10 Nov 2010

The despair of Haiti, years on from Graham Greene

The fans wobble on their ceiling stalks. At night, the drawn sun blinds clatter in the draught. The electric lights are a deep underpowered yellow. The white paint on the warped woodwork on the veranda must be a centimetre deep.

Earnest young French doctors mingle with a shrinking number of desiccated old journalists. I hear one say he’s down to his last US dollar.

The Olaffsen Hotel’s connection with Graham Greene is unmarked, and by most who pass trough here probably largely unknown. But it’s here that he wrote The Comedians, here that he captured a Haiti that is with us to this day.

It’s so difficult to pinpoint the lure of this island country. In part of course, the agony of its existence; its dark, deep religious manias. Why, last night our young driver – a fully trained, unemployed lawyer – told us he was a Freemason. It’s not something people have announced to me in the past.

Visiting the Prime Minister of Haiti in his hilltop residence yesterday was the most security-free experience with any head of government I have ever had. We simply banged at the gate and drove in. Bullmastiffs bounded to our feet. His graceful older sister greeted us with coffee and we sat down and chatted amiably amongst the palm fonds.

Yet the cauldron of spirits, threats – real and imagined – swirl around you.

Port-au-Prince remains currently the filthiest city in the Western hemisphere. Trash simply piles up on the pavements to become entwined with earthquake remnants, then to be soaked and compressed into the roadway, to await the next random deposit of garbage.

Traffic is eternal, long wiggling queues winding their way up and down this hilly place. Yet whist I shamble about in tropical fatigues – the people here are turned out in immaculately laundered shirts and dresses. How do they do it?

I’m leaving on a jet plane – don’t know when I’ll be back again. If not Peter, Paul and Mary, someone says the Stones are on the way…they could very well be. It is that sort of place.

Then there is the love and hate of America – and another love of France. The vast diaspora in the US sustains this place; facilitates (however unwillingly) the money laundering, and the fleecing of the economy. The French merely pamper the elite with perfumery and wine and an education at the Sorbonne from which they rarely return.

And the poor – kept alive by Medecins du Monde, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and a cascade of obscure agencies – Homeopaths Without Borders, and more. Strange American Christians of every shape and size, cluster in the Plaza Hotel, apparently fearing to go out. The occasional single white woman passes through with a tiny Haitian child in tow, a neat Mickey Mouse nap-sack on his back. Child trafficking? Life saving?

Come back Mr Greene! Amid it’s new and most devastating agony – make sense again of this strange land of mass deprivation, spiritual strangeness, and future uncertainty!

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

9 reader comments

  1. adrian clarke says:

    Jon , it appears little has changed in 45 years and probably little will change in the next 45.
    Haiti has no interest to the outside world other than to revel in its devastation.
    The aid agencies will continue and unless there is another catastrophic disaster,it will begin to fade in our memories

  2. Peter Stewert says:

    “Yet whist I shamble about in tropical fatigues – the people here are turned out in immaculately laundered shirts and dresses. How do they do it?”
    Some people wear clothes well and others appear as though the clothes are wearing the people down?

    Being serious, the well presented clothes could be a matter of the people having little else they can control in their lives so they might as well give their one set of clothes a good wash in the sea.

    How Haiti managed to fall behind its neighbour and fail to develop is a question to be answered (I’d need to go and read up a lot more to even make a guess), but given all the trouble that failed states caused in the previous decades we can’t afford to allow another to sprout.

  3. adz says:

    It was of course a different era when Graham Greene was writing about all the amazing places he witnessed first hand. Would his presence make any difference in 2010? I don’t think so because things were bad enough during his times and now the years have moved on but the poor lands are still given little or no attention at all.
    Child trafficking? We can’t even imagine the scale worldwide!
    My congratulations for reporting from Haiti Jon, it takes a journalist like yourself to remind us of what and how people live in forgotten decimated places like Haiti.
    adzmundo TVP

  4. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Are there still a lot of peugots in Port au Prince and what about prints of Henri Rousseau ?

    Are good cooks in Port au Prince easier to find?

    No Martha’s now.. where is the love?

  5. Meg Howarth says:

    Am rendered speechless over Haiti, and like Peter above don’t know enough to comment – haven’t even read GG’s Comedians (as far as I know). The Freemasons’ comment, like the immaculate clothes, might have been made from pride or an attempt to show that the driver was different from his fellow Haitians who share the religious manias to which you refer.

    Purpose of this post is to mention something overlooked when referring to your recent art and war programme: namely another burial-plot in St Pancras churchyard, that of Mary Woostonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman and mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein/mother-in-law of Percy B, national romantic poet. (You were missed at this week’s celebration of Michael Foot, Shelley devotee.) Mary died at the age of 38, 10 days after the birth of her daughter, from complications arising.

    What’s most poignant for me is that this fighter for women’s rights died as a direct result of that unique female experience – giving birth – while her husband, the philosopher William Godwin, buried in the same plot, lived in to his early 80s.

    And women all over the world still die in or from childbirth.

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      A couple of corrections to the above: it is, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley and mother-in-law to Percy B, her daughter’s husband. Apologies for poor proof-reading.

  6. anniexf says:

    Come home quickly Jon, the students are revolting!

    Back to the subject: unfortunately as we all know Haiti is just one more disaster to add to the rest. In my more cynical moments it seems to me that the governments of these failed states are quite content to allow NGOs like M.S.F., Oxfam, S.T.C. to stay indefinitely to keep things just about bearable (maybe some of the kudos rubs off?) while,if not actually pocketing the aid that pours (or trickles)in, take a heck of a long time deciding how to use it.
    As Meg pointed out, millions of women die worldwide in childbirth; neo- & perinatal mortality is disgracefully and avoidably high. Unless we, internationally, can get basic and vital standards introduced and maintained, anything else seems a luxury.

  7. Philip Edwards says:


    The West is quite content to allow Haiti to be devoured by corruption, just as it allowed Cuba to decay under Batista, Argentina to sink under the Junta and Chile to be tortured under Pinochet. But every now and then the people fight back and reject the horror, as they have in Venezuela and Cuba. The resistance is growing all the time. American and European subjection won’t go on forever. It only seems like it.

    The Americans and Europeans continue to go along with the Monroe Doctrine, that the region is “America’s Back Yard,” and subject only to the rip off of transnational companies. This is called “free markets” and “globalisation,” when in fact all it is is gangsterism cloaked in cliches and neglect of decency. The Americans wouldn’t even deal with the New Orleans hurricane disaster because of this rotten-to-the-core corruption of the human spirit. In the end, the victims are always ordinary human beings trying to make their way in the world.

    The Haitian disaster will re-occur elsewhere in the world. And the West will once again run into its cowardly neglect of its responsibility as relatively wealthy controllers of the planet.

    But you know all this already.

  8. sandrariley says:

    How many times did Snow get a cahcne to change his undies in haiti?

    Woulddn’t that be a good discloure for his new memoirs?.

    Always look forward to him dsiclosing info about his underwear preference.

    Was he one of thsoie who has always worn loose shorts , for a man from his generation , like the kenneth Willaims Carry on capers

    or did he only start wearinfg them when it became popular for men to do so, after the Nick Kamen add stripping off int eh lauderette?.

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