When Graham Greene went to Haiti, one of the many fascinating characters he met there was Aubelin Jolicoeur, above, a gossip columnist for Le Nouvelliste. It was an unusually rough time in a country accustomed to rough times. The brutal François (Papa Doc) Duvalier was in power, and his secret police, the Tontons Macoute, combed the cities, towns, and villages, hunting down enemies of the regime.
Here’s how Greene describes Jolicoeur, to whom he gives a fictional name, in Chapter Two of The Comedians, upon the narrator’s return to Haiti, by ship:
A familiar figure forced his way toward me. As a rule, he haunted the airfield, and I had not expected to see him here. He was a journalist known to everyone as Petit Pierre — a métisse in a country where the half-castes are the aristocrats waiting for the tumbrils to roll. He was believed by some to have connections with the Tonton, for otherwise how had he escaped a beating up or worse? and yet there were occasional passages in his gossip-column that showed an odd satirical courage — perhaps he depended on the police not to read between the lines…. He giggled up at me, standing on his pointed toe-caps, for he was a tiny figure of a man. He was just as I had remembered him, hilarious. Even the time of day was humorous to him….
I was lucky enough to know Jolicoeur myself for many years (“I don’t care what you write about me, as long as you spell my name correctly!” he told me, and I took him at his word). He was just as Greene described him, small, almost dainty, with a darting wit. He was clever, bubbly, and could be vicious in those moments, few and far between, when he did not feel vulnerable. I speak from personal experience. He gave me a very beautiful — but not valuable — painting once, when I paid him my only visit.
Jolicoeur was by reputation a great seducer of women but I remained heartily unseduced. The painting he gave me hangs in a room somewhere at the Oloffson hotel in Port-au-Prince. I left it there because I never felt Petit Pierre wished me well. Jolicoeur was a creature of the Duvalier era, and I was writing about the post-Duvalier period (actually it was the interim period between the Duvaliers and the Duvalierists, but we couldn’t know that back then, Aubelin and I.) I didn’t want gifts in my house from such a questionable giver.
That said, as Greene had noticed in the early 1960s, Jolicoeur was great material, because he was complicated and chiaroscuro. He was until the end unplaceable, and finally unknowable. He was not transparent.
With characteristic irony, the great lover (so many women, so many children) died on Valentine’s Day, 2005.
But now: he’s back! in the form of one of those many children, his daughter Yvanka Jolicoeur Brutus, above, who is the new mayor (interim) of Pétionville, the municipality just up the hill from the capital. She was appointed by the administration of President Michel Martelly, who took office in 2011.
Under Martelly, so many Duvalierist figures whom one had tried hard to forget have popped back out of the comfortable past, reemerging to haunt the Haitian hills: Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, his lawyer Réynold Georges, the lesser dictator Prosper Avril, and many other figures of the Duvalier era.
When I met her a few years ago, Yvanka Jolicoeur was the hostess at The View restaurant in Pétionville. The town has always been a wealthier place than the capital, a little better maintained, and importantly, less hard hit by the earthquake of 2010, and The View was like that too, a more or less grand restaurant with a wraparound terrace. This iteration of Jolicoeur was much like her father: she looked like him, she was poised, welcoming, chahhhhhhhhrming, as Aubelin would say. She was very beautiful and elegant. It was a brief meeting.
A few days ago, having learned that Yvanka Brutus had become the interim mayor of Pétionville, I sent a note to a long-standing Haiti listserv about the news. In it I questioned her qualifications for office in order to make the point that there was a new Duvalierist era in Haiti, outfitted with many of the descendants of Papa Doc’s days, if not the very figures from back then.
My note caused a mini-brouhaha on the list because I mentioned that Mayor Brutus, above again, was pretty. One vociferous poster asserted that in saying she was pretty and questioning her qualifications, I was claiming that Brutus was stupid. For the record, she’s not stupid, nor did I think so. After all, she is Jolicoeur’s daughter, and he was never stupid or thick, or inarticulate, or unknowing.
I was simply concerned about her neoDuvalierist plans for Pétionville, particularly her desire to rid the central area of market ladies. This bothered me because I recall how Papa Doc used simply to sweep the poor out of Port-au-Prince whenever he had a project that required beautification. Now, where were they to go?
Same holds true today, especially post earthquake, when housing is scarce and very expensive.
In fact, many of the poor whom the earthquake displaced from downtown Port-au-Prince migrated up to Pétionville, much to the disgust of the town’s rich residents, many of whom responded by moving even higher up the hill. The people had moved themselves into the elite’s enclave.
Brutus now proposes pushing out the petites commerçantes and the moto-taxi men, that is to say, the women and the men among the poor who are trying hard to have a little business.
It was also Brutus who had the idea of painting some of the facades of the cement-block shanties of Jalousie, a bidonville that sprawls in terraces down the hill from Pétionville to downtown, with bright Caribbean reds, blues, yellows and pinks (see my earlier post: “Urban Botox”). Many of the people who work for Pétionville’s wealthy families live in Jalousie, where there is no running water, no street lighting, no paved streets, etc., etc.
Perhaps more significantly, a view of Jalousie dominates one of the two roads leading from Pétionville into Port-au-Prince, and commuters in their SUVs who get stuck in the daily traffic jam — not just wealthy Haitians, but also foreigners working in the earthquake recovery effort, and journalists from around the world — are forced to spend a lot of time contemplating Jalousie and its implications.
Thus Brutus’ first action for Jalousie was to brighten things up for those who must look at the shantytown, not for the people living in it.
Yet: In a press conference presenting her hoped for changes, she spoke a very emphatic Creole, and that is always good. Dreadful it is to hear Haitian officials announcing changes for the Haitian people in French, which many Haitians really don’t understand. She talked, too, about doing things cooperatively, inclusively. Also good. But I can say pretty definitively that the people of Jalousie did not ask first for a cheerful paint job.
There are many ways to met lòd nan desòd, as Brutus pointed out. This means to “impose order on disorder.” And I think Haitians want this desperately. One of my most progressive friends once told me that the biggest problem of the recent era under President René Préval was that Préval’s “policies” were too laissez-faire. What was needed, he said, was discipline and order. He was particularly irate about the police wearing powder-blue shirts. And over and over in Haiti, once sees chaos submerging organization.
My point — what is it again? The fascinating Jolicoeurs are derailing me. While I’m trying to remember my point I am thinking, Oh, my God! Yvanka Brutus is certainly going to run for president one day! Petit Pierre ecstatic from beyond the grave… but back to my point, which is:
My point is that the new order can’t be the old order. One would think, duh!, but really what’s happening in Haiti is that old ghouls are rising from the earthquake’s debris. All the old thinking, which has been supported in part by the outsiders who’ve come to help with recovery but who have no new ideas, is still in play: push away the unattractive poor, house them in remote places, get them out of our sight, put ’em to work in garment-industry sweatshops and other globalized factories, etc., etc. This was Papa Doc’s exact program when he built Cîté Simone, the giant and miserable shantytown that festers along the shore of the capital.
Someone recently had a good idea, which was this: instead of pushing out the market ladies, build them a covered market designed by (often brilliant) Haitian architects. But what really has to happen is that the system (the whole big unwieldy, ungainly, corrupt system) has to change. You can’t paint over the huge problems Haiti faces: in time the paint will chip and erode in any case.
photo: Jan Sochor
In the face of gigantic structural ills, Petit Pierre’s daughter and her team resorted to paint because they understand deep down that cosmetic fixes are the only ones possible while the system, which is perhaps better called the kleptocracy, remains in place. Papa Doc knew that. The Jalousie paint job, along with Mayor Brutus’s other initial ideas and policies, remind me of Haiti’s tap-taps. These colorfully painted and meticulously decorated jitneys honk and rattle and seem to promise a breezy world of Caribbean fun and speed. But motionless in the endless traffic jams, inside all is darkness and jumble, heat and noise, and suffocation.