Moonshine deaths escalating in Haiti

Patients crowd the lobby of Haiti’s General Hospital where a recent outbreak of alcohol poisoning has lead to 21 confirmed deaths at the facility.
Patients crowd the lobby of Haiti’s General Hospital where a recent outbreak of alcohol poisoning has lead to 21 confirmed deaths at the facility. Courtesy of Le Nouvelliste

Annouis Neristil and his brothers were toasting dead relatives last November in their rural mountain Haiti community when he picked up the $1.50 bottle of Haitian moonshine, took a swig and immediately put it down.

“It was stinging,” Neristil said, thinking that the merchant had added the bitter, cure-all-medicinal herb Asorosi or cerasee to the concoction, ruining its usually rustic, high-proof, aromatic flavor and knocking him out.

Hours later, as one of his brothers lay dead and another dying, Neristil awoke in the middle of the night in agonizing pain. His abdomen hurt. His vision was fading. And he was slipping in and out of consciousness. Scared relatives sat him in a chair and rushed him down the mountaintop on foot.

“I spent a week in the hospital — blind,” said Neristil, 29, who later learned that eight others in his Fermathe neighborhood also died after drinking the distilled sugar cane liquor clairin or kleren in Creole.

Four months after the incident, Neristil is still struggling to regain vision in his left eye, as Haiti grapples with an escalating death toll from bad alcohol.

Since last month, the country’s largest public hospital has registered 21 deaths out of 32 patients who were admitted with suspected alcohol poisoning after drinking the popular locally made spirit, said the chief of internal medicine at the Hospital of the State University of Haiti.

“These are just the patients who have come to the hospital,” Dr. Elsie Metellus Chalumeau said, “but we suspect there are many more.”

Chalumeau said the hospital has ordered autopsies, which have yet to be performed, and is investigating. Health officials, however, suspect that the deadly culprit isn’t the popular moonshine that’s often sold out of unlabeled containers, but the toxic industrial alcohol, methanol.

People need to know what they are drinking, who prepared it and how it was prepared.

Dr. Elsie Metellus Chalumeau, chief of internal medicine, Haiti’s General Hospital

Similar in appearance and odor to ethanol, the alcohol found in beverages, methanol is cheaper and deadlier. In Haiti, it’s sometimes sold in lieu of kleren or mixed with it by vendors seeking to undercut competition and increase sales. Neither the greed nor problem of methanol-tainted batches is unique to Haiti. It is a frequent problem in many developing countries with a thriving moonshine industry, such as India, where hundreds have died over the years.

“People need to know what they are drinking, who prepared it and how it was prepared,” Chalumeau said.

But in Haiti where the poor don’t have access to typical bars and rely on roadside bartenders for their drinking, it’s not always easy to identify what’s inside the clear shots of kleren or artificially flavored mixed hooch referred to as tranpe. Often sold next to small bottles of imported cheap Dominican rum, the cocktail mixes — kleren-dipped fruit, tree barks or bitter herbs can easily be found at the bottom of bottles are offered in a variety of potency and colors, and marketed under various names while being pitched as fever relievers or a kind of natural Viagra.

With many Haitians believing that almost anything can be cured with the right shot, tranpe sellers even have a name. They are called pharmacists.

“It’s not the kleren that is killing the people,” said Eric Jean-Jacques II, who produces the brand Clairin Lakay. He insists that vendors are mixing the spirit with methanol. “Where are the autopsies?” he asked.

Still, the deaths are scaring people away from the locally produced spirit that has carried Haitians through political coups and economic downturns. During the days of the hemispheric-imposed trade embargo of the ’90s, for example, some sugarcane farmers in northern Haiti used kleren as barter with Dominican fuel vendors to survive. As of late, the homespun Haitian moonshine industry, however, has been struggling against cheap foreign imports such as whiskeys from India and rum from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The latest dark cloud, Jean-Jacques said, “risks destroying the product and our national production.”

The deaths, some say, underscore the lack of control around the importation and production of alcohol in a country where kleren is an essential element of the Haitian culture. It is equally a staple of Vodou rituals and holiday recipes. The livelihood of sugarcane farmers and small-scale distillers in rural Haiti, the distilled spirit is produced with the same low-tech, rudimentary techniques that the French introduced to the island centuries ago.

We have to ask the question, ‘Where did the alcohol come from?’ It may not be a Haitian kleren.

Gael Pressoir, plant biologist working on a new feedstock for Haitian moonshine

It is unclear how many Haitians have died in recent years after drinking the unadulterated alcohol, but the problem is a recurring one that has now caught the attention of two freshmen parliamentarians. Lower Chamber of Deputies member Jerry Tardieu and colleague Printemps Bélizaire recently invited grieving family members to join them in a press conference where they called for a special commission in parliament to investigate the deaths and how to prevent them.

“It doesn’t make any sense for a citizen with no money, who drinks their kleren because this is how they are able to forget about their problems, to die,” said Tardieu, who represents Pétionville and plans to introduce a resolution in the chamber this week to create the investigative commission. “This is becoming a matter of public health and we have to get down to the bottom of it.”

Bélizaire’s Port-au-Prince constituency includes some of the capital’s most impoverished communities that have also seen their share of deaths in the latest outbreak. The lawmakers believe that the numbers of deaths since the last week in February when patients began showing up at the public hospital, can be as high as 40.

Tardieu said he’s heard the speculations about the use of industrial methanol by greedy vendors, but right now the country needs concrete answers.

“It can be that someone has been playing wrongly with the kleren formula; it can be we are importing a deadly brand, we don’t know,” he said. “There are more questions than answers.”

Gael Pressoir, a plant biologist and dean of the School of Agriculture at private Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, says there not only needs to be an investigation into the causes of the deaths, but regulation of alcohol, including methanol use and importation, is also needed.

“Before blaming our small distillers, we have to ask the question, ‘Where did the alcohol come from?’ It may not be a Haitian kleren,” said Pressoir, the director of a lab that is working on sweet sorghum as a new feedstock for the production of kleren.

Outside of a chemistry lab, most people can’t tell the difference between ethanol and methanol.

“A small dose of methanol will first give you an awful headache, and higher doses will make you blind or worse; lethal doses will kill you,” Pressoir said.

Normally, sugarcane fermentation — the method used to produce kleren — does not naturally make lethal doses of methanol. Also referred to as the Haitian white rum, kleren does have some methanol. In fact, it has six times more than what is approved in the United States for spirits.

“But it should not kill you,” said Pressoir, noting that the fermentation of wines from fruits sometimes gives higher methanol concentration than kleren. “The distillers are artisans and they know their craft. I’ve never heard of anyone dying after drinking kleren from any of the kleren-producing regions in the country.”

As for Neristil, he has been unable to return to farming, he said, and with no livelihood, he’s unable to care for the young children his brothers left behind. His kleren-drinking days are over. “All I drink these days is sugar water,” he said.