The Rainy Season: Rich in Detail, Poor in Analysis

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For readers of news and literature concerning Haiti, the writings of author Amy Wilentz are well known. Most famous of her work is the 1989 book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon & Schuster, 1989), a book that would also foreshadow her future writings on Haiti. HaitiAnalysis publishes below a critical review of The Rainy Season. The review, originally appearing in French in the newspaper 

Haiti Progrès
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in August of 1989, is published here for the first time in English.

Kim Ives – 

Haiti Progrès
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       The Rainy Season is, in the author’s own
words, the product of her “love
affair with Haiti
,” and thus the book reads something like a love
story.  It offers a constant stream of
emotions, descriptions, and even gossip that relentlessly tease the reader to
turn the page. But like many love stories, while this lushly detailed account
of post-Duvalier Haiti appeals to the heart, it ends up disappointing the mind.
            Creating a patchwork quilt of
first-person ruminations, historical synopses, and witty portraits of the
famous and unknown, Wilentz takes the reader on a journey, not only through
Haiti’s fitful past three years, but also through her own personal struggles
and revelations. 

             Arriving in Haiti during Baby Doc’s
fall as a rookie “Haiti watcher” avowedly seeking the sensational,
Wilentz explains how she, like many North Americans, could not fathom Haitian
realities and the contrast between the country’s divinely rich face and its
desperately poor one.  With remarkable
descriptive powers and a keen eye for irony and ear for conversation, Wilentz
creates many moving and amusing vignettes: the cynical, competitive journalists
flirting and quipping in the Oloffson hotel; a troop of missionaries at the
Barbancourt factory near Boutilliers who make racist jokes and display shocking
ignorance; a circle of Gonaïviens confronting a boasting, arrogant dyas (i.e. a person recently returned
from living in the diaspora); a venomous dinner among bourgeois couples in
Petionville; good-humored sparring with Titid’s street kids. One man in Pacot
who wore cellophane wrap to stay dry in a rainstorm particularly intrigued the
            Such stories, which do sometimes
become too heavy with symbolism and drama or too oblique in meaning, reveal the
outsider’s knack for highlighting realities that the indigenous often take for
granted. But when Wilentz attempts to concretely analyze these anecdotes and
this society that so mesmerizes her, she is completely overwhelmed by its
“exoticism” and lapses into the worst sort of Western mumbo-jumbo.
example, early in the book, Wilentz exhumes the traditional – and long since
debunked – American social science theory of the “mulatto elite” to describe Haiti’s ruling class.
than 20 years after the slaves wrested power from the French in 1804,… the
black former-slave leadership had been replaced by a small mulatto and formerly
free elite, which controlled not only the reins of government and the armed
forces but most of the nation’s wealth. 
This elite was virtually indomitable…
Wilentz is content to rehash the stale analysis of countless North American
“specialists” before her, who reduce Haitian history into the most
simplistic racial and cultural formula i.e. French mulattos vs. Creole
blacks. There is no presentation – however minimal – of the long political struggle between Haiti’s landed oligarchy and comprador bourgeoisie, of the contest during the nineteenth century between parties like the Nationaux (representing the oligarchy) and the Liberaux (representing the bourgeoisie), of the many coups and counter-coups which contradict the notion of a monolithic, indomitable “mulatto elite.”.  In short, there is no class analysis.

            Wilentz does at times mention the grandons (describing them more as “rich peasants” than as a
land-owning ruling class) and even pokes a little at Papa Doc’s “Noirisme” (although she unwittingly
concurs with the theoretical precepts of this racialist outlook), but these
allusions are more like the recitations of “students whispering their biology lessons under the streetlights of
” (another of her strong memories) than analysis.  Grandons,
, the semi-feudalism that followed independence, etc. seem to be
mentioned by rote, to cover all the bases, but, like much of Wilentz’s Haiti,
their essence is clearly not understood.
            Such an unscientific approach leads
to some pretty reckless free-association later in the book, reaching its
apotheosis in the chapter dealing with vodou entitled The Beast of the Haitian Hills
Some selections:
of thought and behavior that one can see in voodoo occasionally manifest
themselves in Haitian political behavior. 
Old bokors [voodoo priests] in the hills of Haiti will look at a sick
man, nod their heads and say, “Nèg
fè, nèg defè.”
  What one man
does, another can undo.  When a houngan
[a voodoo priest] says this, he means that he can counteract a spell cast by
another houngan.  But the proverb can be
applied equally to practitioners of politics in Port-au-Prince, whose vision of
political goals is often obscured or twisted by an intense personal rivalry
with other nèg politik.  Doing and undoing: this is what Haitian
politics is about, and it is one of the reasons Haitians rarely describe
political activity as a continual movement forward, but rather as a process of
correcting the mistakes of the past.
Haitian politics is simply a bunch of petty personal squabbles which has little
to do with the actual problems of the country. 
It’s just the settling of scores.
political party, like each habitation in the countryside, has traditionally
been the province of a single powerful man. 
The parties have traditionally been based partly on ideology but mostly
on personality…  All are based on
attachment to the gwo nèg, the big
has her doubts about Haitian historian Thomas Madiou’s proposition that this cult of personality/père du famille
problem is “distinctly African”
in origin because Madiou, “a good
Mulatto, …is often condescending to black Haitians.”
  She is quite convinced that it really stems
from “the habitation.”
author is mistaken here on two counts. 
First she lumps all parties together, right and left, traditional and
progressive (whether the progressive groups are not really included in the book
– but more on that later).  To assert
that a Leslie Manigat or a Grégoire Eugène embody “Haitian politics” – rather than its traditional variant – is
to cynically reduce the Haitian liberation struggle to a simple comedy, as much
of the North American mass-media already does.
            Furthermore, the author apparently
has no other theoretical reference point than the “habitation” to explain the gwo
phenomenon.  A cursory glance at
history of the world might have helped. 
In capitalist age societies, classes are represented by parties, and
parties are represented by leaders. This is elementary. In neo-colonies and
other underdeveloped societies where bourgeois democratic institutions are
fragile (and often struggling against a feudal legacy), leaders take on more
importance because the party tends to be newer or smaller. They face repression
and other obstacles to militating among the population, holding conventions,
and the other practices of bourgeois democracy. With time and opportunity,
parties, even traditional ones like those of Bazin, Déjoie, or Claude, grow and
combine.  Others die out.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John
Hancock – Wilentz’s American “founding fathers” – were just gwo nèg too, but they laid the seeds for
modern bourgeois democratic parties.  Can
we therefore say that American politics reflects “the patterns of thought and behavior” of the slave
plantation or the factory?  Of course,
this would be silly.
            In fact, Wilentz’s analysis here is
exactly backwards.  The parties in Haiti
are based mostly on ideology (i.e. class position) and partly on
personality.  That is to say that Haiti’s
feudal heritage may leave its imprint above all on traditional Haitian politics, but it certainly is not it’s
determining factor, turning politics into a simple circus of vendettas.
            But Wilentz plunges on:
“habitations,” or parties, are vying with one another for total
control.  Power sharing is not yet a
received concept in Haitian politics. 
Thus one gwo nèg will take
possession of the National Palace – the peristyle, if one takes the metaphor
too far, as Papa Doc did – leaving all the others without a habitation whose
spoils and offerings they can live off…. 
[but] anyone who takes more than his share is subject to suspicion,
envy, recrimination, dechoukaj.  The
President is always perceived by others within the politicaille as someone who
has taken more than his fair share… Thus, the minute a man becomes
president,  he becomes a usurper of the
habitation as far as his rivals are concerned and must be overthrown.  The population in general eventually begins
to mistrust and resent the President, while fearing him, much as the members of
a habitation may fear and resent the houngan…
we have descended into the most ridiculous psycho-history.  Drunk on Haitian “specificity,”
Wilentz becomes an explorer without a compass, randomly connecting cultural
traditions and psychological theories with political dynamics.  Thus the masses’ rejection of the Haitian
President is not due to his corruption, repression, or defense of exploiting
class interests, but rather to reflexes of envy, suspicion and resentment
conditioned over generations by the houngan
on the habitation.
Duvalier [Wilentz continues] took this method of governance to its extreme: not
just Port-au-Prince, but all of Haiti, would be his habitation… In expanding
his network to include thousands of lesser hounsis – the rural Tontons
Macoute… – he established a faithful cadre willing to terrorize an entire
nation into submission to the supreme bokor.
than seeing that Duvalier represented the rural feudal oligarchy in the state
apparatus, the author thinks his allegiance with the those “thousands of lesser hounsis” was
just a tactic to expand and “defend
the habitation against rival houngans
” (i.e. hold on to power),
because “the supreme bokor
Duvalier, as a politician, was “cleverer
than most
is all in tune with the overall individualization of history that Wilentz, like
most American analysts, offer in lieu of class analysis. Thus François Duvalier
simply “wanted no elite. From [1957]
on, Duvalier alone was to be the elite
.”  On this train of logic, Duvalier’s tactics of
cult of personality, terror and mystification were just personal quirks; some
historians say it was because Papa Doc was “crazy,” but for Wilentz,
he was “cleverer.” 
            In fact, we can see throughout the
history of Latin America and the world, other Duvaliers, who ruled the way they
did not because of idiosyncratic ruthlessness or dementia, but due to the
dictates of class struggle.  In the early
1800’s in Argentina, the caudillo-champion Juan Noel de Rosas brought a reign
of terror and mystification just like Duvalier’s as a part of the Argentine
oligarchy’s struggle with European imperialism. 
Hitler’s Germany was not the product of one man’s psychoses, but issued
from a fierce inter-imperialist rivalry that followed World War I.  Whenever reigns of terror take place, be it
the French Revolution or Haiti during the 1960s, it is invariably the sign of
one class trying to wrest political power from a formidable opposing
class.  By reducing Haiti’s history to
the individual, Wilentz obfuscates this.
            The effects of this individual
approach are responsible for both the book’s beauty and its weakness.  There are many rich in-depth portraits.  Gangan Pierre, a toothless, eccentric painter
living in a scrubby hut, becomes the book’s 
“good voodoo” voice; the long-time Duvalierist Max Beauvoir,
with his fortified luxury home and “cure
for AIDS,
” embodies voodoo at its most villainous and mystifying.  There is Mimette, a young slum dweller who
flies hope-filled kites; Lucy and Abner, peasants struggling to survive in
Duverger; Bernadette, the Northwest charbon merchant; Peter, the well-meaning
but manipulated CARE worker.
the main portrait is that of Father Aristide, which runs the length of the
book.  Here, Wilentz is at her most
always liked Aristide.  Almost everyone
did, if they had the chance to meet him. 
He would say brutal things, and yet the most decent Haitian matrons
turned around and kissed him afterward…. You wanted to kill him, sure, but he
was too cute to kill.
relates her extensive conversations with the priest in neatly packaged tidbits,
covering his view of the different political situations, religion, specific
personalities, his own security, and the future of Haiti.  The conversations are absorbing and even
inspirational.  Her descriptions of life
and characters around St. Jean Bosco also bathe Aristide in familiarity and
            But ironically in the end, Wilentz’s
treatment of Aristide, as tender as it is, does him a disservice.  The priest’s individuality – his
psychological state, background, temperament, etc. – begin to overshadow his
political positions.  For instance, his
opposition to the November 1987 elections resulted largely because “he was not temperamentally or politically
inclined to compromise
,” that is, he was just kind of innately
intransigent and “hotheaded.”  In fact, “he was a true believer, with all that implies,” a reference,
one assumes, to the 1970s reactionary book The
True Believer
by psychologist Eric Hoffer, which classifies any
revolutionary commitment to a political struggle as a mere psychological need for
belonging and self-esteem, producing blind or cruel deeds.  Thus, Aristide being a “true believer… implies” that his
positions were extreme, naive, and irrational. 
He was a zealot.
            In Wilentz’s portrait, the messianic
Aristide becomes a kind of demi-God, hovering above his devout, blindly loyal
flock of sheep.  There is hardly any
allusion to the rest of the popular sector of which Aristide is a part.  CATH, APN, LAPPH, KID, and many other groups
receive only passing mention, if any at all – and often it is
unflattering.  For example, if one reads
between the lines, we see that popular organizations calling for a boycott of
the 1987 elections were themselves just “politicians.”  But
Aristide was not a politician
i.e. a houngan looking to control the habitation.  For Wilentz, after the November 1987
elections on into 1988, Aristide was “the
only one left in public opposition… He kept on talking when everyone else was
silent… The rest of the opposition had been quashed or was regrouping
.”  This is a deliberate framing-out of groups in
the popular sector, who along with Aristide after November 1987, were very
vocal and active, having gained more respect and credence for their prediction
of the debacle.  Why does Wilentz ignore
this sector?
because Wilentz’s political position can be placed squarely in the midst of the
KONAKOM sector, Haiti’s principal reformist social-democratic tendency.  Next to Aristide, her most sympathetic
character is an heroic but anonymous KONAKOMish “Senatorial
Candidate” from around Gonaïves who offers various pearls of wisdom
throughout the book.  Like a knight, he
rides, straight-backed and stoic, on a bicycle along Route National #1.
            She describes the first KONAKOM
Congress at length.  For her it was not
an event that laid the foundation for the bourgeoisie’s and electoralist petty
bourgeoisie’s accommodation with the CNG, the first turn on a renegade road
that would divert thousands into misguided campaigns for the Constitution and
U.S.-sponsored “elections.” 
No, it was “a grassroots
movement for democracy
Wilentz often cites Victor Benoit and others of his ilk, unwittingly
unearthing some opportunist gems.  For
example, faced with the CNG’s dropping of the democratic mask in June 1987,
either Benoit or another KONAKOM “senatorial
” anonymously says:
were surprised by history.  We had been
willing to go along and just keep our eye on the situation, on the CNG, but
once Namphy blundered so badly in dealing with CATH, we seized the moment.  Really, we had no choice.  It seemed the politically apt thing to do.
KONAKOM admits that they misjudged and then “had no choice” but to confront the regime.  Of course, after going through the motions of
rache manyòk during the summer of
1987, such opportunists inexorably repeated their historical errors in November
1987 and then in September 1988, as they will undoubtedly repeat them
again.  But petty bourgeois democrats,
like Benoit and Wilentz, are prisoners of their ideological outlook and
position.  Speaking of the November 1987
elections, Wilentz elaborates:
were foolish.  We didn’t quite see what
was coming.  We should have known better,
after the summer.  The signs were all
there, the murders, the attacks on the electoral offices, the writing on the
walls.  The evidence was already in….
even after November 1987, Wilentz still has not learned.  She has written a book that lionizes the
opportunist KONAKOM sector for their “bravery
against the mean old Macoutes, and excludes all mention of the “groupuscules” from the popular
sector who have consistently foreseen and warned against the traps and pitfalls
of the past three years: the Constitution, “elections,” Manigat,
Namphy II, the Poisson d’Avril “revolution,” etc..
            Thus, The Rainy Season is the quintessential liberal’s book.  It is filled with beautiful words and
descriptions that inspire hope, fear, anguish, love and other emotions, just
like the speeches of our Haitian liberals. But in essence, it offers little
more than traditional analysis of and solutions to Haiti’s problems, just like
the liberals’ political platforms.  It
belongs in the romance section of the library.