Sometimes, Haitians refer to the earthquake as spektak la. It means not only “the show” or “the spectacle,” but also “the dramatic event.” Everywhere, people have been assigning meaning to the spektak in appreciation of their target audiences. Bill Clinton and the poor of Port-au-Prince are all discussing what the earthquake means to them in the context of their lives.
After the spektak, Bill Clinton flew to Haiti for a few hours and was filmed demonstrating his compassion for the victims of the quake. As Special Envoy for the United Nations promoting a detailed plan to put Haitians to work for the lowest wages this side of China (once the country is stabilized and the population accepts the North American definition of “democracy”), his presence handing bottles of water to Haitian victims will facilitate his fund-raising efforts. On the tarmac, he praised the Haitian people and their spirit, as he regularly does in his promotional work. And, as usual, he explained that his deep love of the country began in 1975 when he and Hillary took a belated honeymoon at the Hotel Mentana, now in ruins. For all of his thirty-five years of intimacy in Haiti, there did not seem to be one Haitian (in Haiti) that he was concerned about. If only his handlers had been able to dig up even one environmentalist, labour or civil rights leader with whom he had been discussing Haiti’s future before the earthquake struck, it would have strengthened the illusion that, in his appointed position, he cared about the poor. If you don’t care about the poor, you don’t care about Haiti.
In 2006, “the international community” went through the formality of asking Haitians whom they wanted for president … other than Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As president of the United States, Bill Clinton prolonged the CIA-backed coup that had removed Aristide from power in 1991, under George H W Bush’s administration. Only in 1994 did Clinton allow Aristide to return to finish the months remaining in his term as president, on the condition that he accept a neo-liberal economic program that assured American capital free access to Haiti. In 2004, Aristide was forcibly removed from power by the governments of Canada, the United States, and France for “not working with the opposition,” which is not recognized as a crime by the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, the American ambassador to Haiti from 2001 to 2003, Brian D. Curran, has claimed that, during his tenure, Washington instructed him to encourage Aristide to work with the opposition in the Haitian legislature. Meanwhile, that opposition – the Haitian business elite – was being informed through back channels in the American government: “Hang tough! Don’t compromise. In the end, we’ll get rid of Aristide.”
Since Haitians associated Preval with Aristide as a result of their previous association, they believed that his party, Lespwa, would live up to its name, “hope.” Washington wasn’t sure whose side Preval was on and so backed Charles Henry Baker, a industrialist who lived in the United States and who stood for much the same package that Clinton promoted as president and is now promoting as Special Envoy. During the extended vote-counting process, new frauds and corruption were being uncovered daily that demonstrated the lengths to which “the international community” had gone to prevent Preval’s victory. The final straw were piles of ballots that had been cast for Preval that the poor found while rummaging through garbage dumps. Haitians – literally – rose up.
Port-au-Prince was a tinderbox of anger and frustration. The poor shut the city down. They fed fires in the middle of streets for days, preventing traffic circulation. Twice, they chilled me to the bone. The first time when they introduced the chant heard throughout Port-au-Prince, Pa gen Preval, pa gen Ayiti, which can be translated, “If we don’t get Preval, you don’t get Haiti.” They meant that they were ready to destroy Haiti rather than cede it to the elite and their foreign allies. They looked serious to me. Then, they staged a spektak at Clinton’s Hotel Mentana. It was brilliant.
The Hotel Mentana is high up the mountain. Clinton is right that Port-au-Prince is beautiful from there. For one thing, you can’t smell it from the Hotel Mentana. It’s where all the wealthy members of “the international community” stay when they go to Haiti to avoid breathing what Haitians breathe.
So, en masse, the poorest men and women from the slums of Cite Soleil, Delmas, Bel Air, and Simon climbed the mountain, their numbers swelling along the way. Rather than arms, they presented a formidable force of will. When they arrived at the Hotel Mentana, the security guards put down their weapons and opened the gates intended to keep the poor out. Those security guards, their brothers in poverty, must surely have known they were coming. Thousands of poor Haitians hobnobbed with the elite for that day only. They took over the pool, walked through the shops, and stretched out in the lobby. They laughed, joked and then, in the greatest good cheer, they left everything exactly as they had found it.
It terrified “the international community” who soon decided that perhaps Preval had won after all. Since then, Preval has betrayed the trust of those people who secured the presidency for him. Only Bill Clinton and his allies take Preval seriously, for the same reasons that poor Haitians chuckle derisively at the mention of his name. But they remember Aristide and they know that “the international community” is as frightened of him as it is of them.
All peoples understand their present through their past. And so Bill Clinton and “the international community” should be aware of the myths that motivate the crowd of Creole speakers that climbed the mountain to his hotel. If you read the standard histories of Haiti, you will learn of François Capois “La Mort,” a leader of the revolution to free the slaves from French rule. La Mort is famous for his determination during the Battle of Vertières in 1803. Apparently, he continued to lead a charge against substantial French fire and refused to be dissuaded even after a French bullet knocked his helmet off of his head. The French general, Rochambeau, it is said, stopped the battle to send a hussar forward to congratulate Capois for his courage and tenacity. However, if you ask the Creole-speaking Haitians who took over the Hotel Mentana in February of 2006 what happened at the Battle of Vertières that day, they will reply that Capois La Mort was decapitated in the fight and that his head, separated from its body and rolling on the ground, continued calling to the slaves in revolt, “Ann avan! Ann avan!” “Forward! Forward!”
Bill Clinton is no match.
During those elections that brought Preval to power in 2006, I was in Port-au-Prince learning to speak Creole. I used to frustrate my Haitian friends by my enthusiasm for the local transport system, the taptaps. I understood their perspective: what is the use in knowing a blan (“white,” “foreigner”) when you still have to live like a Haitian? (By “Haitian,” I mean the Creole-speaking, poor majority that distinguish themselves from the elite that have always joined forces with foreign interests to prey upon them. For them, a blan should normally pay for a taxi.) Driving a taptap is the ambition of many poor young men in Port-au-Prince: a legitimate business that provides a needed service. Once pick-up trucks, taptaps are colourfully and imaginatively decorated to advertise their approach and the personality of the driver. They follow assigned routes through Port-au-Prince, carrying approximately a dozen people who jump on and squeeze themselves into one of the two benches that are rigged into the back. When you want to leave, you “tap tap” on the little window that separates you from the driver in the cab and he stops. Then you pay the driver’s assistant the fare of five gouds. Haitian boys who collect the fares keep a small percentage of the day’s earnings. You pay only when you arrive at your destination because there’s always a chance that the driver will run out of gas or the taptap will break down. That happens frequently enough that it surprises no one. You just get out and wait for the next while the driver lifts the hood and goes to work.
Taptaps fascinated me. Everywhere and all day long in Port-au-Prince, random groups of Haitians are thrown together facing each other in such close proximity that it is useless to avoid conversation. You pick up the discussion already in progress when you enter the taptap and then let it go when you leave. Rumours spread quickly through the capital via taptaps. Before long, you know what people are thinking about any current event. Creole is the exclusive language of the taptaps.
Taptap fares rose to twenty gouds in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but they’re back to five now, for most routes.
My friend Vilmond has been relating to me the stories that are making the rounds in the taptaps and also on the streets where Haitians have always formed ad hoc debating societies. Obviously, there are signs of embellishment in the stories and Haitians, I think, are in the process of sifting through them for those that will enter into myth. One story that has caught people’s attention is about a young couple married only weeks before the earthquake. The young wife was well advanced in her pregnancy. When her husband arrived home on the evening of January 12, she asked him to come and sit beside him. He wanted her to join him outside because it was too hot in their home. She declined. But he went out to cool down, with his handkerchief wiping the sweat from his brow in the manner of all residents of Port-au-Prince. He sat on a rock, just outside, contemplating the stars and their future together when he felt the rock on which he was sitting move. He looked up and saw his house crash in an instant, “making a sandwich between the floor and the ceiling.” He remains seated, pointing to the house, his handkerchief still clutched in his hands, muted by the tragedy.
An old woman held another taptap spellbound with her account. Vilmond says he can still see the face of this storyteller who was down to her last four teeth. In her neighbourhood was a prosperous family who had just finished grace when they saw the sideboard begin to move. They thought that there was a child behind it and they called for her to come out. But nothing happened. The house then collapsed in an instant. When the neighbours came to dig them out, they found the table set and everyone’s plate prepared for dinner, but there was no trace of any body.
Many people are talking about a prophetess who had appeared on Radio Tele Ginen shortly before the earthquake. A Haitian who had been living abroad, she came back to warn people of an imminent, unspecified catastrophe. When it was over, she prophesized, foreigners would arrive in the country with a document to sign. Above all, she warned, Haitians must not sign this document. The host asked her if there was any way to avoid this catastrophe. Only one chance, she replied: Haitians must put an end to the corruption that is killing Haiti. No one listened to her and the earthquake struck. Now, Haitians have one more chance to avoid disaster: they must not sign the document.
What is this document and where will it come from? Everyone’s eyes are on the United States. On the streets of Delmas 19, Vilmond says that the tension is building. People are talking about the American soldiers. Haitians are not happy. Vilmond joined one extemporaneous discussion where a man related that American soldiers were organizing the quake victims on an empty lot. A Haitian asked the Americans, “If the owner of this land comes back and tells us to leave it, what will we do?” The soldier replied that everything now belongs to the state and, waving his rifle for effect, he said, “We are the state now!” Vilmond says everyone agreed that the American soldiers clearly understand their mission is to occupy Haiti. The Haitians are encountering arrogant, aggressive American soldiers with guns. They don’t like it.
Clinton was pretty sharp to leave Port-au-Prince when he did. Of course, the Hotel Mentana is destroyed, so he would have had no place to stay. The poor Haitians, that he appears to care so much about, may be homeless, hurt, and confused, but they will protect themselves even when their heads are rolling on the ground.