Thursday, August 28, 2008

Baby Doc’s Haiti: Low Expectations

After Papa Doc Duvalier’s death in 1971 Haiti attracted some renewed financial interest from the US, France, Germany and Canada. Most of it came in the form of loans, however, so the country’s deficit grew. Projects were launched only to be abandoned. During my trip in 1977 a World Food Program administrator explained it to me this way: “The real problem in any project here is maintenance. After you spend several years developing crops or putting up buildings there’s no grassroots support for keeping it going, no decentralization of effort. When money comes into the country it goes directly to Port-au-Prince.”


He was just as skeptical about tourism. “People on cruises don’t spend much money and don’t stay long,” he said. “Tourism isn’t the way for Haiti to go, the income won’t reach the peasants. It will go to the resort owners.”


Public aid and private investment were closely linked. The French focused on tourism, the US went with labor-intensive assembly lines. By 1976 more than 150 American manufacturers were producing for export. But the workers making the baseballs, electric motors, electronic components, ready-to-wear clothing and tiny football action figures for the Superbowl were getting only a $1.30 a day.


“The government is full of crap,” said Florian, a 40-something Haitian who had just quit his job as a social planner. It was just too frustrating. I asked for an example. When a $2 million loan was given for an irrigation project in Les Cayes, he said, only $400,000 was actually used for the work. The rest went to Haitian officials and American consultants. His picture was gloomy. There was no way to repay the flood of loans. Taiwanese efforts to develop a rice crop were “really making agriculture worse.” More foreigners were arriving since Jean-Claude Duvalier – known as Baby Doc – succeeded his father. “The ten percent – the literate and the wealthy – are squeezing the 90 percent and are helped by the regime,” he said.


We also talked about Jacmel. After several days in the crowded capital I’d retreated to this scenic spot on the southern coast. It’s a mulatto town, he noted, and didn’t respond to the “negritude” movement or even vote for Duvalier back in 1957. As a result it was “punished,” its schools closed and services cut. Conditions had improved lately, he admitted. At least the schools were operating again. But pressure to back the regime remained intense. Tontons still watchdogged the peasants and posters of Baby Doc and his mother lined most of the streets.


The day after I returned from Jacmel a series of blackouts began. More than half a million people in Port-au-Prince spent the night in total darkness. The next day Gary, a local DJ, explained that, due to drought and broken equipment, there was only enough power to cover five hours a day. He’d just come from a meeting where officials promised to order a Delco generator.


“It’s a bad nostalgia trip,” he joked, a reminder of the old days with Papa Doc when power was cut off for two hours every evening. US interests controlled the electric company at the time and its director was one of the most hated residents. Since 1971, though, Port-au-Prince had been getting 24-hour service.


Gary’s reaction was paranoia, a relatively common and largely justified point of view. The blackout could lead to a coup, he predicted, the “dinosaurs” rising up against Jean-Claude’s poor management. The signs were scarce but he was taking no chances. His plan was to leave the country.


This irritated Herve, an art gallery owner my Vermont friends Robin and Doreen had recommended. “Look, here we are,” he said, “with the windows open, talking about these things.” He wanted Haitians to stop bickering, come together, and work for change. Gary doubted it would happen. His immediate solution was to drown his sorrows at a plush disco in suburban Petionville. Like the expensive hotels, discos had their own generators to handle blackouts.


For most city dwellers a day without electricity was nothing new. Even water could be a luxury. Exploring Port-au-Prince I sensed my privilege. I wasn’t with the elite – days at poolside, nights in air-conditioned bars and hotels. But this was just a visit. For millions of Haitians it was permanent and almost unbearable.


After two weeks word came that Robin and Doreen would be delayed. That meant I was on my own – and running out of money. After my troubles back in Vermont I was still unsettled, but Haiti had been surprisingly restful so far. “I’m ready to live a quieter life now,” I wrote in my journal, “to let go of some of my anxiety. But it is with me beneath the calm. It is contained within my expectations, which cannot fully be met even with the best of luck. Well, perhaps I can limit – not lower – my expectations, ration them like food or drugs, entertainment or a fixed income. I expect to continue writing. For the moment, one expectation at a time is enough.”


Chapter 11 of Prelude to a Revolution


News Update: Protests Over Food Costs


Next: In Duvalier’s Haiti -- Poverty & Privilege

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