Friday, March 2, 2012

The Rainy Season: Rich in Detail, Poor in Analysis

For readers of news and literature concerning Haiti, the writings of author Amy Wilentz are well known. Most famous of her work is the 1989 book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon & Schuster, 1989), a book that would also foreshadow her future writings on Haiti. HaitiAnalysis publishes below a critical review of The Rainy Season. The review, originally appearing in French in the newspaper  Haiti Progrès in August of 1989, is published here for the first time in English.

By Kim Ives -  Haiti Progrès
       The Rainy Season is, in the author's own words, the product of her "love affair with Haiti," and thus the book reads something like a love story.  It offers a constant stream of emotions, descriptions, and even gossip that relentlessly tease the reader to turn the page. But like many love stories, while this lushly detailed account of post-Duvalier Haiti appeals to the heart, it ends up disappointing the mind.
            Creating a patchwork quilt of first-person ruminations, historical synopses, and witty portraits of the famous and unknown, Wilentz takes the reader on a journey, not only through Haiti's fitful past three years, but also through her own personal struggles and revelations. 

             Arriving in Haiti during Baby Doc's fall as a rookie "Haiti watcher" avowedly seeking the sensational, Wilentz explains how she, like many North Americans, could not fathom Haitian realities and the contrast between the country's divinely rich face and its desperately poor one.  With remarkable descriptive powers and a keen eye for irony and ear for conversation, Wilentz creates many moving and amusing vignettes: the cynical, competitive journalists flirting and quipping in the Oloffson hotel; a troop of missionaries at the Barbancourt factory near Boutilliers who make racist jokes and display shocking ignorance; a circle of Gonaïviens confronting a boasting, arrogant dyas (i.e. a person recently returned from living in the diaspora); a venomous dinner among bourgeois couples in Petionville; good-humored sparring with Titid's street kids. One man in Pacot who wore cellophane wrap to stay dry in a rainstorm particularly intrigued the author.
            Such stories, which do sometimes become too heavy with symbolism and drama or too oblique in meaning, reveal the outsider's knack for highlighting realities that the indigenous often take for granted. But when Wilentz attempts to concretely analyze these anecdotes and this society that so mesmerizes her, she is completely overwhelmed by its "exoticism" and lapses into the worst sort of Western mumbo-jumbo.


For example, early in the book, Wilentz exhumes the traditional - and long since debunked - American social science theory of the "mulatto elite" to describe Haiti's ruling class.

Less than 20 years after the slaves wrested power from the French in 1804,... the black former-slave leadership had been replaced by a small mulatto and formerly free elite, which controlled not only the reins of government and the armed forces but most of the nation's wealth.  This elite was virtually indomitable...

Thus Wilentz is content to rehash the stale analysis of countless North American "specialists" before her, who reduce Haitian history into the most simplistic racial and cultural formula i.e. French mulattos vs. Creole blacks. There is no presentation - however minimal - of the long political struggle between Haiti's landed oligarchy and comprador bourgeoisie, of the contest during the nineteenth century between parties like the Nationaux (representing the oligarchy) and the Liberaux (representing the bourgeoisie), of the many coups and counter-coups which contradict the notion of a monolithic, indomitable "mulatto elite.".  In short, there is no class analysis.

            Wilentz does at times mention the grandons (describing them more as "rich peasants" than as a land-owning ruling class) and even pokes a little at Papa Doc's "Noirisme" (although she unwittingly concurs with the theoretical precepts of this racialist outlook), but these allusions are more like the recitations of "students whispering their biology lessons under the streetlights of Port-au-Prince" (another of her strong memories) than analysis.  Grandons, Noirisme, the semi-feudalism that followed independence, etc. seem to be mentioned by rote, to cover all the bases, but, like much of Wilentz's Haiti, their essence is clearly not understood.
            Such an unscientific approach leads to some pretty reckless free-association later in the book, reaching its apotheosis in the chapter dealing with vodou entitled The Beast of the Haitian Hills.  Some selections:

Patterns of thought and behavior that one can see in voodoo occasionally manifest themselves in Haitian political behavior.  Old bokors [voodoo priests] in the hills of Haiti will look at a sick man, nod their heads and say, "Nèg fè, nèg defè."  What one man does, another can undo.  When a houngan [a voodoo priest] says this, he means that he can counteract a spell cast by another houngan.  But the proverb can be applied equally to practitioners of politics in Port-au-Prince, whose vision of political goals is often obscured or twisted by an intense personal rivalry with other nèg politik.  Doing and undoing: this is what Haitian politics is about, and it is one of the reasons Haitians rarely describe political activity as a continual movement forward, but rather as a process of correcting the mistakes of the past.

Translation: Haitian politics is simply a bunch of petty personal squabbles which has little to do with the actual problems of the country.  It's just the settling of scores.

Each political party, like each habitation in the countryside, has traditionally been the province of a single powerful man.  The parties have traditionally been based partly on ideology but mostly on personality...  All are based on attachment to the gwo nèg, the big man....

Wilentz has her doubts about Haitian historian Thomas Madiou's proposition that this cult of personality/père du famille problem is "distinctly African" in origin because Madiou, "a good Mulatto, often condescending to black Haitians."  She is quite convinced that it really stems from "the habitation."


The author is mistaken here on two counts.  First she lumps all parties together, right and left, traditional and progressive (whether the progressive groups are not really included in the book - but more on that later).  To assert that a Leslie Manigat or a Grégoire Eugène embody "Haitian politics" - rather than its traditional variant - is to cynically reduce the Haitian liberation struggle to a simple comedy, as much of the North American mass-media already does.
            Furthermore, the author apparently has no other theoretical reference point than the "habitation" to explain the gwo nèg phenomenon.  A cursory glance at history of the world might have helped.  In capitalist age societies, classes are represented by parties, and parties are represented by leaders. This is elementary. In neo-colonies and other underdeveloped societies where bourgeois democratic institutions are fragile (and often struggling against a feudal legacy), leaders take on more importance because the party tends to be newer or smaller. They face repression and other obstacles to militating among the population, holding conventions, and the other practices of bourgeois democracy. With time and opportunity, parties, even traditional ones like those of Bazin, Déjoie, or Claude, grow and combine.  Others die out.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock - Wilentz's American "founding fathers" - were just gwo nèg too, but they laid the seeds for modern bourgeois democratic parties.  Can we therefore say that American politics reflects "the patterns of thought and behavior" of the slave plantation or the factory?  Of course, this would be silly.
            In fact, Wilentz's analysis here is exactly backwards.  The parties in Haiti are based mostly on ideology (i.e. class position) and partly on personality.  That is to say that Haiti's feudal heritage may leave its imprint above all on traditional Haitian politics, but it certainly is not it's determining factor, turning politics into a simple circus of vendettas.
            But Wilentz plunges on:

The "habitations," or parties, are vying with one another for total control.  Power sharing is not yet a received concept in Haitian politics.  Thus one gwo nèg will take possession of the National Palace - the peristyle, if one takes the metaphor too far, as Papa Doc did - leaving all the others without a habitation whose spoils and offerings they can live off....  [but] anyone who takes more than his share is subject to suspicion, envy, recrimination, dechoukaj.  The President is always perceived by others within the politicaille as someone who has taken more than his fair share... Thus, the minute a man becomes president,  he becomes a usurper of the habitation as far as his rivals are concerned and must be overthrown.  The population in general eventually begins to mistrust and resent the President, while fearing him, much as the members of a habitation may fear and resent the houngan...

Here we have descended into the most ridiculous psycho-history.  Drunk on Haitian "specificity," Wilentz becomes an explorer without a compass, randomly connecting cultural traditions and psychological theories with political dynamics.  Thus the masses' rejection of the Haitian President is not due to his corruption, repression, or defense of exploiting class interests, but rather to reflexes of envy, suspicion and resentment conditioned over generations by the houngan on the habitation.

François Duvalier [Wilentz continues] took this method of governance to its extreme: not just Port-au-Prince, but all of Haiti, would be his habitation... In expanding his network to include thousands of lesser hounsis - the rural Tontons Macoute... - he established a faithful cadre willing to terrorize an entire nation into submission to the supreme bokor.

Rather than seeing that Duvalier represented the rural feudal oligarchy in the state apparatus, the author thinks his allegiance with the those "thousands of lesser hounsis" was just a tactic to expand and "defend the habitation against rival houngans" (i.e. hold on to power), because "the supreme bokor" Duvalier, as a politician, was "cleverer than most."


This is all in tune with the overall individualization of history that Wilentz, like most American analysts, offer in lieu of class analysis. Thus François Duvalier simply "wanted no elite. From [1957] on, Duvalier alone was to be the elite."  On this train of logic, Duvalier's tactics of cult of personality, terror and mystification were just personal quirks; some historians say it was because Papa Doc was "crazy," but for Wilentz, he was "cleverer.
            In fact, we can see throughout the history of Latin America and the world, other Duvaliers, who ruled the way they did not because of idiosyncratic ruthlessness or dementia, but due to the dictates of class struggle.  In the early 1800's in Argentina, the caudillo-champion Juan Noel de Rosas brought a reign of terror and mystification just like Duvalier's as a part of the Argentine oligarchy's struggle with European imperialism.  Hitler's Germany was not the product of one man's psychoses, but issued from a fierce inter-imperialist rivalry that followed World War I.  Whenever reigns of terror take place, be it the French Revolution or Haiti during the 1960s, it is invariably the sign of one class trying to wrest political power from a formidable opposing class.  By reducing Haiti's history to the individual, Wilentz obfuscates this.
            The effects of this individual approach are responsible for both the book's beauty and its weakness.  There are many rich in-depth portraits.  Gangan Pierre, a toothless, eccentric painter living in a scrubby hut, becomes the book's  "good voodoo" voice; the long-time Duvalierist Max Beauvoir, with his fortified luxury home and "cure for AIDS," embodies voodoo at its most villainous and mystifying.  There is Mimette, a young slum dweller who flies hope-filled kites; Lucy and Abner, peasants struggling to survive in Duverger; Bernadette, the Northwest charbon merchant; Peter, the well-meaning but manipulated CARE worker.


But the main portrait is that of Father Aristide, which runs the length of the book.  Here, Wilentz is at her most affectionate:

I always liked Aristide.  Almost everyone did, if they had the chance to meet him.  He would say brutal things, and yet the most decent Haitian matrons turned around and kissed him afterward.... You wanted to kill him, sure, but he was too cute to kill.

She relates her extensive conversations with the priest in neatly packaged tidbits, covering his view of the different political situations, religion, specific personalities, his own security, and the future of Haiti.  The conversations are absorbing and even inspirational.  Her descriptions of life and characters around St. Jean Bosco also bathe Aristide in familiarity and warmth.
            But ironically in the end, Wilentz's treatment of Aristide, as tender as it is, does him a disservice.  The priest's individuality - his psychological state, background, temperament, etc. - begin to overshadow his political positions.  For instance, his opposition to the November 1987 elections resulted largely because "he was not temperamentally or politically inclined to compromise," that is, he was just kind of innately intransigent and "hotheaded."  In fact, "he was a true believer, with all that implies," a reference, one assumes, to the 1970s reactionary book The True Believer by psychologist Eric Hoffer, which classifies any revolutionary commitment to a political struggle as a mere psychological need for belonging and self-esteem, producing blind or cruel deeds.  Thus, Aristide being a "true believer... implies" that his positions were extreme, naive, and irrational.  He was a zealot.
            In Wilentz's portrait, the messianic Aristide becomes a kind of demi-God, hovering above his devout, blindly loyal flock of sheep.  There is hardly any allusion to the rest of the popular sector of which Aristide is a part.  CATH, APN, LAPPH, KID, and many other groups receive only passing mention, if any at all - and often it is unflattering.  For example, if one reads between the lines, we see that popular organizations calling for a boycott of the 1987 elections were themselves just "politicians."  But "Aristide was not a politician" i.e. a houngan looking to control the habitation.  For Wilentz, after the November 1987 elections on into 1988, Aristide was "the only one left in public opposition... He kept on talking when everyone else was silent... The rest of the opposition had been quashed or was regrouping."  This is a deliberate framing-out of groups in the popular sector, who along with Aristide after November 1987, were very vocal and active, having gained more respect and credence for their prediction of the debacle.  Why does Wilentz ignore this sector?


Essentially because Wilentz's political position can be placed squarely in the midst of the KONAKOM sector, Haiti's principal reformist social-democratic tendency.  Next to Aristide, her most sympathetic character is an heroic but anonymous KONAKOMish "Senatorial Candidate" from around Gonaïves who offers various pearls of wisdom throughout the book.  Like a knight, he rides, straight-backed and stoic, on a bicycle along Route National #1.
            She describes the first KONAKOM Congress at length.  For her it was not an event that laid the foundation for the bourgeoisie's and electoralist petty bourgeoisie's accommodation with the CNG, the first turn on a renegade road that would divert thousands into misguided campaigns for the Constitution and U.S.-sponsored "elections."  No, it was "a grassroots movement for democracy."  Wilentz often cites Victor Benoit and others of his ilk, unwittingly unearthing some opportunist gems.  For example, faced with the CNG's dropping of the democratic mask in June 1987, either Benoit or another KONAKOM "senatorial candidate" anonymously says:

We were surprised by history.  We had been willing to go along and just keep our eye on the situation, on the CNG, but once Namphy blundered so badly in dealing with CATH, we seized the moment.  Really, we had no choice.  It seemed the politically apt thing to do.

Thus, KONAKOM admits that they misjudged and then "had no choice" but to confront the regime.  Of course, after going through the motions of rache manyòk during the summer of 1987, such opportunists inexorably repeated their historical errors in November 1987 and then in September 1988, as they will undoubtedly repeat them again.  But petty bourgeois democrats, like Benoit and Wilentz, are prisoners of their ideological outlook and position.  Speaking of the November 1987 elections, Wilentz elaborates:
We were foolish.  We didn't quite see what was coming.  We should have known better, after the summer.  The signs were all there, the murders, the attacks on the electoral offices, the writing on the walls.  The evidence was already in....

Yet even after November 1987, Wilentz still has not learned.  She has written a book that lionizes the opportunist KONAKOM sector for their "bravery" against the mean old Macoutes, and excludes all mention of the "groupuscules" from the popular sector who have consistently foreseen and warned against the traps and pitfalls of the past three years: the Constitution, "elections," Manigat, Namphy II, the Poisson d'Avril "revolution," etc..
            Thus, The Rainy Season is the quintessential liberal's book.  It is filled with beautiful words and descriptions that inspire hope, fear, anguish, love and other emotions, just like the speeches of our Haitian liberals. But in essence, it offers little more than traditional analysis of and solutions to Haiti's problems, just like the liberals’ political platforms.  It belongs in the romance section of the library.

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