What’s next, locusts?

Pooja Bhatia

  • The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster by Jonathan Katz
    Palgrave Macmillan, 320 pp, £16.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 230 34187 6
  • BuyFarewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti by Amy Wilentz
    Simon and Schuster, 329 pp, £18.00, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 4516 4397 8

In January 2010, Jonathan Katz was working in Haiti for the Associated Press, the only American news organisation with a permanent bureau there. Other foreign journalists lived there, and a few more flew in for elections and catastrophes, but for the most part Haiti coverage had become a casualty of slashed budgets at dying newspapers and magazines. Covering a small, destitute island no longer made economic sense. It was a tough gig for a freelancer, owing to the high cost of living and the necessity of speaking Creole, or hiring a translator. I managed on a fellowship, and over the years Katz and I became friends.

So when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroyed the capital, turned a million out their homes and killed countless others – estimates range from the high five figures to 316,000 – Haiti, though it’s only seven hundred miles off the coast of Florida, was a journalistic backwater. Many of the reporters who parachuted in for the aftermath were disaster pros, or lords of the warzone, but also Hispaniola neophytes. The stories that appeared on television and in newspapers were dystopian and hysterical: black people crawling out of piles of crumbled concrete carrying juice and toilet paper became ‘looters’; and sexual violence in the tent camps became an ‘epidemic of rape’. Once the corpses had gone, questions of aid and reconstruction weren’t enough to keep most parachutists around: their bosses weren’t interested.

Without much prior knowledge of Haiti, foreign reporters tended to rely on foreign sources, many of whom had just arrived in the country themselves: US generals, UN spokesmen, Sean Penn. President René Préval had more or less retreated, in shock and sorrow and, I imagine, disgust. With just a week in the country – two if they were lucky – reporters tended to take international agencies and organisations at their word, instead of realising that part of the press’s job was to keep them accountable.

Katz was an exception. The Big Truck That Went By chronicles the year that followed the quake, when nothing got better and a great many things got worse. (The joke among the reporters who stuck around that year went something like: ‘Earthquake, floods, cholera, riots – what’s next, locusts?’) Everyone’s nerves frayed. Katz recounts being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but his subject is the incompetence, wastefulness and hypocrisy of rich-country policies towards Haiti. The sins of foreign powers are legion in Haiti, and The Big Truck That Went By is supremely valuable for collecting the chatter, statistics and anecdotes into a damning dossier: ‘Having sought above all to prevent riots, ensure stability and prevent disease, the responders helped spark the first, undermine the second and by all evidence caused the third.’

It began with hubris and extravagant promises. Within days of the disaster, powerful people around the world were speaking of ‘Marshall Plans’, ‘building back better’ and a ‘new Haiti’. At a donor conference in March 2010, two and a half months after the quake, rich countries announced pledges of $8.4 billion for Haiti’s reconstruction, a sum bigger than its annual GDP, and spoke of changing the way aid was done. Haiti was already known as the ‘Republic of NGOs’, and its reliance on them was strangling the country. As foreign aid groups delivered basic services – including water, medical care and electricity – the state’s capacity to do so weakened. Ordinary Haitians had little or no say in what went on. The donor conference proposed a solution: a commission of Haitians and outsiders would determine spending priorities. It would be co-chaired by a real grandee: Bill Clinton, who the year before had been appointed UN special envoy to Haiti. ‘He had a particular fondness for places he mucked up as president,’ Katz writes.

Amid the flashbulbs and self-congratulation at the conference, Katz noticed other portents. The Haitian government’s plan for reconstruction read as if it had been ghostwritten by the donors. It emphasised private enterprise, paid scant attention to housing for the 1.5 million people displaced by the quake, and was in general so vague that ‘it seemed donors would be forgiven for doing whatever they wanted.’ Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, warned donors to hold themselves accountable (what institution holds itself accountable?) and to work with the Haitian government rather than around it. The day before she spoke, her own deputy had predicted correctly that Congress was unlikely to route aid through the Haitian government. Results from a survey that canvassed 1750 Haitians on the reconstruction – ‘the only views of regular Haitians heard that day’ – were nearly excluded from the proceedings. Haitians’ ‘desire to be consulted in setting priorities, selecting projects and assessing tangible and measurable outcomes’ was mostly ignored. Préval was at one point lectured on accountability by a 32-year-old Norwegian emissary and then forgotten, it seemed, when discussion at the press conference that followed veered to Iran. ‘Do I need to develop a nuclear programme so that we come back to talking about Haiti?’ he asked.

Donors didn’t deliver on their promises. The joint commission faltered and then foundered. As for the money, some of the most breathtaking facts in Katz’s book come from ledgers kept by the likes of the UN Office of the Special Envoy. They merit amplification and repetition, if only to counter the persistent notion that Haiti has wasted billions of dollars in aid. There were never any billions in aid to Haiti, let alone its government; not much money has gone to Haiti’s government since the United States withdrew its support of Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in 1986.

Much of the $8.4 billion pledged at the March 2010 conference was never intended to arrive: donors regularly announce inflated pledges at aid conferences. A billion of it was no more than creative accounting, being previously promised debt relief. And most of what did arrive didn’t really arrive, at least not in Haiti: it went to firms and institutions at home, ‘a stimulus programme for donor countries themselves’. Among the main beneficiaries were the US military and so-called Beltway bandits, American private contractors who chase down aid money: ‘A cheque billed as US aid to Haiti,’ Katz writes, ‘is far more likely to make the half-mile walk from Treasury to the headquarters of Chemonics International, a for-profit development agency.’

Of the $2.43 billion in aid disbursed in 2010, 6 per cent couldn’t be accounted for. One per cent, $24 million, went to the Haitian government. The rest went to agencies and organisations based in donor countries and to the United Nations. Nearly half a billion went to the US Department of Defense, which spent a million dollars a day maintaining a nuclear supercarrier in the bay of Port-au-Prince; $3.6 million of it was spent on repairs to navy helicopters and the rest on many assorted, bizarre sundries: $194,000 for audiovisual equipment from a store in Manhattan, $18,000 on a jungle gym that cost less than $6000 online and thousands on kitchen implements. ‘What earthquake fallout prompted the Coast Guard to buy a $4462 deep-fat fryer – years of Haitian income – in early 2011?’ Katz wonders. A spokesman did not provide answers.

Spokesmen hardly ever do, and that’s perhaps the biggest problem with aid in Haiti, both private charity (such as the American Red Cross, which received almost half a billion dollars in private donations) and public aid: it’s opaque and unaccountable. It’s hard to find out even how much is spent on foreigners’ salaries and benefits versus services and goods for Haitians. Many of the sins that Haitian officials are accused of – dishonesty, incompetence, lack of transparency – are manifest in their accusers’ own practices.

The story of Haiti’s compromised sovereignty is nearly as old as the country itself. In 1825 the Haitian president circumvented the legislature to agree to pay France a massive sum in compensation for ‘losses’ (mostly of slaves) its planters suffered during the Haitian Revolution. These indemnity payments triggered a cycle of debt, so that while Haiti has usually been nominally independent, foreigners have held the purse strings. Cholera, though, was a new problem. Haiti’s first recorded case appeared in October 2010, not in the congested tent camps health workers had worried about, but near the base of a Nepali contingent of UN peacekeepers in the countryside. The peacekeeping force, Minustah, was deployed to Haiti in 2004 to ‘stabilise’ the country after Aristide’s second departure, but stayed on and today constitutes a de facto occupation force. Rumours began circulating about the source of the cholera, but Haiti is awash in rumours. The Minustah press release denying responsibility ‘may have seemed like damage control’, Katz writes, but it had the opposite effect. The morning after it was issued, Katz and his fixer, Evens Sanon, discovered visibly unsanitary conditions and a stench at the base: broken pipes were releasing what looked like sewage into the Meille River, and pits for soldiers’ faecal waste were overflowing.

The United Nations continued to deny it had anything to do with the outbreak, appeared to attempt a cover-up, moved to stonewalling, and then tried to argue that the origins of the outbreak didn’t matter. Fussing over who was to blame, the UN said, would impede effective treatment of the disease, which was quickly spreading. Katz found prominent health experts who disagreed, and he kept hounding the UN. By this time Haitians were demonstrating against Minustah in the streets, and Katz’s reporting helped force an investigation. In May 2011, the secretary general’s independent panel of experts concluded that the Meille River was the source of the outbreak, and that Haiti’s strain of cholera perfectly matched the one that had appeared in Nepal in the same month. The report tried to absolve Minustah of responsibility by stating that a ‘confluence of circumstances’, including Haiti’s lack of sanitation infrastructure, caused the disease to spread. This is true, and all the more reason the UN should have taken better care.

If a corporation spilled toxic waste into a river in the United States, it would be sued. But there is no legal mechanism for redress against Minustah. Its Status of Forces Agreement with the Haitian government provides for a claims commission to hear Haitians’ grievances, but no commission has been set up. In November 2011, human rights lawyers filed claims on behalf of five thousand Haitians who had lost relatives to the disease – it has so far killed more than eight thousand – and demanded compensation, an apology, the construction of sanitation infrastructure and the creation of the claims commission. With no established forum for the complaint, the lawyers delivered it directly to the office of the secretary general. In February this year, the UN finally issued a terse refusal to respond to the claims, citing its privileges and immunities. There was no acknowledgment of its duty to establish a forum.

And so it goes for Haiti. The aid apparatus has taken on many roles of the state. It allocates resources, sets priorities, implements programmes and, along with the peacekeepers, shares the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. But the aid organisations, like the peacekeepers, are not accountable to Haitians, either in cases of gross negligence or simpler affairs, such as the way the resources should be used. It’s hard to know who is responsible for what – the Haitian government, the US government, DFID, USAID, the NGOs that contract aid money to other NGOs, the NGOs that implement projects etc. At least under the American occupation from 1915 to 1934, Haitians knew who was in charge.

*

On a good number of the three hundred pages of Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Amy Wilentz questions the entire enterprise of foreigners writing about Haiti. When the earthquake struck, she had been writing on and off about the island for nearly a quarter of a century. She spoke Creole and had had friends there for almost half her life. Her first book, The Rainy Season, set an intimidating standard for outsider journalism about Haiti; her Haitian subjects had political agency, especially Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the liberation theologian and priest who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. In the late 1980s, there were heroes and villains in Haiti, and you could tell them apart. The heroes were the poor who fought bravely for democracy, and the villains were the army that shot the poor when they fought bravely for democracy. Wilentz’s memories of that time haunt her wanderings through the present, and the narrative dips back and forth.

‘Fred Voodoo’ was then the journalists’ term for the Haitian man on the street, the ‘speaking cipher’ who, for Wilentz, represents the way foreign writers have reduced or objectified their Haitian subjects for consumption in rich countries. (She uses the outmoded and patronising spelling of ‘Vodou’ deliberately.) Under Duvalier, Fred Voodoo told reporters about the first lady’s refrigerated closet for furs. After the quake, he told them that rain leaked into his tent at night and forced everyone to their feet, holding their babies till the storm passed. Once written up, Fred Voodoo’s trials are forgotten. He is a disposable subject.

After the earthquake Wilentz stays away at first. She broods about seeing the Haiti she knows reduced to rubble and about the toll of bearing witness. She especially worries over the arrival of foreigners and aid groups, whom she pictures ‘slavering and ravening at the airport, at the wharves, in the camps and hospitals’. Of course, she goes – ‘I couldn’t even put it off for two weeks’ – only to discover all the opportunism she anticipated, even among doctors. One from Massachusetts seems to boast about hacksaw amputations and vodka sterilisations on a blog for the Huffington Post, and a European doctor shoos away a new emergency so that he can buttonhole Wilentz: ‘“When I do this,” the doctor was telling me, with a wide Romantic language gesture that encompassed the ignored man, the ambulance, the clinic tents, the long line of waiting patients, “it’s for me a kind of paradise. It’s a passion and an engagement. That’s why I’m with Doctors Without Borders.”’

She moves through Haiti scrutinising and often skewering aid workers, foreign businessmen, self-proclaimed humanitarians, Bill Clinton, the suburbanite she imagines sipping ‘beer or a Diet Coke’ on the couch while flipping absently through pictures of dead Haitians. Most of ‘us’ wither in her gaze. (Journalists too: after reading the first chapter I flipped through the rest praying I wouldn’t appear. I do, but in the safe space of acknowledgments.) Wilentz tries to find the orphans who appeared in The Rainy Season. They were street kids then, taken in by the priest who became president, and in her portrayal the rough boys gleamed: hard and sometimes cruel, but also brave and loyal and occasionally sweet. Now they are about as old as Wilentz was when she first started coming to Haiti, and about as old as Aristide when Wilentz started writing about him. But they’re half-men: homeless, thanks to the quake, and further from a job than ever. A couple of them live in a tent camp on the Champs de Mars, just opposite the crazy-looking ruins of the National Palace. Though Wilentz doesn’t remember these two from the old days (they say they remember her, but she’s not sure she believes them), she enters their lives and makes them her subjects. Samuel and Jerry take her to the camp’s youth centre to listen to Haitian hip-hop on its only computer. They smoke a lot of pot. They introduce her to their friends and escort her to a Vodou ceremony.

Eventually she finds the Aristide orphan she’s been looking for: Filibert Waldeck. He’s on the trellised veranda of a hotel singing for his supper, or rather, talking to foreign journalists about Haitian werewolves so they’ll keep buying him beer. He calls her ‘mommy’ in a hoarse voice and goes on and on about the werewolves. Wilentz is exasperated: ‘I only half-listened to his fairy-tale chatter. Grow up, I wanted to say to him … I’d been coming to Haiti too long and the earthquake was serious, for God’s sake, and Filibert, so newly rediscovered, was already giving me burnout.’ His ramblings nonetheless inspire a fascinating interpretation of the Haitian werewolf, the loup-garou, as a harbinger of social crisis and a predator, rather like a foreigner. Wilentz next sees Waldeck at a church commemoration a year after the quake, his too thin body in dirty jeans; he might be on crack. Waldeck tells her his troubles (a broken motorbike and no money to fix it; the mother of his small sons wants to take them away), and Wilentz doesn’t know how to respond. ‘Half the time he had the demeanour of a person on drugs or in the throes of mental illness of some kind, which I’ve always suspected with him,’ she writes, ‘and the rest of the time, he looked like a smart old market lady sizing up her client.’ Waldeck calls her ‘mother’ again and she gives him some money, and watches his ‘satanic’ red T-shirt fade into the mass of congregants. ‘My child, I thought. I tried to imagine it. I wondered if there had really ever been any connection between us, other than monetary.’

Wilentz finds some respite in an extended study of a young physician called Megan Coffee. Dr Coffee, a Harvard-educated specialist in infectious disease, came to Haiti just after the earthquake and set up and now runs Port-au-Prince’s only tuberculosis ward. She is humane, adaptable, useful, Creole-speaking, and ‘not in it for the glory’. Coffee doesn’t earn a salary and her clinic is funded through handouts, favours and barter. She does more than she talks about doing. ‘In so many ways,’ Wilentz writes, ‘Dr Coffee is the ideal foreign-aid delivery figure.’ Alas, she is also an atypical figure in Haiti.

Wilentz is almost as hard on herself as she is on everyone else. Doubts come to her all the time: is she just another foreign werewolf, for whom ‘misery in Haiti today is a job creator’? Of an evening sitting in a shantytown as a woman washes clothes and listens to her daughters talk, Wilentz writes:

Feeling that I belong here on this chair, eating this sweet, laughing at this joke – how stupid. Where do I get off? Who do I think I am? These are both fit questions for someone who does what I do to ask herself this evening as I sit in this courtyard, hanging out on terms of unearned equality with people who will sleep tonight three or four on a bed and possibly, three or four under it, most of whom had lunch today but neither breakfast nor dinner. I’m writing their story for you, dear reader. I’m bringing their squalid lives into your nice house, your apartment. Why?