Across the Water
How food riots in Haiti crashed my sister's wedding.
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.
"Un," she began "The disturbances are confusing, there's no leadership or direction.Cell phone outlets, gas stations, and chain stores have been attacked, but really people are just lashing out against foreign brands. Criminal looting, organized political protests and undirected anger have all been mixed together and no one knows when one will turn in another."
"Deux," she continued, "people are very angry at the government, and not just about the prices. There's great corruption and waste in Haitian government, and between the unofficial bribes you need to pay to get anything done and official tariffs, things cost way more than they should. Everyone from the vendor at the local market to the big importer is drowning while officials get rich. The whole reason people accepted Aristide's ouster was that they figured at least there'd be some order and economic stability once he was gone, but things have gotten worse. "
"Trois," This government has acceded to everything and anything the IMF, World Bank and Americans ask them to accede to, and has done nothing to protect Haitian interests. Aristide was a demagogue, but at least you felt like he was your demagogue. That counts for something when you don't have anything and your belly is empty. I mean, look at the Cubans and the Venezuelans."
A young, waggish cousin chimed in to point out that the Cubans had Russia and the Venezuelans have an awful lot of oil, but my aunt plowed over him. "It is, vraiment, a sinking ship," she said, "More food aid or subsidies will only put off the sinking, not stop it."
I asked if that meant she would be moving in with my mother in Miami and she shot me a silent, withering look. She instead went on tell to the story of a Haitian woman she knows who lives in the U.S. and who had her dead parents disinterred from a Port-au-Prince and reburied in Boston. "It's the only way she can be sure she'll be able visit their graves in safety."
This last bit about graves is just too much for my mother to bear. A wedding is a happy occasion, she snaps at her sister, and she'll not have this one marred by the Haitian obsession with gloom, doom and politics. Her children are Americans, she says, she passed the U.S. citizenship test in the mid-90s, and her husband is buried in Queens. "We're Americans now," she insisted. "Let's change the subject."
What she was really saying, of course, was that she misses my father. He had come to the United States as a political exile, and his was always the last word in any discussion of Haitian history and politics. His wry sense of humor and first-hand insights were able to transform even the most dire, downbeat discussion.
When my father fled Papa Doc Duvalier in the mid-60s, he was paid a visit, soon after arriving in New York, by two polite FBI agents who hoped to debrief him, on the members of Duvalier's government and inner circle. My father refused to cooperate, even though the men the FBI were curious about were the same Duvalieristes who had tried to have him killed.
"Why don't you just skip the middleman and go talk to the CIA," he said, showing the agents the door. "They can tell you better than I can."
That (potentially apocryphal) story has become enshrined as a real crowd-pleaser in my family since my father's death. So it was the evening of my sister's wedding. Seconds after declaring all discussion of Haitian politics done for the evening, my mother retold the story with aplomb.
My sister, appropriately enough for her wedding day, got the last word in, though. Guests had been peppering her with questions about the honeymoon, and she had mostly responded with the details of a meticulously planned trip to South Africa. Every now and then, though, she would add that she and her new husband really needed to figure out how to spend some extended time in Haiti.
"I want James to see where we're from," she explained. Our father would have been pleased. Before his unremarkable, non-political death in a quiet, predominantly African American middle-class hamlet Queens, he always had one eye on doings across the water. In the last years of his life he had cobbled together a massive collection of obscure electronics and other cheap mechanical flotsam and jetsam culled from flea markets. He was positive they'd be worth something in Haiti someday when he went back home.
If he had been alive to walk my sister to the altar there would by now, no doubt, be bags of rice in the basement as well.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.