Tuesday, August 19, 2008

President for Life

We’d been working hard laying the foundations for the new sugar mill over the summer. It was still the rainy season, and an occasional cloudburst would flood the whole site, obscuring the massive grade beams we’d installed.
It seemed that in Haiti the 22nd of every month was some sort of holiday. Haitian patriot Jean-Jacques Dessalines named himself Emperor of Haiti (in 1804) on September 22, so that week we finally got a day off. We still had to go to the mill site in the morning, to get a few things ready for the coming week. The place was never deserted. There were many people who lived nearby, and the whole site was open to anyone who wanted to walk in.

We had our own watchman, the local "mayor," Romer Destiné, who walked around with a machete. Although he usually had a broad grin on his face, his appearance was intimidating because his face was hideously disfigured with pockmarks from a bout with smallpox when he was younger. It was rumored that earlier that year he had beheaded a man who was stealing gasoline, but the corpus dilecti had been removed before sunup. Whether this was an apocryphal tale spread by Romer himself to enhance his reputation or something that had actually happened I never found out. As Doug Gaines used to say, "You can hear anything you want to hear in Haiti."

Beside Jim O’Brien and me the only other person from our company at the site that morning was a mechanic who had been sent out from Port-au-Prince to work of some of the equipment. He was a Korean fellow by the name of Yi. He was a man of few words, but I was told he was actually from North Korea, that he’d been in their military and had escaped to the south while on some kind of offshore military expedition. You could tell he’d had a hard life, and that he was one tough son of a bitch.

Toward the end of the summer a strange figure had appeared at the job site from time to time, standing silently with his back to a building, watching. He was large, more than six feet tall, and well-dressed. In spite of the tropical heat he wore a three-piece suit, a black fedora and dark sunglasses. He carried a small square leather case, and didn’t speak to anyone. He was a member of "Duvalier’s dreaded secret police," a tonton macoute. (More on this subject later.) I thought it was strange that this morning, when there were very few people around, he was back.

Our office was on a slight hill where you could see the approach to the site. I saw Yi squinting in the distance. Then he said, "Oh, no. Oh, no. Big s–t coming! No place for me! I go! I go!" and he disappeared toward the area where we kept the equipment. In the distance was a caravan of vehicles approaching at high speed, led by something that is now more commonplace but at the time the first one I had ever seen, a white Mercedes SUV.

Taking a cue from Yi, I moved out of sight between two of the cinder block buildings. I decided to prepare myself for the coming excitement by taking a leak against one of the walls. To my surprise I looked up and there was the white Mercedes stopped in the space between the two buildings. A light-skinned woman was staring at me. At the wheel of the SUV was a chubby guy in a khaki shirt and trousers. It was Michelle Bennet Duvalier and her husband, Président à Vie de la Republique, Jean-Claude Duvalier himself. Uh-oh.

I zipped up hurriedly and walked around one of the buildings to watch the entourage. There were guys in military uniforms, business suits, and even a couple of what appeared to be clergymen. Amid much hoopla and discussion they began to inspect the site. Jim O’Brien walked over and shook hands with the president. Overall, despite the stories we had heard, he did not seem to exude evil, but gave the impression that under different circumstances he might actually have been a decent sort. (Some portray Michelle as an eager Jezebel to Jean-Claude’s reluctant Ahab, thus the source of his undoing). But as he viewed the scope of our work, he did not seem happy. Apparently he had been led to believe that progress on the project had advanced far more than it actually had. He came there expecting to see a sugar mill capable of full production within a matter of months. Instead he was treated to the bleak sight of a few rebars sticking up out of the mud.
Right after that visit things changed. We were authorized to hire more people, and to bring in several more Americans with the skills needed to put the project into high gear. The government finance people were ordered to cut loose more funds. And indeed within a couple of days one of the Ministers did deliver the first installment: a briefcase full of freshly printed Haitian gourdes.
Next installment: "The Wild West."

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