Rénald Clérismé photo BBC
A few months after the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010, I drove around Port-au-Prince with my old friend and beloved mentor Dr. Rénald Clérismé, a former Catholic priest and former foreign minister, a Yale PhD who never lost the common touch. He was instrumental in organizing peasant protests in Haiti’s Northwest in the mid 1980s, and he tried later to keep Pres. René Préval’s government grounded in the popular and peasant movements.
Rénald died in Port-au-Prince on October 29. Here’s what I wrote about him after he and I spent a day three years ago visiting old sites from his years in the capital:
He’s wearing a pale blue guayabera. Black trousers. His Tagheuer bifocals rest on a sort of natural platform between his brow and his nose. His narrow, quick black eyes watch the street from behind glinting lenses. His short-cropped hair is grey, and so are his trim mustache and beard. He looks like an aging militant, an adviser to the elders of the Cuban revolution, but he drinks ginger and lime tea every morning and is obsessively optimistic.
His worldview is the opposite of my own; he always expects the best, and doesn’t mind being disappointed. “Christian!” I say to him, accusing, scolding. He says, “yes,” cheerfully. He has a voice like no other, grit and honey combined, nasal, playful. It rolls over you and sands away your resistance. He and I happen to agree on about a hundred things. Because of his long experience as a priest in the Haitian countryside, between a Haitian peasant and Rénald, with his fancy glasses and fluent French and English, there is never any significant distance. Rénald might as well have great callused, hardened, splayed feet, as Haitian peasants often do. He might as well carry a stick or straw bag, and he sometimes does. When he is among Haitian peasants, as he often is, for his work, it’s as though they are family, and in fact his mother was illiterate and his father was a peasant farmer near Arniquet, a small town in the south.
But today he and I are in Port-au-Prince, not his favorite place in the world, but that’s where he’s ended up. He’s a politician now, poor man. He laughs and shakes his head when he considers this very astounding fact.
It’s a warm day and we’ve gone out to visit the wreckage of the fifty years he’s spent in and out of Port-au-Prince. Rénald will be 75 in November . His driver has taken us up a hill in Turgeau, which used to be the highest spot to which the town of Port-au-Prince had risen – now Turgeau is eclipsed by the rubble and sketchy buildings of shanties and neighborhoods that climb higher and higher up the hill.
We’re going up to the Grand Seminaire (now in rubble), on rue Hugues, where Rénald studied with the Jesuits in the early 1960s, before François Duvalier ran the Jesuits out of the country. Across the street from the seminary, Papa Doc lived in a rented house (now entirely destroyed), and he attended Sunday services chez les Jesuits with his wife, Simone, until the brotherhood defied him.
It’s a story as old as the religio-civil wars of Europe, and as new as the recent battles in Latin America between strongmen and the liberation wing of the Catholic Church. The battle between Papa Doc and the Jesuits took place at a time when the Church was still respected in many parts of the world, and very much so in Haiti: before the scandals, before the Vatican abandoned every last liberationist, before almost every last Haitian Catholic church in the path of the fault fell down in the earthquake.
Rénald is a liberation theologian; he left the priesthood years ago, and when he and I did our tour of the city, he was a government adviser; quite a switch from the days when people thought of him as practically a peasant-worshipping Maoist cultural revolutionary. In between he was briefly Haiti’s foreign minister. He’s an old friend of Aristide’s, with whom he’s had a turbulent relationship (but who hasn’t?) and of the assassinated militant priest Jean-Marie Vincent. Both he and Vincent lived in the same Montfortain priory, in front of which Vincent was killed. Rénald was one of the priests who was involved in the land battles in the rugged northwest of Haiti. In the dusty, isolated northwestern town of Jean-Rabel, where he and Jean-Marie preached, landowners ambushed a peasant demonstration in the summer of 1987, and killed more than a hundred people. I visited the town about a year later. Chickens flew around and clucked from ominous trees, the dogs were few and all starving, and there was no running water. No one seemed to be paying any attention. You could see why it was easy to kill peasants here, if you were smart. All you needed were weapons and a plan; it was a lawless place.
Rénald was considered hyperharsh at the time, a real Marxist – as I said, a virtual Shining Path type. But it turned out that this was all right-wing hyperbole,. When I first met him, right after the massacre, he was an unsurprising leftist with a notable streak of indignant eloquence. That’s what he still is.
I will miss him, and I think Haiti will miss him, too.