Herbert Gold reviews Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti by Amy Wilentz and The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster by Jonathan M. Katz for The San Francisco Chronicle.
For veteran Haiti fanatics, perhaps the most striking detail in Amy Wilentz’s sad and knowledgeable new book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” is the change in her understanding of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In her 1989 book “The Rainy Season,” she celebrated an eloquent, brave and self-sacrificing priest, doing his best for the lost children of Port-au-Prince. This was not inaccurate, and it contributed to the worldwide fantasy of a charismatic leader who could “save” Haiti.
In his progress out of the priesthood, into marriage, into politics, Aristide revealed the virus of megalomania. He retained the charisma, and still is called messiah by masses of Haitians. At the National Palace during his restoration to the presidency with the help of 20,000 American troops, I watched his familiar chant of “Peace, love … Love, peace,” after which came a series of assassinations of those who dared to criticize him. (Jonathan Demme made a great documentary, “The Agronomist,” about the journalist Jean Dominique, a murdered former admirer of Aristide.)
Wilentz cannot discuss these matters with her former friend because he will no longer see her. He doesn’t seem to be a thief in the usual tradition of Haitian kleptocrats, like the Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, but makes up for this lack with his hunger for power.
Some journalists use the name “Fred Voodoo” for the typical guy in the street whom they use as informants, like “Joe Sixpack” or “Johnny Q. Public.” Wilentz, speaking Creole, connected with Haiti for years, can actually give names to her many associates. She feels scorn for the fly-in celebrities who come for their images, although she credits a few of them, especially Sean Penn, with actually doing some good. She respects those who stay “in country,” like the young American doctor, Megan Coffee, laboring under primitive conditions to heal and succor. I know Haitian doctors like that, too, while so many flee to prosper with comfortable practices in Quebec, West Africa or the Bay Area. This is an aspect of the Haitian sublimity that sprouts amid chaos and the struggle to survive.
Indignation is a major part of the story Wilentz tells. She writes with a storm of it and notes that the United States Agency for International Development “did not bring democracy to Haiti, it did not fix Haiti’s sick political class, nor did it help build ‘civil society.’ … it did not reforest Haiti … it did not develop the Haitian school system.”
And there’s more. It did provide work for some well-meaning Americans and “disaster junkies,” and profit for some Haitian MREs, the Morally Repugnant Elites. Besides indignation, she is fueled by depression. While admitting that Penn is one celebrity who stayed, cared, worked and accomplished much, she sourly wonders why only a Hollywood actor “gets things done because he’s Sean Penn.” She equally, and unnecessarily, blames herself for “exploiting” Haiti, that is, being paid for writing about her experience.
“Farewell, Fred Voodoo” is a grief-filled communique from a writer with long experience of Haiti. She explores in detail the “echoing nowhere” of post-earthquake refugee encampments. And despite everything, she remains a lover of this people with its turbulent history, its enduring tragedies and its defiant indomitabilities, “proud, able, and useful.”
Despite the ironic title, Jonathan Katz’s “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” is also filled with passionate remorse. Katz was the only full-time reporter in Haiti during the January 2010 earthquake, barely survived the collapse of his house, and is more purely an on-the-ground reporter of the devastation. He covers much of the same ground – Haitian failure, the world’s failure, the unique appeal of the Haitian people. Nevertheless, like Wilentz, he has fallen in love with a centuries-old victory, over slavery, followed by tragedy.
The two books supplement each other. Katz was there. He sometimes takes refuge in ironies, as does Wilentz, but also suffers a pervasive grief from his years in Haiti. His on-the-ground experience makes for a rich account. He notes that the Nepalese peacekeepers who brought cholera to Haiti, sickening and killing more than half a million people so far, were defended by a report that they had not tested positive for the disease before they came. But that was because they had not been tested at all.
“You know Christmas is near in Port-au-Prince,” he writes, “because the kidnappings start – gang members need to buy presents, too.” During one of my trips to Haiti, a young woman, a mother, was killed because her husband couldn’t come up soon enough with a $15 ransom demand.
It ain’t funny. “Loving Haiti,” Katz writes, “is to love a place which may not even love itself. But it’s still love, after all.”
Both Wilentz and Katz emphasize the failures of Haitian society. And yet there is ordinary heroism, not only doctors and teachers, but the countless, laboring market women, and the dauntless and hospitable and generous Haitian family, which hangs on, hangs in, hangs tough.
Wilentz astonishes with her description of the “fortress-palace” that Aristide built for himself in his home village of Port-Salut. She doesn’t have to use the word “paranoia” or “megalomania”; she makes clear how the brave and devoted little priest has moved toward emulating mad King Christophe and his construction of the Citadel.
Katz astonishes with sightings of Baby Doc, whom I used to call Furniture-Face, now gaunt, sick, under indictment, returned to the scenes of his crimes with a replacement girlfriend, hoping to claim his sequestered stolen millions, or perhaps merely to die at home.
Haiti astonishes with a popular fantasy that these two mortal enemies will put their heads together and solve everything.
In general, Haiti always, continually, ceaselessly, astonishes.
Both of these passionate books portray the persistent dilemmas of a miracle nation with its name that means High Place. And they portray the fascination Haiti holds for many who enter this labyrinth on a tropical island in the Caribbean. A part of them never leaves.
For the original report go to http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Books-about-Haiti-4153007.php#ixzz2GU5EFOlY