Haiti: The Wounds of a Nation Still Bleed


Amy Wilentz’s ‘Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti’ reviewd by MICHIKO KAKUTANI for The New York Times.

The “Fred Voodoo” referred to in the title of Amy Wilentz’s impassioned but lumpy new book on Haiti, she explains, was reporters’ “joking name” for the Haitian man (or woman) in the street, at least one commonly used a few decades back in a less politically correct era. The name now represents to her foreigners’ attitude of “condescension filled with pity,” and all the stereotypes outsiders have come to attach to Haitians — as “nice people, maybe,” but “disorganized, uneducated, untrained, corrupt” and somehow under the thrall of voodoo, a religion that represented “everything the white Westerner was not: exotic, African, pagan, exciting, dangerous, deep.”

“The objectification of the Haitians’ victimization — that’s one aspect of the Fred Voodoo syndrome,” Ms. Wilentz writes. “How beautiful the Haitians look in their misery; they always do. You can count on them.” The fact that “he or she is also voluble and highly quotable, and very articulate,” she goes on, “makes Fred Voodoo excellent material for video and excellent copy for the page. Indeed, for pages not unlike these pages.”

Ms. Wilentz — a writer for The New Yorker and The Nation and the author of a fiercely observed 1989 book about Haiti, (“The Rainy Season”) — is a Haiti veteran, who lived there for two years and has been visiting for 20; she returned shortly after the earthquake that devastated the country almost three years ago.

At its strongest, her new book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” showcases all her formidable gifts as a reporter: her love of, and intimate familiarity with, Haiti; her sense of historical perspective; and her eye for the revealing detail. Like Joan Didion and V. S. Naipaul, she has an ability not only to provide a visceral, physical feel for a place, but also to communicate an existential sense of what it’s like to be there as a journalist with a very specific and sometimes highly subjective relationship with her subject.

This book, she writes: “is my attempt to put Haiti back together again for myself, to understand why all the simplest hopes and dreams of the men and women they call Fred Voodoo have been abandoned, and to stack the pieces flung apart by the earthquake back up into some semblance of the real country. I wanted to figure out, after so many attempts by so many to uphold democracy, why Fred and all his sisters have become, in our eyes at least, mere victims, to be counted up on one ledger or another as interesting statistics, casualties of dictatorship, of poverty, of disaster, of outside interference, of neglect, of history — of whatever you want to point a finger at — rather than as active commanders of their own destiny.”

Ms. Wilentz does a powerful job of conveying the devastation wrought by the earthquake and the new “levels of unbearableness” it created: the “Boschian scene” at Haiti’s State University Hospital in the capital, Port-au-Prince, its courtyard stacked with cadavers, women giving birth among the dead and dying, victims expiring “on the grounds before being seen by any medical staff,” people answering their phones with these words: “Alo: Yes, I’m alive.”

She also conveys the mind-boggling challenges faced by Haiti, including unemployment that “has been measured by U.S.A.I.D. at about 50 percent at its lowest, and 70 percent at its highest” (though she says it is “anecdotally and visibly, much higher than 70 percent”). Four-fifths of college-educated Haitians live abroad, she writes; “only about a third” of the country’s population has access to sanitary facilities; and only “some 10 percent have any electrical service, and that service is sporadic when it’s not nonexistent.”

Woven into Ms. Wilentz’s portrait of present-day Haiti are opinionated asides about its violent history and its fraught relationship with both predatory foreigners and well-meaning missionaries and do-gooders — including the disappointing results of so many American and internationally sponsored post-quake relief and rebuilding efforts.

“Outsiders have tried for decades in Haiti to fix and meddle with and run the show,” she writes, “with, on the whole, quite poor long-term results, both because Haitians often don’t have the minimal training and life experience to keep projects going, and because the outsiders have no understanding of Haitian culture.”

The problem with this book is that Ms. Wilentz can let her own anger and disillusionment undermine her reporting. She makes absurdly large generalizations about outsiders’ views of Haiti, writing that they tend to regard Haitians as “slaves, or worse, zombies.”

She says that Haiti — with its lack of rules and standards, and highly dysfunctional institutions — often seems like “the perfect example of what would happen if Ronald Reagan’s dream of a privatized state should become a reality.” And she places outsize blame on the outside world’s intrusion into Haiti and all the temptations it brings to the poor — “possible access to instant cash, future jobs with aid organizations, possible visas, et cetera” — for fomenting corruption, misunderstanding and opportunism.

Sometimes Ms. Wilentz includes herself in her skeptical assessments of outsiders as voyeurs, naïfs or leeches, who have benefited, careerwise, from their work in Haiti. More often she takes a cynical, harshly judgmental (and largely undifferentiated) stance toward the aid organizations, volunteers and reporters who have gravitated to Haiti, especially in the wake of the earthquake.

She sarcastically asserts that “misery in Haiti today is a job creator for the white man,” that “a white person can make his or her reputation in Haiti now, or at least pad the curriculum vitae, and feel good about ‘giving back’ at the same time.”

She writes of a book about the earthquake, published by Time magazine, that someone else’s suffering can add “zest and focus to a life that the sofa-ensconced reader of ‘Haiti: Tragedy and Hope’ may have come to feel is too dull, too regular, too easy.” (Ms. Wilentz herself contributed an essay to that volume.)

As for an interview Sean Penn did for Vanity Fair about his own relief efforts in Haiti, she writes that it sounded as if he “were enjoying, or at least making the most of, the discomfort of his life in a Haitian refugee camp.”

In the case of a United Nations spokeswoman’s comment about fears that cholera might become a national epidemic in the wake of the earthquake, Ms. Wilentz acknowledges that “it was the right thing to say,” yet adds that “from a more jaundiced point of view — from my point of view, that is — it sounded breathless, almost eager.”

It pointed to “the possibility of more funding for aid organizations, more jobs, longer stays in this fascinating, troubled place — in nice new apartments, driving those big, air-conditioned Land Rovers. It’s not as if humanitarian workers are in the business for the big cars and nice apartments, but the sweet stuff comes with the territory, and the crisis caravan is used to it.”

In Ms. Wilentz’s view, the plight of Haitians also poses “a thrilling intellectual challenge to those who wanted to come and help,” and many foreign aid newbies “mistook themselves for part of a grand solution when, actually, they and the caravan itself were obviously and immediately identifiable as part of Haiti’s ongoing problem.”

Many Haitians, for their part, she contends, “approach outsiders with suspicion and dread, as well as, sometimes, opportunistic expectancy” — defensive behavior shaped, she says, by the history of slavery and the “habitual watchfulness of voodoo.”

One heroine Ms. Wilentz singles out for praise in these pages is Dr. Megan Coffee of Maplewood, N.J., who was one of the few foreign doctors to stay on many, many months after the earthquake, establishing a TB ward at the university hospital in Port-au-Prince.

“In so many ways,” Ms. Wilentz writes, “Dr. Coffee is the ideal foreign-aid delivery figure. She’s creative; she’s responsive. She lets Haiti teach her how to deal with Haiti.”

She figures out how to pay for what the hospital won’t pay for, runs out to grocery stores to buy peanut butter for her patients, and gives them spaghetti with Russian dressing in the morning. “Because she offers targeted help on an individual basis with no cash or material exchange,” Ms. Wilentz goes on, “there’s almost no room in her enterprise for the kind of maneuvering, corruption, or profit-seeking that has been the ruin of so many larger, more carefully planned outsider projects in Haiti.”

Dr. Coffee, who regularly tweets about Haiti (@DokteCoffee), turns out to be as articulate an observer as Ms. Wilentz. This is a series of her tweets quoted in this book:

“I have learned in Haiti that someone always wants the empty box./It makes a hard bed more comfortable for a sick patient. The floor more comfortable for the family member taking care of patient./It organizes all the possessions of someone who has no family who wakes up from being sick on the streets in the TB ward./So little is wasted.”

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/08/books/amy-wilentzs-farewell-fred-voodoo-a-letter-from-haiti.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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