By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Just before the election, I had telephoned Charles Henri Baker, one of the few candidates deemed to have any chance of facing Préval in a runoff, should Préval fail to win a clear majority. Baker’s wife answered in English, and told me to come to their house the next day. But to tell the story of my meeting with Baker, I have to first tell the story of Lafanmi Selavi, because it was Marc and Gerard who guided me through the twisting streets of Port-au-Prince to Baker’s compound, and Marc and Gerard, now 20 and 19, were veterans of Lafanmi. Those are not their real names, but in Haiti, little things can catch up to you in unexpected ways. Suffice to say that Marc was as short and shy as Gerard was tall and extroverted, and, though not related, both were members of the same small, sad family. They were, without being overly dramatic, the abandoned children of Aristide.
Lafanmi Selavi (Creole for “the family is life”) was an orphanage opened by Aristide in 1986. Marc and Gerard’s parents were alive, but had been unable to care for them, and both arrived at Lafanmi in the early part of Préval’s first presidency. They worked at Radyo Timoun (Children’s Radio), a station set up by Aristide and run entirely by youth from the orphanage, who reported and broadcast everything that went on the air themselves.
In the beginning, Aristide dropped by Lafanmi all the time. He knew the kids by name, and they adored him. They would visit him at home and swim in his pool. He met with the kids who ran the radio station two times a week and called them often on the phone. His work with Lafanmi became a focal point of Aristide’s international support. Wealthy liberals from Canada and the States sent checks. But sometime in 1998, Aristide grew distracted. He came around less often, and turned the orphanage over to political appointees who didn’t care much for the kids. Conditions deteriorated. In 1999, the orphans staged a protest. Aristide had promised to find jobs for the older boys and hadn’t delivered. The boys shut down the radio station, blockaded the building and stopped traffic in the street. The police broke it up with tear gas and arrested more than a dozen kids.
Two months later, the shelter closed. “Aristide came one afternoon,” Gerard’s brother remembered. “It was raining.” He told the kids there had been a bomb threat. “It’s not safe to stay here,” he said. “We’ll stay in touch.” He didn’t. Lafanmi never reopened. Those who could lodged with friends or relatives. The rest went back to the streets.
The next year, they took the radio station away. Adults took over and turned the station into a propaganda machine for Lavalas. It was still called Radyo Timoun, but the kids were thrown out. When they tried to see Aristide at his office, aides chased them away. They talk about him now more with sadness than with anger, like children who’ve matured too fast, whose weak-willed parents have disappointed them one time too many. “He didn’t need us anymore,” Gerard’s brother told me and shook his head in silence.
Many graduates of Lafanmi were killed by the police after the 2004 coup. Some are living in the streets. Marc and Gerard and the others I met were still as close as a family. They were among the few Haitians I spoke to who did not join in the general enthusiasm for the elections. “The system is corrupt, and once you get in it, same virus,” one explained.
“I don’t believe in leaders,” Marc told me the first day we met, not in elections or government, only in something vague and beautiful, which he called revolution.
It took two tap-taps to get to Baker’s compound. Tap-taps are Haiti’s closest thing to public transport — wildly painted pickup trucks with narrow benches welded along the beds. We climbed off the first one, crawling over the knees of the other passengers. I followed Marc and Gerard through a market crammed with people, everyone and everything in motion, women hawking batteries and plastic razors, coffee and sugar wrapped in teaspoon-size portions, a few stunted carrots or bruised mangoes. We hopped another tap-tap and got off at the end of the unpaved road that leads to Baker’s home.
Every house on the block hid behind high walls, but the razor wire set Baker’s apart, as did the sandbags, the guard on the roof, and the man at the gate with a shotgun. More guards waited inside, where light-skinned women who spoke perfect English bustled purposefully about. After five minutes, Baker emerged from behind a closed door and beckoned me into his office. Marc and Gerard sat at my side, wearing jeans and black knit caps embossed with the bereted image of Che Guevara.
Baker is a tall man with straight, white hair and a skin tone that would not look out of place at a Rotary Club luncheon in Maine. He was one of the more vocal leaders of the Group of 184, the coalition of opposition groups that helped push Aristide from power. He owns a factory not far from Cité Soleil that sews uniforms for American nurses. Baker represents what has, for better or worse, been the only functioning sector of the Haitian economy in recent years besides cocaine trafficking. In large part due to U.S. economic policies, Haiti now imports 58 percent of its foodstuffs and virtually all of its consumer goods. What industry there is produces nothing: Raw materials are shipped in, assembled in Haiti and shipped back out. Haiti’s sole marketable asset is its poverty. Labor costs are cheaper here than anywhere else in the hemisphere. The minimum wage is less than $2 a day, and even that is rarely paid. Baker represents the tiny slice of Haitian society that has profited from this arrangement.