There was a time when you could think beautiful thoughts about Haiti. Cheap, easeful Caribbean vacations. Underused warm beaches. Charming, seemingly happy people. Heart-thumping music and dance. And a vicious, permeating dictatorship whose secret police practically monopolized the island nation’s violent crime.
Now, several major disasters and upheavals later, Haiti is one of the West’s preeminent tourist no-go zones. But that doesn’t mean it’s unknown to U.S. travelers of a different ilk, who come in the thousands to try to somehow better the poorest nation in the Americas, particularly in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
(A young resident walks past an abandoned helicopter in the middle of La Piste camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Any fair accounting of Haiti now ought best to include both these legions of do-gooders who landed after the quake and the 9-million Haitians they are trying to do good for. The former include ultra-celebrities like Sean Penn and Bill Clinton. The latter, very few names that any of us have ever heard of. Precisely between these two categories falls Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-American hip-hop star who was denied his chance to run for Haiti’s presidency.
Anyone writing about Haiti has to balance both sides of this human equation, and to avoid both optimism and bottomless despair. Amy Wilentz, who teaches at UC Irvine's literary journalism program, has been writing about the troubled little nation since 1986. She keeps these elements in proper proportion, and tells a rippingly human story in her latest book, Farewell, Fred Voodoo … "Fred Voodoo" being the media’s name for Haiti’s man on the street.
Describing herself as a “former naive romantic,” Wilentz is a recovering major fan of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the progressive former priest and Haitian president from whom so much was expected, and so little delivered. Taking into account the nation’s terrible and courageous history as the unique product of slave revolution, she marvels at how much can go wrong in its own attempt to liberate itself from oppression and poverty. And in the UN and America’s attempts to assist with recovery measures that sometimes seem directed at a new economic serfdom of $1.75 a day factory jobs. She relentlessly catalogs the unlimited number of failures of hundreds of impressive-sounding NGOs’ bids to reconstruct housing and keep people well and fed. She shows what aid programs do work and why — her heroes include a feisty US doctor named Megan Coffee and Sean Penn.
Problems occur with the constant close-up of her narrative—which sometimes falls into what critic Vivian Gornick calls the “Me-moir.” This is perhaps why she misses neo-colonialism’s larger context in Latin America—unlike South American scholars like Eduardo Galeano, who fit Haiti’s problems into a hemispheric history of oppression. Like other progressive writers on Haiti, she flatly ignores the effect of Haiti’s ongoing population explosion—it has the third highest birthrate in all the Americas, in addition to being the poorest nation.
But if you want a window into the livid present that opens to the smells, tastes, and feelings of this brave, unbelievably downtrodden country, Amy Wilentz’s Farewell, Fred Voodoo is the book for you. More importantly, Wilentz shows how choices we’ve made as Americans—as voters, as consumers—have helped create the Haiti of today.