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W.E. Gutman: Once upon a time in Haiti

Posted: January 22, 2010 5:15 p.m.
Updated: January 24, 2010 4:55 a.m.
I first visited Haiti in 1960. I had left New York on a dismal, gray January morning and arrived in Port-au-Prince a week later aboard a cruise ship.

Mesmerized by the emerald profusion of tropical greenery that stretched before me, rapt by the turquoise sea that shimmered like liquid diamonds, I noticed little as a taxi whisked me away from the wharf up to the opulent hilltop Castel Haiti Hotel.

During lunch, I crossed paths with bejeweled women, most of them painted to camouflage the ravages of time. I mingled among sweet-smelling, self-important men in crème safari suits and white suede shoes.

I engaged in small talk and endured the frivolous banter common among carefree, urbane vacationers.

Wealth, influence, power — all vied for attention as fragrant wines and succulent meat and seafood dishes traveled on silver trays balanced by white-gloved black lackeys.

Such ostentation, I remarked, must be evidence of great virtue, the well-deserved entitlements of the just, the righteous and the uncorrupted.

I was 23 years old.

A second visit a year later put an end to the idyllic portrait my unfocused young eyes had hastily painted. Instead of taking a taxi, I walked to town.

At the end of the quay, where the uncorrupted never venture, I was accosted by a mob of half-naked, pint-sized beggars — children with bloated bellies, herniated navels and runny noses. With one hand stretched for a handout, the other fanning away swarms of flies, they tugged at my sleeves. They hung by my shoulders like grapes from a trellis and wailed in unison: “Mister, penny, bread, please?”

In the stifling shade of an abandoned building, young boys in tatters sniffed glue.

Further on, resting on a bed of filthy rags near an open sewer, a woman slept with an infant at her breast while an older child, disheveled, wiping an ever-running nose on her sleeve, begged for scraps of food.

A few meters away, under a clear sky black with vultures, I found toddlers and young teens feeding on garbage. Knee-deep in steaming mountains of waste and competing with the odious birds of death, another group of youngsters rummaged for a meal, a shoe or a discarded article of clothing.

Up the road in some narrow, windswept, slop-splattered alley that hugged the flanks of a church, a man writhed in drug- or booze-induced agony. Frothing at the mouth, his eyes on fire, he crumbled to the ground and let out a blood-curdling shriek.

Wallowing in waste, he clawed at the demons that tormented him. Thrashing about, he rolled into the gutter and narrowly missed being hit by a passing car.

Safe in their pews, the faithful inside were being treated to the grand spectacle of a mid-day mass. “Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you),” said the priest.

“Et cum spiritu tuo (and with your spirit),” the faithful responded, unmindful of the pervading godlessness that surrounded them.

Around the corner, a group of cripples flaunted their grotesque infirmities. Unruffled passers-by stepped over them like so much debris. Across the street, a young woman breast-fed her newborn as three older daughters plied the beggar’s trade.

Alien to this netherworld, I wondered what monstrous sins its denizens had committed to be cursed with such inexplicable fate. Who are the mad, I reflected, and who are the meek who inherit the wind?

As I pondered the question, I suddenly found myself in a world of pastel mansions, neatly manicured lawns and late-model American cars driven by elegantly attired, light-skinned Haitians.

The distance between Gehenna and paradise, I would later learn as I began to cover Central America and the Caribbean Basin, is short and littered with galling incongruities and shameful disparities.

Here the crinoline, batiste and gabardine of a small elite of ruling families; there the rags, tatters and empty stomachs of an indigent and superfluous majority.

An attractive, fashionably dressed elderly creole woman sporting a Parisian accent with whom I had struck a conversation whispered parenthetically, “You know, many of us believe we were better off under the French.”

I could not have been more outraged had an African-American claimed that his people had been better off under Jim Crow.

Fifty years later — 20 of them spent reporting from the beast’s entrails — nothing has changed.

Don’t look for justice, I kept telling myself all that time. Don’t look for civility.

All you will find are nature — cruel and unmoved — and the aggregate interests and tirelessly replenished assets of the dominant power base.

Last I heard, the eight-story Castel Haiti, once the romper room of the rich and famous, is now a pile of rubble.

And, once again, nature, unpredictable and impartial, made short shrift of the aristocracy and the rabble in one blind, raging merciless and devastating blow from which this, the poorest nation in our hemisphere, is unlikely to recover.

W. E. Gutman is a widely published veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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