Rebuilding Haiti: A Slow Process

It's still unclear how many people died during the earthquake in Haiti — even three years later. Host Michel Martin talks with Amy Wilentz, author of 'Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti.' They discuss the slow process of rebuilding and how some people who are trying to help, end up doing more harm than good.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now, we want to return to a story we've visited many times before, especially in the last three years. That's when an earthquake devastated the nation of Haiti. It left tens of thousands of people dead - nobody's really sure how many - and tens of thousands of people displaced.

Since those terrible days, many eyes have turned to Haiti, movie stars and other celebrities, government officials, reporters and NGOs. Many have gone in trying to help where they could, but reconstruction and recovery at this scale for any country is immensely complicated and complex and especially so when you add it to the already complex history of Haiti.

Journalist and author Amy Wilentz is no stranger to Haiti. She lived there for a time and she's visited many, many times, both before and after the earthquake. In her latest book, she gives her thoughts on the country and how it's faring at this point in its history. It's called "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti" and she's with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Amy, thanks for joining us and happy New Year.

AMY WILENTZ: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We have to start with the title of your book, which makes perfect sense once you explain it, but who is Fred Voodoo?

WILENTZ: Well, Fred Voodoo is the nickname that, many years ago, when we were a lot less politically correct, journalists, especially European journalists, gave to the Haitian man in the street. So, you know, you'd come back after a day of reporting when the Duvalier regime was falling and someone would say to you, so did you talk to Fred Voodoo? What's Fred Voodoo saying?

MARTIN: Kind of like Joe Sixpack, so...

WILENTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...it's not one person. It's like a metaphor for your guy or gal in the street kind of thing?

WILENTZ: It's the person in the street, but it's also obviously pejorative.

MARTIN: And why farewell? Because, obviously, on the one hand, you're saying nobody wants to be summed up in a phrase like that.

WILENTZ: Right. Well...

MARTIN: I guess I'm asking you, really, why this book right now?

WILENTZ: Well, farewell because I want, as many would, to be done with this image of Haitians as people associated with one thing only, which is voodoo, which the people who are talking about the Haitians don't even understand. So I want that to be over. I want, you know, the Haitians not to be viewed by the outsiders as victims and let's say farewell to that era of Haitian history when people looked at Haiti in this terrible way and let's have Haiti join the, you know, international brotherhood of man and get on with it.

MARTIN: Let's go back a bit. I mentioned in my introduction that you've spent a lot of time in Haiti over the years. I mean, you lived there for a time. You've made - what - 30 visits over there?

WILENTZ: At least. I don't even know how many.

MARTIN: At least 30 visits?

WILENTZ: Over the course of about that many years.

MARTIN: Yeah. How did you fall in love? Because love really is the right word, isn't it, with the country?

WILENTZ: It's a sickness, as love often is. You know, I was a starting out journalist in New York and I read "The Comedians" by Graham Greene, which is a great novel about Haiti under Duvalier and I also lived in an area in New York City where there are a lot of Haitian refugees and then I saw from reading the Haitian papers that the Duvalier dynasty was going to fall and, because I knew enough about it, I was totally freaked out. I wanted to get there before it fell because I wanted to see it in action. I wanted to see the dreaded Tonton Macoute. You know, I wanted to be there.

So I did get down there, like, five days before the dictatorship fell and, when a dictatorship of that longstanding falls, it's an incredible moment in history. It's like revolutionary and everybody who's there is affected by it.

MARTIN: What is it about the country that you think has such a hold on you and other people?

WILENTZ: I think there's something about the African-American Caribbean-ness of Haiti, the strong continuation of the Vodou tradition and the culture is just amazing and it's out there and the artwork is beautiful. The music is incredible and the people, when they're charming, are utterly charming and joking and badinage is really a part of their culture and it's just really fun when it's fun for outsiders who also then have the ability to escape anything that's particularly hard or difficult.

MARTIN: How would you describe the state of the country now, after the earthquake? In whatever way you want to describe them because there are so many metrics you could use, right?

WILENTZ: Right. So there are 358,000 people living in really sorted camps now.

MARTIN: Three hundred and fifty-eight thousand people?

WILENTZ: Thousand. So that's...

MARTIN: Now, that's almost the pop - just to give people some frame of reference here, I mean, that's a little less than the population of Washington, D.C. That's...

WILENTZ: Right. And it's a little more than the estimate of people who were killed in the earthquake, so there they are. I went to visit one of the smaller camps in the Sainte-Anne Plaza, across from what had been the Sainte-Anne Church, but fell down during the earthquake. And it's just an incredible scene, people living inside monkey bars that were used to be used by children, you know, a play set and just people all stuffed together in this little square where you can still plant tents, 'cause there's actual ground as opposed to cement. And what I discovered there, was that obviously they could leave. They have free will. Nobody's stopping them from leaving. But they know that people in other camps received $500 per family from international organizations in order to go live somewhere else. And $500 to a Haitian family is not nothing, you know? It's not bupkis, it's a big deal. It's the equivalent of more than a year's earnings from most Haitians. So they're thinking well, if I leave what happens if the next day the international organizations come in and give $500 to everybody. So they stay in these horrible conditions because they think they too deserve to have those $500.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, that's a major theme of the book, in fact, the law of unintended consequences. And I don't even know how to quite describe it. I mean you describe it in the book, very clearly and very well, but this kind of icky conundrum that you face in trying to figure out where to be in this story. Like you talk about, for example, about a picture of a man who was on the cover of a Time magazine special, and you come in a year later - and the guy looks terrible. He looks, you know, zombie-like. He's got debris sticking to him. He's got a blue shirt wrapped around his head. And you come in a year later and you see the same guy...

WILENTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...looking almost exactly the same way.

WILENTZ: That was really so weird.

MARTIN: And that's kind of, and then you think oh, OK, I get it. And you talk about that fact. And I'll read a passage. Again, you say, (Reading) In fact, since the earthquake, I've made about an eighth of my income writing about Haiti and the earthquake. Without all those Haitian victims I would not have made that money. And, in fact, all my writing about Haiti has been about a continuing human tragedy that is happening to others while I profit from it. This very book that you have in your hands is one example. No share of its proceeds will directly benefit Haitian relief efforts.

So again, I would have to say well, what should you do? What should you be doing?

WILENTZ: Well, you know, I think I should be doing what I'm doing, I have to say. But what I'm doing is easy to do, because I'm not involved in a relief effort. I'm not involved - I mean I am, but they're my own petty little relief projects that I'm involved in that nobody really has to know about. So I'm a distant observer. It's easy for me to be mean and it's easy for me to see things that are wrong. It's harder for the people involved in trying to help reconstruct, to see where to go or how they're going wrong. But I think that that guy who I call Rubble Man in the book is an excellent example. There's a man who had his picture taken by Time magazine. He became kind of famous, because right after the earthquake, there were so many people coming down, so many journalist, he was like an object of interest because he had had rubble all over his face, and most of our listeners would recognize that picture, I think. But he realized that, and he was trying to monetize it. So a year later when I came down, he spotted me as a journalist - not that many were there at that time - and he came after me with rubble still attached to his face. And I was thinking my God, this man has made himself into, like, a tourist attraction. And then I thought, I also thought well, maybe rubble would still stick to your face. I don't know, you know, you get confused. It's a very confusing situation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with author Amy Wilentz about her new book, "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti." One person who comes up throughout the book who you feel has been affective there is a woman named Dr. Megan Coffee. Do you want to tell us a little bit about her? And why do you think she's been affective in situations where you think other people haven't?

WILENTZ: Well, Megan Coffee, she's an excellent American doctor, and she came to Port-au-Prince and she ended up in the University Hospital, which is the big hospital in Port-au-Prince. And her expertise is infectious diseases, so Haiti is a perfect place. Haiti has the largest burden of tuberculosis in Latin America. And she, kind of, built up an ad hoc ward. Unbelievably, there was no TB ward in the hospital, it was just an outpatient service. So Dr. Coffee had a tent and she had her TB patients. And over time, she eventually just by, sort of, being a rogue operation under their noses, the hospital decided they would build a TB ward. And she's a completely independent operator. But I think the reason she's been successful - as opposed to the much, much larger projects that have millions and, indeed, billions of dollars to give - is that she doesn't have millions and billions of dollars to give. So no one sees her as a bank account.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about your own efforts.

WILENTZ: Well, after the earthquake, I was driving out to survey the destruction, and we went through a town called Leogand. And in Leogand, we stopped at Doctors Without Borders. And outside Doctors Without Borders was a long line of people waiting to be seen by the foreign doctors. And one patient waiting was a little boy, about, almost three years old. And he was sitting on his mother's lap and he had lost both of his hands in the earthquake. That's what's called traumatic amputation, when the wall comes down and takes your hands off like that or any other body part. So he had had some kind of work done right after the earthquake on the stumps of his wrists. And I just felt bad, this little boy and he was so quiet. And I just said, you know, dropping my usual journalistic distance, I said OK, let's just take him to this place I know in Port-au-Prince and see what they can do for him. So, his name is McKinley. We plop McKinley and his mother into the car and we took them to Port-au-Prince. And he had x-rays done. And after all this, he disappeared again, into Leogand somewhere. And so this last time when I went back I said I'm going to find that kid, because I had done some questioning of doctors and found that indeed, he could have some kind of prostheses that really would help the situation. So I did find him. And now a friend of mine is going out at five in the morning to Leogand to pick up McKinley and his father and they're going to go see these doctors at the Adventist Hospital in Carrefour, and begin what will probably be a fairly long process, to get prostheses for this little boy.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds great.

WILENTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Hope we get to hear more about him.

WILENTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: I understand that you don't necessarily see yourself as an advisor or consultant, as a person to give advice, but...

WILENTZ: No, not really.

MARTIN: Which are very clear about what you think is wrong. What...

WILENTZ: I know, it's so much easier to see what's wrong than to fix it.

MARTIN: So given that we're on the - at the cusp of a new era of policy, are there some things that you would want this administration in particular - Americans in general - to be thinking about as they think about Haiti going forward?

WILENTZ: It's so very difficult. I mean I want to say - and I wish it would be for the good - I'd like to say, let's see what happens if Haiti has an election that we don't try to manipulate. But the forces in Haiti, the political scene in Haiti, is very complicated, even when there aren't outsiders mixed into the brew. But an election in Haiti hasn't been left alone in a long time, so it might be interesting to see what the outcome of that is and maybe it would be good.

MARTIN: Amy Wilentz, her latest book is called, "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti." And she was kind enough to join us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California.

Amy, thanks so much for joining us.

WILENTZ: Thank you.

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