“PORT-AU-PRINCE — On the western outskirts of the Haitian capital, a large white house shows signs of coming back to life. Groundskeepers have torn down the campaign posters that a presidential candidate had papered all over the forest-green front gate, trimmed the long lawn, swept the winding, fir tree-lined driveway, and even planted flowers. A light illuminated the two-story house like a lantern one evening last week. The groundskeepers are busy because they and other supporters anticipate the return of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has lived in exile in South Africa since he was ousted in 2004. Supporters say the former leader will inject a sense of hope in this nation, battered by a massive earthquake, a cholera epidemic and political unrest. [full story]”
There have been entire generations of Haitians for whom “diaspora” is synonymous with abrupt, forced exile. For these Haitians the old house back home is a recurring setting for their personal and political dramas, the exile, the refugee, the reluctant emigrant – even the ousted dictator or democratically elected president – prone to obsessively casting a glance over their shoulder at the things they have left behind. Sometimes the old house sits empty except for ghosts and memories, sometimes it waits diligently minded and maintained by family and friends, and sometimes it is not your house at all anymore, the place where you used to live occupied by strangers: unruly squatters, or worse, the victor in whatever lost contest sent you packing in the first place.
In the fantasies of the exile the country itself is often much like that waiting house, and the course of Haitian politics has long been particularly prone to sudden reversal due to the unexpected return of people who think themselves its rightful owners, its ablest caretakers. Just in the last tumultuous year we have seen Wyclef (no exile, but still), then Baby Doc, and now, potentially, Titid, overturn the Haitian market cart by merely stepping off a plane and declaring themselves home. Their ambitions treat Haitian politics like a packed theater (another kind of house) where the headliner has been running late: even when the warm-up act is there doing their thing, the stage remains empty and waiting.
My parents were exile Haitians, and by extension I am as well, so we know a thing or two about waiting. Back before he became an exile, my father had been an officer in the Haitian Coast Guard, and although I suspect he was, in the main, apolitical, he had strikes against him in the form of ties to the ousted Magloire regime. He waited out the violence of the early 60s before sending my mother ahead to stay with relatives in New York, then waited some more before li pran anbasad – sought asylum – at the Colombian embassy. After waiting a few weeks there in hopes of getting to NYC, some or another friend at the embassy counseled my father to have my mother meet him in Bogota instead. The weather was better in Colombia and life would be easier there for them, the Colombian explained, but my mother spoke no Spanish, and, anyway: why bother setting up shop in an entirely different country? By then the Duvalier regime was already long in the tooth compared to any number of its predecessors; surely they would be back home in just a bit?
Of course, it would be a 20+ year wait and two American children by the time my father set foot in Haiti again, a period during which both he and his country would be rendered unrecognizable to one another. Throughout that time, my father had a house in Port-au-Prince, and among the first things he did when he went back was go inspect it. The “house in Haiti” had been a recurring object of fascination for me growing up – bafflement, really. It had initially been overrun by squatters but at some point relatives were able to wrest it from them through some or another decades-long proceeding undertaken in my father’s name. He would own it until just before he died, the “house in Haiti” a chit that would circulate between my parents and various aunts and uncles, settling debts, generating rental income, securing plans and loans all while my father watched from afar, barred from return. As a child, I remember thinking it exceedingly strange that the representatives of an exile under what I understood to be threat of imprisonment – execution, even – could successfully sue to regain a piece of property, and that odd fact in turn opened up a range of related confusions. Why were my relatives in Haiti not in any danger? Why could my mother and I go back for visits but not my father? If we did have a house in Haiti, why didn’t we stay there? Most troubling was the fact that, far from being a thing of the distant past, the life implied by the house in Haiti not only ran in stutter-stepping parallel to the life we had in Queens, it was something my parents were actively bent on reclaiming. It made me distrustful of them, truth be told. If my father had a house in Haiti, why not another family? Another son peering across the water trying to discern me in his father’s other home? Such things were not unheard of.
If exiles like my father have a common trait, it’s that they tend to be dogged by the nagging worry that they should be doing something other than whatever it is they’re actually doing at any given moment, something more important, something better. No matter what happens to them in their second life, exiles have difficulty letting go of the first life barring final and just resolution to the claims it makes on their memory and attention. Thus Duvalier refused to let go of his ill-gotten millions until house arrest forced him to abandon hope of enrichment. And it’s also why, in a perverse mirroring, Aristide will ghost Haitian politics until some as yet impossible truth and reconciliation commission airs out the full range of competing claims and counter claims both concerning his last years in office and his ouster from Haiti. For my part, I’ll always wonder about the first house my father owned while he lived in a second one with me, this even though I’ve never been there, no pictures exist, and my mother says it was likely torn down long before the earthquake, forget about finding it now. All that said, and yet, the last time I was in Haiti I remember peering through more than one closed gate gripped by the crazed suspicion that I had lived right there, in that specific Haitian house once upon a time, before I was born. It’s a sickness really, and I think all exiles have it.
Do you have an exile story? Share it in the comments…
These blogs on Haiti are part of a larger multimedia project entitled “Haiti: One Day, One Destiny.” Click here to see short and feature-length video from the series, even upload your own stories, and vote for which Haiti non-profit gets a $2,000 grant from us.