Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
Port-Au-Prince after the quake abounded in conspiracy theories. Many people were convinced that the United States military had caused the quake, using advanced high-technology weapons. Apparently such weapons had once been featured on the Discovery Channel. The earthquake was said to be either the result of an experiment gone awry, or the prelude to an invasion. Why would you want to invade Haiti? I asked. Who wants this place? It seemed I was naive: People told me that Haiti possessed vast mineral wealth and untapped oil reserves. All this jibed nicely with a central facet of the Haitian worldview – namely, that the great nations of the world all yearned to dominate plucky little Haiti.

A cartoon in the standard fifth-grade textbook, Histoire de Mon Pays, illustrates the thesis nicely. Haiti is shown not as a small island in the Caribbean, but as a huge and swollen territory sprawling from the reaches of the North Pole to the equator. Four figures, ostentatiously white and with rapacious grins, stretch from the four corners of the globe to lay huge hairy hands on Haitian soil. They are labeled France, the United States, England, and Germany.

If all the world were conspiring against Haiti, then your neighbor was probably conspiring against you. Truckloads of 55-pound sacks of rice were being given away every day throughout Port-au-Prince after the quake, a program organized by the World Food Program, working with a consortium of international NGOs. These NGOs were staffed by foreigners and relied on the cooperation of Haitian staff to decide who should receive assistance and who shouldn't. It was a commonplace of tent-city life that the Haitian staff had rigged the game: They were giving out rice only to their own families, or they were demanding kickbacks for the ration cards. People took me aside to level accusations at their neighbors, who were said to have counterfeited their card; or sold their rice on the black market at exorbitant prices; or feigned extreme poverty to receive aid, but were secretly wealthy.

The mood of suspicion was contagious: After a little while, I got suspicious too. People everywhere asked me for help. In the claustrophobic camp on the Route de l'Aeroport, one woman insisted that she had never received rice because she had been a partisan of the deposed President Aristide. Sitting inside her house in plain view were two full bags of rice. When I pointed them out, the little crowd around us began to laugh appreciatively. Nobody thought this lady had done anything wrong. Neither did I. Getting by isn't a sin.