Sue Branford has visited Haiti over the last 35 years. It is one of those countries, she says, that you never forget.
Reading and watching day after day the unrelenting stories of death, destruction and homelessness in Haiti, I cannot but recall my occasional visits to the country over the last 35 years, where I came face-to-face with a very different country. My first stay, in 1974, happened by accident. I had visited my sister in the Bahamas and was flying back to Brazil, where I was working as a correspondent for a British newspaper. I had intended to change planes in Port-au-Prince but, when I got there, I found that my connecting flight at been cancelled. All they could offer me was free board and lodging and another flight in ten days’ time
Once I’d got over the shock, I decided that I might as well make the best of it. I sent a telegram – yes, a telegram, it was the 1970s – to the paper I was working for and set about getting to know the country. And what a country it was. From the moment I set foot in the streets from my cheap lodgings, I was assailed by extraordinary sounds and masses of colour. Thousands of brightly-dressed men and women were thronging the streets of Port-au-Prince night and day. Wooden buses, known as tap-taps and painted in vivid colours by the drivers themselves, were everywhere. And the music.
It wasn’t long until I was taken to one of the very popular voodoo religious ceremonies where the gods are worshipped through singing, drumming and dancing. It was serious – dead serious – but also a glorious outpouring of feeling. It ended in a climatic killing of a chicken, with the ceremonial offering to the deities of the live blood.
The Duvalier Years
The country was being ruled at the time by Jean-Claude Duvalier, Baby Doc, the son of the ruthless dictator, François Duvalier (known as Papa Doc) who had terrorised the country from 1957 until his death in 1971. Both father and son used armed thugs, known as ‘Tonton Macoutes’, to stifle dissent. I was only holiday and I couldn’t understand Créole, the language used by ordinary Haitians, so my only real conversations were with foreigners and the few educated French-speaking Haitians I met. But even so I learnt that, in 1804 after a slave revolt, Haiti had been the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to gain its independence. Time and again people blamed foreign interference, particularly the US occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, for the country’s failure to live up to the promise of those first glorious years when the name of the country was changed from Saint Domingue to Haiti, an indigenous word for ‘high ground’.
A Wave of Hope
One of my later visits, in 1992, came shortly after the collapse of the only real attempt that the Haitian people have ever made to find a way out of the poverty, corruption, repression and environmental degradation that their country faces. In December 1989 a former Christian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was swept to office, winning more than two-thirds of the vote in a general elections. Aristide, known universally as Titid, was radical, passionate and widely loved. Not surprisingly, he faced huge opposition from the elites and he did not have the political skill to negotiate a way forward. In September 1991, just before I arrived in the country on a reporting trip for the BBC, he was overthrown in a military coup. I was picked up in cars, blindfolded and taken to meet deposed ministers, fearful for their lives. I was staying in the Oloffson Hotel, made famous by Graham Greene in his novel ‘The Quiet American’, and at night I could hear the sound of gunfire as military units moved into the huge Cité Soleil shantytown situated just below the hotel where many of Aristide’s most fervent supporters lived.
Tragic, Talented People
Haiti is one of those countries that gets under a journalist’s skin. After a few weeks in the country, you end up caring about the future of this tragic, talented people that have been ravaged by foreign invasions, dictatorships, military coups, hurricanes and now a devastating earthquake. And even now I flinch when I read that the USA is insisting that planeloads of US soldiers be given priority in the struggle to land at Port-au-Prince airport over cargo planes filled with desperately needed food, water and medical supplies.