I Was Held Hostage In Haiti.

Dispatches from The Land God Forgot.

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Haiti, 1987

In light of recent developments in Haiti, this article from my time in Port-au-Prince and north of the city might add some insight.

“Haiti is not doomed.” Former president, Bill Clinton

If work were good for you, the rich would leave none of it for the poor.” Haitian proverb

Emerald Isle Resort, Haiti, 1987. The Tonton Macoutes arrived Monday in six military issue jeeps, armed with semi-automatics. Nobody standing on the veranda referred to them as military police. Even the manager, a tall Arab named Mesud, muttered “Macoutes” as if that explained law (or Haitian perception of law) in one word.

Earlier that morning, the Haitian staff had sealed off the resort, effectively holding everyone hostage. They were demanding a salary increase, despite earning twice what a professor made in Port-au-Prince. Now the same staff were sitting under dusty palms, occasionally running out and taunting the Macoutes, then quickly disappearing behind the palms again.

According to the guest manifest, over ten nationalities were represented at the resort, meaning all the embassies had been notified. Despite the arrival of diplomatic helicopters, the Macoutes seemed unfazed. They stared at the tourists gathered on the surrounding verandas. Some of these guests had just woken up and didn’t realize we were being held hostage.

“Gawd Almighty,” one heavyset Texan said. “Are we gettin’ breakfast or what?”

Looking at the Macoutes that day, they hardly seemed like the same death squads Papa Doc François Duvalier created back in 1959.

Looking at the Macoutes that day, they hardly seemed like the same death squads Papa Doc François Duvalier created back in 1959. By the eighties, they had become a generic for anyone wearing a uniform and armed. The commander spoke quickly to Mesud, then got back into one of the jeeps.

They left without incident, but one of the cooks told me later that anything could have happened. Two white priests were hacked to death up at Cap-Haitien the previous month. Witnesses claimed the Macoutes were involved.

“You never know,” the cook said.

I found him later that night, sitting on one of the concrete balustrades near the dining area. He told me they hadn’t gotten more money, but he didn’t seem unhappy. I asked why they bothered in the first place.

“We felt lucky this morning,” he smiled.

How people can feel lucky in Haiti is anybody’s guess. With thirty-two military coups in the last hundred years, it seems like a distorted pipe dream. Dictators, oligarchs, megalomaniacs and just plain idiots have dominated the Haitian governments with little oversight outside of weak international tribunals.

The people have seen their treasuries ransacked, their protests quelled with machetes, and yet they remain hopeful. How that hope transforms itself is like some kind of voodoo ceremony, the likes of which carry just as much weight as any political assertions that brew in the capital these days.

Travelling down to Port-a-Prince after our hostage-taking, I was introduced to the driver, a gray haired man wearing a golf cap. I was told he had driven the Pope during his 1986 visit. In each town we passed, people waved in recognition, even putting down their loads. Supposedly, his presence guaranteed our safety — yet it’s a relative term in Haiti.

The whole time I was in the capital, I never saw a uniform, despite people telling me Tonton Macoutes were everywhere.

Port-au-Prince is dangerous at the best of times. There are no stoplights and little in the way of police presence. The whole time I was in the capital, I never saw a uniform, despite people telling me Tonton Macoutes were everywhere.

It’s a crazy parable of island existence, the streets, the crowds, the tap-taps (Datsuns with caps) honking at the intersections. On this particular day, we were going to the Iron Market, an iron girtered building originally commissioned to be a train station in Cairo.

“It can’t be dead long,” he explained. “They start to smell.”

A guide was meeting us named Pierre. We were told he would keep the crowd back, a job that proved impossible as we exited from the bus. One Haitian woman with a baby grabbed a man’s arm in our group, asking for money. He was clearly shaken when he pulled away.

“That baby’s dead,” he told us.

Pierre only shrugged. People do desperate things in Port-au-Prince.

“It can’t be dead long,” he explained. “They start to smell.”

As we moved inside the Iron Market, vendors, beggars and artisans grabbed us from every direction. Pierre had to keep fighting them off.

“Don’t let them pull you,” he said. “Hit them back.”

It wouldn’t have made any difference.

Opportunities with tourists are few and far between. The people are desperate; your only hope is to keep moving. At the same time, I learned you don’t ignore Haitians. I made that mistake and got a gesture that still shocks me to this day. A man in the crowd drew his finger across his throat.

That’s the strange dichotomy of thinking in Haiti. Some Haitians want tourists in their country, others don’t. Some go after the tourist dollars, others expect salvation in some mystical way.

There’s no particular logic or plan. In the Iron Market you see all kinds, some follow behind, some pull you, some simply ask you to hold what they’re selling.

Many resorts stopped bringing tourists into town because the buses were pelted with rotten tomatoes. I asked Pierre which Haitians did that.

“They throw tomatoes from the back of the crowd,” Pierre said. “Watch the people in front. If they’re smiling it means they don’t agree with the men.”

“It is only a few,” he said. “Maybe those men there.”

He pointed to three Haitians standing with tattered gym bags over their shoulders, selling t-shirts.

“They throw tomatoes from the back of the crowd,” Pierre said. “Watch the people in front. If they’re smiling it means they don’t agree with the men.”

I asked what you do if they’re not smiling.

“Leave quickly,” he advised.

You don’t stay longer than necessary in Port-au-Prince, or mistake common courtesy for kindness. There’s a sense of begrudging acceptance everywhere, but deep down, it’s like the Haitians are still fighting for independence.

Many Haitians have maintained a strong adherence to voodoo. They believe in old deities and spirits; some bring luck, some, like the devious mambo, take it away.

Haiti has seen it all, and Haitians have reason to be distant and withdrawn. In one of the oldest churches in Haiti, they pass the collection plate to the tourists without looking at them. In small villages, people sweeping their dirt yards will yell, “Go home.” Others look on with no expression. Watch who smiles when they throw tomatoes. That tells you what they think.

Tension hangs like charcoal smoke in the streets. People can be friendly in this city, but they also have no problem being severe — even cruel.

She’d been threatened twice by Haitians for taking pictures. In one instance, her camera was grabbed out of her hands.

I remember a French travel writer, René, joining us in Petion-Ville one night. He was writing an article on Haiti and brought a young female photographer along on the trip. They’d been down in Port-au-Prince all day, and the woman was in no condition to eat now. She’d been threatened twice by Haitians for taking pictures. In one instance, her camera was grabbed out of her hands.

They’d planned on visiting The Citadel the next day, but now they were packing to go home. “They don’t want us here, mon ami,” he said to me. He claimed he’d been in and out of Haiti over the years, writing about the people who used to come here: the gays, the Italian Mafia, all of them wanting to turn Port-au-Prince into their own pre-Castro Havana.

Now Haiti seemed like a dejected soul, decrepit, over-populated, surviving in the midst of political turmoil, hurricanes and earthquakes. On an average income of two dollars a day, it’s a wonder Haitians can survive at all. Yet, René pointed out one of the more bizarre ironies in Haiti. The previous day, he found two Mercedes dealerships in the downtown core.

“Who are they for?” he asked. “Who can afford a Mercedes here?”

There are still more hand carts than cars, some drawn by people, others by mules. The smoke in the air isn’t exhaust as much as cooking fires. Charcoal is still the major source of fuel. It makes the city feel like a flashback in time, something René considered quaint on his first visits.

“It is what drew me here,” he told me. But quaintness and charm only masked the true Haiti, a wasted dream torn out of the peoples’ hands.

Like the voodoo ceremonies, where the priest asks for a glass of champagne, and the people are supposed to resist, evil is always present and lurking.

“The Duvaliers were the worst,” he said. He blamed them for the state of the country, the economy, even the treatment he and his photographer received earlier that day.

When Baby Doc Duvalier left the country in 1986, the clash of good and evil began all over again. The Tonton Macoutes wanted another dictator, the people wanted a slightly-built priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Like the voodoo ceremonies, where the priest asks for a glass of champagne, and the people are supposed to resist, evil is always present and lurking.

On election day, as the people went to vote, the Macoutes arrived, cutting their way through the crowds with machetes. Hundreds were hacked to death, many close to the steps of the Iron Market near where the polling stations were located.

“The Macoutes are always involved,” I remembered the cook at the resort saying. “You don’t talk to them. You cross the street.” Even as he said that, he was looking around, watching the resort guards walking down the beach with their semi-automatics. Everyone looks around in Haiti — everyone is careful.

The following night, travelling down to Port-au-Prince, I witnessed my first voodoo ritual. Along the road, we saw little glowing lights which turned out to be candles stuck on overturned Styrofoam cups.

We never saw the worshippers up close. As our car approached, they fled, going off down little side streets or across abandoned lots. Our driver explained that this is the way of the Haitian people. Everyone runs when they think the Macoutes or chimera are coming.

“They’ll be back,” he explained.

He was turning a corner when we were suddenly flooded with lights. Up ahead of us was one of the Mercedes dealerships, a glass and steel building with a freshly paved parking lot. I remembered René’s comment about who buys Mercedes in Haiti. “The people make nothing,” he said. “Eighty percent live below the poverty line. They are not lucky. These people have no luck.”

The years that followed would be years of tyranny and madness under Christophe, the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti.

We were looking at a map that night, René running his finger up the coast to Cap-Haitien and then to Milot. “The Citadel is here,” he said. “One of the greatest structures in the world, and it earns next to nothing.”

Haitians don’t promote the Citadel. It has a history many people would rather forget. Freed slaves built it, but it came at a terrible cost. The years that followed would be years of tyranny and madness under Christophe, the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti. The Citadel was abandoned, left to the weather, the cannons lying in the ocean below the ramparts.

Even the silt in Haiti appears to be working against the Haitian people. Diving off the coast years ago, I discovered little plant life and no coral. It was strangled by soil run off. As I mentioned, charcoal is still a chief fuel in Haiti. That means cutting down trees. With so few left, the ground has nothing to hold back the topsoil. Everything ends up in the ocean where it kills coral and other marine life.

It’s a strange commentary on life in Haiti. The Haitians have taken from the earth, but in the process, they’ve robbed themselves of their future. Today less than twenty percent of the land is considerable arable, yet timber is still listed as an export.

When the hurricanes came in 2008, nearly ninety-eight percent of the forests were gone thanks to deforestation. There was nothing holding back the flood waters. Seventy percent of Haiti’s crops were destroyed and millions of people were left starving.

Colombian narcotics traffickers favor Haiti. It’s now one of their favourite “launch points.”

There is a moral code in voodoo that focuses on the vices of dishonor and greed, yet these are the same vices that have brought Haiti to its knees. When Aristide came to power in 1990, he promised to lift the Haitians out of their poverty. But, like Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the slave state into independence, he was destroyed by foreign interests.

Not long ago, international aid was restricted because of supposed election irregularities, resulting in a growing level of corruption and crime. Colombian narcotics traffickers favor Haiti. It’s now one of their favourite “launch points.”

A West Indian writer once wrote, “Haiti is a country so different from what the heart arranged.” The international community continues to act sympathetic, but countries like the United States tend to taper off imports when Haiti doesn’t do their bidding. Only one third of the aid promised after the last hurricane has arrived.

Maybe Haiti is a cursed land. The relief efforts have been a mixture of philanthropy and tardy political ass-scratching. Nobody believes in the result. Desperation has made cynics out of everybody, and with desperation comes violence.

During the cholera crisis, nobody was surprised when forty voodoo priests were hung for not preventing it. Your word is your bond in this country, and you risk life and limb if you don’t deliver on promises. It’s a never-ending divine comedy, a script leading to more corruption, more blood in the streets and more Haitian people going hungry.

He was telling me a story about the day Baby Doc and his wife fled the country, and how squatters broke into their house afterwards.

“This is a country with no hope,” René said to me the night before he left the resort. We were sitting on the concrete balustrades, watching the moon rise over the Bay of Gonaives. He was telling me a story about the day Baby Doc and his wife fled the country, and how squatters broke into their house afterwards. The air conditioning was still going. The squatters had to move back outside to get warm.

“That is Haiti,” he said. “There is no luck. Not even for squatters.”

Robert Bruce Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.

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I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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