Letter responding to NYRB essay on Haiti by Berlinski

To the editor [of The New York Review of Books]:

Mischa Berlinski is thoughtful and right to observe that in Haiti one often finds oneself saying, “Yes, but …” (“Haiti: The Compromising Reality,” The New York Review, June 6, 2013). I’ve said it myself many times over three decades visiting the country. “Yes, but– that is the reality of Haiti,” Berlinski ends his piece, by way of justifying the problematic impact of the massive international aid presence in Port-au-Prince. Yes, but – Berlinski’s review of Amy Wilentz’s books The Rainy Season and Farewell, Fred Voodoo is not only unfair to Wilentz but, more importantly, replete with evasions and omissions. This is especially regrettable given how infrequently even The New York Review, generally so much more incisive and attentive than any other American periodical, is able to publish coverage of Haiti. So I hope the editors will see fit to publish this letter and/or others that take Berlinski to task.

Berlinski himself touches on a fundamental problem in his footnote to the sentence in which he glancingly acknowledges controversy over the impact of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, as well as the fact that the mission employed his wife. “Here is not the place to review the complicated history of United Nations peacekeeping in Haiti,” he writes; “and having benefited from the mission so handsomely, I am certainly not the man to conduct such a review.” On the contrary, given the importance of the UN as a fact of Haitian life today, these pages are an ideal place for such a review, and his admission should disqualify Berlinski from writing any review that sidesteps the UN’s role. He is correct to say that the UN “is guilty of the gravest charge critics have leveled against it: that it accidentally introduced cholera into Haiti.” He then adds (still in the footnote) that the charges are “discussed comprehensively” in Jonathan Katz’s recent book The Big Truck That Went By. So why wasn’t Katz’s book properly reviewed alongside Wilentz’s and – if Berlinski is, by his own admission, not the man to do so – by someone else? The charges against the UN in Haiti are too damning to be brushed off so perfunctorily.

Berlinski is more committed to his own vested interests than to achieving, or helping readers achieve, a true understanding. That’s unworthy of the magazine that I’ve read avidly for more than two decades. Almost self-parodically, Berlinski brings to mind the quote attributed to Upton Sinclair, that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his [or his wife’s] salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Here’s another charge against Berlinski’s wife’s employer for readers to consider, as related to me in September 2011 by Dr. David Walton, who supervised construction of the new 320-bed Ministry of Health/Partners in Health teaching hospital outside Mirebalais on Haiti’s Central Plateau. I asked Walton about a nearby bridge whose destruction, several years ago by a UN shipping container that came loose upstream, seriously limits access to the hospital and the town by the road that comes from Gonaïves on the coast. He told me:

For cholera they [the UN] actually said, ‘Uh, yeah, sort of, us, but not intentional.’ … However, containers destroying the bridge? I actually don’t know if they even admitted guilt, even though everyone knows they were guilty. But ultimately it would be nice if they did something. Is it realistic for them to do something? No. Do I feel they should step up? Absolutely. But from a pragmatic point of view, should we waste time lobbying them, or find some other, probably easier way to do it? Probably the latter.

The Mirebalais hospital itself is a glaring omission from Berlinski’s review, given his ostensible purpose of demonstrating the importance and value of international aid agencies in Haiti. Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante was already the third-largest employer of Haitians in Haiti (after the government and Digicel, the mobile carrier) as of September 2010, when I attended the hospital’s groundbreaking ceremony. It was set to take on another 1000 or more employees (swelling its payroll by 20 percent) when the hospital opened, as it has recently done: the largest solar-powered hospital in the world, and perhaps (as PIH co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer claims) the largest hospital in the Caribbean. Partners in Health, which for twenty-plus years has been doing mostly right what the foreign agencies that rushed to Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake have done mostly wrong, is now struggling to raise funds to continue operating the hospital. The hospital’s presence is set to have a major impact on the economy of Mirebalais and the Central Plateau, in addition to training many Haitian doctors and nurses.

Perhaps Berlinski failed to mention the hospital because it’s outside of Port-au-Prince. For Haitians, décentralisationhas become a buzzword, because they understand that the continued existence of the shameful tent cities in Port-au-Prince is directly connected to the international agencies’ refusal to work anywhere else. As one young man in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood told me in 2010:

Decentralization would be good for the country. Maybe there would be a good university au Cap [that is, in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second city on the north coast]. With that, I myself wouldn’t come here, which by the way is not a beautiful place. … You see where people are living? It’s not feasible to build houses there. Once you build houses there you put your life in danger, and you cut down trees. It’s a situation where you encourage deforestation. Whenever someone builds a house, thirty people follow him. … I think that even the international aid must consider decentralization. It would be good for the country, because right now we don’t have a country, we only have the Republic of Port-au-Prince.

My friend Gerald Oriol Jr., the Haitian founder of Fondation J’Aime Haïti, is even more blunt:

The NGOs pretty much focus on Port-au-Prince. It would have been an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives in provincial towns. But the emergency period wasn’t well planned. Everybody was like, ‘Hey, Port-au-Prince is where all the journalists are,’ and since everybody wants to get their logo on national TV, the NGOs pretty much centered relief efforts on the capital.

The failures of the stubbornly Port-au-Prince-based international agencies are highlighted in journalist Michele Mitchell’s excellent 2012 documentary film Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?In my own thirty-plus years visiting Haiti, and particularly in my three trips there since the earthquake, if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that foreigners who want to help can do so if – and, really, only if – they are prepared to work in the provinces, through thick and thin, over the long haul, in partnership with local Haitian leadership and communities. This is what my own father did with Father Fritz Lafontant – the great man who became Dr. Farmer’s mentor – and later with Father Lafontant’s equally remarkable brother, Father Octave Lafontant, through the Colorado Haiti Project. It’s what the Episcopalians of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina are doing with Partners in Health and its important offshoot Zanmi Agrikol. It’s what my friend Gigi Pomerantz, a nurse-practitioner in Milwaukee, is doing through her group www.youthaiti.org. Likewise Monique Finnigan (who is Haitian) and her Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment, which doggedly cultivates fruit orchards near Les Cayes. There are many other such groups, both religious and secular, but apparently they all fly below Berlinski’s radar.

But maybe Berlinski would dismiss my thirty-year Haitian education, as he dismisses Amy Wilentz with his claim that “naive eyes [like his own] … might see more clearly than experienced eyes.” I also doubt that Wilentz, who is fallible but who is, if anything, a reporter, would appreciate being compared to York Harding, the fictional ivory-tower academic revered by Pyle in The Quiet American. When I published my own ambivalent review of her books earlier this year (“Has Our Interest in Haiti Peaked?”), Wilentz sent me a very interesting message saying, among other things, that I had “certainly hit [her own] feelings about The Rainy Seasonright on the noggin, even if so many keep insisting to me that it is their Bible on Haiti.”

I never had any contact with Amy Wilentz until this year. I long considered The Rainy Seasonan unhelpful, indeed baleful, book – in part because of the way so many politically committed readers seized on it during the ideologically highly charged 1990s and made it, as Wilentz herself ruefully puts it, a kind of Bible on Haiti. But I now feel that Wilentz’s letter to me and, even more so, her new book reflect very well on her character as both a writer and a human being. Wilentz has been wrestling, not always successfully but I believe honestly and earnestly, with her first book’s outsized impact and equivocal legacy ever since it was published in 1989. The Rainy Season, though a crucial document, is less authoritative than Berlinski took it to be when he first read it, and Farewell, Fred Voodoois better and more telling than he thinks it is now, after his four years in country drinking the UN’s Kool-Aid.

Any topical writer’s attention to the subject matter – that is, to the suffering human beings and societies – that he or she stumbles on early in life should be sustained or revisited, as well as morally and intellectually honest. Farewell, Fred Voodoothus is a triumph in a way The Rainy Seasoncould never have been. Berlinski waves away all of this with his glib claim that his own naiveté trumps everything that Wilentz has learned the hard way.

Ethan Casey

Seattle, Washington

May 26, 2013