So many of the scenes from this earthquake have reminded me of the early days.
I first stepped onto the broad central square that was the heart of the Haitian government on the morning of Feb. 7, 1986. Just hours earlier, when it was still night, I’d seen Jean-Claude Duvalier, heir to his father’s dictatorship, flee the country with his wife, children and mother, driving a BMW sedan down the airport road and taking it onto a United States cargo plane bound for France. He’d left so late that I was exhausted when dawn came, but still we all descended on the sprawling plaza to see what the new day would bring. Haiti’s experiment with democracy had begun, sort of.
Without Mr. Duvalier, Haiti was a new country, or so we imagined, and so the Haitians imagined, too, initially. That Feb. 7, 24 years ago today, belonged to the Haitian people, and they paraded by the tens of thousands into the square. Here they were surrounded by the structures of Haitian government: the palace, first of all, and the Duvaliers’ paralytic, underutilized Justice Ministry, and so many other municipal buildings that had been filled with rot and corruption. Down the people flocked, carrying freshly cut branches in their upraised fists like symbols of a new life. With the dynasty at last evicted, the Haitian state could finally rise to its mission — to serve the Haitian people.
The Haitians hadn’t just gotten rid of Baby Doc, after all. They’d also begun to expunge the legacy of his father, François Duvalier, a far more important historical figure than Jean-Claude. Papa Doc, who died in 1971 and bequeathed the country to his feckless 19-year-old son, had ruled for 14 long years as an old-fashioned dictator. He used the apparatus of the state to sweep away his enemies, to spy on opposition leaders and to murder perceived and actual rivals, their families, their maids, their dogs. He left corpses on street corners to rot, burned down houses, sometimes with the residents locked inside, lied without shame to foreign officials and the press and shut down all speech at home. He patrolled the countryside with a network of underlings and thugs.
With his ultraviolent rule, Papa Doc set a tone for Haitian governance that has been copied since, but never quite duplicated. Still, his regime was based not just on violence but also on ideology. He’d come to power as a noiriste, an advocate for black power in a country where black power had a singular meaning: to end the rule of Haiti’s mulatto elite, which had been in control of the country’s economy and cosmopolitan life for more than a century, and whose hegemony had been strengthened by the United States during its military occupation from 1915 to 1934.
Papa Doc wanted what the elite had, literally (houses, bank accounts, businesses, land, status), and black power was the ideology he used to justify his depredations. He was the Midas of corruption, though, and noirisme in Haiti was undone by his rule. Although the dark-skinned middle class was empowered during his regime, by the time his son was overthrown (taking his light-skinned and controversial wife with him), most of that class was also eager to see the end of Duvalierism. The family’s rigid kleptocracy had further impoverished and isolated Haiti, and everyone wanted out. (And the story continues: Last week, a Swiss court agreed to release more than $4 million in no doubt ill-gotten gains to Jean-Claude Duvalier.)
The fervor of that February morning nearly a quarter-century ago flooded into the days and weeks that followed, and a kind of ad hoc movement emerged from the people’s desire for change and a new social order. Off the people tramped: to the offices of Ernest Bennett, Jean-Claude’s father-in-law (a BMW distributor, interestingly). To the Duvaliers’ “country” house on the side of the mountain above Port-au-Prince. To the homes of Duvalierist officials, supporters, enforcers. To the headquarters of the Tontons Macoute, the Duvaliers’ secret police.
In each of these places, crowds both angry and gleeful gathered to participate in what was by then called the dechoukaj, or uprooting, in Haitian Creole. All over the country, in mountain villages and coastal towns, the same phenomenon. Piece by piece, usually without tools, the people took down targeted buildings and removed what was inside, erasing the dynasty from the country’s architecture.
In St.-Marc, on the western coast, I watched the people remove bathroom fixtures from the home of a Tonton Macoute, and drop them outside. On Delmas Road in Port-au-Prince, I saw them burn an official’s files and smash his televisions. At the Duvaliers’ country house, tiles from the walls were taken one by one. At Macoute headquarters in Pétionville, the tiny, latrine-like prison cells were destroyed and all the furnishings shattered. Under the permissive influence of dechoukaj, people went too far, and there were many hideous summary executions of Tontons Macoute and others. In the end, the people descended on the national cemetery in Port-au-Prince and stone by stone, cement block by cement block, tile by tile, put to ruin the elaborately ugly Duvalier family mausoleum.
Dechoukaj could rip apart cement and exhume the dead, but it could never quite uproot Duvalierism. Duvalierism, it turned out, was a political state of mind, not a phenomenon arising from a single figure. In a land utterly impoverished by its historical and geopolitical heritage, no dechoukaj could fully uproot the longstanding political culture: the desire for a strong leader to make things better single-handedly; the reflexive populist recourse to a cult of personality; the autocratic tendencies of the political class.
So while Haiti moved forward in its experiment with democracy, it was with a halting step. In 1990, Haitians elected a former Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a kind of political dechoukeur himself, in the first free and fair elections in the country’s history. But coups, a mistrustful elite, foreign meddling and his own little-d Duvalierist tendencies conspired to destroy Mr. Aristide’s presidency.
In a complicated and extended political dance, Mr. Aristide was ultimately followed by René Préval, whose administration, while certainly not incandescent, had a calming influence on the roiling tide of Haitian politics. At best, dechoukaj, with its tear-down agenda, made it possible for this seemingly lesser politician to ascend, a president who practices a special brand of passive, weak-man politics.
Over the last few weeks, foreign analysts have implied that the earthquake may have undermined even these modest democratic gains. But what I saw in Haiti after the disaster led me to a different conclusion. Although the earthquake’s killing and destruction were of an unimaginable scale, we may be in a moment of grand après-dechoukaj, a moment of democratic building up.
There is no strongman now, no juntas, no Duvalier to tell the people what to do. (No President Aristide, either, who, from his exile in South Africa, is weeping over the earthquake in front of the cameras, and hoping to come home.) Instead, the Haitian people themselves have marched into the dechouked field and set about rebuilding the country.
This is what I saw as I traveled around the country on foot and on motorbike a week after the quake struck: families and neighborhood groups putting up shelters; people cooperating with aid organizations to get food for their flattened neighborhoods; teacher’s assistants hired by parents in the newly built shantytowns to teach and amuse children whose schools fell down (about 300 teachers at a conference died during the earthquake when their meeting hall collapsed). Men working in teams to remove reusable construction materials from the wreckage. Women sweeping debris from the roads with their graceful, primitive brooms. Young people caring for the wounded in makeshift clinics.
Maybe utter destruction concentrates the mind. In these conditions, do-it-yourself democracy simply works best. The quiet president, operating behind the scenes with the international community, instead of strutting before the foreign press and claiming he’ll fix everything, is perhaps at this moment not such a bad leader for Haitian democracy, after all.
When you stand in the rubble of Port-au-Prince — so recently an affecting and even a heart-tugging city that functioned on a complicated, hypercharged fuel of chaos, exposed wiring, pig slop, smog, gingerbread turrets, hot cooking oil, rum, cockfights and bougainvillea — you begin to see that Haiti’s soul resides in its people. Out of this horror, maybe they will finally be released. That is, if the rains or another quake doesn’t stop them in their tracks.
Amy Wilentz, who teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine and the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier.