Right now in the middle of Port-au-Prince, the earthquake-shattered remains of the Haitian National Palace (see photos below) are being demolished.

Who’s taking them down? In one of history’s lovely ironies, Sean Penn’s humanitarian group, JP/HRO, is breaking up and carting away what was surely one of the most memorable and symbolic constructions of the Marines who ruled Haiti during the U.S. occupation of the country, from 1915 – 1934. As a friend of mine who is only a casual observer of the Haitian scene wrote to me today: “[This gives] US enterprises bracketing positions as the palace’s midwife and undertaker.”  (Georges Baussan, a Paris-trained Haitian architect, designed the building.)

The Palace deserves an ave atque vale. It’s hard for me to think of a president of Haiti since 1986 whom I have not interviewed in its hallways, lobbies, and offices.  I’ve waited unconscionable hours in the grande salle outside the president’s office to talk to Henri Namphy, Prosper Avril, of course Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and after him, René Préval. I skipped some right-wingers in the midst of all that, like the military dictator Raoul Cédras, who later fled to Panama City. Each one of these men sat behind the huge gilded French empire desk in the presidential office — although only the agronome Préval had a fish pool installed in the back for a pisciculture project.

The tri-domed palace was a very great and beautiful structure; two preceding and less imposing palaces exploded and were destroyed. The Haitian presidents of those days could trust the Haitian army so little that they had moved all national supplies of explosives and ammunition into their shaky wooden palaces, and thus were literally hoist on their own petards. Hoping for continuing civilian rule, Aristide disbanded those armed forces in 1995.

From this palace, Roger Lafontant, the former head of Papa Doc’s feared Tontons Macoute, tried to steal Haiti’s presidency from Aristide in 1991, after Aristide won the first respectable post-Duvalier election by a landslide. “I am the president now,” Lafontant declared from the palace, “[Aristide] is not the president. He is nobody.” A few days later, in one of Haiti’s few brief moments of clear-eyed, foreign-supported democracy, Aristide was in the palace and Lafontant in the penitentiary.

I was lucky enough to have been given an abbreviated tour of the residential rooms by then President Aristide, who showed me the air-conditioned walk-in closet (really, one might have said, live-in closet, it was so vast)  of Michele Bennett Duvalier, Baby Doc’s haute couture wife, with its easy chairs, sofas, mirrors, refrigerated placard for furs, and a disco ball hanging from what I remember as a mirrored ceiling. As far as I know the closet was still there when the earthquake struck in January, 2010. 

But I had other, more visceral experiences of the palace. During the violent and tumultuous three-year period leading up to Aristide’s first short-lived presidency, I was often in front of the palace observing demonstrations against juntas and dictators, and I can claim the honor of having been fired on several times by the Haitian Army as I stood in the demonstrators’ midst. I’ve been swept away from the gates of the palace by crowds fleeing scattershot fire in clouds of tear gas.

Right after the earthquake, I went into the makeshift camps that had sprung up almost immediately just in front of the palace. The park in front of the palace was one of the few places in Port-au-Prince where there was real earth in which to plant pegs or sticks to hold up a temporary roof.  Sitting on boxes or tree stumps there, I talked to people who’d set up shelters made of tarps and plywood, tin and sheets, plastic garbage bags and cardboard. 

Though few presidents who’d ruled from the huge white palatial confection across the street had done much for these people in past decades, the camp-dwellers were still saddened by what they saw, the three white domes leaning and pitching against one another like three drunks after a long, long night. It didn’t matter to them that from this palace, Papa Doc had commanded the Tontons Macoute and ruled Haiti with extreme cruelty. It didn’t matter that from the palace gates the various military juntas had sent out the army to attack the Haitian people.

What these people saw in the palace was a symbol of their country, and if it couldn’t be put together again, they thought it should come down, because this wreck was not the symbol they wanted.

It’s good that these remains are coming down and being carted away. For two years and more, the ruins of the palace have seemed to represent explicitly all the post-quake failures in Haiti. But it’s sad that JP/HRO financing and organization are the ones who are putting together the demolition work, instead of the Haitian government (although, of course, with its blessing). That foreign, charitable intervention too is a symbol of Haiti.

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