From An Unbroken Agony: Tabarre, Haiti

Saturday, February 28, 2004, 11:35 P.M. EST

The telephone in the president’s residence at Tabarre rang twice before sending a sharp click through the cranky connection. A long buzzing noise ended in a male voice that sounded watery and faraway.

“Yes.”

The American voice did not belong to the house.

“Good evening. This is Randall Robinson for President Aristide.”

A short silence. Dead space.

“He is not here.”

I waited, but the voice had finished its business.

“Can you tell me when he will be back?”

Again, the empty silence.

“No.” Louder this time.

“May I speak with Madame Aristide?”

“She is not here.”

The voice had become less neutral.

“Can you tell me when she will be returning?”

“No.”

“When Madame Aristide returns, would you tell her. . . ”

The line had gone dead.

Watching me, Hazel asked, “What is it?”

“I’m not sure.”

Some years earlier, I had gone to Haiti to serve as a monitor for the country’s parliamentary elections. I was part of a team that covered a small number of polling stations in the deep rural north of the country. Democracy was still a new idea in the country. The black poor were to take a seat at the country’s decisionmaking table for the first time in Haiti’s troubled two-hundred-year history.

The first polling station on our list, an ancient one-room wooden affair, had not yet opened when our group of four black Americans approached in a leased minivan. We chugged around a blind bend in the winding dirt road and glimpsed a file of people who were quietly waiting in the searing hot morning sun. The line snaked forward along the dusty road for the better part of a mile, or so it seemed to me. I remember that the people were standing very close to each other, their backs starched in a conspicuously formal posture. They gave the impression of sheltering one another from some unknown and nonspecific consequence they feared would befall them as a price for their democratic daring. They were old and young. They were dressed as though they had come to the polling station from church, the men in their threadbare suits, the women looking remarkably African in the bright primary colors of their wraps. It was not Sunday, however, but a weekday, around nine in the morning.

Rounding the curve and into view, there seemed something almost worth crying about in the sheer beauty of the vista—something so compellingly unforgettable in the pride and purpose written on the faces of these wretchedly poor people who were on that very morning, and in the remotest of places, coming, at long last, into ownership of their own country.

We stayed there until the last person in line, an elderly man, had voted. He was seventy-seven years old and illiterate. He possessed nothing except the modest house his family lived in, the faded, ill-fitting suit he wore for the morning’s great occasion, and his everyday work clothes.

I asked him his name through a translator.

“My name is Pierre Aristide.”

I did not know at the time that Aristide is not an uncommon name in the country. Seeing the question in my eyes, he said, “No, I am not family to the president but,” he touched his breast, “in here I am,” and smiled.

I had only been in the country for a day or so and had little opportunity to learn much. Driving in the countryside, however, I came to appreciate emotionally for the first time how widespread and painful Haiti’s poverty is, and that the color of that poverty was all but exclusively black.

I asked the old man what he meant.

“The president is our hope,” he answered. “He and we are the same.” When I seemed to require more, he said, “Not just here on the outside,” touching the dark skin on his arm, “but here on the inside,” his hand again placed over his heart.

“First time for us.” Then almost wistfully, his old eyes welling, “First time for us.”

He told me in so many words that he had come there that day to do his little part to help the president who was the first “important man” in all his long years who had wanted to help him and others like him who were black and poor.

He was sitting on a low stone wall at the time looking down at the hard black ground when he told me these things. I waited for him to continue while he decided whether he wished to or not.

“I don’t think Haiti is like other countries [pronouncing the name Ayiti]. Here, the rich people don’t want the black people to have anything.”

He seemed to forget about the translator’s presence and lifted his clouded, rheumy eyes to mine.

“Nothing! Nothing!” The words were said with a conviction I’d thought beyond the old man’s physical reserves.

“He’s going to have a hard time. Our president is going to have a hard time. I pray for him everyday. I pray for him everyday.”

The old man owned virtually nothing—not even his own pain, it would seem—for those who had been responsible for that pain furiously denied what, if anything, was owed to him for that, and before too long, had so burdened the public’s understanding with deflection and noise, as to deny the old man’s very existence in every place but in the sight of God.

In the weeks leading up to the tumult of February 29, 2004, the president and his wife carried on as usual. The threats to the government were real enough. The president had abided them, since his second term began on February 7, 2001, as the unavoidable price of effecting reform in a country that had always been irreconcilably divided between the very rich, the not so very rich, and the very poor, or, more tellingly, between whites, mulattoes, and opportunist black rulers on the one hand, and the wretchedly deprived “peasants” on the other. They were nearly all black and comprised the vast majority of the country’s 8 million people. It was from their ranks that the president rose in 1990 from a field of thirteen candidates to win the country’s first free and fair presidential election by taking 67 percent of the vote. He was a Roman Catholic priest back then, and took seriously the vow he made to the poor of working to ease their misery.

The challenge he embraced would prove more difficult than he or others in the popular movement at first imagined.