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On Thursday Haiti, the dark island,
will have celebrated 200 years
of independence



Jonathan Power

January 2, 2004

LONDON - Graham Greene's great novel "the Comedians", set in the Haiti of the dictatorship of Papa Doc, gives some support to the artist's pious hope that "a writer is not so powerless as he usually feels and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood." How else to explain how this half of a quite small Caribbean island gets more press than it deserves?

It is, indeed, in part the legacy of Graham Greene who, as I am too, was often drawn to the island because of its idiosyncratic but rich culture and, not least, its lurid shades of darkness and light that permeate the political spectrum. Greene, whilst capturing the ugliness and horror of the Tonton Macoutes, also draws a careful portrait of the civilized and caring Dr Magiot.  However, the outside world's fascination with the forces of darkness represented in most European and Asian cultures by men with black skins means that the first image is more remembered than the second. 

It is also in part because, like Central America, Haiti is in America's back yard and when the politics of this impoverished "wrinkled wasteland" go wrong the people might take to their boats, their rafts and their planks of wood and make for Florida.

So on Thursday, to mark the 200th anniversary of the slave revolt that ended French dominion over the island, reporters descended on Port au Prince, which despite its coups, riots, uprisings, assassinations and a farrago of tyrants, continues to totter along with the same whirlwind of activity on every sidewalk- vendors, carpenters, ironsmiths- a cacophony of bursting noise amid the conflicting smells of clean-burning charcoal and dank open sewers. Women, with an African swing, walk the streets, portering great basins on their heads, stuffed with contraband merchandise. Scribes sit under shade trees poised with their ancient clackety typewriters to await their illiterate customers. Children pour out of the school gates in their French-sailor uniforms and make for the homes of the rich in the cool hills above. Wagons, homemade buses, stuffed with passengers, painted like fancy wrapping paper each with its own message, "Dieu est Bon and "L'Armee Celeste", tout for trade.

Haiti, we regular visitors have found, seems to resist change. It remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its forests are laid bare, its soil depleted, its water table ever lower. After the 14 years of Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and the 15 years of his son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), leaders came and went and did so with astonishing frequency until in 1991 came the victory in a rare election of the "hollowed-cheeked, goggle-eyed, wide-mouthed" revolutionary, ex priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since then, apart from interruption by a military coup and a short term of office by an ally, Aristide has remained the politician on top.

Aristide, who, whilst a priest, had nearly sacrificed his life a number of times as a non-violent warrior against oppression, seemed to promise much when he won the presidency after an amazing show of electoral strength by the poor and downtrodden. Tragically for Haiti, as with all his predecessors, power has turned to dust in his hands. He has achieved little and in a desperate effort to maintain his political power he too has his bands of armed thugs and too readily indulges in corruption and electoral shenanigans.

The United States has intervened twice. The first was in 1915 and the second in 1994. The circumstances- and the outcomes- were amazingly similar. In 1915 there had been continuous rebellion and six presidents in four years. The last one had been captured by a street mob, hacked to death and his parts distributed around town. The American record of occupation was decidedly mixed. It provoked resentment by reintroducing the French system of forced labor. At the same time there were roads, hospitals and the first automatic phone system in Latin America. It wasn't enough. It took 18 years for the Americans to conclude they were on a voyage to nowhere.

Eighty years later the U.S. repeated the experience after an invasion eased yet another military man from power and the then deposed Aristide was reinstated. Yet America has effectively given up the ghost again, defeated by the corruption, the ever present violence and the often bizarre, always self-interested, maneuverings of the political class. It also left behind a bad taste- the revelation that anti-democracy thugs had been at times during the early 1990s on the CIA payroll, contrary to White House policy.

Haiti- dangerous yesterday, dangerous today- thanks to Graham Greene will always hold the world's attention. But whether it will ever advance out of its penury, poverty and sadistic violence seems impossible to foresee. Two hundred years on, darkness appears to have won over light.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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