Shacochis on Haiti: no true endings

February 28, 1999|By Marcia Piepgrass | By Marcia Piepgrass,Special to the Sun

"The Immaculate Invasion," by Bob Shacochis. Viking. 402 pages. $29.95.

The Immaculate Invasion" is a political military history as colorful as any Haitian painting for sale in Port-au-Prince's Iron Market. With bold strokes, Bob Shacochis paints a flamboyant but flawed picture of Haiti and the U.S. military mission called Operation Uphold Democracy which peacefully restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994.

Shacochis, contributing editor of Harper's magazine, wrote his graphic observations of the country, its people and the not-at-war soldiers after only 18 months on the island. The short stay skews his perspective of Haitian politics. Then, under the spell of a Princeton educated Haitian-American musician at the Hotel Oloffson, the journalist loses his objectivity, which further undermines his book's credibility.

Haiti is, as Shacochis describes, a land with "a coastline Polynesian in its splendor" but also home to "fetid harbor-side slums where poor bathe in sewers, sleep on dirt and walk daily through pestilence and desperation."

Haitians are, as Shacochis portrays them, a people with gentle humor and abiding decency, as nonviolent as any people on earth, yet "able to be whipped into the hyena whirl of a mob around its victim."

They are possessed by an unwillingness to despair bred into their genetic code from centuries of horror. This resignation, "the collective trance in response to tragedy," has, he points out, a flip side -- hope.

According to the journalist, who bunked with the Green Berets in the town of Limbe, the soldiers were professional but frustrated. They had an optimistic plan to mold democracy at the neighborhood level. "The gist was best expressed by a single French word, ensemble" (together).

The Special Forces chose a mix of "old and new good guys" as candidates for a Haitian security force. Then they presented "the recruits to the population, and let the people vote -- Voila! Democracy so raw you can almost smell its placental blood." But, the idealistic soldiers were frustrated by evil thugs and bureaucratic protocol.

Shacochis' account of soldiering "where there are no friends and no enemies, no front or rear, no victories, and likewise no defeats, and no true endings" would have been the definitive work on this episode of American military operations-other-than-war. However, he relinquishes that potential by parroting public relations spins for the reinstated president.

The result, if the conclusion is to be as overstated as the condemnations in "The Immaculate Invasion," is more "bohemian journotrash" than a serious work.

Shacochis fails to extrapolate what he observes at the grass roots: that the line between the "goodies" and the "baddies" is often murky. Instead he describes Aristide from the Oloffson-based musician's perspective as "the only Haitian president who ever attempted to lead his people out of darkness" and the other side as "vermin, misguided hacks and deadly psychopaths."

Eighteen months is not long enough to recognize that Haitian history has been an endless cycle of retaliation written in blood. The truth is, neither Fraph (the right-wing, paramilitary organization of the post-Duvalier supporters) nor Lavalas (the leftist party which supports Aristide) is holy. Both are cursed with original sin. Until both sides -- right and left -- are tamed and taught to work ensemble there will be no democracy in Haiti.

Marcia Piepgrass lived in Haiti for six years during the Duvalier and post-Duvalier years. She was formerly a reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch and is currently an adjunct English professor.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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