Award-winning writer and author of The Rainy Season: Haiti – Then and Now recounts her experience in Haiti following the devastating earthquake and assesses the country’s future.
April 29, 2010
Author Amy Wilentz
Amy Wilentz is an award-winning author whose '89 book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier brought the plight of Haiti to the attention of thousands in the U.S. and abroad. She's written for numerous publications, including Time, The London Review of Books and The Village Voice. The Harvard grad is a former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker and contributing editor at The Nation magazine. Wilentz also teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine. The Rainy Season: Haiti - Then and Now is her latest book.
Amy Wilentz: Nice to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: You were there, in Haiti, that is, about a week after the earthquake?
Wilentz: That’s right.
Tavis: You saw what?
Wilentz: Well, what was interesting to me was after seeing it on television and having spent so much time there, I arrived in it and it’s just very different to experience it in full 3D, with the smells and the tastes and the – it was a really devastating thing, with so many bodies underneath the wreckage.
You could really feel that, and as every aftershock hit, more dust would come up from the wreckage and into your lungs, and everybody was coughing. I saw many terrible scenes.
Tavis: Without, of course, most Americans traveling to Haiti a week after the earthquake, given that you saw it on TV and saw it in person, do you think that we have a decent sense, even, of how bad it really was?
Wilentz: I don’t think any American can understand how bad it was, except perhaps for the people who were in Katrina, because this kind of devastation doesn’t happen, usually, in our natural catastrophes. We don’t get that kind of full-on wreckage of a major metropolitan area, and I hope we never will.
Tavis: I’ve talked on this program any number of times since the earthquake, as have other persons in the media, about the courage and the stamina and the grit, the attitude of the Haitian people. They keep surviving one setback after another after another, and this has gone on for years, obviously, in their country.
What I’ve never asked, which I want to ask you now, is whether or not the notion that the cosmos is aligned against them is something that they, the Haitians, are starting to internalize.
Wilentz: I read that recently, that the Haitians are beginning to say that their country is cursed. I don’t know if they believe that, but what they – unfortunately, because they’re now much more – or before the earthquake they were much more connected to the outside world than they had used to be, they do see the difference in standards of living between what they have in their country and what the rest of the world has.
So I think they believe that they may be downtrodden and perhaps possibly oppressed by history, but I don’t believe they think that it’s a God-given curse.
Tavis: “They” is such an amorphous term; I don’t want to lump all the Haitian people under this term “they,” but there is a difference in Pat Robertson saying they’re cursed, which he was roundly checked for, as he should have been.
It’s one thing for Pat Robertson to say that, but it’s another thing if Haitians start to believe that.
Wilentz: Well, it’s a concern if Haitians start to believe it because one of the things Haitians have been noted for is uprightness and a resistance to oppression, even while being oppressed. If they start to think of themselves as cursed it would be very dangerous, because once you think of yourself as cursed there’s no real resort. There’s no real escape, and what Haiti really needs is a resort and an escape.
Tavis: Yeah. There are a number of words that start with “C” that we could raise in a conversation, a discussion about Haiti, cursed being one; the other, corruption.
How do we know whether or not all the money that Americans gave, contributed, pledged to Haiti will actually get to the people? Put another way, that that money will actually be used to rebuild Haiti?
Wilentz: Well, there are two problems involved here. One is will the money pledged actually appear and be given out? Often in these big pledges there’s a lot of PR that goes on and that money does not materialize even to begin with from the outside world.
The other question is, we talk about corruption and of course that has been historically a huge problem for the Haitian government, but there’s also a level at which a lot of the monies will disappear because they will go into the hands of foreign contractors who are down there.
They’ll do some good, but they’ll also charge too much. Things we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, we may well see in Haiti too, that the contractors are really bilking the outside donors of a lot of money, and Haitians are very concerned about that as well.
Tavis: I don’t ask this question to compare tragedies, because in terms of the sheer number of deaths there is no comparison between 9/11 and what happened in Haiti, and yet after 9/11 the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was profiled everywhere as the mayor of America for how he handled the crisis. Rene Preval, the president of Haiti – your assessment on this side of the tragedy for how he handled it?
Wilentz: Well, I have a double attitude toward Rene Preval. He really did not rise to the occasion. He’s no Churchill. His country is threatened by a terrible thing and he came out once, he went around on a little motorcycle to survey the damage. He said, “I have no place to sleep tonight.” Now, that was the right beginning, but then he sort of disappeared and he’s been a very weak leader.
On the other hand, sometimes I think one of the problems in Haiti has been the strong leader and the perception that the only way to survive in Haiti is to have a strong man who runs the show.
Wilentz: Duvalier, or Aristide was a preferred version of that, even though he didn’t really rise to that kind of level.
So I think a weak leader is not necessarily so bad as long as behind the scenes he’s doing something, and I don’t know if Preval really is doing that. I know he’s dealing with the outside donors and I know he’s dealing with the U.N. and the U.S., but is he really at all master of the situation? We can’t know until history begins to evolve a little bit more.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Aristide, of course, now in South Africa, and he was quoted in a number of news outlets as suggesting or saying he’d be happy to go back to Haiti to help out, to provide leadership.
Nothing ever came of that, to my knowledge, but what did you make even of the offer by Aristide to say, “I will go back and help to lead?”
Wilentz: Well, he’s always ready to take advantage of any situation, and I don’t blame him. He’s been outside of his country now for six years. It’s very hard to survive that and to feel that you are the person you used to be.
I think that Aristide was a great historical opportunity for Haiti that was lost through a conspiracy of both history and personality and U.S. distaste for someone who was so far to the left, perceived as being so far to the left of what was permitted by the United States within its sphere of influence at that time.
So he offers to come back. Preval has said already, “Oh, come back, you can come back,” but Aristide knows that that isn’t really an offer to welcome him back. He’s a dangerous figure to too many people in politics in Haiti now.
Tavis: If Rene Preval says, as he has, to your point now, “Come back,” why has Aristide not gone back?
Wilentz: Well, Preval says, “You can come back.” He doesn’t say, “Please come back.” Aristide understands, I think, that this means, “You can come back, but who knows what will happen at the airport? Who knows what will happen when your limousine goes to your house?
Look at Benazir Bhutto, supported by the United States, supported by a lot of powers when she went back to Pakistan, and she’s no longer with us. I think Aristide sees quite clearly that if he’s not promised security, he can’t survive in Haiti, or it’s very dangerous.
Tavis: So politically, then, given the challenges that earlier this week on this program, speaking of Katrina, as you mentioned earlier, we had Mitch Landrieu, the new mayor of New Orleans on. I asked Mitch, the new mayor, why would anybody want – I love New Orleans, but why would you want to be mayor of New Orleans right now, given these challenges?
So it’s going to require some strong leadership to turn that city around. What say we, then, about the political structure – and this is more than a conversation just about Rene Preval, because the parliamentary process in that country is, as you know, very interesting, for lack of a better word.
Wilentz: Interesting is nice.
Tavis: Yeah, interesting is an interesting word to describe the process, you know it well.
What do we say about the political infrastructure, the body politic, to help pull off the rebuilding of Haiti with all the support that has come from around the world?
Wilentz: Well, I think one thing you have to say about the political infrastructure, if we were talking before the earthquake we would say that institutions are lacking in Haiti. Now we can say that not only institutions lacking, and institutional history, but also actual infrastructure for a government is gone.
Almost all the government buildings were destroyed, and within them the best people in the government, who were actually at work at 4:00 on that afternoon, as opposed to a lot of the Haitian government, who’s no longer there at that hour.
They were killed, too, so they’ve lost a lot of their best people, their most honest people, and they’ve lost their buildings and they didn’t have the institutions to begin with.
So what really has to happen is a rebuilding from the ground up, as with the actual physical infrastructure in Haiti, and maybe that’s an opportunity. I like to see it as an opportunity, because if we don’t have hope in Haiti right now, we don’t have a lot.
Tavis: Speaking of people who are lost, one of the things that breaks my heart, Amy, every time I see these photos of students sitting in makeshift classrooms, some of them trying to, as my grandmother would say, get their lesson without even a teacher in the classroom because so many teachers were lost – hundreds of teachers lost in this earthquake.
What happens to a country that’s already been devastated and now the education infrastructure is challenged for something basic like a lack of teachers? What happens to the babies, to the kids?
Wilentz: I think one thing that you’re seeing and you may see more of, and I hope for it, is that Haitians from the Diaspora are coming back. Those are people with great educations who’ve had the opportunity to work in real economies outside of Haiti, and they’re very interested in just this question of education. I think a lot of teachers are going to go and give back to the homeland.
But in Haiti, before the earthquake the schooling was mostly private sector – very small, very poor, not organized. So again, we need this lacking Haitian government to come in and develop an educational superstructure, and it’s going to be very difficult. A lot of students were lost also, a lot of the best students, the top students.
Tavis: Earlier in this conversation I asked you what Haitians thought of themselves. Let me ask you now, after the earthquake, what your assessment is of what Haitians think of us.
Wilentz: There was a lot of feeling when I was there, and admittedly this was very soon after the earthquake, of “please come.” Haiti, which is very independent-minded and almost stubbornly anti-imperialist because of its great history, was welcoming the U.S. – what looked like an intervention, military convoys rolling through the city.
They were welcoming it because they felt there was nothing else, and I think that they’re still hoping against hope that somehow, money will trickle into the country in large enough trickles that it will actually make some difference and that the people will care enough and continue to care enough to help out until they can get back on their feet again.
But it’s very, very slow, and the man in the street is not really seeing the result.
Tavis: Finally, to your earlier point about the fact that we have to have hope in Haiti, idealism is one thing, clearly; realism is another. Since you’ve been there and written the new forward to the book, “The Rainy Season,” realistically, can it be done? Can it be turned around? Can it be rebuilt?
Wilentz: I think it’s never been done before with a place that’s this devastated. I would like to say this, though – Port Au Prince is destroyed, and Port Au Prince is often called the Republic of Port Au Prince in Haiti because it’s such an important part of Haitian culture.
But there’s the countryside, and if the countryside can be made to continue giving food, I think this could make all the difference. If seed and fertilizer are delivered and schools built in the countryside, where the people from Port Au Prince have been returning because there’s no place to live in Port Au Prince, if Haiti is re-envisioned and re-imagined in a new way outside of the Republic of Port Au Prince, I think it can be turned around.
Tavis: The book is called “The Rainy Season: Haiti Then and Now.” A reprint with a new introduction called “After the Earthquake,” by Amy Wilentz. Amy, good to have you on the program.
Wilentz: Nice to be here.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm