Experiencing Haiti

Mar 30th, 2010 | By | Category: Book Review

A review of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier.

Flooding in Gonaives, Haiti after Tropical Storm Hanna in 2008. (photo by Reuters, via The Big Picture)

I read Amy Wilentz’s book The Rainy Season, a first-hand account of Haiti’s transition from dictatorship to something approaching democracy in the late eighties, before the recent earthquake. Although Haiti was just as complex and tumultuous then, for whatever reason it was just not the kind of place whose turmoils were featured on the evening news.

I vaguely remember the only time I saw Haiti on CNN pre-quake, back in 2004. The image was of American Marines invading the country, after its elected President had been flown off the island on a US airplane. Little explanation was given to the viewer – Haiti was just another failed state, which Uncle Sam had to set straight every now and then.

Before reading The Rainy Season, my perception of Haiti was based on little more than fleeting glimpses such as these. But after reading Wilentz’s intimate and very personal account, I felt a personal connection to the place, although I have never been there. Then, when the quake hit in January, killing an untold number of Haitians and leaving a million homeless, it felt like a terminal blow to an old, ailing friend.

Two hundred years after becoming the first Latin American country to throw off the burden of colonialism, Haiti is still the poorest country in the hemisphere. After being forced to pay France, its former colonial master, massive compensation for profits lost from the slave trade, it came under the influence of the United States, which occupied the country for almost twenty years in the early part of the last century. Then came the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, which used death squads called Tonton Macoutes to cement its iron rule.

Wilentz’s narrative takes up the story on the tail end of the Duvalier era, when the dictatorship was already on its way out. Arriving on the scene as a young journalist, Wilentz would experience several years of push and pull between an emerging popular movement for democracy on the one side, and the forces allied with the old regime on the other.

The Rainy Season was published in 1989. It is a modest book and, as far as I know, was never a best seller. I got my copy off the shelves of a used book store. After that it sat on a bookshelf in my parents’ house for a couple of years until I eventually picked it up again, intrigued by the cover. Once I picked it up, it couldn’t put it down.

A blurb on the back cover from Time Magazine describes the book as “history’s first draft,” a description which pretty much captures its essence. Not quite a novel, not quite journalism, it does somehow manage to bring together several genres in a very readable, supremely informative and richly detailed account of life in Haiti in the late 1980’s.

Wilentz has no pretensions of omniscience. As a single white woman from New York, she had little chance of blending into the crowd in Haiti, and she does not try. She is neither scholar, nor participant, but plays the part of the sophisticated observer with great skill. Through the people she meets, interviews and befriends, the reader experiences on a personal level the momentous events that rocked the country during those years.

Though not an expressly political work, it is clear that the author brings with her a well-formed, sophisticated worldview, and the rare ability to describe the tragic and cruel absurdities of the political game in a dirt-poor society – all the while retaining the ability to humanize even the country’s (often loathsome) politicians.

Wilenz is not afraid to challenge powerful people and institutions either, recounting their posh dinner parties in detail and examining the minutiae of their flamboyant personal lives. Nor does she let the poorest peasant off the hook – describing his weaknesses and shortcomings with equal precision. She moves between the worlds of the rich and the poor, separated by a chasm of class bias and fear, with ease.

The book’s hero, inevitably, is Jean Bertrand Aristide. At the time a dissident priest, Aristide would eventually rule the country – twice elected, twice overthrown in coups d’etat.

Wilenz has a close relationship with Aristide, whose fiery political rhetoric, inspired by liberation theology, earns him the undying support of the people. For the regime, however, as well as the Church hierarchy, Aristide is a dangerous dissident and trouble maker.

To Wilentz, Aristide is a heroic, though ultimately fallible, figure, who wields his words against the powerful like a sharpened knife. Wilentz spends a considerable amount of time hanging around Aristide’s church, making friends with a gang of street boys adopted by the priest and reporting on his every move.

Surprisingly for a book written before the current age of green consciousness, an entire chapter of Wilentz’s narrative deals with the country’s environmental collapse. In the eighties, Haitians’ preference for cooking with charcoal had already led to massive deforestation. This in turn made rural life all but unbearable, forcing masses of poor peasants to migrate to cities. Today, a generation later, those same rural migrants are choosing to return to the countryside, fleeing the devastation in Port-au-Prince.

What stands out more than anything else in the narrative is the human solidarity with which the author approaches her experiences in such a foreign land. Wilentz describes fantastic situations: voodoo ceremonies in the countryside, civil upheaval in the wake of collapsing regimes, poverty so grinding that people crowd into houses so small they have to take turns sleeping at night, sometimes standing up. However, she is neither judgmental nor sentimental, and takes every situation, no matter how absurd, in stride. The book radiates soul and humanity.

Wilentz doesn’t give away much about herself. She’s a New Yorker, a journalist who lived in Haiti for three years. That much she tells us. But other details are left unclear. The book ends with her return to New York, which she describes sparingly. The sense of stopping to rest, after the cascading narrative that fills most of the book, is arresting.

After writing the book, Wilentz went on to become the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, and an editor at The Nation. Recently, with post-quake Haiti becoming a cause célèbre and the focus of international development efforts, Wilentz has had quite a lot to say about the reconstruction efforts, offering that same fresh perspective two decades after The Rainy Season, in publications like The NationThe HuffPost and The New York Times.

It took me a long time to read this book, putting it down and picking it back up at intervals. Much of it reads like daily journal entries – ongoing narratives of random experiences and encounters. While this kind of writing does provide an incredible window into the life of an entire range of people, at times I wished that the book was a bit more concise. After finishing the book, I later re-read it in a single week. Reading it all at once, it was easier to follow the book’s complex and layered plot.

However, despite its age and limitations, I would strongly recommend The Rainy Season to anyone who is interested in Haiti, what it was twenty years ago, and where it is headed today.

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