A papier-mâché of a loup-garou, or Haitian werewolf

Clifford Brandt, suspected kidnapper, under arrest


Many stories about Haiti don’t find a wider audience because they are so…. Haitian; hard to understand, dependent on a complicated base of knowledge about the place, somewhat impenetrable, really.

I recall that when I was working at Time magazine in New York, in the mid-1980s, we would get long “cables” from our valiant, tireless, far-flung Haiti correspondent, Bernard Diederich, who wrote the book Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes. Diederich’s cables would come clattering in over our machines, chk-chk-chking down the old-fashioned paper tracks, page after page.

At best, these pieces of literary and cultural brilliance, strewn with metaphorical rubies and emeralds of Haitian political gossip and baroque plots and subplots, would be read and then watered and cut down into a column of Timeprose for the magazine. At worst, editors would scan the Proustian sheets and reject the story: too insidery, too complicated — too Haitian, in fact.

But in me, Diederich had found his ideal audience, and I would read his abstruse cables with what amounted to lust. The first chapter of my first book on Haiti, The Rainy Season, was inspired in part by a tiny section of one of these Christo-length cables, about cocaine falling from the sky onto a remote Haitian village.

Now, I often see myself as a latter-day Diederich, and must force myself to curb my enthusiasm for certain Haitian stories so as not to bore or confound my outsider readers, who just cannot possibly care as much as Diederich and I have done.

However, sometimes a story, a complicated Haitian story, is too good to let it just float by into history — while every Haitian follows it moment by moment with pounding heart, and either profound ecstasy or real fear, depending on what couche of society you’re from, there.

The story of the society kidnappers is just such a story.

(I take a special interest in kidnappings, because my grandfather was the state prosecutor of Bruno Hauptmann in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case in 1932.)

On October 22, Clifford Brandt, scion of the Brandt banking and import-export fortune in Haiti, was arrested by a team of outsider investigators and Haitian police, and led the authorities to two kidnap victims, Coralie and Nicolas Moscoso, a brother and sister who themselves are also the offspring of a very wealthy Haitian dynasty. Police and outside investigators found the Moscoso kids, both young adults, alive and seemingly unharmed, handcuffed and blindfolded and lying on a mattress in a huge abandoned mansion somewhere in the hills above Port-au-Prince. A $2.5 million ransom had been demanded for their return.

A spate of kidnappings has been plaguing Port-au-Prince since the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide fell in 2004 — the terror began just before his ouster. People were plucked from the street in front of a house or office, or hustled off as they walked out of a bank, or ripped from their vehicles, and spirited away by small gangs. Blindfolded, they were taken in one vehicle after another to some unfindable hideout. Cell phones were used and tossed — these were not unplanned crimes of opportunity.

There were many theories about who was behind the enlevman, as kidnapping is called in Creole; kidnapping of this kind is always and everywhere an organized business of sorts. Many thought it was being run by the Brazilian troops who were a part of the approximately 11,000-person UN force that had been put in place in Haiti after Aristide’s fall, since Rio is a known vortex of kidnappers. Others claimed the business was being run by supporters of ousted president Aristide, in order to destabilize the new government. Others felt that it was just the usual criminal element, street thugs and drug lords taking advantage of troubled times. Everyone suspected — indeed, everyone knew — that there was police collusion, no matter who was the guiding force. No one, or no one who was talking, suspected the traditional elite.  (Now everyone in Haiti says they knew, but that’s just Monday-morning F.B.I.ing.)

To hear that Clifford Brandt and his cronies are being accused of this — it’s like having someone slap you across the face and say “How could you ever have imagined otherwise?” It’s like being set straight about something long puzzling; as if a basic truth suddenly had grown solid among the mists of lies, rumors and confusion. Not criminals, not Brazilians, not slum dwellers, not Aristide’s people, not street gangs: but the spawn of the businessmen who run the country, and their ilk. These are the gourmands and drinkers, the clubbers and gamblers and disco hangers-out of Bois Verna, Pacot, Pétionville, Péguyville, Bourdon, Laboule, and other fashionable areas of the capital. 

In times of unrest in Haiti, the folkloric figure of the werewolf, or loup-garou, seems to bestride the country like a colossus. He or she sucks the blood of the young and the weak, like a vampire, really. My acquaintances in the post-earthquake internal refugee camps are always talking about these bloodsucker figures. That’s what this kidnap ring reminds me of. There are werewolves in the camps in Haiti, and apparently, there are also werewolves in the clubs.

post earthquake internal refugee camp

a Pétionville club, photo courtesy Tripadvisor

By the way, when you think of this kidnapping ring, don’t picture wealthy African-American businessmen in crisp dashikis, reader. Many of the men reportedly associated with the conspiracy are light-skinned people in suits (check out Brandt in the photo, above), of Middle Eastern or German extraction with some Haitian origins mixed in. Also allegedly working with Brandt were a handful of police officers (initial rumors said more than 200, but only a half dozen or so have actually been detained), as well as several bank tellers who reportedly offered the ring handy information about victims’ available balances. Two of the gang’s members are alleged to have been close male relatives of President Michel Martelly and his wife. 

Many in Haiti are exultant about the arrest of Clifford Brandt, glad finally to see an elite gangster behind bars. There is enormous resentment in Haiti against the elite, much of it merited. 

It’s estimated that around eleven or twelve extended families in Haiti, many of them linked through marriage over many generations, control from 95 to 99 percent of the country’s wealth. It’s an island culture, like Sicily’s. These families are multigenerational and throw a huge net over the capital and even the country. Their rapaciousness has been supported for generations by the U.S. and other outsiders. One elite family in one generation can include a supermarket owner, a provincial agrobusinessman, a minister in the government, a high ranking police officer, and (when there was still a Haitian army) a general, to say nothing of educators, society matrons, businesswomen and bankers.

At the Deschamps bookstore in Pétionville, I once bought what I thought was, after giving it a cursory look, an encyclopedia of Haitian genealogies. What I discovered when I unpacked it, back in Los Angeles, was that this enormous volume was the genealogy of just one very powerful elite Haitian family and all its branches from before the revolution of 1791 up until the current day. It’s as if George Washington and his descendants still controlled an eleventh or twelfth of all the wealth in the United States. Combined with the Syrio-Lebanese elite, who’ve been in Haiti for three and more generations, the elite Haitian families comprise a formidable and, until now, virtually unassailable power base across the land. 

I think so many are pleased to discover that this kidnapping ring was constituted of elite members because it makes sense in the Haitian milieu. People enjoy stories that feel as if they are scripted, and this one certainly does. It reflects with extreme nicety the way the Haitian population feels about the Haitian elite. Here’s the elite’s national caricature: they’re very wealthy; they live in air-conditioned mansions that hang on the hills above the sweltering, swarming shantytowns of the city;  they are barely Haitian; they have managed to acquire dual citizenship or visas, and they never leave home without their passport, in case of unrest; every business not owned by a foreigner is owned by one of them, from car dealerships to breweries to travel agencies; they are a mafia and they run the country like a fiefdom. This caricature is not so different from an accurate portrait, not so far from truth, although of course there are some fabulous, socially committed, caring and decent people within this clannish group.

Gregory Brandt, uncle of Clifford; photo by Paolo Woods/Institute, from Foreign Policy magazine

The Brandt story, though, also has an element of shock. These people are so rich, Haitians are saying, why would they engage in violent crime to enrich themselves further? But the truth is that elite families have not often shrunk from violence as a means to protect and extend their wealth and power. Turf is highly contested among mafia families. There are those who claim that this last foiled kidnapping was simply a reglement de compte between the Brandt and Moscoso families. 

And indeed, that is another of the lessons. The elite feeds upon the elite. Brandts kidnap Moscosos. Criminals from the shantytowns are not involved; they’re so far removed from the elite as to dwell figuratively in another country, except when they are actually employed by the elite to help out with the dirty business. (And I am not even mentioning the word drugs.)

So some Haitians are gleeful; others, thinking perhaps more profoundly, are disturbed. After all, these are the people who have controlled and still control the Haitian economy, who own huge tracts of the land, who are involved — with the international community — in making decisions about Haiti’s post-earthquake future ; all this, while their fellow Haitians struggle and suffer in poverty, and have very very very little say in their own fate. 

Other than foreigners and the Haitian government, Clifford Brandt’s and his alleged co-conspirators’ relatives are among Haiti’s biggest employers. These are the people who have wealth to invest in Haiti — not that they do invest, but they could. If Clifford Brandt represents the elite’s rising generation, his reputed involvement in a kidnapping ring cannot bode well for Haiti.

That is, it cannot bode well unless this arrest and the arrest of Brandt’s alleged ring means that the elite is finally losing control of the state apparatus. That would be good.

Judging by the international element in this investigation and arrest, however, it would appear that it was not the government of Haiti but rather Haiti’s international friends who decided to step in and put an end to the ring. The huge crowd of international helpers now working in Haiti probably doesn’t like to work under the conditions of social and judicial insecurity that have permitted this culture of kidnap. So now Brandt’s under arrest. 

Yet former totalitarian dictator and human-rights violator Jean-Claude Duvalier, having returned in 2011 from a 25-year exile, walks free in Haiti, and haunts the same clubs and restaurants as the Brandts and the rest.

Papa Doc Duvalier, left, and Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, in the early 1970s

I’ve lived in Haiti so I know what it feels like to live under this system. You feel somehow as if the elite is your intimate. Everywhere you turn, there they are: the Brandt family, the unpronounceable Mevs family, and all the others. They’re always there, having a good time, wielding power, making money, while everyone else you see lives in some famished bottom economy that it’s hard for us to fathom (though not impossible if you are a resident of L.A. where three miles from my house, people are living by the side of the highway out of shopping carts and trash pickings, and in another direction seven miles from me, people are living in golf-course-sized estates with parking lots and screening rooms and guest houses and personal gyms and parks.)

To give you an idea of the Haitian elite, here’s a quote from a story for the LA Times written just after the earthquake by Tracy Wilkinson:

“‘We have, more than ever, a tremendous responsibility to help this country rebuild. We are needed,’ Gregory Mevs said. ‘I know people, I have access, I can get financing, I know how to negotiate.’ …In Armani eyeglasses and Hugo Boss jeans, with a Mont Blanc pen in his shirt pocket, Mevs climbed into an armored SUV one day this week and escorted two reporters through some of the damaged parts of his empire. The Mevs family owns all the petroleum storage facilities in the country, 30% of the Internet business, a 2.4-million-square-foot industrial park and a network of 50 warehouses for food and other material, among many other properties. Mevs figures he lost as much as $40 million at the wharf his family owns, where most oil shipments are received. That’s only a fraction of his financial losses [from the earthquake]…. Mevs’ grandfather came from Hamburg, Germany, in search of a rare breed of parrot. [Such families in Haiti] were — and are, for the most part — merchants. Their money is from commerce.”

(I left the parrot in because I love that parrot of the Mevs ancestor. You come from Germany to the Caribbean looking for an exotic bird — you end up with a fortune in the millions…)

Like other families in the elite, the Mevs have suffered from the earthquake but have also profited. Elite land holdings outside of Port-au-Prince, valueless for decades as arid tracts in nowheresville, suddenly gained traction as open territory for emergency housing after the quake, and millions of dollars were paid to owners for the right to build temporary shelters there.

Even after the Mevs’ $40 million loss and Clifford Brandt’s arrest, I am not feeling too sorry for these people. I’m waiting for them to ante up, get together, and help out in the development of a democratic national project to pull Haiti out of its misery. While so many other talented and smart people left the country during the Duvalier days in a brain drain of disastrous proportions, these people have remained. Why?

I guess that with all those other valuable people gone, there’s a vacuum such people can fill. Like Jean-Claude Duvalier himself, perhaps they’re not that bright, not that curious. But set on personal aggrandizement and enrichment, they’ve had Haiti to themselves.