Port-au-Prince or Port-au-President?. This piece originally appeared here in “The Root”
Why Wyclef isn’t a big deal.
Henry Austin toured Haiti with his family in 1911. He published his account in “The New England Magazine” in an article entitled “Port au Prince or Port au President?” In it, Austin brusquely describes the political climate, the manners of the urban folk (“moun lavil” in Kreyol), and posits that the only civilized man in the whole country may indeed be Antoine Simon, then President of Haiti, whom Austin portrays as a one-of-a-kind intellectual superstar and the country’s saving grace.
During his 14-year reign as Haiti’s “président à vie”, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier waged a war of attrition against his own people, looted the country’s finances, and “disappeared” thousands of dissident voices in the political wasteland of Titanyen. Duvalier, like capitalism, was no respecter of persons.
Knowing this, one would not expect to find an abundance of Papa Doc memorabilia on display in many Haitian homes, but this was exactly what I found during a research trip last winter. In fact, most Haitians I spoke with in Port-au-Prince, both the Duvalier and Aristide generations, hasten to contrast his benevolent legacy with the chronic turmoil of the Aristide era.
There’s no doubt things were better then, one friend told me, when electricity was an everyday affair, when five Haitian “gourdes” had the purchasing power of one US dollar, when tourism was booming and Haitians had jobs. But what about the impoverished rural areas of Bombardopolis and Jean Rabel, the trigger-happy “tonton macoutes”, and all-around state-sponsored terrorism?
Now that every corner in Delmas has either “aba Préval” or “aba Titid”sprayed defiantly on its walls, Papa Doc has become the subject of a systematic forgetting (and forgiving) much the same way that Joseph Stalin has in contemporary Russia.
Students of Haitian history know the lionization of its leaders is nothing new – nearly all of Haiti’s 45 “chefs d’état” have relied on their ability to appear larger than life to gain office. The increasing likeliness that Wyclef Jean could join this illustrious genealogy prompts us to reflect on both the historic role of the presidency as well as what it would actually mean if someone like Wyclef were to win.
Strong national consensus has meant life or death for Haiti’s presidents.
Most presidents, however, manufacture national consensus. During the course of what anthropologist Drexel Woodson calls “the long Haitian nineteenth century” (1804-1915), presidents often employed rural armed militias known as “piquets” or “cacos” to solidify power under the guise of genuine civil support. In the twentieth century, Duvalier had his “tonton macoutes”; before him, presidential hopeful Daniel Fignolé had his “steamroller” protest marches.
Although Aristide ended up following this presidential tradition to safeguard his power in the late 1990s, he began his tenure with a departure from the authoritarian paradigm. “Titid,” as he’s affectionately known, revolutionized the function Haiti’s civil society played in the absence of a national consensus-building apparatus. “Lavalas”, Aristide’s national party, orchestrated hundreds of “ti legliz” “little churches” which, modeled after the Christian base community concept of the Liberation Theology movement, endorsed miniature consensus-building groups to “tèt ansanm”, or put their heads together to meet the everyday challenges within their communities.
But things fell apart once Aristide left. The “ti legliz” model spawned an ever-increasing number of “gwoupman peyizan”, or localized peasant organizations, for support which the uprooted state either cannot or will not provide. Haiti’s labyrinthine political culture, which saw 34 presidential candidates and 36 separate political parties on the ballot in 2006, is partly due to this explosion of civil society organizations.
My research with “baz” youth groups suggests a new trend in the way citizenship is performed in Haiti. “Baz” modify the “gwoupman peyizan” of the Aristide era in that they act out a model of citizenship defined by their mobility and relationship with other “baz”. These groups travel long distances to “chita pale” (literally “sit and talk”) with others, resulting in a networ k of civil-minded youth with the nation as their base.
When asked how “baz” differ from other civil society groups, one member said that “baz “represent a true “mouvman”, or movement; they insist that a decentralized dialogue take the place of the centralizing force that Lavalas exerted over the past generation. “Baz” members believe this “mouvman” is key to dismantling the hegemony of the “Republic of Port-au-Prince,” but it may also have an important impact on the coming elections, especially for Wyclef Jean, who has made his appeal to the youth base clear.
Wyclef is a “djaspora”, a sometimes pejorative term for expatriates who straddle the lines between what is Haitian and what is American. Although Haitians have been leaving Haiti for generations, the title “djaspora” is a relatively new phenomenon which began with the mass exodus under the first Duvalier regime in the 1960s. Today, over two million members of Haiti’s “Tenth Department” participate in this complex transnational identity.
Wyclef epitomizes the pinnacle achievement of this “djaspora” identity, which had captured the dreams of Haiti’s youth long before his rise to fame.
While Haitian youth are struggling to “chèche lavi” (seek a life), as the saying goes, Wyclef has “jwenn lavi” (found a life). And why not, when these same youth have been raised by the estimated $1.65 billion in remittances that “djaspora” members send back each year? Simply put, it’s not Wyclef; it’s what he symbolizes.
Should Wyclef win the November elections, assuming he’s even eligible to run, a new chapter will begin for Haiti and its Diaspora. Among the messages electing a djaspora president might send, it would signal a homing beacon to the thousands of Haitians who have also “jwenn lavi” overseas that it’s time to come home and reverse the country’s so-called “brain drain.” It might also push Haitians abroad to make good on their vows to the post-earthquake homeland.
Crucially, this may mark a political coming-of-age for the “djaspora”generation who, until now, has never consolidated outright political power.
Haiti’s constitution does not recognize dual citizenship, but this could quickly change. And although Wyclef has denied running on a “djaspora”ticket, his administration could hardly avoid setting in motion a new transnational political party.
Most reports show that the hype behind Wyclef’s candidacy is just that – hype. Wyclef, whose portrait already graces murals and “taptap” buses throughout the country, celebrated his candidacy last Thursday with a pageant of “rara” street bands before leaving to his other “home” shortly after. His pseudo-activist music and less-than-reputable NGO, not to mention his hand in the controversial documentary “Ghosts of Cité Soleil,” make him an ambitious visionary, not necessarily a grass-roots populist.
Knowing the decisive role personality cults play in Haitian politics, we must question how much of this is genuine consensus-building among the youth, and how much is shameless self-promotion. So while Wyclef’s international visibility might offer Haiti something it’s never before experienced in a “chef d’état” – afterall, it’s difficult to imagine a foreign coup ousting the world’s biggest hip-hop star – the question of Port-au-Prince or Port-au-President is as symbolic today as it was a century ago.
Department of Anthropology
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, VA 23185