Soul in a Bottle

It was normal and usual for a foreigner, a blan, to go through a period of anxiety and fear while planning a trip to Haiti. Perhaps it was even sensible. For Haitians of the diaspora, the risk of visiting their country was much greater, but I had taken to observing certain Haitian practices before I bought my ticket: consulting all available oracles and examining the bird entrails with great care.

In May and early June of 1997, the situation in the country seemed to be more than usually precarious. I had received a couple of warnings that things might blow up, one from a very well-informed person whom I didn’t entirely trust, and one from a less well-informed person whom I trusted completely. I much preferred to visit Haiti soon after an election rather than immediately before, as waves of political violence and popular rioting usually crested around election days, after which a period of calm would ensue. But this time around, the trouble was that they kept putting off the elections. The government led by Prime Minister Rosny Smarth had very recently fallen, and President Préval was having trouble forming a new Cabinet; as one of my better sources told me, it was quite difficult to find intelligent, capable, trustworthy ministers who did not object to the possibility of assassination.

I was having a similar difficulty finding a companion for the trip; in the past I had always brought someone with me from outside the country, to share the room, the driving, the risk and the stress. But this time around, it began to be clear: If I went at all, I’d be going alone. That bothered me, but the fear was abstract. Instead of coming from my glands and viscera, as it had before my other trips, it was far away somewhere in my head. I made a couple of ritual phone calls to check out the immediate situation, bought my ticket, and began packing my bags.

During the flight down and while running the gauntlet from the Port-au-Prince airport to the Hotel Oloffson, it was the lack of fear that troubled me. A sprinkling of fear sharpens the senses; without it I might be insufficiently alert. Fear concentrates the mind, and movement in Haiti required great concentration. As a pedestrian in Port-au-Prince, you had to concentrate closely to avoid being run down by a car or truck (efforts to install rules for traffic had remained fairly unsuccessful) or falling into one of the giant holes that dropped through the pavement into the sewers, or snapping your leg in a smaller one—yet now I seemed able make my way without thinking about it consciously, walking the shattering streets as if in a dream. Driving in or out of the capital presented a similar series of problems, but this time around, I caught myself falling into a kind of highway hypnosis, which might have been the most frightening thing of all. And on other fronts as well, it worried me that my general lack of apprehension might only be a sign of overconfidence.

There were several places I wanted to go, several barriers I wanted to cross, and from the blan point of view, the most important of these was the wall surrounding the house of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Because I’d had this notion quite late, I knew my chances of a formal interview were poor. However, Aristide had shown a marked interest in my novel about the Haitian Revolution, and I had found an indirect way to present him with a signed copy almost a year before. It seemed conceivable that I might be admitted for a handshake meeting. Simply getting a look at the house seemed to me a very important thing, for since January of 1997, the house itself had become a major focal point in the partial decline of Aristide s popularity.

A fusion of populist politics and liberation theology had brought Aristide to power in the first place. Liberation theology calls its practitioners to work for, with and among the poor, and Aristide had certainly done all of that. As both priest and politician, his mission had been to the destitute, desperate majority of the Haitian population, and he had lived accordingly, among the people he had adopted as his own. To celebrate his inauguration as president in 1991, he threw open the Presidental Palace to the inhabitants of the most appalling Port-au-Prince slums (which enormously offended the wealthy, refined, Frenchified mulâtre elite who had manipulated the Haitian government and economy from a disguised distance for a couple of hundred years before Aristide arrived on the scene). The title of Aristide’s party, Lavalas, means “flood” in Kreyol, and was meant to identify the consolidation of small grassroots groups all over the country into a national populist party with the combination of mountain springs and rivulets into the torrents of Haiti’s woefully abbreviated rainy seasons.

But after he left the presidency, Aristide had also seemed to depart from some of his populist and theological principles, so far as they affected his personal life. He had left the priesthood to marry a light-skinned, upper-class woman. He had built a house for himself in a newly fashionable quarter of the capital called Tabarre. These actions had cost him some erosion of his popular power base. Very few among the millions of impoverished Haitians who had voted for Aristide in 1990 would ever see his personal residence, or even the wall surrounding it, but the house had taken on a legendary magnitude, and the legend wasn’t doing Aristide much good: For six months Haitians had been grumbling about “the baron of Tabarre.”

As for myself, I remained very much an Aristide sympathizer. Indeed, I saw him as one of the most extraordinary heroes that the 20th century had ever produced. He had great intelligence and compassion, a high sense of mission, and the courage to face death for his convictions and his people; he had been inches away from martyrdom at least three times. It would take a lot more than was currently evident to undo my sense of his heroism. Also I saw several legitimate defenses for the changes in Aristide’s personal life that others found so troubling. The Haitian church hierarchy had effectively abandoned him long before he left the priesthood, withdrawing support to such an extent that the protective effect of his vestments had been dangerously diminished. And once his presidential term had ended, he no longer had his political office to protect him. From the middle class up, there was no one in Port-au-Prince who didn’t live behind a wall, and Aristide was much more at risk than most other citizens of the capital. Besides, I had credible intelligence that the grandeur of the Tabarre house was much less than rumor suggested, that the house was a rather ordinary one for someone in Aristide’s position.

If I could see the house with my own eyes, I might be able to mount some sort of public defense of Aristide. He seemed to be in need of defending, at least in the foreign press, where some of his former supporters were beginning to swing against him. Although I had the idea very late, perhaps my good will might open the gate for me.

Aristide’s political situation since his return to Haiti in October 1994 had always been tricky and difficult; in June of 1997, it became much more apparently so. A great many Aristide supporters, both Haitian and blan, were becoming increasingly dismayed by the tendency of his political maneuvering since the end of his term, but I felt that most of his maneuvers were forced, as moves can be forced in a chess game. I also felt that Aristide was playing as well as anyone in his position could.

In one small, limited way, the 1991 coup had been fortunate for Aristide—sparing him the task of governing a country with neither infrastructure nor secure political institutions. Until Jean-Claude Duvalier fell in 1986, Haiti had been an agglomeration of violently competitive clans, each led by a robber baron who sought to improve his own position, under the larger mantle of imperial Duvalierist power. Both economically and politically, the system was virtually feudal. After the euphoria of Aristide’s electoral victory abated, there would have remained a towering mass of problems to be addressed— but Aristide spent most of his presidential term in exile and thus had little opportunity to confront the staggering difficulty of reform.

The situation was comparable to that of Boris Yeltsin, who was the best-loved man in Russia following the collapse of the hard-line Communist coup. Two years later, having failed to instantly solve economic problems that God Himself could not have remedied in less than a couple of decades, Yeltsin had evolved into the best-loathed man in Russia. But in Haiti the Yeltsin role was divided between two people. Because the post-Duvalier constitution forbids the president to succeed himself (no one much wants another president-for-life), it was Aristide’s successor, Rene Préval, who inherited the hideous economic situation and its concomitant unpopularity.

Truth to tell, during the few months between his inauguration and the coup, Aristide did manage to make some significant progress toward reform. He reduced government spending by something on the order of 50 percent. Famously corrupt state enterprises were successfully overhauled; the cement factory reduced its deficit by 60 percent, and the flour mill actually showed a profit for the first time in recorded history. The Lavalas government made considerable strides toward tax reform, increasing revenue by collecting arrears and preventing further tax evasion by the country’s wealthy mulâtre minority … his progress in this area undoubtedly played a part in provoking the coup.1

But after his exile and return, Aristide’s situation vis-à-vis the economic predicament had become, through very little fault of his own, different from what it had been before. Aristide had never been a popular figure with either the U.S. government or the global financial community. Bush administration Haiti-watchers thought that Aristide had no chance to win the 1990 election and seemed to be dismayed when he did. Aristide’s approach to the economic situation was very distasteful to the wealthy mulâtre elite (sometimes known as the Morally Repugnant Elite) because it was, declaredly and according to the goals of liberation theology, a program to empower the poor. The First World financial community did not like it much better, for Aristide and Lavalas proposed a version of social democracy in which the state would play a role (albeit limited) in the redistribution of wealth, in a manner contrary to the free-market credo of international capitalism.2 So far as the U.S. government was concerned, the Lavalas program was perilously close to communism.

In exile, Aristide struggled to arrange a return to Haiti with his programs and policies intact, against powerful pressure from both the Bush and Clinton administrations, both of which publicly condemned the coup while privately demanding that Aristide make important concessions to the coup’s military leaders and the machinators behind them. The situation might have driven a weaker man insane (it was during this period the CIA mounted a disinformation campaign to taint Aristide as an unpredictable and dangerous psychotic). But in the end, with his duly elected term dwindling, Aristide made the only sane choice available. He bowed to the conditions set by foreign powers for his return to Haiti: a reprisal-free conciliation of the sectors of society that had exiled him, and acceptance of the neoliberal economic development model devised by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and U.S. Agency for International Development.3

Aristide made it back to Haiti with less than a year of his term to run, so implementation of the very different and much less popular new economic agenda fell to René Préval. The original Lavalas program had conceived the rural peasantry as central to economic reform and sought to reestablish an agrarian-based economy in the country—to find a way to meet the basic needs of the population at the crossroads of farm and market. The objective was reasonable, for despite decades of horrific environmental damage, Haiti was still fertile enough to feed itself, and if it ever succeeded in doing so, environmental restoration would become a lot more feasible. But, looking through the wrong end of the binoculars, the IMF had already decided that there was no hope for small, freehold farmers in Haiti and that such people would be much better off coming down from the mountain to the hellish slums of Port-au-Prince, where they could do light assembly work for very low wages. The notion of Haitian self-sufficiency was out the window; in the IMF/World Bank/USAID conception, Haiti would henceforward import its food and technology and export Pocahontas pajamas. From the perspective of the international financial community, the business of the Préval administration was to “globalize” Haiti along these lines.

Préval tried to tightrope walk between these requirements and the original Lavalas goals; he himself had a European degree in agronomy, and both agrarian reform and environmental rehabilitation remained important to his agenda. At the same time, he was obliged to implement privatization of state enterprises and IMF-mandated structural adjustment. In Haiti, a country where the majority of the population begins each day with no food supply whatsoever, the mildest austerity measure can set off a riot. Préval, who in any case lacked Aristide’s personal charisma and gift for oratory, soon found himself very unpopular indeed.

Lavalas was still the party in power—that is, Operation Politique de Lavalas. But in the fall of 1996, Aristide astonished everyone by starting a sort of party within the party—something called Lafanmi Lavalas, with a much more populist agenda than the post-coup OPL. Almost immediately, and with some justice, he was accused of trying to destabilize the party he had originally founded. But on other grounds, the action seemed defensible and perhaps even necessary. OPL was no longer what it had been meant to be. The economic agenda that Lavalas was now pursuing was something Aristide had accepted under duress; perhaps he had never really accepted it. If he meant to return to his original social programs, he would have to reestablish his populist base, and the creation of Lafanmi would be a way of doing that.

The United States and the world financial community had put the genie back in the bottle and corked it tight. But perhaps the genie would find a way to get back out.

Meanwhile there were many people who felt that, personally at least, Aristide had moved a long way from his populist goals in retreating behind that wall in Tabarre. Since January 1997, there had been growing suspicion that all Aristide had done in the end was to execute his own transfer into the wealthy and privileged class—a well-known maneuver for Haitian politicians since the Revolution was consolidated in 1804. There were troubling questions of embezzlement; during the last six months of Aristide’s term, the equivalent of $50 million was supposed to have disappeared somehow—rather a lot for such a short time. No well-informed Haitian believed that Aristide had put this money in his pocket and used it pay for his house in Tabarre (the suspicion was more that he had been surrounded with corruption), but in the ground-level, popular imagination, the two issues had merged.

The whole “baron of Tabarre” business broke out in the extra-Haitian press community in late May 1997, some six months after it had begun to travel within the borders of the country. The catalyst was an open letter addressed to Aristide by one of his most important and influential supporters, Paul Dejean, published in the Kreyol newspaper Libète on May 28. The letter was phrased with the kind of proverbial obliquity which is natural to the Kreyol language and of which Aristide himself is a great master. At first the content of the letter seemed less important than the fact that someone so important as Paul Dejean would take such a step into open criticism. The Internet groups began to buzz, and a number of blan journalists previously devoted to Aristide began to murmur about the Tabarre house and the missing $50 million in the same way Haitians had done earlier.

Then, on June 10, the Rosny Smarth government went down. The proximate cause, Smarth said in his resignation speech, was electoral corruption—he had earlier accused Lafanmi Lavalas (which by then had evolved into a party clearly distinct from and in competition with OPL) of rigging the April 6 vote in the legislature, and when the electoral council refused to annul the ballot, Smarth had concluded to resign. The background issue was the budget austerity plan, which the Smarth government had consistently backed against wave after wave of popular disgruntlement, and which Aristide and Lafanmi had campaigned against. A few days later, on June 19, Préval himself renounced the austerity program, a development that left most observers absolutely stunned and bewildered.

The whole sequence of events looked as if it might turn a great many Aristide supporters into former Aristide supporters. Why would he bring down his own party’s government? Against the background of accusations of corruption and luxury, this question was still more discomfiting. But one answer might be that it wasn’t his own party anymore … the goals of the original OPL had been so distorted under outside pressure that it would be more desirable to tear it down and start over. As for the corruption issue, the United States had been careful to return Aristide to the Presidential Palace in a very much weakened position. Before the coup he had, on all evidence, worked to purge corruption, and with notable success. After his restoration to office, it might have been that he was no longer secure enough to stop corruption in his vicinity. Also, after what he had been through in the States, a degree of disillusionment, if not despair, would be understandable. But Aristide had not despaired; he was still struggling, maneuvering to find a way to restore the programs and policies that the United States and the IMF had crammed down his throat.

Perhaps that was true. I wanted it to be true. But the counterargument was that Aristide had turned on Smarth and OPL only to prepare his personal return to the palace. “In our country, power is a sickness,” Rosny Smarth said in his resignation speech. And in Paul Dejean’s letter, there was this: “As much as I understood that initially you wanted to become one with the people, to identify with the people, I now begin to see that you want the people to become one with you, to identify themselves with you. The same pretension led us to what we both know happened in 1957.” What they both knew was that in that year, the man who rode populism to power in Haiti was François Duvalier.

I noticed fewer blan faces than usual on the flight down to Port-au-Prince, and at the Hotel Oloffson, the clientele seemed thinner than usual, perhaps because of the greater-than-usual feeling of instability in Haiti. Perhaps others considering a visit had drawn a different message from their bird entrails than I had from mine. But there were still a few blan of one kind or another patrolling the Oloffson’s cool, verdant galleries. I met a woman from the Schweitzer Hospital in DesChapelles, and a young Canadian who was working on reform of the Haitian legal system, and someone I might as well call Mad Genius, an older American man who had come to save the country.

I’d met a lot of people with intentions like that, and there were moments when I thought I might save the country myself. Haiti was conducive to megalomania (something else Aristide was fairly often accused of). Foreigners had been coming to save Haiti for at least 50 years, but none of them had quite done it yet. Most had struggled for a couple of years, then given up and gone away, and many had done more harm than good, but Mad Genius seemed a little different. He had a national plan for agricultural development with elements of real brilliance in it; moreover, the plan was based on a good understanding and a decent respect for the way Haitian culture worked. There were many points in common with the original Lavalas plan to meet basic needs through cooperation with the peasantry, and there were other points striking in their originality. It was a workable plan, but so many workable plans had foundered in Haiti … and yet I thought Mad Genius had a chance, especially right now, when President Préval, having thrown up the whole structural adjustment program as wrongheaded and hopeless, was looking for something, anything to replace it.

The problem was getting in to see Préval. Mad Genius had very good contacts with several different networks which could eventually open the president’s door for him, but none of them had done it yet. He had become preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the problem of access, of entrée. I was in the same situation, though I didn’t tell him so. I had a quality introduction to Aristide, from the American lawyer who represented him during his exile, and I had made formal approaches through three or four separate official channels, sending polite faxes in French, making phone calls, but all of this was so far going unrewarded, and after my second day at the Oloffson, I knew I would not get through Aristide’s gate this time.

It didn’t bother me. There were some foreigners who stayed in the game in Haiti, but the normal blan approach to problem-solving had to change. You had to accept defeat but keep trying anyway, knowing that you had no hope. Perhaps this was what Aristide himself had done.

Obliquity, indirection, and a very soft touch were the only way to get anywhere in Haiti. Even if you were in a hurry (I had only about 10 days in the country) you’d better not appear to be. A display of American-style urgency would cause doors to slide softly, firmly shut in your face. Patience and silence became the two most important virtues. I decided to stop making calls and leave Port-au-Prince. Perhaps, after my return, I’d find something on one of the lines I’d left in the water.

Also the trip I’d planned, a leftward circle to the North, was another way of trying to get in. It was an indirect, twisting, tumbling path that would finally lead me back to Aristide’s gate. In the vaudouistic sense (I believed 100 percent in Vodou, the national religion of Haiti) I needed to go up north pour toucher mes points—to touch my points of power. After I had done that, I knew that I would be much better prepared to do the appropriate things to get the gate in Tabarre to open. I knew that during the journey, my whole psychology would alter itself and that I would enter completely into magical thinking. I would not know if it was reality that had changed or my perception of it. I would know that it didn’t matter.

The route I’d planned led up the coast road to Pont Sondé, then cut toward the interior across the Artibonite to Petite Riviere and slightly beyond, to the 18th-century fort at La Crête à Pierrot, site of the single most important battle of the Haitian Revolution. Then back to the coast by another road that went by way of Marchand Dessalines to rejoin the coast road just a little south of Gonaives, and finally up through the vertiginous green mountains of the North, past Plaisance and Limbé to Cap Haïtien on the North coast.

Haitian Vodou is rooted in the African belief that the dead do not depart from the material world but instead remain present, although invisible; the aggregate mass of all dead souls is sometimes called Les Invisibles. In places where many people have died, they say that the air is full of spirits, and sometimes pilgrims come to such places to breathe those spirits in. At La Crête à Pierrot, the air was charged with the spirit of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary general who finally drove the French army into the sea, and a little afterwards, assembled and massacred most of the white colonists who still remained in Haiti. The spirit of Dessalines persisted all the way down to Marchand, where some ruins of his residences remained. At Gonaives the atmosphere changed, and from there up through the mountains all the way to Le Cap, and also to the east along the mountain range as far as the Spanish frontier, you were inhaling the spirit of Toussaint Louverture.

The radio on the jeep was busted, and it would have been too distracting to play it anyway—the state of the roads was so gruesome that you had to maintain 100 percent concentration on the driving situation at all times. Haitian vehicles were staggeringly overloaded and often came flying down from the mountains with next to no brakes. But the roads themselves could cripple your car, no need for a collision—some holes were so deep that the ridges between them could very well knock out your oil pan, as could the 2-foot-high speed bumps at the borders of towns. These devices, called “sleeping policemen,” were often partly deteriorated and were very hard to see. But what I hated most of all was the long, tire-murdering stretch of pavement between Gonaives and St. Marc, which I would have to transverse on the return trip; here there were more holes than road, as in a sinister ribbon of black lace. Too many flats meant too much delay, which meant that you might get stuck on the road at night, in which case you were very probably dead, due to the insecurity problem. After dark the roads were roamed by zenglendo bands composed of well-armed former soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army; they would certainly take all you owned and often murder you in the bargain. Therefore I drove as softly, sweetly as I could.

No radio, but there was a song that played in my head, sometimes with hallucinatory clarity, a simply structured number by Boukman Eksperyans, with few chord changes and a back-beat guitar figure that very closely followed the drum, and over this a sonorous refrain:

Any en

Sa red o

Any en

Sa red o

Namn nou nan boutey ...

Sa red o….4

The verse, which also was simple and repetitive, spoke of the pain of being forced to accept foreign culture and the practices of foreign power.

The notion had been suggested to me that there were strong resemblances between Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Toussaint Louverture and that the roles they played in Haitian history were in some ways equivalent. When I drove south, dawn breaking over the mountains below Cap Haïtien, I stopped the jeep and chocked it up with stones and stood for a time at the edge of a precipice, looking down at the river in Plaisance Valley, up at the needled peaks, all that beautiful, near-impassible terrain which had been the root of Toussaint’s power. The idea was no longer part of my thoughts but something autonomous which came floating toward me out of the dizzy gorge.

Toussaint had managed to place himself at the head of a popular movement which had begun as a chaotic general insurrection on the Northern Plain, or perhaps it might be better to say that the force of this movement had concentrated itself in him. The organizational network of the movement was Vodou: connections which linked the hounfors together and so allowed the spirit of revolution to become national. In public Toussaint was a devout Catholic and worked partially through the church, cooperating with a handful of renegade priests who took part with the slaves from the moment the Revolution broke out in 1791, but he was certainly vaudouisant too; Vodou was the religion of his people, and in Haiti Vodou and Catholicism are two sides of the same coin. Like Aristide, Toussaint knew how to speak a language rich with double meanings, and his public assumption of the name Louverture, meaning “opening,” suggests that his mind was ruled by Legba, the god who governs the crossroads between the worlds of the living and the dead, the loa who is the opener of gates.

Toussaint won, for a time, against odds that seemed impossible, defeating the French, English, and Spanish forces both in battle and in politics. During the brief period when the country was at peace under his rule, he managed to reestablish a working economy, persuaded white and mulâtre proprietors to work their plantations with free labor, and was well on the way to creating a society of social and racial harmony … at least 200 years ahead of its time. But foreign power was against him. Napoleon, on his way to declaring himself emperor of France, had another idea; he dispatched 25,000 men to Haiti to restore slavery. Toussaint’s army was never decisively defeated, but he was brought to the point of accepting terms according to which he retained his official rank as a general in the French army. Soon after, he was betrayed and deported to France, where he died, his soul bottled up in a castle in the French Alps called the Fort de Joux.

In Haiti, time is a circle instead of a line, or perhaps time does not exist at all; history repeats itself eternally, and no one ever really dies. When I compared the two narratives, 200 years apart though they might be, it seemed to me very possible that the spirit of Tous-saint Louverture did walk with Aristide.

When I got back to Port-au-Prince from the North, I ran my lines at the Hotel Oloffson, but nothing was to be found on any hook; no one had returned my calls. It didn’t matter, for after I’d completed the leftward circuit, my whole way of thinking had changed, and I knew that there were other ways, less direct and obvious than calling and writing to Aristide s subordinates and others close to him, which were still more likely to get me through the gate. I had already completed the sinister pathway, which was vaudouisant and led through the hounfors. Now I must make a circle in the opposite direction, clockwise, a path which was Catholic and led through the church.

At about 6:30 in the morning, I left the Oloffson, carrying a flat, round cassava bread folded up in a plastic sack, and wearing a red bandanna tied round my head in the manner of a Haitian mouchwa têt. In the North I had been advised that if I wore such a headcloth, there were certain gates and crossroads I might pass more easily and sweetly—dousman, as the Kreyol proverb has it. The heat was not so destroying as it would certainly be later in the day, so my passage was gentle enough, across the Rue Capois and the Champ de Mars and on along the Rue Lamarre. At the gate of the Seminaire de St. Martial, I took off the mouchwa têt and put it in my pocket, for such a thing could not be worn within the church enclosure. There was a short delay at the barrier because I did not have the engraved invitation required for Sunday morning mass, but when I explained that I had been invited by two blan scholars who were working in the library, the gate opened for me and I passed softly through.

Like any establishment of consequence in Port-au-Prince, St. Martial is a walled fortress, enclosing a church; a seminary for priests; a school that runs from elementary grades through the lycée level; a vast collection of books and documents on the Haitian Revolution, the slave trade, and Carribbean history in general; and the station Radio Soleil. Along with creating priests for the whole country, St. Martial turns out secular intellectuals who speak perfect, elegant, 18th-century French and have an astonishing clarity of vision; many of the most important writers and thinkers of Haiti had been educated here, and so had the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. St. Martial was an amazing concentration of spiritual power, which could sometimes translate itself into political power, via the radio beacon, among other means. The place was a great power node of liberation theology. Some of Aristide’s most powerful orations had taken place as broadcasts of Radio Soleil, notably the one he delivered from a mobile microphone, in a hail of bullets, as a popular demonstration outside the Duvalierist prison Fort Dimanche was murderously repressed by army troops.

Today the mass was celebrated in an outdoor courtyard beside the church, which would have been too small to contain the number of people attending. Steps leading up to a colonnade served as a sanctuary. There was a choir of children, and the liturgy was punctuated by sweet, simple hymns in Kreyol. The sermon was delivered by Père Max Dominique, also in Kreyol, and the whole ceremony was broadcast live by Radio Soleil. I knew that people would be gathered in the Artibonite and on the Central Plateau and in the northern mountains; in any hamlet with even one radio, the service would be heard.

My own Kreyol was weak to the point of nonexistence, but it always got better after the circuit through the North, where orthodox French was not very much in evidence. Usually I could understand whatever I really had to, and apparently I was meant to understand at least the gist of the sermon preached by Père Max Dominique. His words were simple, beautifully clear, pronounced slowly in a voice which resonated a gentle humility. He began by announcing the difficulty of following Christ and preached for some time on the virtue of patience. Patient devotion to the task of following Jesus was essential because the challenge was so difficult, fraught with frustrations, roadblocks along the way… and as Père Max went on, I began to understand that many of his statements were double, referring to political as well as spiritual life. He was (obliquely, indirectly) addressing the frustration of the people with the slow pace of reform, with the terrible constraint and difficulty of their lives, with all the blockades they met on the road to freedom … an ideal of freedom which he connected with Christian salvation. He reminded everyone that Christ stood against violence, whether physical or verbal, that the mood of angry disappointment was itself a sin, and that the Church called all believers to a gentle unity in which they might work together to remove the obstacles that stood in their way. The imitation of Christ, however difficult, was the one means for the believers to cross the barriers that opposed them, dousman and at the same têt ansamn (or “heads together”) united in a common, patient belief. It would not do to force the gate, but if a believer waited patiently, humbly before the gate, eventually it would open of itself. “Nou pa kab konprann,”he said at the end, or very near it, “men nou kroué.” The sentence proclaimed the mystery of faith: “We can’t understand, but we believe.”

I felt that most of this sermon might well have been addressed to me, to my present situation at that moment, and when it had finished, I felt almost possessed by patience, as if it had come to me from somewhere outside myself. Meanwhile, amongst the general prayers of the people, a prayer was being offered up for the recovery of Père Adrien, one of St. Martial’s most influential figures, who had suffered a stroke several months before and had, after a long Stateside convalescence, returned to Haiti about a week before my own arrival. I had brought the cassava bread from the mountains as a gift for him, and now I stood holding it, through the consecration of the Host at the altar, and then I exchanged the Peace with the Haitians standing near me. But I left the service before communion; it was not for me to take the sacraments here, for a number of reasons, including that I had not made a very good confession since practicing Vodou in the North.

I found the scholars I had come to meet, and we caught a ride with some other priests up to the fortified Seminary of the Pères Spiritins, the way curving clockwise, to the right, the Christian path. Père Adrien was housed for the moment with the Pères Spiritins, but when we got there, he was sleeping. I went into the room where he lay in bed and sat down cross-legged on the floor, in order to place myself below his level and the level of the nurse who cared for him.

Père Adrien was priest, scholar, teacher, librarian, and closet politician; in the latter role, he had been one of the most influential powers behind the rise of Aristide. He had been curator of the library of St. Martial since the time of the Duvaliers, and so far as the history of Haiti was concerned, it was the library of Alexandria. Whenever I went into the collection, I felt dizzy and faint, overwhelmed by the concentration of so much powerful knowledge. Later that day I would return to St. Martial with the two scholars, who were working with a U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization project to preserve the books, and I would point out to them a few of the most unique and otherwise unfindable volumes to be copied onto CD-ROM. In this way I would complete the clockwise circle.

The stroke had left Père Adrien aphasic; he could understand but could no longer speak. This situation had allowed schemers to put words in his mouth, to claim that if Père Adrien could find the words he would speak against Aristide as Paul Dejean had done. I had felt enraged by the proposition; it might have been true, but no one could know, and to assert it as a truth seemed an absolute nadir of bad faith. But after Père Max’s sermon, I felt calmer and also more confident that in the fullness of time, God would strike down whatever malfeasants might try to betray the life-work of Père Adrien.

I explained to the nurse and to another of the Pères Spiritins who was standing by that I had brought the cassava bread as a gift for Père Adrien, that by coincidence (which proverbially does not exist in Haiti) the bread had attended Mass with me, up through the consecration of the Host, and that I hoped it might have taken on a curative power. I said that I had come to ask his blessing for myself and for my work, and they both assured me that this message would get through to him.

I stood up then and looked down onto the bed. Père Adrien seemed to be resting peacefully, free of the neurological tics that had troubled him when I’d seen him last, also asleep, in a Stateside hospital. Such an enormous power was sleeping there. His soul was in a bottle, too, but I prayed the best that I knew how that God might release his power. Then I touched his hand lightly, dousman, and crossed myself with the same fingers before I left the room.

Outside the wall of the Pères Spiritins, I put on the red headcloth again and rode down with the blan scholars to the Holiday Inn at the head of the Champ de Mars. We went to the bar in the back garden, where I ordered a bottle of water which was safe for blan to drink. After I had carefully inspected the seal, I broke it and poured a measure into three glasses. The water was crystalline and clear, but before any one of us tasted it, I spilled a little on the ground.

Now I had done all I could do, the Christian rite and the Vodou rite, in what seemed to me an appropriate sequence. Now I could sit down at the crossroads and wait.

When I got back to the Oloffson from the library of St. Martial, I realized that there was one more call that I should make and that this one should, definitively, be the last. There had never been any public suggestion that Aristide had ever had any involvement with Vodou. The religious movement which helped bring him to the palace was the Ti Legliz network of small congregations all over the country, and although the abstract structure of Ti Legliz much resembled the Vodou network, Ti Legliz was Christian by definition and in fact. However, if Aristide had come to power in Haiti without the aid of Vodou, he would have been the first person to do so since 1804.

I called the number which was, the best I could figure, actually within the wall enclosing the house at Tabarre. When someone answered I stated my name and my location and said that I had a message for Monsieur Aristide: M’té jété dlo à Freycineau.”Irepeated the message twice, slowly, and asked the person on the other end of the line if he had understood. The yes was so clear and definite that I was sure he did understand exactly what I was talking about, which surprised me a little, for the sentence would have been fairly inscrutable in any other context: “I poured water on the ground at Freycineau.”

After that I was very tired, and I lay down on the bed and dozed for a half hour, or perhaps it was something more like a trance, for when I roused, I found an idea in my mind as if it had been placed there by a spirit: There was still one more thing I should do to approach the gate.

Perhaps I had a spirit walking with me, too. One of my friends up north had said that he believed so. At Le Cap the previous summer, a spirit had appeared inside my head, briefly but very much in the manner of possession—the same style of possession by a god or loa that is the central event of Vodou ceremonies. Afterward I had a series of dreams which told me to go to certain places and there do certain things.

The route I took on the northern circuit resembled, from the bird’s-eye view, a vévé: one of the drawings executed by houngans in cornmeal on the ground, which serve as invitations to the gods. The farther I went north, the more I saw myself as drawing a vévé on the ground, in very large scale with the jeep. The pattern traced by the jeep somewhat resembled a leaf on a long stem, or possibly one of the small, rectangular flags that snapped, hung high on very long poles, above some country hounfors. At certain vertices of the diagram, the spirits of Haiti’s great leaders could be saluted: Dessalines at La Crête à Pierrot, and Toussaint Louverture anywhere and everywhere from Gonaives to Cap Haïtien.

As I made my way counterclockwise through the northern circuit, I stopped at the hounfors of critical crossroads and left offerings for Legba, god of the gate. I left a little money on Legba’s altar in one of the hounfors surrounding La Crête à Pierrot. At Souvenance, near Gonaives, Legba’s house was an unwalled square structure directly behind the gate to the whole community, so that one must pass Legba directly to enter. On the ground was an arrangement of small, rounded clay jars called govi, each of which probably contained an ancestor’s soul. I left a little money on the ground near these, underneath a stone.

At an hounfor on the Northern Plain, where the first slave insurrection had broken out in 1791, I made a more substantial offering, which included a paperback book whose cover was a portrait of Toussaint Louverture. Here I had the good fortune to speak for a little while with the houngan, with the help of a friend who interpreted between French and Kreyol, and after this conversation, I was invited to salute the house—saluer la maison.

“House” in this context meant the temple proper, a substantial, rectangular building with many doorways and the vévés of all the gods of Vodou painted on the walls. The floor was hardpacked earth. I sat down cross-legged before the vévé for Legba and tried to think about nothing at all, to slip softly out from under the tyranny of my ordinary, blan self-consciousness. The old woman who had led me in now appeared in front of me, holding a lighted candle and a large vessel of water. She turned and curtsied to the four directions, with remarkable grace despite her age, and spilled a little water on the ground. Then she snuffed the candle and offered the water to me. I was made to understand that I must pour it out.

The vessel was a curious affair, a pot of white enameled tin fitted into a similar tin plate, like a cup and saucer for a giant. The pot held a large amount of clear, clean, potable-looking water, as much as half a gallon. Clean water, water of any kind, is in scarce supply in Haiti, and this lack is at the bottom of many problems: communicable diseases, environmental deterioration, starvation. For such reasons, the ceremony of jété dlo was a genuine, terrible sacrifice—the unconditional offering of the most valuable thing you possessed. I took the pot and poured water three times on the ground before each portal, and when I had completed the circuit, I poured what was left on the spot of earth where I had previously been sitting. This too was an offering to Legba, and I poured in a counterclockwise circle, drawing the vévé for my journey in water on the ground.

Like most actions taken in Haitian Vodou, the ceremony of jété dlo has multilayered significance. In the largest context, the action of pouring water on the ground is a symbol for rain and, transitively, a symbol for just about everything the country needs to heal itself. In the smallest context, one might spill a little water from one’s glass as a kind of grace before a meal.

Vaudouisants believe that the surface of the earth, and more especially the surface of the sea, is like a mirror, across which the world of the living is reflected by the world of the dead (the crossroads between the two of these is also governed by Legba). After death, the soul passes anba dlo—beneath the waters—into the general reservoir of spirit (Les Invisibles) from which the individual gods of the Vodou pantheon are formed. If you desire (or sometimes you may be ordered by your divinity) you may call back the spirit of a particular ancestor from beneath the waters and bottle it up in a small, clay govi, in a ceremony called retirer d’anba dlo. (My traveling companion was very pleased to learn that this ceremony could be done much more cheaply at La Crête à Pierrot than in Port-au-Prince; he wanted to call back the spirit of his dead grandson to learn what enemy had sent the sickness that had killed him.) Souls bottled in this way become pwen, points of power, capable of doing magical work for their owner or heir.

Sometimes one salutes the govi directly by pouring water on the ground before them—a way of offering drink to one’s ancestors. By the same token, pouring water is an offering to one’s gods, the loa, who individuate themselves from the great collective reservoir of ancestral spirit. Or pouring water may be a message of thanks for some particular grace shown to you by God.

On the return flight, I was seated next to a Haitian on his first trip to America. We talked, and when the meal was served, I offered him a glass of wine. We ate and drank, and after the meal, he ordered a glass of water for himself and also, insistently, one for me (to the great bewilderment of the American Airlines flight attendant, as I already had a full club soda on my tray). So we drank together, wine and then water, and I understood that what he had offered me, though it cost no money, was more valuable than what I had offered him.

On the return drive from Cap Haïtien to Port-au-Prince, I stopped at a little roadside restaurant below St. Marc and ordered a bottle of beer. I poured a little on the ground before tasting it—I did so because I was extremely grateful to have passed the most hellish section of road with only one flat tire; once we reached this point, our safe arrival in Port-au-Prince was practically guaranteed.

But once we were on the road again, the Haitian traveling with me mentioned that that very spot was Freycineau, an area which had formerly been thick with the Duvalierist thugs known as macoutes. I knew already that Aristide had survived his first assassination attempt at Freycineau, where macoutes had thrown up a roadblock to stop a car that carried not only Aristide but a number of other activist priests, including Père Antoine Adrien. All of them would certainly have been murdered then and there (the windows had already been smashed on the car, though the priests had not yet been dragged out of it), but the macoutes partially opened the blockade to let another car pass, and the priests’ driver saw the chance and tore through. I had read enough descriptions of this episode to think it could fairly be described as a miracle. Certainly one might thank God for rescuing his priests, and also one might very well thank Legba, the loa who opens barriers.

Pouring water at Freycineau had a larger significance than I had consciously intended. Truly, coincidence does not exist in Haiti.

I rose very early on the morning of my last full day in Haiti, so as to make the round trip from the Hotel Oloffson to Tabarre before the whole city of Port-au-Prince locked down into the usual 12-hour, work-day gridlock. I wore the red headcloth in hope of pleasing Legba and asked my taxi driver to park some small distance away so that I would approach Aristide s gate on foot.

There were two levels of security before the wall—an official uniformed sentry in a box and a man in casual civilian clothes loitering curbside in front of the recessed gateway. This latter gentleman stopped me (not at all to my surprise) before I could even approach the uniformed sentry. I asked his permission to sit down on the ground, and when he granted it, I sat cross-legged, looking up at him as I explained that although I had proper official introductions, it seemed that they were insufficient to open the gate for me, and that therefore I had come in person to show myself to the spirit of the gate, that I believed that if I sat before the gate and waited patiently, then eventually the gate would open for me, if not this day or year, then the next.

My interlocutor had no interest in listening to any such superstitious mumbo-jumbo. “It’s impossible,” he kept telling me, over and over, sometimes drowning out my words, “C’est impossible.” I might sit there till hell froze over, but the gate would still remain absolutely closed. Everything I thought or believed was impossible.

The stone walls of the recessed gateway exfoliated from the gate itself like two petals of a flower, joining the posts of the wall that ran either way along the edge of the sidewalk. The wall looked substantial enough to stop a tank. Judging from the corner posts, it would have been about 2 feet thick. The wall was some 10 feet high, made of a heavy, yellowish stone and crowned with a pale masonry slab, above which razor ribbon curled, bright blades flashing in the rising sun.

Fok nou wé nan jé-nou, read a slogan scrawled on someone else’s wall we passed on the way back. The most literal translation of the Kreyol would be, “We have to see it inside our own eyes.” I asked the taxi driver if there was some eminence from which one might overlook the wall to see the house, but of course I knew in advance that there wouldn’t be; it would have been most unsound, from the military point of view, to have placed the house within range of such a height. The driver gave me the response I expected. We were just then passing the cluster of hounfors near the U.N. post that covered the airport; when I asked the driver the name of that community, he told me it was Lakou Tabarre. Perhaps on my next attempt I should stop there first and make an offering.

The gate itself was painted green and elegantly scrolled and spiked in the colonial manner; I assumed it was made of steel. The bars were backed with metal plates so that one could not see or shoot through. Opening one half of the gate would have been sufficient to admit a car; if both halves were opened, tracked vehicles could pass. To the right, just against the sentry box, there was also a narrow pedestrian portal in the right wing of the gate. As I was making my retreat, this little door opened and I got a glimpse through: a drive paved in the same heavy stone as the wall, curving between lampposts and shrubbery out of sight. That was all.

It was a sad thing, leaving Haiti, but at the same time, you were always grateful to get out. Like many other blan engaged with the country, I would usually spend a little time discreetly weeping on the plane. But you had to be grateful that you had the choice to come and go, that you had your U.S. passport. For Haitian citizens, a 15-day visa to visit one’s family in New York or Miami was an almost impossible thing to obtain. And Haiti was a dangerous place, if not directly to you, as a blan. It looked like getting more dangerous soon, for Haitians, anyway: Just a few days before my trip, Jodel Chamblain had returned to Haiti to announce the restoration of FRAPH, the neo-Duvalierist terror organization responsible for untold murders and atrocities during the period of the coup. At the Port-au-Prince ticket counter, I stood in line behind a thick-necked thug dressed head to toe in blue denim, the garb of Duvalier’s civilian militia; a few months previously, no one would have dared appear on any Haitian street in such a costume.

Twice more, when I reached U.S. soil and again when I reached my home, I would pour water on the ground for Legba. Maybe that furtive weeping on the plane was a way of offering water, too. Now the plane was tracking down the runway, a looping, circular Haitian path, and one turn brought within the frame of my window the small, square, black-and-red Haitian flag that whipped on a long and slender rod high above the hounfor at Lakou Tabarre.

That hounfor had been clearly visible from the road, and I knew it was walled only with panels of plaited palm frond. You could have knocked that wall down with your breath, but still it enclosed the profoundest power of Haiti. I had to wonder if the fortifications around Aristide’s house were meant to lock his enemies out or to lock him in.

It was depressing to see some of Aristide s closest supporters turning to accuse him, and more depressing to think that they might be right. The murmurs would continue that he had fallen prey to a taste for luxury he had never before displayed, that he, who had resisted corruption for such a long time, had finally sold out to Haiti’s Morally Repugnant Elite. Once when challenged about his new wealth, Aristide was said to have replied, “Ah, but I am not the richest man in Haiti,” which some auditors took to suggest that he was being paid off by whoever was. Such a wall must have cost a fortune, even if the house behind it were just a grass hut. Where, after all, had the money come from?

Some Haitian intellectuals were arguing that people, whether blan or Haitian, were now becoming disillusioned with Aristide in exactly the same measure that they’d placed false hope in him in the first place. According to this argument, Aristide had always been a complex personality and far from flawless. He had never been the ideal choice for the leader of Haiti, but he had been the best choice available at the time, and therefore tremendous amounts of hope and possibility had concentrated themselves upon him.

But it had always been that way in Haiti. Possession itself, the single most important event of Vodou observance, brought the great, pooled power of Les Invisibles to presence in the mind of an individual. In this manner the gods went walking on earth and spoke with the voices of men. The spirits always found some way back d’anbas dlo, from beneath the waters. The power bottled up behind Père Adrien’s closed lips would find another outlet, if not through him. One might say that the whole soul of Haiti had been bottled up for 200 years by the hostile policies of surrounding states—the spirit of this amazing country, the only nation on earth where slavery had been ended by the slaves.

Upon his deportation, Toussaint Louverture remarked that killing or imprisoning him would be useless to the French, because the determination to keep their new liberty had been too widely and thoroughly disseminated among former slaves. He was correct: Within a few weeks of his departure, Napoleon’s commanding general in Haiti was writing home that in order to regain control of the country it would be necessary to kill every black-skinned male above the age of 12. Toussaint died bottled up in the Fort de Joux, but sometimes a spirit is more powerful in the bottle, becoming a pwen, like a soul in a govi.

Now Aristide was locked behind a wall almost as imposing as those of the Fort de Joux. I did not believe that he had come there entirely of his own free choice. His immurement at Tabarre was the outcome of a chess game he had played as intelligently as possible but without quite enough material to win. In this sense, too, his tragedy was parallel to the tragedy of Toussaint Louverture.

For a time, the great power of Haiti’s bottled-up soul had selected Aristide as its point of issue. If he served the power faithfully, it would stay with him; otherwise, it would depart to seek its outlet through another. In the long run, the difference would be inconsequential, but for the moment, I still believed in Aristide, for the same reason that Haitians believed in Vodou (for the same reason I believed in Vodou, for Christ’s sake): because I needed to. You had to believe in something. Père Max had already said it all: Nou pa kab konprann, men nou kroué.

  1. “Haiti and the New World Order,” by Alexis Dupuy (Boulder: West-
    view Press, 1997) page 119.
  2. Dupuy 94-95.
  3. Dupuy 148.
  4. Nothingness

Oh, it’s hard


Oh, it’s hard

Our soul’s in a bottle ...

Oh, it’s hard ...

About the Author

Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell is director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College. Master of the Crossroads, the second novel in his trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, will be published by Pantheon in the fall.

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