“Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti" by Amy Wilentz (Simon & Schuster, 329 pgs, $27)
The “Fred Voodoo" referred to in the title of Amy Wilentz’s impassioned but lumpy new book on Haiti, she explains, was reporters’ “joking name" for the Haitian man (or woman) in the street, at least one commonly used a few decades back in a less politically correct era.
The name now represents to her foreigners’ attitude of “condescension filled with pity," and all the stereotypes outsiders have come to attach to Haitians — as “nice people, maybe," but “disorganized, uneducated, untrained, corrupt" and somehow under the thrall of voodoo, a religion that represented “everything the white Westerner was not: exotic, African, pagan, exciting, dangerous, deep."
“The objectification of the Haitians’ victimization — that’s one aspect of the Fred Voodoo syndrome," Wilentz writes. “How beautiful the Haitians look in their misery; they always do. You can count on them." The fact that “he or she is also voluble and highly quotable, and very articulate," she goes on, “makes Fred Voodoo excellent material for video and excellent copy for the page. Indeed, for pages not unlike these pages."
Wilentz — a writer for The New Yorker and The Nation and the author of a fiercely observed 1989 book about Haiti, (“The Rainy Season") — is a Haiti veteran, who lived there for two years and has been visiting for 20; she returned shortly after the earthquake that devastated the country almost three years ago.
At its strongest, her new book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo," showcases all her formidable gifts as a reporter: her love of, and intimate familiarity with, Haiti; her sense of historical perspective; and her eye for the revealing detail. Like Joan Didion and V.S. Naipaul, she has an ability not only to provide a visceral, physical feel for a place, but also to communicate an existential sense of what it’s like to be there as a journalist with a very specific and sometimes highly subjective relationship with her subject.
This book, she writes: “is my attempt to put Haiti back together again for myself, to understand why all the simplest hopes and dreams of the men and women they call Fred Voodoo have been abandoned, and to stack the pieces flung apart by the earthquake back up into some semblance of the real country. I wanted to figure out, after so many attempts by so many to uphold democracy, why Fred and all his sisters have become, in our eyes at least, mere victims, to be counted up on one ledger or another as interesting statistics, casualties of dictatorship, of poverty, of disaster, of outside interference, of neglect, of history — of whatever you want to point a finger at — rather than as active commanders of their own destiny."
Wilentz does a powerful job of conveying the devastation wrought by the earthquake and the new “levels of unbearableness" it created: the “Boschian scene" at Haiti’s State University Hospital in the capital, Port-au-Prince, its courtyard stacked with cadavers, women giving birth among the dead and dying, victims expiring “on the grounds before being seen by any medical staff," people answering their phones with these words: “Alo: Yes, I’m alive."
She also conveys the mind-boggling challenges faced by Haiti, including unemployment that “has been measured by USAID at about 50 percent at its lowest, and 70 percent at its highest" (though she says it is “anecdotally and visibly, much higher than 70 percent"). Four-fifths of college-educated Haitians live abroad, she writes; “only about a third" of the country’s population has access to sanitary facilities; and only “some 10 percent have any electrical service, and that service is sporadic when it’s not nonexistent."
Woven into Wilentz’s portrait of present-day Haiti are opinionated asides about its violent history and its fraught relationship with both predatory foreigners and well-meaning missionaries and do-gooders — including the disappointing results of so many American and internationally sponsored post-quake relief and rebuilding efforts.
“Outsiders have tried for decades in Haiti to fix and meddle with and run the show," she writes, “with, on the whole, quite poor long-term results, both because Haitians often don’t have the minimal training and life experience to keep projects going, and because the outsiders have no understanding of Haitian culture."
The problem with this book is that Wilentz can let her own anger and disillusionment undermine her reporting. She makes absurdly large generalizations about outsiders’ views of Haiti, writing that they tend to regard Haitians as “slaves, or worse, zombies."
She says that Haiti — with its lack of rules and standards, and highly dysfunctional institutions — often seems like “the perfect example of what would happen if Ronald Reagan’s dream of a privatized state should become a reality." And she places outsize blame on the outside world’s intrusion into Haiti and all the temptations it brings to the poor — “possible access to instant cash, future jobs with aid organizations, possible visas, et cetera" — for fomenting corruption, misunderstanding and opportunism.
Sometimes Wilentz includes herself in her skeptical assessments of outsiders as voyeurs, naifs or leeches, who have benefited, careerwise, from their work in Haiti. More often she takes a cynical, harshly judgmental (and largely undifferentiated) stance toward the aid organizations, volunteers and reporters who have gravitated to Haiti, especially in the wake of the earthquake.
She sarcastically asserts that “misery in Haiti today is a job creator for the white man," that “a white person can make his or her reputation in Haiti now, or at least pad the curriculum vitae, and feel good about ‘giving back’ at the same time."
In Wilentz’s view, the plight of Haitians also poses “a thrilling intellectual challenge to those who wanted to come and help," and many foreign aid newbies “mistook themselves for part of a grand solution when, actually, they and the caravan itself were obviously and immediately identifiable as part of Haiti’s ongoing problem."
Many Haitians, for their part, she contends, “approach outsiders with suspicion and dread, as well as, sometimes, opportunistic expectancy" — defensive behavior shaped, she says, by the history of slavery and the “habitual watchfulness of voodoo."