By J.O. Haselhoef, Travel Contributor
Most of our summer evenings in the farmlands of Haiti ended with a cold shower and a short meal. However, we ended one night, over 10 years ago in Lamontay, with drinks under a Haitian cacao tree. Voltaire, our friend and translator, told Monsieur M, his mentor, our thoughts about Haiti, our belief in the Haitians and our new approach to charities. Monsieur asked Voltaire to invite us to his home. And Voltaire, interested in reaffirming his friendships on all sides, happily agreed.
My partner, Mike, handed a bottle of five-star Barbancourt rum to our host with whom I exchanged kisses. Handsome and grey-haired, he greeted us with the same warmth he offered his protégé.
Greeting Monsieur was meeting Haitian power. The locals respected M. for his large , no mean feat. He came from strength and knowledge and money, which he in turn passed to his children, professionals in the city. Acquaintances also knew M. to be a good friend of Papa Doc Duvalier. He served as a leader of Duvalier in Lamontay. Many of Duvalier’s leaders led harshly and violently, and M. was strong — but kind. In the 1970s, when Papa Doc’s son took over and then was forced from office, many took revenge on those associated with the Duvaliers. In Lamontay, the locals remembered M.’s kindness and treated him likewise.
Our host led us to the grove of cacao trees. Beneath, a table and four chairs awaited us. A flock of chickens rummaged nearby. M. honored us—we were among the few, perhaps the only, Americans to sit there with him.
He had begun his evening some drinks earlier and poured the Barbancourt generously. We toasted our host, and he, his guests. His encyclopedic knowledge of Haiti’s history with the United States began our conversation: American occupation, Clinton’s economic sanctions, Bush’s deposition of Haiti’s first democratically elected president. Most Haitians were well versed in the many intrusions America made on Haiti over the past 150 years, but few verbalized them. Most stayed quiet, because Americans brought money to their country. The chicken at my feet clucked, her feathers ruffled, as if she, too, were annoyed.
Someone poured more rum, the slight after-burn no longer evident. History blurred into current politics and our voices became more animated. “Why does Haiti have this incurable poverty?” Mike asked.
As if in response, I queried, “Will the new president make financial headway?”
M. smiled in an all-knowing way and offered another toast. “To leadership!” And the glasses clinked. Voltaire, who continued to translate for Americans and Haitian alike, kept his political views to himself. For clarity, he noted, “Monsieur does not think President Preval will be successful. He is toasting conservative leadership.”
In the dimming light, we watched the chickens fly up to the branches to roost. One edged along the limb, pushing out the second, that flew to the higher branch, forcing a third to move, squawks of response and clucks of comment along the way. The chickens fought for position in the tree, while we vied for our own political points of view down on the ground.
When the conversation turned local, we agreed on the solution — it lay with the Haitian people. But how to affect that? M. leaned forward as he spoke, finger punctuating the air as if it were a beak, pecking at the point. “America must support Haiti — not undermine it!”
Mike and I looked at one another and nodded. We understood M.’s concern. Regardless of the Haitian leader in power, the United States often overstepped its boundaries, full of its own agendas. Papa Doc Duvalier was well known for his policies of torture, disappearance, graft corruption. But to many Duvalier supporters, as Voltaire explained, “He made the trains run on time.” Regardless of our feelings, these were Haitian issues for Haiti to deal with.
In the deepening shadows, the chickens’ banter grew until it drowned out our conversation. We looked to the heavens, waiting for a sign, clarity, some solution to these old issues of colonialism, nationalism, unilateralism, but found nothing, only a deafening squabble. Haiti’s politics were complicated, as were our own.
Finally, quiet. The moon shone between the leaves and we heard a single cluck within the silence. Each bird found its rank, its order, its roost. Monsieur M. raised his glass. “To cooperation and respect!” And the glasses clinked.