Here’s a photo in my possession of Sony Telusma, then a child (boy on right with flowers). On this day, October 15, 1994, Ti Sony, as he was called, was waiting at Haiti’s international airport for ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be returned to Haiti and the presidency by the Clinton Administration. Note: Sony is looking at the camera.
Ti Sony — I remember him so well. He was the smallest, most watchful, and least lively of all of the boys in Aristide’s collection of orphan boys, wastrels, and abandoned children, called Lafanmi Selavi (The Family is Life). I wrote about these boys in my first book on Haiti, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, and I’ve written about some of them again, in my second book (to be published on January 8, 2013), Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti.
The other boys in Lafanmi did not like Sony. He was a favorite of Aristide’s, according to them. They grumbled about the preferential treatment they thought Sony received. He was known as a sou-sou, or suck-up. They were jealous of his standing and closeness to Aristide.
I always wondered about Ti Sony: he was so small and little and helpless, yet he seemed so self-important and stuck-up and irritating. But I didn’t think about him much. I never caught him crying in a corner and I never saw him beg. He never was with the others, playing ball or scrounging on street corners. Unlike the rest of Aristide’s boys he never asked me for money; they were always clamoring around me hoping for a little gift here and there. In a way, he seemed dignified; but he also seemed like a child who had failure to thrive.
In any case, Ti Sony seemed quite self sufficient for such a little boy. I always assumed that as Aristide’s favorite among the boys, he was given enough money to satisfy him. I never asked Aristide about him. Well, maybe I did, on further thought, but my enquiries were tossed away with a laugh and a comment about Sony’s precociousness.
Sony was definitely odd man out among the children and had — to my mind — a relationship I could not understand with Aristide, when Aristide was still a Salesian priest with a shantytown parish near the waterfront.
Today, Sony, now 32 years old, is trying to bring actual criminal charges against Aristide. He says he and other boys in Lafanmi were physically abused and exploited. Aristide, he says, was “making us play in front of foreigners in order to raise money for his own political interest.”
Of course, this is hindsight, as Sony has said publicly, more or less. As Reuters has reported, he said that the children of Lafanmi did not complain earlier because “we were just kids, had no maturity. And also, one should not forget that Aristide was in power. He was the one who was controlling everything. Misery has made things clear for us. We are asking for justice and reparation.”
I don’t like to doubt the word of a former child, but let’s point out that Aristide has been out of power since 2004, when Sony was 26 and had enough “maturity” to reflect upon his childhood. Also, Aristide was out of the country from 2004 until 2011 — yet in all those years of freedom from the yoke of Aristide, Sony did not raise his voice in accusation — until now. My assumption is that he tried to get something from Aristide upon the former president’s return — a job, a position of some kind, money — and was refused. Hence these charges, now. And there is always the very real possibility that Ti Sony is being paid to raise these charges. That’s always possible anywhere, and more so in the parish of the very very poor, in the parish of les misérables.
However weird Aristide’s relationship was with the boys (and I did not see any depraved or criminal action or behavior, for what that’s worth), it was of mutual benefit. Aristide may have used the boys to position himself politically, but they also got street protection from him, as well as a level of housing, meals, and some instruction. He got them a car wash where they could make money in an organized way washing cars. He put them in a house in a bourgeois neighborhood and got them some classes, medical care, and vocational instruction.
It was a use-use relationship. Not one boy among them ever told me that he loved or even liked Aristide. But they were mostly very loyal to him because he was their chef.
Lafanmi wasn’t much of a community. It wasn’t well organized. Aristide’s commitment to the boys was never deep or caring or really serious. It wasn’t what I as an outsider wanted it to be — there was no romance to it, or sweetness, really, or gentleness. It was very Haitian. Aristide as priest and then president had some power; the boys often benefited. And he benefited from their Dickensian ragtaggedness, from having this troupe behind him. But when I look at my first Haiti book, The Rainy Season, I see that nowhere do I show an emotional connection between Aristide and the boys. They had the emotional closeness of Fagin and the Artful Dodger, without, I hope, the criminality.
Aristide wasn’t passionate about these boys in particular, but he cared about their condition in theory, and used them as a symbol of the Haitian people. And he proved his point: the Haitian people were a political tool he wielded to win his presidential election.
But the Haitian people, at the time (in the late 1980s and the 1990s, and perhaps still, among the older ones), thought their relationship to Aristide (and his to them) was much more serious and important. Because they felt that way, they made it such. That’s how he got to be president twice (or you could say, three times). That was the power that pushed Bill Clinton to invest the United States in Aristide’s return to Haiti.
And now I find it ironic beyond heartsickness that Sony is trying to bring Aristide down with the charge that the former president used the boys to raise money for his political cause.
He may be right. But if that’s a crime, there are a lot of outsiders in Haiti now who’ll be facing charges. Because that’s what the whole damned post-earthquake show has been about, in a much more instrumental way.
It’s all been about using Haitians to raise money. All the reconstruction groups have done it: showing photos and videos of homeless Haitians, lost children, limbless Haitians, crippled Haitians, raped Haitians, starving Haitians, Haitians living in rain and mud in tents and under tarps, Haitians suffering and crowded, without proper water, jobless, bathing in cholera… And yet less than half of the money disbursed by these organizations (which is again less than half of what they raised from the earthquake), less than half of the disbursed funds raised on these images of Haitian suffering, has trickled down to suffering Haitians.
Sony’s just part of the post-quake zeitgeist. I feel bad for him, but I don’t trust him.