Tom Chesshyre visits the world's first freed-slave nation to discover a country once more seeking its freedom
In The Comedians, Graham Greene’s novel about the dark days of Haiti’s Tontons Macoutes and Papa Doc, his narrator, Mr Brown, invites a friend to dinner at his hotel to meet Mr and Mrs Smith, evangelical vegetarians from the United States: ‘Come to dinner on Saturday... and meet the only tourists here.’
Last September, staying at Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince (on which Greene based the Hotel Trianon in his 1965 bestseller), photographer Doug McKinlay and myself were, by all accounts, in the same, quite surreal, position as the Smiths. We may not have been evangelical vegetarians – the fried chicken and lambi a la criolla (conch in spicy creole sauce) were just too good to be preaching against meat – but we were almost certainly the only tourists.
“You’re tourists!” exclaimed a Canadian documentary film-maker researching a series on vodou, who joined us on the Oloffson’s gingerbread veranda on our first night, clutching a rum punch à la Joseph, Mr Browns’ limping barman (his limp post-dating a visit from the Macoutes).
“Hey, these guys are tourists!” he called out to his crew, who stared as though we were circus freaks. “We never thought we’d see any tourists!”
It felt, as you might expect, extremely odd. What was going on? Here we were on a sun-soaked Caribbean island, 150km from bustling resorts in the Dominican Republic, and just over 325km from good times in Jamaica, but it was as though the outside world had been barred.
The answer was floods, coups and a party that never happened. As Haiti ‘celebrated’ its 200th anniversary of sending the French packing and becoming the world’s first freed-slave nation last year, floods were claiming hundreds of lives in Gonaïves, a trading port in the north-west of the country, where latest reports on the Oloffson’s internet were of mass burials and food riots, with ‘survivors drinking and cooking with water from ditches containing rotting bodies and raw sewage’.
And there we were with our rum punches, lambi and bottles of Prestige beer – guiltily building up a tab. The ceiling fans whirred, the cicadas screeched and the sun set in a blaze of orange through the tropical creepers and trees down the hill towards the Presidential Palace.
The latter was, of course, the centre of the political intrigue, now occupied by UN troops and members of an interim government put in place after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile by a popular revolt in February. Aristide, currently in South Africa, had introduced his own Macoutes-style secret police, the Chimeras, after being democratically elected in 2001.
“There are 10,000 of them still out there with guns,” said one local insider we met on the Oloffson’s veranda – 40 years after Greene, still the place to find out what’s going on in Haiti.
Floods or no floods, these were not exactly tourist-friendly days in Haiti. The ‘lost world’ of ‘naked girls in the pool’ in the 1940s and early 1950s, so lamented by Mr Brown, was well and truly lost.
The locals were devastated. Jacqui La Brom, one of the country’s only English-language guides, sighed: “Oh, it was going to be a wonderful year. Everything was starting to go so well. It was the 200th anniversary and we had all these bookings lined up. Then: boom! Oh, it’s dreadful!” Tourism, she said, had been considered a key component in turning round Haiti’s struggling economy (the poorest in the western hemisphere).
We headed north, to visit what is probably the world’s least-visited major attraction: the Citadelle. Built by Henri Christophe in 1820, it is a monument to the slave revolution and as breathtaking as the pyramids (go, if you don’t believe me). It is the world’s biggest fort, with walls ten metres wide, designed to keep out the French – who never came back.
Maurice Etienne, a local guide, led us to the top. “When this was built, everywhere in the Caribbean had slavery. Christophe said: ‘Listen guys, build this and be free forever.’ They said: ‘OK, let’s go for it.’ You see, dying for this building was like being sent back to Africa, to the motherland, to freedom. About 5,000 people did die.”
We talked about the doomed anniversary. “I feel like dying, really I do. After 200 years we have been reduced to this – reduced to having the UN here. We can’t look after ourselves. It feels like we have been invaded – invaded by the UN, which everyone just thinks of as the USA. I don’t see what we’re going to do from now, if the truth be told.”
It was a strange, and often moving, experience, being the only tourists in Haiti.