, and beyond the faded magnificence and pitiful squalor of the capital city, it rewards him with some of the most striking scenery anywhere -- lofty mountain ranges, often starkly eroded and suggestive of the decay of the world; deep green thickets of intermingled mango and banana trees, with wild growing coffee bushes and occasional mahogany trees, surviving giants from the days when Haiti's hills were richly forested; long white beaches, tourist-free as when Christopher Columbus first saw them in 1492 and, temporarily distracted, ran his Santa Maria aground on a coral reef.

Here, too, capping a mountaintop near its second city, Cap-Haitien, is to be found one of the wonders of the world, the massive and breathtaking Citadelle, the fortress completed in 1817 by Henri Christophe (the "Emperor Jones" of Eugene O'Neill's play) to ensure that the departed French could never return to reconquer Haiti. But few are the tourists hardy enough to make the ascent to the 3,000 foot summit by mule or donkey back, few even those who attempt the slow and bouncy jeep ride from Cap-Haitien to Milot, the village from which the long ascent begins. Yet Milot is in itself worth the trip, for here are to be seen the still-striking but fast-disappearing ruins of Sans Souci, the magnificent royal palace which Christophe built in imitation of Frederick the Great's Sans Souci at Potsdam.

It is characteristic of Haiti, the land of unrealized opportunities, that its scenic wonders are only to be reached by a system (if it may be called that) of washed-out, pot-holed roads that even Jeeps and powerful buses can scarcely traverse. (On a recent trip from Port-de-Paix southward to Port-au-Prince, a distance of 155 miles, the writer spent 10 jostled hours in a public bus, averaging as little as 9 miles per hour on a particularly deep-rutted 15-mile stretch through the Artibonite Valley, the most fertile and best irrigated area in Haiti.)

For travel outside Port-au-Prince, four-wheeled drive is de rigueur, but even in a powerful vehicle one's timely arrival is doubtful enough, as a bridge may give way or heavy rains may make impassable the usually fordable streams. Even in the capital city, only a few miles of the downtown streets are properly paved, and it is common to find a row of magnificent villas of the elite accessible only by a washed-out dirt road.

Even more than the land, and more than the few scattered and inaccessible cities, it is the sympathetic, warm-hearted people of Haiti who make the journey there rewarding. The mass of them are the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of blacks from Dahomey, Nigeria, the Congos and other African lands from which the Spanish and French imported slaves in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries -- the slaves that brought immense wealth to their white (and sometimes black) owners, and made the colony of "St. Domingue" a bone of contention of the major powers of England, France and Spain.

Yet today over 90 percent of all Haitians are entirely illiterate and almost entirely black, speak only Creole (a language derived mostly from native African tongues and the French of their early masters), and live precariously upon the land in thatched huts of mud and sapling ("cailles") like those of their African cousins. Here are four million people, a wealth of potential craftsmen, artists, teachers, poets, statesmen, all slumbering beneath the hot Haitian sun, a scarcely reached, unrealized mass, living no better, and probably a good deal worse, than did their African ancestors.

The remaining 600,000 Haitians are urban, and may be wealthy, middle class or desperately poor. These poor are likely to be transplanted peasants, just as many blacks milling in our urban ghettos are fugitives from the farms of the South. The upper classes include many black or mulatto businessmen, army officers, teachers and civil servants, or light-skinned foreigners (Middle Eastern, European, a few American), many of whom have lived here for generations and have intermarried with leading black or mulatto families. They speak French as well as Creole, send their children to the best schools available, locally or abroad, and provide, apart from the government, whatever leadership Haiti may be said to have.

It is clear why Haiti is better known to the missionary and social worker than to the tourist. Representatives of a great many denominations -- Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mennonites and the Salvation Army, to name a few -- are actively engaged in the operation of churches, schools and hospitals among the urban and peasant population. The Episcopal Diocese of Louisville has worked in close support of Holy Trinity School in the capital city, and Kentucky is now a Companion Diocese to that of Port-au-Prince. Unassociated with any church, but among the foremost in service to the Haitian people, is the famed Albert Schweizer Hospital at Deschappelles, founded by Dr. and Mrs. Lorimer Mellon. Supported almost entirely by private contributions, it ministers to nearly 70,000 Haitians every year.

A number of international organizations also operate in Haiti, among them UNESCO, CARE, and SNEM (a Haitian-American cooperative undertaking, largely supported by American funds, which has nearly succeeded in eliminating malaria in Haiti). It was CARE which responded to urgent calls this summer and unloaded over 500 tons of cornmeal at the northern harbor of Port-de-Paix in relief of an incipient famine situation. And UNESCO has regularly going forward a number of community development projects in several parts of the country.

There is no rioting in the streets of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, however long and hot the summer, and there is not likely to be any as long as the severe figure of Papa Doc is there to maintain, in an often-used official phrase, "peace, order and progress." There is no rioting anywhere in Haiti, though one hears occasionally of peasant restiveness under the heavy hand of the Tonton Macoute, the personal police and tax-enforcing agents of the president. There is perhaps a certain amount of racial feeling, as black contemplates mulatto and as both contemplate the few whites to be seen. But the Haitians are not racist, and no law-abiding white need walk in fear anywhere in Haiti.

The Haitian peasant bears his weary burden passively, even proudly, but with apparently complete unawareness of his latent capacity to bring about social change. He has not heard that "black is beautiful" (he is not much aware that other colors are possible), though the concept of "Negritude" is being furthered by some black intellectuals, notably by President Duvalier, and is occasionally presented in the public press.

The peasant raises his bananas, or garden vegetables, cassava or rice, happy when there is sufficient rainfall or irrigation for a meagre crop; he raises too large a brood of children from one or several wives; and he pays little or no attention to what goes on in Port-au-Prince, a city he has never visited, the seat of a government of whose character he has little conception.

You see them walking along the roadside, tightly muscled young men in tattered blue-denim pants, machetes in hand, off to cut weeds or sugar cane -- or beautifully erect women, carrying skillfully on their heads bundles of clothing or great baskets of vegetables, or perhaps a bottle of water sitting squarely upright on a turban or straw hat and children, charming little naked children, playing together in the mud of the roadside, or perhaps they too bearing on their heads loads that no child should ever have to carry and saying with a friendly smile, like their parents, "Bonjou' blanc" -- Good-day, white.

These are the people, the poor of Haiti, that constitute its richest potential resource, a people that has its full share of vices but also the virtues of mankind; an undeveloped people beset by poverty and ignorance and disease, torn between the Catholic priest of state religion and the Voodoo "houngan" with his transplanted African deities, unlettered, uninformed, unaware even that they constitute a people. These are the Haitians who must one day, with extensive outside help, free themselves from the bonds of poverty and ignorance, as once they freed themselves from the French, and take their place among the truly emancipated peoples of our hemisphere. The American people have a great stake in the political and economic stability that such development will bring to the international scene, and it would be well for all of us to take a closer look at Haiti -- "The Pearl of the Antilles."

George P. Clark (in picture, far left on donkey) was United States cultural attache in Haiti from 1965 to 1967 and subsequently chairman of the department of English at Hanover College in Indiana.