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 painter. 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 incommensurable.
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