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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Voodoo, Tontons Macoutes, And Rum Punches–Sex In The Days Of The Duvaliers

Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians perhaps best described the expatriate experience in Papa Doc’s Haiti – an idyll of Victorian gingerbread, meringue, French cuisine in the hills, rum punches on the balcony of the Oloffson, grilled lobster on the beaches of les Cayes, if one kept in line, minded one’s diplomatic P’s and Q’s, and stayed well within European reserves.  Papa Doc was very welcoming of of foreigners and  suspicious of them all; but few Americans debarking from the cruise ships stopping at Port-au-Prince had any idea of the primitive, African, pagan place they had stopped to visit.

Greene’s evangelical vegetarian couple were ignorantly unaware of what lay behind the steel drums and thanks to the blissful ignorance of their righteous convictions, survived.  Their adopted host, owner of the once-sought-after, elegant Victorian hotel half-way up to Petionville, despite his demurral and amoral philosophy of let-it-be, couldn’t help himself.  His Christian morality, compassion, and sense of duty and honor were his undoing.

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Baby Doc, Duvalier’s eldest son, under pressure from America and France, had loosened the tight authoritarian control of his father and welcomed all comers.  Of course the young Duvalier, under the tutelage of his father since infancy, was no fool and continued to play the same dictatorial game as Papa Doc.  The Tontons Macoutes may have lost their sunglasses, but the secret police had never given up their allegiance to the family; and Baby Doc may have seemed to the West to be the new, young, reformist leader of a democratizing Haiti that the Caribbean was waiting for, but he was nothing of the sort.  He ruled just like his father and salted away millions in offshore accounts to prepare for the day when he would have to leave.

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Harford Billings was one of those Americans who thought they knew Haiti.  They had read Greene, Amy Wilentz, the Haitian hagiographers, and French historians.  They had read up on Toussaint L’Ouverture, The Revolution, the expulsion of the French, the emigration to New Orleans, and all about octoroons and the nouveau expatriate French and mulatto making of the city.  They knew nothing of course.  No matter how much he might have read about voodoo and its Cameroonian origins, the chaotic mix of slaves, plantation owners, and freed Caribbean men, and the turbulent history of post-Revolutionary Haiti, there could have been no way that he could have understood the racial subtlety, the defensive international posture, and the black nationalist posturing of the Duvaliers.

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None of this mattered, however, since Harford and his team of United Nations experts in Port-au-Prince were there to study deforestation, migration, and economic flux – subjects of no interest to the Duvaliers who had for decades ignored any and all socio-economic or environmental events. They were welcomed guests of the country, of no threat whatsoever, to be tolerated, treated well, and dismissed.

All of this would have been par for the course, unnoticeable and insignificant if it hadn’t been for Harford’s coloring outside of the lines, falling for a Haitian mulatto, daughter of one of the most influential families of Kenscoff, a graduate of Harvard returned to Haiti to take over much of the management of her family business.  She, thanks to her American privilege and Haitian wealth, thought herself beyond reproach and well beyond the reach of the Duvaliers with whom her family had long since concluded blood contracts.

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Their rum punches on the balcony of the Oloffson, their trysts in the Graham Greene suite of the hotel, and their public displays of affection would not have been noticed had she been an ordinary Haitian; but since she was of the mulatto elite, inheritor of millions of dollars, worth much more as representative of a now prominent global conglomerate, and direct threat to the black, Africanist  ruling class of Haiti, they were watched.

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For two years their relationship prospered.  As an international civil servant with international credentials, his coming and goings to and from Haiti were permitted without question; but once he became the lover of Evelyne Toussaint Toureau, he was put on the Baby Doc watch list.

Still, despite the surveillance that both knew was everywhere, they persisted in their affair.  They stayed away from  the more popular and more visible Oloffson in favor of the Triomphe, a hotel not far from the Oloffson and built in the same Victorian gingerbread style.  The Triomphe had the same royal palms, the same ornate balcony, the same teak balustrade, and the same pool; but somehow had missed the currency of the Oloffson.  Whether thanks to Graham Greene’s romance or the many American writers, artists, and film stars who stayed there it was the place to see and be seen.

Harford and Evelyne stayed at the Triomphe whenever he came to Haiti, so often that his Bank handlers began to question whether a relatively modest loan required so much supervision, but he was able to convince them that to achieve high performance from a country so undisciplined, corrupt, and so unfamiliar with international finance, frequent supervisory visits were necessary.  Harford suspected that the loan would never be repaid – a feelgood write-off of international political largesse – but took advantage of the idealistic commitment of senior Bank officials and its established accounting procedures to cadge visits there every two months.

Neither Harford, married, father of twins, committed husband, and dutiful son to aged parents; nor Evelyne, equally devoted and responsible daughter, married to a wealthy Haitian entrepreneur, assumed that their affair would last.  If there was ever a star-crossed relationship, it was theirs.  The onerous weight of family, society, personal responsibility, and politics militated against anything more substantial than two or three nights in the Kafka Suite, dancing in Carrefour, or a long weekend at Les Cayes.

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Yet, it was exactly because of the risk that their affair persisted.  It was illogical and dangerous to assume that her elder brother would not forcibly deport Harford or worse if discovered; nor was it unthinkable to assume that Harford’s wife, daughter of good Catholics, Radcliffe-liberated but still communion-tied, would not divorce him.

Yet most affairs thrive on suspicion, resentment, and jealousy; and if it were not for these added circumstantial interruptions, fewer wives and husbands would stray; and if affairs were simply cinq-a-sept rendezvous at a Holiday Inn, they would disappear. What could be more heady, Harford thought, than an affair with a mulatto heiress, surveilled by the Tontons Macoutes, on tropical beaches and romantic hotel balconies?

In the end it was the Haitian family who decided to put a stop to the affair – cancelled visas, deferment of all future responsibilities and engagements, a word to the Caribbean Director of Hanford’s bank.

Harford was lucky.  For far less, Americans were found floating in Port-au-Prince harbor.
International incidents and family affairs rarely coincide, so Harford’s wife took the explanation of ‘transfer to another division’ at face value.  She  was happy that he would have to travel less for his new assignment, and never suspected what had gone on for two years in the Caribbean.

It is easier to look away.  Harford’s supervisors should have known that something other than Bank business was occupying so much of Harford’s time; and Harford’s wife should have suspected the reasons for her husband’s long absences from home.

Harford could never again set foot in Haiti as long as the Duvaliers were in power; but since he was now the Program Manager for health loans in Morocco, his unwelcome was soon forgotten.  His wife made the easy elision of suspension of disbelief from Haiti to Casablanca, and never questioned his long and frequent missions there. 

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As far as Harford was concerned, the exotic locale of Casablanca. the spicy love of a tattooed Berber woman whose grandfathers herded camels in the Maghreb, and weeks on end away from Washington and his prosaic marriage were as satisfying as his trysts in Port-au-Prince ever were.

Love in a foreign climate – the book-title catch-all for exotic affairs – is not far off the mark.  A liaison in an Adams Morgan walkup may be sexually energizing especially to an end-of-career civil servant like Harford Billings, but it was bland and tasteless compared to the liaisons dangereuses of Haiti or Morocco.  The environment of these places was complicit in sexual affairs.  It was why men travel.

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