Sean Penn’s Efforts Shine in Haiti’s Slow Quake Recovery: Books
The earthquake that slammed Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, raised billions of dollars for the perennial poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.
Yet after three years, many celebrity sound bites, countless aid officials and the clout of Bill Clinton, it isn’t easy to see how the survivors have benefited. Money it seems can be as shifty as tectonic plates or Haitian presidents.
In “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti,” Amy Wilentz tries to follow the money, check on friends and “put Haiti back together again for myself.”
Fred Voodoo is an old reporter’s term for the Haitian man in the street, and the valedictory applies not least of all because streets are ill-defined in devastated Port-au-Prince and many Freds disappeared with a death toll that has ranged -- more shiftiness -- from 316,000 to 158,000 and as low as 46,000.
Wilentz has spent years writing about the beleaguered Caribbean nation, starting with “The Rainy Season,” a young journalist’s immersion in the country’s misery, violence and verve.
It’s a remarkable book for the breadth of its coverage, from the intricacies of voodoo to the pernicious effects of deforestation, the unrelenting shadow of Washington and the incessant threat and reality of violence. Wilentz arrived just as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was forced into exile in 1986 and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Catholic priest with images of voodoo gods embroidered inside his chasuble, was emerging as a political force.
She prides herself on discovering Aristide and witnessing the laborious steps toward democracy of those years. Near the book’s end, she seems to share a friend’s attitude: “faintly disgusted, amused, finally optimistic.”
The new book moves through the post-quake ruins and tent camps capturing loss, survival and frustration in shifting pictures held together by Wilentz’s unsparing voice and a few recurring threads. One is a doctor named Megan Coffee, a selflessly effective heroine in a jury-rigged tuberculosis ward.
Another is the self-serving visitations of celebrities of any stripe, be they from medicine, politics or Hollywood.
One notable exception is Sean Penn, whom she counts “among the freest and most personally committed and involved of the reconstruction outsiders who came to save Haiti.”
His group, Wilentz writes, has helped build schools and “scores of buildings for earthquake refugees” and distributed cholera treatments around the country, while his medical staff “has treated more than a hundred thousand people.” Coffee “credits Penn with finding an unfindable diphtheria antitoxin for a patient of hers.”
As for the billions of dollars raised to help Haiti, bureaucracy and dithering have slowed disbursement, as has the persistent belief, especially in the U.S., that the country’s government and people can’t be trusted enough to receive the money directly.
Wilentz says the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund raised almost $49 million after the quake and still had $40 million at the end of 2010. A long New York Times article on Dec. 23 brought the total aid accounting closer to the present without brightening the picture.
A large portion of the money, Wilentz notes, went for immediate relief, tent camps, clean water, medical work. It did good that must be done yet built little that will last. Relief isn’t reconstruction. Beyond that, Wilentz points to the horde of “disaster professionals” who must be fed and housed, and not in tents.
“I know many aid people who say right up front that if they lived in their home countries they would never live as well as they do in disaster areas,” she writes.
Wilentz can be strident in criticizing other journalists and commentators, in fact anyone who victimizes, underestimates, patronizes or belittles Haitians. It’s often difficult to disagree, given her knowledge and commitment.
She shares her amazement and anger that both Baby Doc and Aristide somehow managed to return from exile, while she suspects that with recent reports suggesting that “possibly hundreds of millions of ounces of gold” could lie under its soil, “Haiti may find itself caught up in a new kind of global net of exploitation and destruction.”
The telling difference here from “The Rainy Season” may be that she’s only faintly optimistic. “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” is rich in people, incidents and insights that convey the quake’s long awful aftermath, and unavoidably rough with the pain and frustration of someone writing “A Letter From Haiti” to a world that can’t seem to help even if it takes the time to read.
“Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti” is published by Simon & Schuster (329 pages, $27). To order this book in North America, click here.
Muse highlights include Patrick Cole’s philanthropy forecast for 2013.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)