Across the Water

How food riots in Haiti crashed my sister's wedding.


At about the same time my little sister was getting married three weeks ago – it was a lovely beach ceremony in the Florida Keys; she was beautiful, and I was teary, having the bittersweet privilege of subbing for our dead father on the walk up the aisle – food riots were breaking out across the picture-perfect waters at her back, on the island nation of Haiti. Putting the two together – a wedding and a riot – is more than an article-opening flourish: My sister and I were both born in Queens, N.Y., but our family is Haitian, and some of the relatives in attendance barely made it off the island in time for the nuptials.

Our cousin Leslie, a priest in a small, rural town north of Port-au-Prince, was not so lucky. He got all the way to the airport before being called home. His rectory had been broken into and looted by parishioners looking for stores of rice used by a church-administered meals program. ("A church!" some of the older ladies tut-tutted at the rehearsal dinner, as if the building's powers of sanctuary should have included the ability to bar hunger and desperation at the door.)

He didn't even bother to try the next day or the day after that, the road between him and the airport flooded by a rising tide of frustration at suddenly doubled, sometimes tripled food costs. He had been slated to co-officiate at the wedding, so we gave my sister away without him to a tall and steady young man from northern Florida ("American noire," is how the visitors described her fiance in Franglish.

We danced, ate, celebrated, and explained Leslie's absence with a sad head-shake and a few hushed words. "He's in Haiti," we said, as if that could encompass all the trouble and misfortune in the world.

Like the last line of Roman Polanski's film Chinatown – "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." – telling attendees that Leslie was stuck across the water--over there--simultaneously summed up a great deal even as it relied on a host of myths and stereotypes about the onetime Pearl of the Antilles.

"Haiti" is a perennially useful shorthand for a broad range of aspirations, tribulations and straw men: The first black republic and the western hemisphere's poorest country; the world's only successful slave revolt and its first debtor nation; history's biggest underdog winner and oldest basket case rolled into one. The full arsenal of slurs, ills and disappointments associated with the third and post-colonial worlds a century and a half later were field-tested in Haiti after the 1804 Revolution, from embargo, to self-interested "Big Man" dictatorship, to imposed strongmen, to occupation, to the never-ending cycles of economic penitence, penury and imposed austerity, to the ethnic cleansing of Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

High-performing Haitian immigrants in the extensive Diaspora that runs up continental North America's eastern seaboard from Montreal to Miami feel a twinned, fierce pride and shame about their mother country, their pain at its agony leavened by what has always struck me as a trademark mix of fatalism and wit. "You went and married into a real mess," one of my male cousins deadpanned to my freshly-minted brother-in-law at the wedding, his tongue loosened by Haitian rum. "You see, Haitians are the Haitians of the Caribbean."

The specific, current mess that my new in-law married into is part of a global bout of food instability caused by the skyrocketing cost of oil. Permanent $100+ a barrel prices are trickling down into all the things that oil is used to make and transport, so the cost of staple products like rice, sugar, pasta and cooking oil have all gone up, further busting already busted Haitian household budgets. According to some reports, "there have also been food riots world-wide in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen."

But home is inevitably where the hurt is, so the focus on the wedding was on the outburst of anger that erupted in outlying cities like Le Cayes, Petit-Goave, and Gonaïves before spreading to Port-au-Prince. My family, a yellowish mix of long-term expats who have thrown in their lot with the U.S. and business people still clinging to dwindling on-island assets, once ran one of the biggest bakeries in Haiti. So for us, the arrival of a coinage like "klorox"– hunger that burns as if the sufferer were drinking bleach - strikes a uniquely disturbing cord. Once upon a time, Haiti was the most profitable and abundant agricultural producer in all of history, but now, as Paul Farmer, author of the seminal The Uses of Haiti, recently explained at MIT, the part of the island that counts the 1804 slave revolt as the moment of its founding would starve without steady inflows of food from abroad. Haiti's food shortages are, according to Farmer, an imported product imposed on Haitians from outside.

A favorite aunt (she got out a day before the riots started, lives in Haiti and didn't want to be named), broke down recent events for me at the reception in crisp, declamatory metropolitan French, (For reasons that have always remained mysterious to me, my grandparents sent their sons to school in the U.S., while the girls went to France. Did they think French-flavored daughters were more marriageable than American?) Like many wedding guests, she took foreign culpability in Haiti's problems as a given not even worth mentioning and chose to focus on how her own countrymen had contributed to the problem.