Ben Fountain: Haiti and the Drug Trade





[Ben Fountain is the author of the short-story collection “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.”]

In 1999 I made a day trip from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, up to the wanly charming town of Kenscoff, a couple of hours drive into the mountains. I’d done this journey before, but not in several years, and as the road wound upward I couldn’t help being astonished by the sprawling mansions that had taken over the hillsides.

Where this road had once offered peaceful views of terraced fields, patches of forest, clusters of modest farmhouses, there now hulked villa after mind-boggling villa, as if the McMansions from Dallas’s flat-as-a-pancake suburbs had been transplanted to the mountains overlooking Port-au-Prince. Had oil been discovered in Haiti? As every turn revealed new vistas of architectural bombast, my Haitian friend in the passenger seat was shaking his head, muttering the same word over and over:

Drogue. Drugs....

...[I]f Haiti is to be rebuilt, or not merely rebuilt but transformed, then drug trafficking needs to be recognized for what it is, a primary force — arguably, the dominant force — in Haitian political life for the past 25 years....

In any country, this kind of wealth would provide ample incentive and means for acquiring power, but in Haiti the drug trade exerts an influence out of all proportion to other sectors of society. The narrative of Haitian politics since the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986 closely tracks the rise of drug trafficking. As Haiti struggled to hold elections in the years immediately after President Jean-Claude Duvalier’s ouster, compelling evidence pointed to the involvement in cocaine trafficking of Col. Jean-Claude Paul and other high-ranking officers, a faction of the Haitian military that was, perhaps not coincidentally, especially pitiless in its suppression of the democratic movement.

The military continued to be closely linked to the drug trade during Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s brief first turn as president, cut short by the coup of Sept. 30, 1991, and little changed after his ouster. Indeed, Port-au-Prince’s chief of police, Lt. Col. Joseph Michel François, emerged as the next key man in Haitian drug trafficking, presiding over a notorious network of soldiers and paramilitary attachés that, in addition to expanding the country’s drug trade, carried out a ruthless program of political terrorism in which thousands of Haitians were murdered....

Then there’s the other part. The United States leads the world in cocaine consumption, which means there is a line that goes straight from our stupendous drug habit back to the conditions in Haiti, all those years of toxic governance that set the stage for so much destruction, so much death and injury.

So it’s come to this: the richest country in the hemisphere and the poorest, the first republic and the second, trapped together in the New World’s most glaring modern failure, the war on drugs. It would be naïve to hope that Americans will quit their cocaine any time soon for Haiti’s sake. But it would be equally naïve not to recognize this huge obstacle standing in Haiti’s way, and the role we’ve played in creating it. Our aspirations for Haiti lead straight through our addictions.


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