[Marxism] New Amy Wilientz book on Haiti

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 10 08:25:20 MST 2013

NY Times Book Review January 7, 2013
The Wounds of a Nation Still Bleed

A Letter From Haiti
By Amy Wilentz
329 pages. Simon & Schuster. $27.

The “Fred Voodoo” referred to in the title of Amy Wilentz’s impassioned 
but lumpy new book on Haiti, she explains, was reporters’ “joking name” 
for the Haitian man (or woman) in the street, at least one commonly used 
a few decades back in a less politically correct era. The name now 
represents to her foreigners’ attitude of “condescension filled with 
pity,” and all the stereotypes outsiders have come to attach to Haitians 
— as “nice people, maybe,” but “disorganized, uneducated, untrained, 
corrupt” and somehow under the thrall of voodoo, a religion that 
represented “everything the white Westerner was not: exotic, African, 
pagan, exciting, dangerous, deep.”

“The objectification of the Haitians’ victimization — that’s one aspect 
of the Fred Voodoo syndrome,” Ms. Wilentz writes. “How beautiful the 
Haitians look in their misery; they always do. You can count on them.” 
The fact that “he or she is also voluble and highly quotable, and very 
articulate,” she goes on, “makes Fred Voodoo excellent material for 
video and excellent copy for the page. Indeed, for pages not unlike 
these pages.”

Ms. Wilentz — a writer for The New Yorker and The Nation and the author 
of a fiercely observed 1989 book about Haiti, (“The Rainy Season”) — is 
a Haiti veteran, who lived there for two years and has been visiting for 
20; she returned shortly after the earthquake that devastated the 
country almost three years ago.

At its strongest, her new book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” showcases all 
her formidable gifts as a reporter: her love of, and intimate 
familiarity with, Haiti; her sense of historical perspective; and her 
eye for the revealing detail. Like Joan Didion and V. S. Naipaul, she 
has an ability not only to provide a visceral, physical feel for a 
place, but also to communicate an existential sense of what it’s like to 
be there as a journalist with a very specific and sometimes highly 
subjective relationship with her subject.

This book, she writes: “is my attempt to put Haiti back together again 
for myself, to understand why all the simplest hopes and dreams of the 
men and women they call Fred Voodoo have been abandoned, and to stack 
the pieces flung apart by the earthquake back up into some semblance of 
the real country. I wanted to figure out, after so many attempts by so 
many to uphold democracy, why Fred and all his sisters have become, in 
our eyes at least, mere victims, to be counted up on one ledger or 
another as interesting statistics, casualties of dictatorship, of 
poverty, of disaster, of outside interference, of neglect, of history — 
of whatever you want to point a finger at — rather than as active 
commanders of their own destiny.”

Ms. Wilentz does a powerful job of conveying the devastation wrought by 
the earthquake and the new “levels of unbearableness” it created: the 
“Boschian scene” at Haiti’s State University Hospital in the capital, 
Port-au-Prince, its courtyard stacked with cadavers, women giving birth 
among the dead and dying, victims expiring “on the grounds before being 
seen by any medical staff,” people answering their phones with these 
words: “Alo: Yes, I’m alive.”

She also conveys the mind-boggling challenges faced by Haiti, including 
unemployment that “has been measured by U.S.A.I.D. at about 50 percent 
at its lowest, and 70 percent at its highest” (though she says it is 
“anecdotally and visibly, much higher than 70 percent”). Four-fifths of 
college-educated Haitians live abroad, she writes; “only about a third” 
of the country’s population has access to sanitary facilities; and only 
“some 10 percent have any electrical service, and that service is 
sporadic when it’s not nonexistent.”

Woven into Ms. Wilentz’s portrait of present-day Haiti are opinionated 
asides about its violent history and its fraught relationship with both 
predatory foreigners and well-meaning missionaries and do-gooders — 
including the disappointing results of so many American and 
internationally sponsored post-quake relief and rebuilding efforts.

“Outsiders have tried for decades in Haiti to fix and meddle with and 
run the show,” she writes, “with, on the whole, quite poor long-term 
results, both because Haitians often don’t have the minimal training and 
life experience to keep projects going, and because the outsiders have 
no understanding of Haitian culture.”

The problem with this book is that Ms. Wilentz can let her own anger and 
disillusionment undermine her reporting. She makes absurdly large 
generalizations about outsiders’ views of Haiti, writing that they tend 
to regard Haitians as “slaves, or worse, zombies.”

She says that Haiti — with its lack of rules and standards, and highly 
dysfunctional institutions — often seems like “the perfect example of 
what would happen if Ronald Reagan’s dream of a privatized state should 
become a reality.” And she places outsize blame on the outside world’s 
intrusion into Haiti and all the temptations it brings to the poor — 
“possible access to instant cash, future jobs with aid organizations, 
possible visas, et cetera” — for fomenting corruption, misunderstanding 
and opportunism.

Sometimes Ms. Wilentz includes herself in her skeptical assessments of 
outsiders as voyeurs, naïfs or leeches, who have benefited, careerwise, 
from their work in Haiti. More often she takes a cynical, harshly 
judgmental (and largely undifferentiated) stance toward the aid 
organizations, volunteers and reporters who have gravitated to Haiti, 
especially in the wake of the earthquake.

She sarcastically asserts that “misery in Haiti today is a job creator 
for the white man,” that “a white person can make his or her reputation 
in Haiti now, or at least pad the curriculum vitae, and feel good about 
‘giving back’ at the same time.”

She writes of a book about the earthquake, published by Time magazine, 
that someone else’s suffering can add “zest and focus to a life that the 
sofa-ensconced reader of ‘Haiti: Tragedy and Hope’ may have come to feel 
is too dull, too regular, too easy.” (Ms. Wilentz herself contributed an 
essay to that volume.)

As for an interview Sean Penn did for Vanity Fair about his own relief 
efforts in Haiti, she writes that it sounded as if he “were enjoying, or 
at least making the most of, the discomfort of his life in a Haitian 
refugee camp.”

In the case of a United Nations spokeswoman’s comment about fears that 
cholera might become a national epidemic in the wake of the earthquake, 
Ms. Wilentz acknowledges that “it was the right thing to say,” yet adds 
that “from a more jaundiced point of view — from my point of view, that 
is — it sounded breathless, almost eager.”

It pointed to “the possibility of more funding for aid organizations, 
more jobs, longer stays in this fascinating, troubled place — in nice 
new apartments, driving those big, air-conditioned Land Rovers. It’s not 
as if humanitarian workers are in the business for the big cars and nice 
apartments, but the sweet stuff comes with the territory, and the crisis 
caravan is used to it.”

In Ms. Wilentz’s view, the plight of Haitians also poses “a thrilling 
intellectual challenge to those who wanted to come and help,” and many 
foreign aid newbies “mistook themselves for part of a grand solution 
when, actually, they and the caravan itself were obviously and 
immediately identifiable as part of Haiti’s ongoing problem.”

Many Haitians, for their part, she contends, “approach outsiders with 
suspicion and dread, as well as, sometimes, opportunistic expectancy” — 
defensive behavior shaped, she says, by the history of slavery and the 
“habitual watchfulness of voodoo.”

One heroine Ms. Wilentz singles out for praise in these pages is Dr. 
Megan Coffee of Maplewood, N.J., who was one of the few foreign doctors 
to stay on many, many months after the earthquake, establishing a TB 
ward at the university hospital in Port-au-Prince.

“In so many ways,” Ms. Wilentz writes, “Dr. Coffee is the ideal 
foreign-aid delivery figure. She’s creative; she’s responsive. She lets 
Haiti teach her how to deal with Haiti.”

She figures out how to pay for what the hospital won’t pay for, runs out 
to grocery stores to buy peanut butter for her patients, and gives them 
spaghetti with Russian dressing in the morning. “Because she offers 
targeted help on an individual basis with no cash or material exchange,” 
Ms. Wilentz goes on, “there’s almost no room in her enterprise for the 
kind of maneuvering, corruption, or profit-seeking that has been the 
ruin of so many larger, more carefully planned outsider projects in Haiti.”

Dr. Coffee, who regularly tweets about Haiti (@DokteCoffee), turns out 
to be as articulate an observer as Ms. Wilentz. This is a series of her 
tweets quoted in this book:

“I have learned in Haiti that someone always wants the empty box./It 
makes a hard bed more comfortable for a sick patient. The floor more 
comfortable for the family member taking care of patient./It organizes 
all the possessions of someone who has no family who wakes up from being 
sick on the streets in the TB ward./So little is wasted.”

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