Haiti: a Troubled Country, a Strong People

BOOKS

THE RAINY SEASON: HAITI SINCE DUVALIER by Amy Wilentz, New York: Simon & Schuster, 427 pp., $19.95

ANY honest look at Haiti troubles the soul.

``The Rainy Season'' will do that, but it is a more interesting probe of a fascinating culture than it is a painful detailing of hunger, poverty, and violence.

In my own series of newspaper reporting trips to that Caribbean nation from 1986 to 1988, I cataloged a lifetime of images as scorching in their unhappiness as the tropical sun.

One small image still reminds me of how far a little attention can go in needy Haiti. A tough-minded Haitian friend of mine, Gabriel, participated in a failed 1960s armed invasion of Haiti to overthrow Fran,cois (Papa Doc) Duvalier. The worst of his misadventure, he told me, was not his harrowing escape, but the disinterest he met during his exile in the United States.

He tearfully recalls the sole American who asked him about Haiti, ``I would count him as a true friend.''

Haiti needs more true American friends if it is ever going to break its cycle of desperation.

``The Rainy Season'' is mainly the kind of straightforward reporting that can help Americans understand the Haitian condition and even enjoy reading about it.

Rather than focus on the shifting scene of political power, Amy Wilentz introduces the reader to real Haitians. Waldeck, the barefoot street urchin who by sharp wits and panhandling for ice cream and money survives the Port-au-Prince street life. The peasant community that stoned to death a mother and daughtersuspected of sorcery because they were outselling others at the vegetable market. The cult of personality of a leftist Catholic priest of peasant roots.

Readers won't always like the characters. But their motivations - from voodoo beliefs to peasant values - are fascinating and understandable in the Haitian context, which is missed by the usual newspaper coverage of coups, hunger, and violence.

Through vignettes of her own travel and conversations in the Caribbean nation, journalist Wilentz gives an extremely easy-to-read and loose-knit documentation of Haitian life since the grip of the Duvalier dictatorships was broken with the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986.

Headlines of the era suggest breathtaking change. But Wilentz finds little evidence that anything has really changed since the days when the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier's personal army, enforced his brutality and greed.

Suffering is still the status quo. The average Haitian has come no closer to exercise of democratic rights than under Duvalier. But for all the frustration, Wilentz introduces equal parts of the other extreme of the human condition, the spirit, energy, and dignity that makes Haiti so compelling.

Like the carpetbagging foreign press she goes to great pains to distinguish herself from, Wilentz came to Haiti just before the 1986 Duvalier fall as a reporter looking to ``study tyranny and bloody violence.'' Fortunately, she stayed on full-time for a different reason: ``I had a popular triumph on my hands.''

But four heads of state, a lot of backroad miles, and many dodged bullets later, Wilentz concludes, ``A people's victory is not always in the end what it seems to be in the beginning.''

While raising the familiar debates over US foreign policy in Haiti and the problems of development programs there, Wilentz offers little hope or suggestion for what can be done to correct the course.

Critical of the US support of the caretaker military government of Gen. Henri Namphy, Wilentz seems to directly blame the US for Haiti's failed elections in 1987. Certainly US officials misjudged the situation. And if the ambassador to Haiti himself was any indication of what lay under the surface of US policy there, then perhaps it was a classic case of arrogant diplomacy butting heads with third-world thugs.

But Wilentz offers no options the US could have taken to ensure democratic elections in a sovereign country with a record, documented in the book and by many others, that shows little comprehension of democratic principle on the part of either brutal thugs or innocent men on the street.

``The Rainy Season'' also raises to hero status the Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose religious politics are rooted in Marxist Liberation Theology. The frail little man is the survivor of so many dramatic assassination attempts, that he and his massive slum following can't help feeling he is divinely led.

Wilentz maintains some perspective about the priest, noting that he kept in his office the grim life-size effigy of a Tontons Macoute, dressed in the clothes of a real macoute probably killed by a mob. And she mainly leaves it to the reader to judge whether the priest's way is constructive. For example, Aristide urged his people not to participate in elections before a ``revolutionary'' clean sweep of government is made. That, of course, is what elections were aimed at.

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