February 7, 2010
The Dechoukaj This Time
SO many of the scenes from this earthquake have reminded me of the early days.
I first stepped onto the broad central square that was the heart of the Haitian government on the morning of Feb. 7, 1986. Just hours earlier, when it was still night, I’d seen Jean-Claude Duvalier, heir to his father’s dictatorship, flee the country with his wife, children and mother, driving a BMW sedan down the airport road and taking it onto a United States cargo plane bound for France. He’d left so late that I was exhausted when dawn came, but still we all descended on the sprawling plaza to see what the new day would bring.
Without Mr. Duvalier,
The Haitians hadn’t just gotten rid of Baby Doc, after all. They’d also begun to expunge the legacy of his father, François Duvalier, a far more important historical figure than Jean-Claude. Papa Doc, who died in 1971 and bequeathed the country to his feckless 19-year-old son, had ruled for 14 long years as an old-fashioned dictator. He used the apparatus of the state to sweep away his enemies, to spy on opposition leaders and to murder perceived and actual rivals, their families, their maids, their dogs. He left corpses on street corners to rot, burned down houses, sometimes with the residents locked inside, lied without shame to foreign officials and the press and shut down all speech at home. He patrolled the countryside with a network of underlings and thugs.
With his ultraviolent rule, Papa Doc set a tone for Haitian governance that has been copied since, but never quite duplicated. Still, his regime was based not just on violence but also on ideology. He’d come to power as a noiriste, an advocate for black power in a country where black power had a singular meaning: to end the rule of Haiti’s mulatto elite, which had been in control of the country’s economy and cosmopolitan life for more than a century, and whose hegemony had been strengthened by the United States during its military occupation from 1915 to 1934.
Papa Doc wanted what the elite had, literally (houses, bank accounts, businesses, land, status), and black power was the ideology he used to justify his depredations. He was the Midas of corruption, though, and noirisme in
The fervor of that February morning nearly a quarter-century ago flooded into the days and weeks that followed, and a kind of ad hoc movement emerged from the people’s desire for change and a new social order. Off the people tramped: to the offices of Ernest Bennett, Jean-Claude’s father-in-law (a BMW distributor, interestingly). To the Duvaliers’ “country” house on the side of the mountain above
In each of these places, crowds both angry and gleeful gathered to participate in what was by then called the dechoukaj, or uprooting, in Haitian Creole. All over the country, in mountain villages and coastal towns, the same phenomenon. Piece by piece, usually without tools, the people took down targeted buildings and removed what was inside, erasing the dynasty from the country’s architecture.
In St.-Marc, on the western coast, I watched the people remove bathroom fixtures from the home of a Tonton Macoute, and drop them outside. On
Dechoukaj could rip apart cement and exhume the dead, but it could never quite uproot Duvalierism. Duvalierism, it turned out, was a political state of mind, not a phenomenon arising from a single figure. In a land utterly impoverished by its historical and geopolitical heritage, no dechoukaj could fully uproot the longstanding political culture: the desire for a strong leader to make things better single-handedly; the reflexive populist recourse to a cult of personality; the autocratic tendencies of the political class.
In a complicated and extended political dance, Mr. Aristide was ultimately followed by René Préval, whose administration, while certainly not incandescent, had a calming influence on the roiling tide of Haitian politics. At best, dechoukaj, with its tear-down agenda, made it possible for this seemingly lesser politician to ascend, a president who practices a special brand of passive, weak-man politics.
Over the last few weeks, foreign analysts have implied that the earthquake may have undermined even these modest democratic gains. But what I saw in
There is no strongman now, no juntas, no Duvalier to tell the people what to do. (No President Aristide, either, who, from his exile in South Africa, is weeping over the earthquake in front of the cameras, and hoping to come home.) Instead, the Haitian people themselves have marched into the dechouked field and set about rebuilding the country.
This is what I saw as I traveled around the country on foot and on motorbike a week after the quake struck: families and neighborhood groups putting up shelters; people cooperating with aid organizations to get food for their flattened neighborhoods; teacher’s assistants hired by parents in the newly built shantytowns to teach and amuse children whose schools fell down (about 300 teachers at a conference died during the earthquake when their meeting hall collapsed). Men working in teams to remove reusable construction materials from the wreckage. Women sweeping debris from the roads with their graceful, primitive brooms. Young people caring for the wounded in makeshift clinics.
Maybe utter destruction concentrates the mind. In these conditions, do-it-yourself democracy simply works best. The quiet president, operating behind the scenes with the international community, instead of strutting before the foreign press and claiming he’ll fix everything, is perhaps at this moment not such a bad leader for Haitian democracy, after all.
When you stand in the rubble of Port-au-Prince — so recently an affecting and even a heart-tugging city that functioned on a complicated, hypercharged fuel of chaos, exposed wiring, pig slop, smog, gingerbread turrets, hot cooking oil, rum, cockfights and bougainvillea — you begin to see that Haiti’s soul resides in its people. Out of this horror, maybe they will finally be released. That is, if the rains or another quake doesn’t stop them in their tracks.
Amy Wilentz, who teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “The Rainy Season:
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs