For the next several years, readers should anticipate an inevitable flood of new books on the modern-day tragedy of Haiti every January, as publishers capitalize on the news-cycle machinery that will be spewing utterly predictable “Where Did All The Money Go?” earthquake anniversary stories.
If only they could all set the bar as high as veteran journalist Amy Wilentz, author of the acclaimed The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and a seasoned observer of the Haitian scene for more than a quarter-century, who appears Wednesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
Based largely on her return to the island shortly after the 2010 earthquake, Wilentz’s latest book Farewell, Fred Voodoo is a compelling mélange of journalism, history and heart-on-sleeve personal memoir with more than a dollop of incisive polemic on race, class and self-determination.
Wilentz covers a lot of physical and psychic terrain here: Haiti’s unique history tinted by the complexities of slavery and race, imperialism and rebellion; generations of greed and institutionalized profiteering by a tiny ruling class of lighter-skinned “haves” lording over the masses of darker-skinned “have-nots,” and the chaos wrought by decades of broken, dysfunctional, corrupt self-governance.
The Fred Voodoo of the title is Wilentz’s calculated swipe at foreign reporters of an earlier, less-sensitive generation who created the stereotypical “Fred” to embody the “average” Haitian on the street. Imagine the equally oversimplified and unknowable “Joe Six-Pack” but borne of slightly nastier, racially tinged origins.
Wilentz turns her critical gaze outward, at the naïvete of modern-day missionaries and volunteers who rushed into Haiti after the earthquake, and the hubris of (predominately white) careerist NGO functionaries and diplomats who have spent billions of dollars in aid and charitable donations trying to fix this (predominately black) island nation.
Wilentz’s earlier work chronicled the people’s uprising that eventually led to the 1986 overthrow of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, ending a brutal, 29-year kleptocracy that started with his late father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. As Baby Doc fled to France with his plundered fortune, Wilentz and plenty of others lionized a young priest and champion of the poor who emerged as one of the leaders of Lavalas, the people’s movement.
Now, more than two decades later, Wilentz is forced to confront a much more complicated portrait of long-since-fallen former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Like Baby Doc, Aristide was forced into exile in South Africa in 2004, amid widespread allegations of corruption, personal enrichment and protecting large-scale drug-traffickers. Wilentz notes the inherent irony of Baby Doc and Aristide finding their way back to Haiti from exile within months of each other in early 2011.
While spending plenty of rhetorical ammunition on foreign governments and the development industry, Wilentz directs some of her harshest criticism at the mirror. Her guilt and powerlessness and confusion bleeds from the pages. In one early storyline, she drops her journalistic distance long enough to help a young boy who has lost both of his hands in a building collapse and is suffering from “traumatic amputation.” She uses her own connections to get the boy faster treatment, but eventually loses track of him and his mother in the tumult. It will take her years to track him down and see if he has been fit for prosthetic limbs.
In another telling scene, Miami-based photojournalist Maggie Steber — who, like Wilentz, has spent decades in and out of Haiti — breaks down in tears upon discovering a long-lost friend alive in the rubble. Wilentz stands to the side, emotionless and tapping her toe.
One of the unequivocal heroes in a book featuring few of them is Dr. Megan Coffee. A Harvard- and Oxford-educated New Jersey native who arrived in Haiti in the first wave of post-earthquake medical aid and never left, “Dokte Kafe” created a much-needed tuberculosis clinic in the courtyard of a damaged hospital while scrounging for medicine, bartering for oxygen and cooking spaghetti for her malnourished patients.
For obvious reasons, Fred Voodoo strikes a much less optimistic tone than The Rainy Season. Long before the earthquake, Haiti was already listing, in many ways a failing state, well down the path toward dystopia.
It’s a testament to Wilentz’s considerable storytelling skill, and the depth of her passion for this tragic place and its resilient people, that she has crafted such a remarkably fluid read from such anguished and conflicted material.
Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.