There’s no disputing Bill Clinton’s brilliance. Even his harshest critics must concede that he possesses an exceptional intellect. But this time he may be taking on more than even he can handle. Clinton (shown below with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon) will soon be on his way to Haiti, where the potholed streets are soaked in the blood of centuries and age-old vendettas simmer among the mysterious mountains. Ah, Haiti… Haiti cherie…
Haiti, land of black magic… of lurid tales… of drumbeats echoing through the night, signaling secret rituals in which evil spells are cast and ancient gods are summoned… Haiti, land of deadly racism… drug smuggling… corruption and nepotism beyond anything that Americans can conceive… And land of starvation, of children deformed by malnutrition, blinded by disease, bred in ignorance and superstition… How can one think of Haiti without weeping?
On the plus side, Clinton is well-regarded in Haiti for using the threat of U.S. military force to oust a dictatorship in 1994, then sending Army troops and Marines to pave the way for the return of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed in a coup. And the Clinton Foundation has been active in Haiti, providing aid in such areas as health care, AIDS, the environment and economic development.
But the U.N.’s track record in Haiti is wretched. Recently, for example, U.N. peacekeepers gunned down starving Haitian rioters. The U.N. peacekeepers have patrolled Haiti since 2004 and are training the country’s national police to retake control , but many Haitians consider the blue helmets an occupation force and want them to leave immediately. Furthermore, the current government, a legacy of the Bush Administration, is reportedly mixed up in the international drug trade and is held in extremely low esteem by most Haitians.
As you might imagine, the former U.S. President’s task will be incredibly complex. The U.N. is turning to him as its special envoy, and I suppose he will be expected to reverse Haiti’s inexorable decline, to replace despair and hunger with hope and stability. But can he – or anyone – save Haiti from itself?
I landed at the Port au Prince airport in January 1954, almost 20 years old, full of wonder and expectations as I embarked on my journalistic career. Nearly three years later, I fled home to Jamaica, 26 pounds lighter and a lot older… and perhaps wiser…
I had seen poverty and misery not dreamed of in Jamaica… old women, bare skin-and-bones, on their way to sell their produce at the Iron Market, washing their faces and arms in the muddy water that trickled in the gutters alongside the rutted roads… babies crippled and deformed by venereal disease…
On one memorable occasion, I had helped my boss, Haiti Sun owner and editor Bernard Diederich, write a story about a woman who had been drugged, buried, dug up before she could suffocate, and enslaved as a “zombie.” She said she was chained to a work table where – subdued by drugs – she operated a sewing machine, manufacturing garments for some wealthy industrialist. The woman escaped and appeared one morning in the marketplace of her village, spreading terror when she was recognized as one who had returned from the dead. I wondered how many other zombies were less fortunate, drugged and enslaved, toiling endlessly in those dark mountains to enrich their evil masters.
Bernard (photo at left) became a famous author, and I met him many years later when we both lived in South Florida. He was born in New Zealand but had fallen in love with Haiti when the sailing ship he was on stopped there. When the ship left he had remained behind to start an English-language weekly. One of Bernard’s Jamaican friends, Spotlight Magazine publisher Evon Blake, had told me about an internship at the Sun, and I had eagerly accepted it. That was during the benign presidency of Paul Magloire, when young people could promenade around the fountain on the Exposition site in Port au Prince, and drink milk shakes at American-style malt shops nearby. But as always happens in Haiti, Magloire’s regime did not last, and soon there were rumblings about a rising star – Francois Duvalier, who would become known as “Papa Doc.” And it was time for me to go.
Bernard stayed on after I left, braving the rise to power of the infamous “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He stayed on despite his white skin, and he was inevitably arrested by Papa Doc’s murderous Tontons Macouts, imprisoned and expelled from the country. In exile in the Dominican Republic, he joined the Time-Life News Service and spent the rest of his career working for that organization in Latin America and, later, Miami.
I was not so brave. After the chief of police (as I recall, his name was Jacques Laroche) calmly told me he would have to kill me – because of my “light” complexion! – if I stayed after Papa Doc became president, I returned home to Jamaica, and a few months later, emigrated to Canada.
Bernard married a Haitian, who was descended from an early Haitian president, and they have a son, Jean-Bernard, who became a news photographer. Perhaps this excerpt from Time Magazine’s “A Letter from the Publisher,” on December 14, 1987, will give you an insight into the Haiti that Bill Clinton will be trying to save:
“He was shooting at me. A soldier, his face hidden in the shadow of his helmet, raised an automatic rifle and fired. His bullets were hitting everywhere, and the fragments of glass and pavement were bouncing off my body. I have never been so aware of anything as I was at that moment.” Jean-Bernard Diederich, a photographer working on this week’s World story about Haiti’s tragic attempt at free elections, had arrived only a few minutes earlier at L’Ecole Nationale Argentine Bellegarde, a Port-au-Prince elementary school. What he saw was a polling place turned into a killing ground. Bodies lay everywhere, some riddled by bullets, others hacked to pieces by machetes. A band of 50 Tonton Macoutes, former henchmen of the Duvalier family, had slaughtered almost a score of people as they lined up to vote.
“I felt someone go down, but my eyes were fixed on a wall, topped with broken glass, near the school. The armed men were getting closer. I went over. When I reached a small courtyard, the people who lived there hid me and tended a gash in my hand.” The U.S. embassy later sent an armored car to pick him up. “I was lucky I had a place to escape to,” said Diederich, a Miami resident who was born in Haiti and is the son of TIME Reporter Bernard Diederich. “Those people took me into their homes when I was in danger, yet I cannot take them into mine now that theirs is in danger. In Haiti today, life has no value, especially for the ordinary folk. The future holds a lot of pain and suffering for a people who want only to live their lives in peace.”
The beat goes on… In Haiti – perhaps even more so today than yesterday – life has no value. There is no hope. To escape from this hell on earth, scores of Haitians take to the sea in leaky boats. Some drown. Some are rescued and shipped home. A lucky few get to stay in the United States…
Bon Chance, Bill! You are going to need it.