Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 6, 1995

Return to Haiti Shattered by Random Crime

By Michel-Rolph Trouillot

     Dr. Trouillot recently returned to his native Haiti for the
first time since the fall of the military junta in October 1994.
He files this account:

     Up to two o'clock that January morning, it had been one of
the best nights I had had in a long time. I was in Haiti and we
were among friends, people who respect and like each other both
for what they do and for who they are. We were really enjoying
the holidays, relishing with every sip of rum the pleasures of  
an intellectual salon without the pretense. 
     To start with, we were not in a salon as such but in an open
yard, with no visual demarcation between us and the poverty that
lay outside except the night itself. Further, even the elders
among us, internationally known writers in their 60s and 70s, did
not take themselves that seriously. With songs of love, of pain
and protest, I noisily stroked my guitar. Others recited poetry
that they had just written. Others just chatted about the last
book they had read or written, their next project, their favorite
     And then we had to leave. As we prepared to do so, someone
came to tell one of our hosts to pick up the phone next door.
Theirs was not working.
     The news was devastating. The father of our friend, a
retired engineer in his 70s, sick and paralyzed, was dead. A
robber had hacked him in his bed with a machete. His wife, a
retired civil servant, had been critically injured by the same
man. The couple had just cashed in the wife's monthly retirement
pay, a little less than $200.
     I knew before I got into the plane in Baltimore that stories
like this one are now numerous in Port-au-Prince. But growing up
in Fran‡ois Duvalier's Haiti, one learns to take risks, to assess
danger realistically and without panic. Stories of that kind were
not enough to stop me: As a Haitian living abroad, I never looked
at the Caribbean with the eyes and fears of a tourist. Further, I
had done my first anthropological fieldwork in the island of
Dominica under tough conditions in the midst of a political
uprising. Going to Haiti over the holidays could not be half as
difficult as reaching Dominica in a dugout boat. Airline traffic
had resumed after President Aristide's return in October on the
heels of a U.S. invasion.
     At any rate, I had relatives that I longed to see, and I had
work to do. A key reason for my trip was to gather information
and take a fresh look at the country for a meeting of the
Hopkins-Georgetown Haiti Project, housed at the Institute for
Global Studies here at Homewood.
     That project itself is a risk. Every few weeks, my
collaborators and I gather into a room in Washington a number of
government officials and academics interested in Haiti. The guest
of the day launches a discussion that we hope will influence
intelligently U.S. policy. Gillian Gun from Georgetown and Bob
Maguire from the Institute of Global Studies had gone to Haiti
earlier in the semester while I was tied here with teaching
duties. Now it was my turn to come back with a report and the
lead for an off-the-record conversation in Washington. One of my
research topics was "security and disarmament."
     As news of the tragedy sunk in over the next few days, I
realized once more how much the personal, the political and the
professional aspects of life are profoundly intertwined for
intellectuals working on home turf. 
     I attended two more "literary" evenings before my return to
the United States. Meanwhile, the funeral for my friend's father
was delayed by a useless investigation. Also a subtle media
campaign had started about Haiti here. What Haitians perceive as
a growing crime wave occurring under a U.S. military occupation
has been dismissed as an inevitable fact of life. A few days
after my return, I read a piece in the Washington Post that
struck home directly.    
     Talking about Port-au-Prince, a U.S. official was quoted as
saying: "There is less crime here than in any city of this size I
have ever been to."
     That may be true. The greater Port-au-Prince has almost 2
million people who walk over each other every day in very close
physical contact. Yet the crime rate does not come close to that
of most cities of that size. But there is more crime in
Port-au-Prince now than there was before the coup that toppled
President Aristide. While the political assassinations that
occurred during the coup have stopped, robberies, murders and
assaults have increased alarmingly. 
     I cannot blame the current occupation for this crime wave.
The mass peasant migrations to Port-au-Prince started under the
previous U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). They were
exacerbated by the policies of the two Duvaliers and by the
Haitian elites' total disregard for the peasantry. Native leaders
helped destroy the social fabric of a country where many people
slept with open doors in the beginning of this century. 
     But I cannot escape the unusual context in which the crimes
that I heard about and the one that affected me most directly
occurred. In the near total absence of local state institutions,
power in Haiti is--in the last instance--a U.S. production
carefully monitored for a U.S. audience. What struck me the most
during this last visit in Haiti were the crimes at night and, in
daytime, the sight of U.S. Humvees patrolling the streets.
     As I prepared myself to go to Washington for the
Hopkins-Georgetown Haiti Project, I kept wondering whether I
could find words to bridge worlds that I knew to be

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