Just past ten on a sunny morning last month in Port-au-Prince...

By Mark Danner, The New Yorker, 16 July 1990

Just past ten on a sunny morning last month in Port-au-Prince, four men carrying automatic weapons, two of whom wore the green uniforms of the Haitian Army, strolled into the garden of the Hotel Santos, where Haiti’s Council of State was meeting with union and business leaders, and asked for Dr. Louis Roy. (Roy, an eminent physician, is the president of the Council.) When they were told that Roy was inside, they began firing into the lobby, sending people diving to the floor and behind chairs and couches. After emptying their clips, they walked out of the garden, got into a car parked across the street, and drove away. Soldiers guarding a nearby building pointedly ignored them.

Dr. Roy was unhurt, but Jean-Marie Mont6s, a well-known union official, was killed, and Emmanuel Mani, a socialist politician, was critically wounded. Serge Villard—a key member of the Council of State, which since March has shared power with Haiti’s President-was also hit, and he died three days later, aboard a plane carrying him to Miami for emergency treatment.

Villard was a prominent member of the opposition that has managed to take root since 1986, when the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti. Like Roy, Villard was one of the principal authors of Haiti’s 1987 constitution, and he was credited with writing the famous Article 291, which prohibits Duvalierists from running for office until 1997. That article, along with one that stripped General Henri Namphy’s interim military government of the power to hold elections and established an independent Electoral Council for the purpose, was meant to create a new Haiti—to help Haitians hack their way free of the political entanglements of Duvalierism Without Duvalier.

The constitution was extremely popular, in large part because of Villard’s anti-Duvalierist article, but a saying in Haiti has it that constitutions are made of paper, bayonets are made of iron. In November, 1987—eight months after the constitution was adopted-men in civilian clothes attacked Haitians who were waiting in line to vote, and murdered at least thirty-four of them with machetes and automatic weapons. The military, having been deprived of their power to control the elections, did nothing-just as they did nothing a year later, on a specially proclaimed Constitution Day, when Duvalierists attacked a church during Sunday Mass, killing as many as twenty worshippers and burning the building to the ground, and just as they did nothing last week at the Hotel Santos.

Four years have passed since Duvalier left, and Haiti is on its fifth government. After the 1987 massacre, the Reagan Administration cut off almost all United States aid, which had largely funded the Haitian government since Duvalier’s departure (a departure that Washington had done much to engineer); the military hastily put together another election, which was widely believed to be rigged, and Leslie F. Manigat, a well-known professor, became President. He held office for four months before General Namphy deposed him. Namphy lasted three months before being deposed by another general, Prosper Avril, who managed to reign for eighteen months, with increasing brutality, before a popular uprising forced him to flee the country.. That happened last March; a coalition of civilian opposition leaders then installed as President an obscure Supreme Court justice, Ertha Pascal Trouillot, and formed the Council of State, made up of respected civilians, to advise her as she sought to carry out her brief: to lead the country to elections. But the President and the council have been squabbling, most recently over the President’s appointment of a woman with Duvalierist connections as Finance Minister. The council’s opposition to that appointment appears to be what led to the attack on the Santos.

Duvalier est toujours la, Haitians say: Duvalier is still here. The Duvaliers, during their three decades in power, insinuated their supporters into every nook and cranny of Haiti’s public administration, into its military, into its national industries, and into its unions, and although today the highest ranks of the government include many independent civilians, some of them well respected, the Duvalier system itself has proved impossible to root out. The justice Minister, a leading human-rights advocate, has been powerless to pursue those who have taken, part in massacres during the last four years, though the names of many of them are generally known. The Minister of National Defense seems unable to control an ill-trained, divided, and suspicious Army, which is obviously no more willing to intervene against political violence than it was three years ago.

The only ray of light, faint but unmistakable, is the emergence of a genuine opposition, including not only several legitimate political parties but a number of respected independent figures, such as Roy, who have established ad-hoc, popular institutions-the Electoral Council, the Council of State -in an attempt to circumvent the Duvalierist system. But the attack on the Hotel Santos, and the brazen manner in which it was carried out, bluntly demonstrated anew that the Duvalierists will not be excluded-that if Haitians are reckless enough to step forward once more to cast their ballots for a new Haiti there will be no one to protect them from the guns and machetes. Given what Haitians call the climat d’insecurite, few can be expected to place themselves in the line of fire again.

During the last nine months, Haitians have watched as an exemplary drama of liberation has played itself out in much of the world, unfolding according to a powerfully simple script: crowds of brave, defiant people surge through the streets, the seemingly unassailable dictatorship collapses, a new democracy is born and is proudly christened by the ballot box. But what is to be done when, as in Haiti, the dictator falls and the dictatorship remains? When the would-be democrats are shot down in the streets as they wait to vote, and the brave opposition leaders --articulate, cultured people, Haiti’s answer to Walesa and Havel—are murdered in broad daylight on their way to official meetings? When the United States government by law denies a full restoration of aid until Haitians have achieved the democratic transition that has so far eluded them? When no one comes to help, and the latest outrages barely make the inside pages of American papers?

There seems little for Haitians to do except to continue to talk hopefully of new elections, which are now expected in November; to murmur vaguely about a United Nations force, which might make them possible; and to reflect once again that their country, as it has shown so often since 1804, when it gained its independence in an unlikely slave rebellion, refuses to fit a simple script. And Haitians have learned by now the fate of places that don’t fit: unable to penetrate the darkness, the world’s spotlight dims, flickers, and moves on.