Writer Amy Wilentz

Wilentz, who’s written several books on Haiti, explains why she returns to the subject in her latest text, Farewell, Fred Voodoo.

Amy Wilentz's 1989 book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier brought the plight of Haiti to the attention of thousands in the U.S. and abroad. Currently writing for The New Yorker and a contributing editor at The Nation, she's written for numerous other publications, including Time, The London Review of Books and The Village Voice, and has won multiple awards for her work. The Harvard grad also teaches in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. In her latest text, Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Wilentz traces the history of Haiti from its slave plantations through its long and troubled relationship with the U.S.


Tavis: Amy Wilentz is a noted author and journalist who teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine here in Southern California. She is also the author of a number of notable books, including her seminal text, “The Rainy Season”. Her latest once again revisits the nation of Haiti. It’s called “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti”. Amy, good to have you on the program.

Amy Wilentz: Nice to be back.

Tavis: We should start by explaining this title so that everybody’s on the same page about what “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” means as a title.

Wilentz: Well, Fred Voodoo is a name that the International Press Corps used to use for the Haitian man in the street. So it’s like Joe Sixpack.

But by “Farewell, Fred Voodoo”, what I wanted to say is that this book will try to go deeper than that and not just have a stereotypical view of Haitians as what the old colonists used to think of them as, as specifically just associated with their earlier religion, but something real and individual and in control of their own will. So I’m saying farewell to the old image of Haiti. Let’s look at the real Haiti.

Tavis: So what do you think is the typical American view of Haiti or a Haitian?

Wilentz: Well, I think it’s, first of all, there’s a lot of reality that goes with that view, so impoverished. Then there’s backward because we associate in the U.S. poverty and backwardness, especially a whole country filled with poverty-stricken people which is what Americans think Haiti is, which it is not. And then, of course, there’s voodoo and that’s the most common impression of Haitians especially among conservatives.

But also, I think, generally there’s that vision of them as being associated with a religion that is thought of in very unknowing terms as purely superstition and black magic, which it also is not. I’ve gone to a lot of voodoo ceremonies and they’re like what the American impression is of voodoo.

Tavis: So how wrong then would you say that the impression that we have which is fostered by the media, how wrong would you say that impression is that we have of Haiti?

Wilentz: Well, I’d say in many ways it’s totally incorrect. I mean, Haitians months removed from the kind of competition and international markets that you have in Port-au-Prince which is where the earthquake actually struck – if you go to a Haitian village, these people are completely self-sufficient. They’re poor, but they are communitarian.

They help each other. They work together. But once you put them in the cash economy, then competition becomes very intense for very few resources. So that makes life much more difficult in the cities in particular.

Tavis: What entity, individual, branch – I don’t want to color your answer – would you point the finger most at for who’s responsible for this continuing chaos? Maybe point the finger at Mother Nature, I don’t know. You tell me.

Wilentz: Well, Mother Nature certainly had a role in it this time around. But Haiti was already having trouble functioning before the earthquake struck. We all know that. That can’t be denied. So what entity? Well, I think, you know, I hate to point the finger so easily, but Haiti’s long, difficult relationship with the United States is definitely a reason.

Actually, I would point my finger at the Haitian revolution which started in 1791 and ended in 1804 with victorious former slaves having defeated the greatest imperial power in the world, Napoleon Bonaparte. This was a shock to the United States. As Frederick Douglass said about 100 years later, the U.S. still hasn’t forgiven Haiti for being Black.

So I think maybe we could point to the Haitian revolution, a premature and fabulous revolution, but nonetheless that placed Haiti firmly in the way of the United States until 1867. That’s when Haiti was first recognized, so some 50 years after its revolution, not until after our Civil War was over.

Tavis: So Douglass said that we had not forgiven Haiti for being Black. That was Frederick Douglass and that was a long time ago.

Wilentz: That’s right.

Tavis: Which leads to the obvious question whether or not we still have not forgiven Haiti for being Black and being independent.

Wilentz: I think it’s true, but Haiti has played into the kind of distressed relationship between Haiti and the U.S. by becoming sort of dependent on outside stuff and by falling into the trap of the global markets so that it has not remained its own upright self.

But rather there’s a sick relationship of dependency that is ongoing especially with the government which has been treated like – I mean, everyone talks about how the government of Haiti is corrupt, but actually it’s a functional corruption that serves the purposes of outsiders when they do business in Haiti.

You pay a bribe that’s cheaper than paying taxes for another 50 years. You pay a bribe to one Haitian government official. You like that. That’s a good way of doing business. It’s a business practice, the corruption of Haiti’s government, and has been for at least a century.

Tavis: I guess the question is why or how does that lead to Haiti being stuck where it is because Haiti is not the only government that has officials in it who are corrupt, who take bribes – shall we start calling names? I mean, there’s a long – starting in this country…

Wilentz: Starting in this state.

Tavis: In this state. A dude the other day said he went to a halfway house. There were not one, but two former governors in Illinois who were both in prison at the same time. So this happens in this country, it happens around the world. So you got to tell me more than just corruption that has the people in this quandary, if you will.

Wilentz: Well, there’s corruption and there’s racism. You know, if you look, Martinique and Guadalupe are part of France. France took them on. They didn’t have the singular revolution and they’re Black nations, the descendants of slaves who are part of France. They may complain about it a lot, but they don’t have the situation Haiti has, which is an outcast and it has been an outcast. And I think what Frederick Douglass said then is true now.

And if you read – after the earthquake, there were these incredible articles that came out about how, you know, well, that Pat Robertson, of course, said, Haitians had made a pact with the devil. It was the first time Pat Robertson ever seemed to be like on the side of the French [laugh]. And many other conservative and even just moderate columnists attacked the Haitians as having somehow brought this on themselves, this state of dysfunction.

I just don’t believe that’s true. I think it’s a position that they have in the western hemisphere as kind of an African nation in the western hemisphere that has led to a lot of prejudice against them by the countries that surround them.

Tavis: How would you respond to folk who would say that, you know, like Pat Robertson, that the cosmos has lined up against Haiti?

Wilentz: Well, I don’t believe that. First of all, I personally am pretty much of an atheist, so the cosmos doesn’t do aligning in human affairs. But, yeah, it’s an island that’s had a lot of hurricanes, but everybody around the Caribbean basin has had a lot of hurricanes.

The cosmos has not lined up against them. That’s for people who believe in Fred Voodoo, who believe that this African religion that split off from Africa after the middle passage…

Tavis: But there are folk who believe that. That’s why I asked.

Wilentz: There are, there are. And Haitians even right after the earthquake were saying, well, maybe everything’s against us. But it’s a hard life down there and the earthquake made it hard and sad. Yeah, there were people who were saying this, but, of course, we can’t believe that because we’re enlightened.

Tavis: Some will call this an over-simplification and, on some level, I can see that it is. But when you dig a little deeper, maybe not so much, and that is this. That so much of U.S. foreign policy has to do with what have you done for me lately [laugh] or what can you do for me just down the road here?

With that in mind, what does Haiti do for us? What does investing in Haiti, supporting Haiti, helping Haiti, coming to the aid of Haiti, what do we get out of this relationship, some might ask?

Wilentz: Well, first of all, there’s been a long time when we don’t want a lot of Haitians in Southern Florida and that’s easy access for us. In earlier days, Haiti controls a very important little slice of water off the (unintelligible) which gave naval access to the Caribbean, so that really mattered a lot in the old days for trade and for military matters with Latin America.

But what can they do for us in the future? They cannot be unstable. We would like them to not be unstable. Also, there’s a lot of business investment in Haiti, although you wouldn’t believe it. And now Haiti is being opened up to mining interests, both Canadian and U.S. mining interests.

There’s a huge amount of gold and silver and copper to be found underneath the surface of Haiti, but people haven’t come in there before because the Haitians wouldn’t allow them to come in on unfair terms. But those terms have now been changed and now the mining companies can come in and explore wherever they want.

Tavis: You talk in this book about these NGOs, these non-government organizations. On balance – this may be an unfair question, but on balance, have these NGOs been good or bad for Haiti?

Wilentz: Look, relief is absolutely necessary. When all of your buildings have fallen down and your streets are, you know, gaping crevices, relief is necessary. You got to pull bodies out of the rubble. You have to amputate limbs. You have to take care of people and make sure there’s a blood supply, make sure there’s water and sanitation for a people who have been injured. But after that, there’s a combination.

You know, they’re trying to build Haiti back better. That’s Bill Clinton’s slogan. But they don’t really know how to build Haiti back better because they’re not Haitians. So I think that there is a confusion over what the goals are of this reconstruction effort.

And when you say build back better, who’s deciding what’s better? And Haitians were not, to my mind, included enough in the conversation about what would happen to their country.

Tavis: So who is deciding then what makes a better Haiti? I ask that against the backdrop of the reality that, since the earthquake, they have a new president. So he’s not new new, but they’ve got a new president since the earthquake. So who’s making those decisions about what makes a more better Haiti?

Wilentz: Well, I think it’s the giant organizations that came in like UNICEF and the International Red Cross, also USAID, which has been a presence in Haiti for a long time, and the French government, also the U.S. government. They’ve had a large role in deciding where monies would go after the earthquake.

And they would meet in clusters and in tents and not even invite the Haitian president, the Haitian president before this president. So the new president was seen as a good partner for this kind of reconstruction. But basically as I see him, he’s a rubber stamp for whatever they want to do. So he’s a good Haitian to include because he’ll say yes to everything.

Tavis: So if the president is essentially, to your mind at least, a rubber stamp, then how do you turn the tide against what’s happening in Haiti?

Wilentz: I think the tide is turning a little bit, but I’m worried about it too. I think the reconstruction effort is kind of pulling up stakes. Haiti’s not that interesting now to the international community. It’s been three years.

A lot of the money and the organizations are moving away from Haiti and the ones who will stay long-term, those are people who really will care and will learn about Haiti and learn how to help Haiti – you know, I hate to use the cliché, but how to help Haiti help itself instead of how to impose their idea of what would be good on Haiti.

Tavis: Has the money – two questions about the money. First question, has the money been getting to where it needed to be or where we thought it was going? Because a whole lot of Americans and, for that matter, folk around the world gave money to relief efforts…

Wilentz: So many people.

Tavis: To a variety of persons – variety of organizations, I should say, after the earthquake. Is the money been getting to where it needs to be?

Wilentz: Well, I think when you give like $20 or $50, you imagine that a little boy with one arm is going to be helped by your money, something like that. And I don’t think it really works that easily. It goes to a big organization that has to spend money on payroll and has to spend money on vehicles and has to spend money on housing.

So a lot of it goes to those things for that organization in country. And then they begin to figure out what they’re going to do with the money and that takes a huge amount of time and they don’t really know what they’re doing and things go through many iterations. Where should we build the housing? What should we make the housing out of? What’s the best thing for Haiti?

I mean, it’s incredible how long it takes when it’s just these people talking to each other. Sometimes I think that, if they had just taken the money that was given and put it in little packets and given it to each head of household in Haiti, it would have spurred the Haitian economy and done more development the way Haitians would like to see it done than the way it actually ended up.

Tavis: One of the reasons why something like that would never happen, to my mind at least, is that we don’t trust the agency of everyday Haitian people to do the right thing because of a view that we have about their inability to do the right thing.

Wilentz: That is really, really true. We don’t believe that they even have agency. We see them as this kind of blank nothingness on whom ideas and ways of being can be imposed, but they’re not that at all.

If you go to Port-au-Prince, you can’t believe every day how much work is being done by every Haitian even though they’re all unemployed. Because they’re all unemployed, all are trying to find ways to make money and it’s shocking, the amount of activity that goes into making a small amount of money every day for Haitians.

So there is a lot of will to do better and to make money and there’s a lot of will to work really hard, but there is no place to put all that because there aren’t so many businesses that function for Haiti within Haiti.

Tavis: If the Haitian economy could begin to work like a well-oiled, smooth-running machine even amidst the corruption, help me imagine what that nation would look like. What are they producing? What are they being compensated for? What are they trading? What resources exist on the island to make the island self-sufficient?

Wilentz: First of all, they’re agriculturally self-sufficient. That’s what I would like to see, the way they used to be 50 years ago. So I would like to see that, before American subsidized rice came into the Haitian markets and undercut the Haitian cultivator, so that would be step one.

Then I’d like to see them join into cooperatives or something so that they could export indeed their own produce, which they could do. They could raise enough to do that. I would like to see their rum industry really take off in Haiti.

They hardly export their incredibly good rum, unlike the other nations around there. The sugar industry also, which is dead in Haiti, and is alive in the neighboring Dominican Republic, all sugar cane cut by Haitians. I’d like to see that industry back in Haiti instead of in the Dominican Republic.

So agriculture, there can be industrialization as long as it’s controlled by Haitians, not outsider. Haitians are very good at all sorts of small needlework and they’re doing it now, but they’re doing it for outsiders, of course, in the international garment industry. And then there’s the mining. I would like to see that run by Haiti as opposed to by the outsiders.

Tavis: You raised a few minutes ago the name of Bill Clinton who has had over the last couple of years a sort of renaissance and he is as popular now – his popularity numbers are as high now as they’ve ever been, to say nothing of his wife, you know, the now former Secretary of State.

His numbers are awfully high. He has been our point person on this project, the U.S.’s point person on this project since the earthquake happened. So assess for me how he’s done.

Wilentz: I can’t say and I don’t know what he would say, but I believe that he would say he just couldn’t get done the things that he would like to get done. He was on the interim commission for the recovery of Haiti and that was almost a shadow or a zombie commission that lasted for two years and then folded up its tent.

He raised a lot of money with President Bush and they spent that on loans to small businesses and maybe that’s a good idea, but they were the same kinds of businesses. They used earthquake reconstruction money to do the same kinds of programs that both of the Clintons have always wanted to do in Haiti long before the earthquake.

Clinton has a long relationship with Haiti and he cares about Haiti, but the people he knows are maybe not the most imaginative Haitians that there are. They’re people who see Haiti in the old way, they’re the elite, and that’s who he knows. That’s normal that that’s who he knows. He’s a former U.S. President.

He doesn’t get down and dirty in the earthquake camps and in the shanty towns. But he needs to have people doing that for him if he’s going to continue the relationship.

Tavis: So who’s getting down and dirty in Haiti these days?

Wilentz: Well, I have a doctor in here and she’s wonderful, but she’s very small-scale. So she came down to Haiti after the earthquake. She learned Creole from her patients at the general hospital in Haiti and, slowly but surely – her name is Megan Coffee – she started to develop a tuberculosis ward in the hospital where there was not one even though Haiti has one of the worst burdens of tuberculosis in all of Latin America. And now she has a permanent ward there and she has a little fundraising organization and her aid is very targeted. That’s what I love about it.

Like she’ll say to a donor, I need a computer for this patient. He’s really interested in learning English and following the news. And then you give the money and then the patient gets the computer.

So she’s just the vessel through which things flow instead of being this big organization that kind of stops everything while it thinks and then the money sits in their coffers.

Tavis: I’ve said many times on this program over the years that – this is just me talking. I’m not a fan of any number of movies – I could run a long list of them in this town – any number of movies where the white folk ride in, save the day, rescue the Black folk.

Wilentz: Right, exactly.

Tavis: I’m so over those kind of story lines. I digress on that point. I’m only raising it because I’m wondering how it is that – you know where I’m going with this – how it is that we aid and abet Haiti in the right way, but not have this imagery that we know best, that we know everything, that we’re here to save you, to rescue you and, without us, you can’t make it, that sort of paternalistic – you know where I’m going with this.

Wilentz: Terrible thing.

Tavis: How do we aid and abet them, but not be guilty of that?

Wilentz: Yeah, it’s really hard, right? I think one of the reasons I like this doctor and one of the reasons I kind of like Sean Penn there, although he’s a swashbuckler, right? He looks like a swashbuckler, he seems to be like way above and beyond anybody because he’s a movie star, but he gets in with the Haitian people and he kind of knows a little bit about them now because he spent three years there.

Same with Megan Coffee. She lets Haiti teach her how to deal with Haiti and I think that’s the most important thing.

Then I think, when you go in with these huge organizations and so much money, you’re bound to look like the white man coming to the rescue. And it’s much better to do it in a diffuse way, but then what happens is no one knows what’s going on. There are too many little organizations.

And I think there’s so many white people who want to go in and save the poor Haitians, the poor Black Haitians, and it’s like a psychological crisis of American thinking and I don’t really understand it. But I worry in the book that I suffer from it too.

Tavis: So what makes you hopeful then? Because one could have listened to the balance of this conversation, the majority of it at least, and gotten the impression that this is a hopeless, intractable situation. So what makes you hopeful then? I assume you still are.

Wilentz: Oh, I am, I am. I swear by being hopeful. You have to be hopeful. What makes me hopeful is the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people. You know, I say that it’s not because they’re Haitian. It’s because they’re human and they’ve suffered through a lot of stuff.

And when humans suffer through something like the earthquake or suffer through centuries of poverty and they rise to the occasion which the Haitians have, they still survive. I have to have hope for them. I can’t help it.

And I know how smart my Haitian friends are and how canny they are and how wise they are in the worst of conditions. Imagine if they could finally pull out from under this yoke that’s been on them for so many years and do things the way they wanted to do things.

Tavis: I’ve heard countless people on this program and elsewhere say the same thing in their own way, that the spirit of the Haitian people is indomitable, and it is true. But everybody says that and everybody says I know they’re going to get through this because their spirit is this and they’re tough and they’re this and they’re this and they’re this. Where’s the evidence that that indomitable spirit has helped them rise to the occasion?

Wilentz: Right. It’s old evidence, isn’t it? I mean, it’s the evidence of the revolution. It’s the evidence that they’re still there.

Tavis: Yet where’s the contemporary evidence?

Wilentz: And I would say also this is something I’ve thought and maybe it’s not a right or a politically correct thing to think, sometimes I think one of the reasons the reconstruction effort didn’t work was that Haitians themselves in some way psychological way didn’t like the reconstruction effort, like they wanted to get money out of it because anyone who’s poor wants to get money, but they didn’t want the way it was imposed and that is part of why it didn’t really work.

But that’s a big effort to make, to stop that kind of thing from working perfectly and fluidly and imposing an outside culture on you.

Tavis: Do you ever see the day or a process by which the Haitian people beyond these elections every now and again will be able to use the agency that they do have to raise their voice about the things that matter to them and set this country on a course that does in fact lead toward real reconstruction?

Wilentz: I think it needs a good government in the United States and a good government in Haiti for that to happen.

Tavis: Good luck on that [laugh].

Wilentz: Yeah, exactly [laugh], thank you.

Tavis: In both places.

Wilentz: In both places at the same time.

Tavis: Yeah.

Wilentz: Whereas what normally happens is it’s a controlling government in the U.S. and a controlled government in Haiti. So when Aristide came to power on the back of what I would say was really a popular movement, not a revolution, however, the United States could not tolerate it.

And whatever our involvement was, he fell and then Clinton put him back in power. As all my Haitian friends say, Aristide II. It wasn’t really the same man, but still it was the same symbol, and even that was not tolerable.

And Baby Bush, as we call George Bush II in Haiti, Baby Bush took him out again. So that was not really tolerated and I don’t think that you can have a wave of self-empowerment in Haiti unless the United States agrees to it.

Tavis: The new book from Amy is called “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti”. She’s also the author of “The Rainy Season”. But, again, this one’s called “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti”. Amy, good to have you on the program.

Wilentz: Thanks a lot.

Tavis: Thanks for coming back on. That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm