In 1996, freshly graduated from university, I went into a local bookstore in Pennsylvania and picked up a volume that ultimately changed my life.
The book was The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier by journalist Amy Wilentz. Published seven years earlier, it was a chronicle of the fall and aftermath of 29 year Duvalier family dictatorship in that tumultuous Caribbean nation. The writing was crisp and insightful, the political and social drama it depicted Shakespearean, the long struggle it described of a nation trying to form a responsive democracy in the face of local tyrants and international meddling was Sisyphean. Within a year I was in Haiti, a relationship that continues to this day.
Now, 23 years after The Rainy Season, Wilentz, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, returns to the Magic Island with her new volume, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti.
Much has transpired since The Rainy Season, not least of all the apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake that leveled much of the capital and surrounding towns, killing tens of thousands of people. Haiti's two-time president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a figure who, as much as anything, Wilentz's first book helped solidify in the international imagination, was overthrown not once but twice, in 1991 and in 2004, in circumstances that couldn't have been more different. A United Nations peacekeeping mission, largely unloved and convincingly linked to a strain of cholera that has killed over 7,000 people, has been on the ground for nearly a decade.
Unlike many commentators on Haiti, Wilentz genuinely likes and is stimulated by the Haitians themselves, and, in between despairing observations, in both The Rainy Season and Farewell, Fred Voodoo, she manages to capture the beauty of Haiti, physical and spiritual, something that foreigners writing about the place rarely do.
But despairing and pessimistic would indeed seem to be the most apt adjectives for the book's take on Haiti's post-earthquake landscape.
After Wilentz adroitly points out that what was often commented upon as Haitian "resilience" after the earthquake was in fact more likely post-traumatic shock, she goes on to conclude that "misery in Haiti today is a job creator for the white man" and that "the aid superstructure in Haiti...has created exactly the circumstances in which it becomes indispensable." Acidly and perceptively, she compares the thousands of aid workers, journalists and others who descended on Haiti after the quake as the equivalent of loup garous, the parasitic werewolves of Haitian folk legend.
She wonders why, if in the earthquake's aftermath the international community was able respond so quickly to so many chronic needs in Haiti as access to clean water, these problems could not be addressed before. As she did in The Rainy Season, Wilentz also pays tribute to the political significance of vodou, Haiti's syncretic religion that is too often ignored or caricatured.
Some of the book's anecdotes - from a hapless Haitian-American couple trying to buy land to a relentlessly self-promoting American journalist to a rather overdone portrait of an American doctor - run a bit long, but Wilentz can be darkly humorous in the margins. One American adventurer is described as having "liked to drink a quart of whiskey a day and to chain women up...[His] marriages did not last long." When Wilentz delves into the details of the 2010 privatization of Haiti's state telephone company, Teleco, and the state's torturous relations with the communications giant Digicel and its Irish chairman Denis O'Brien, the book is revelatory.
The book's major shortcoming is an unwillingness to address directly the tangled legacy of Aristide, a man whom Wilentz, as much as any writer, helped to bring to international prominence.
Though in one passage she tellingly recalls Aristide truculently complaining that hundreds of checks sent from abroad to fund his "projects" were not large enough - "not worth cashing," in fact - Wilentz's rather forgiving view gives rather short shrift to voluminous evidence that complicates any benign picture of the former president.
When Wilentz writes about Aristide's paternal relationship with street boys when he was a priest, she omits the far darker turn that relationship eventually took, with Aristide's political party and government helping to organize youth gangs as a bludgeon to use against his political opponents. Those looking for an examination of why virtually the entire top command of Aristide's police force and the upper management of Teleco during his tenure subsequently ended up in prison for drug trafficking and corruption offenses will look in vain, as will those looking for an accounting of the government's often horrific collective punishment against its rivals.
Wilentz herself treads very close to an apt, though inexact, parable for Aristide's rise and fall, when she accurately concludes that, culturally and politically, Haiti most closely resembles "French West Africa."
Like Aristide, Côte d'Ivoire's former president Laurent Gbagbo was once viewed as a champion of democracy as he led opposition to the long dictatorship of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. And like Aristide, once in power Gbagbo began to mimic in every particular the very worst and most anti-democratic tendencies of those he once railed against. After serving as president from 2000 until 2011, Gbagbo was extradited to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity. Aristide returned to Haiti from exile in 2011. He is currently being sued by account holders ruined in a government-endorsed cooperative scheme during his administration and some of those same street children he once allegedly championed.
Writing in a marriage of memoir and critique, Wilentz's true strength is in honestly documenting the Haiti that foreigners who visit there construct for themselves, concluding that, despite its image of misery, for the misfits, idealists, adventurers and opportunists that wash up on its shores, Haiti is "a welcoming, accepting place where you can be yourself."
A hard sell, perhaps, to those who know only the Haiti of violence and calamity, but a sentiment that rings very - almost painfully - true to those who have seen and been moved by one of the nation's many other faces. Farewell, Fred Voodoo shows us a few of them and hopefully will provoke readers to look still further.