I had a fascinating conversation the other day on the way to LaGuardia from my hotel in Manhattan. The publisher sent a car for me, and my driver was a Haitian gentleman in his fifties. As we made our way across the 59th Street Bridge, we started talking about history. He is engrossed by both the French and the Russian revolutions, and spoke knowledgeably about them. An educated man, this driver. Says history is his true love.
“So tell me something about the history of your country,” I said, then asked him about the Haitian political situation.
“It is a disaster,” he said, “and it always will be. The problem with Haiti is the same problem with the African countries: the strongman always robs everybody blind. You change governments, and its the same thing, just different people at the top. Nobody who rules these countries cares about the people. They only want to get rich. This is how you have these people worth billions of dollars while their people starve.”
I asked him why it was that Haiti shared the same island with the Dominican Republic, but the Dominican Republic was much better off.
“Because they have the rule of law there,” he said. “In Haiti, there is no law. It was always whatever Duvalier said. That was the law. And that is how it has been even after Duvalier.”
He said that the light-skinned blacks have been cruel oppressors of the dark-skinned Haitian majority (like him). “The white man, at least he will give the black man a chance. These mulattoes, forget about it. They hate the black man worse than anything. They keep everything for themselves.”
He explained also that Haitians badly mismanaged the land, causing terrible erosion. Also, he said, vodou religion has been a catastrophe for his country. He said that he is a practicing Catholic, and wants nothing to do with vodou, but this primitive religion has a lot to do with the country’s economic and cultural misery. The driver said people who accept voodoo do not believe that anything can be done without the influence of the gods. Everything becomes irrational and fatalistic. You cannot plan for the future, because anything could happen, depending on the will of the vodou gods. These ideas have consequences.
“Do not think that there’s nothing to voodou,” he warned, strongly. “Americans find it very hard to believe that there is spiritual power there. They’re wrong. I have seen it many times. It is powerful, and it is evil. If you live in Haiti, you can’t ignore it.”
He told me several bone-chilling stories about things he had seen. I responded with an anecdote an elderly Catholic priest who had served in the African missions told me: that nobody who spends any time there doubts the existence of evil spirits and their very real and malicious power over the lives of people.
“Ha ha!” he said, slapping the steering wheel. He wasn’t laughing at what I said, but guffawing as if to say, it is just like I’ve been telling you!
I told him about a magazine story I once read, in which the writer, a white New York woman, went to a voodoo ceremony in Brooklyn, and sought to be possessed by a spirit.
“White people, the things they do in this world,” the driver said, shaking his head.
We talked for a little bit about Louisiana and its culture, and economy. He concluded by saying that anywhere there is French culture, you will find people who know how to enjoy life, but who aren’t very good at organizing it and making it stable. “A French man will spend all he has in his pocket on having a good time,” said the driver, “but he will not plan for the future.”
Anyway, I walked away with the idea that this French-speaking Haitian immigrant is a very big fan of Anglo-American culture, because of the rule of law and the cultural values. And he thinks we don’t understand voodoo at either the cultural or the spiritual level, and completely misunderstand Haiti because of it.
Best ride to the airport I’ve ever had.