The book is a personal memoir--unabashedly so. Peck is not only partisan, he is passionate. He comes down heavily on the anti-Aristide side of the debate currently wracking Haiti and paralyzing its government. But he did not begin that way, in 1996, when he was appointed. His personal odyssey to that conclusion is a large part of the book.
So it is no course in political science that one should expect here, even though it is a treasure trove of facts invaluable to understanding how Haiti's politics have sunk to their current low level. It will be up to the reader to decide whether the author's passion has distorted his rendition of the facts. But if the facts can be accepted, reading this book is indispensable for understanding Haiti's political predicament and the clouded outcome of a major policy commitment by the Clinton administration and the United Nations. Without this book, you're running blind.
Raoul Peck, an internationally-renowned film producer, served as minister of culture in the Haitian government from March, 1996 until he resigned in October, 1997 to protest what he saw as an anti-democratic takeover by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He leads us through the skein of events from the idealistic beginnings he shared with many other Haitian professionals to the betrayals that took him to the "end of patience."
If a book could be a film, this would be it: Raoul Peck takes you inside the palace, into the smoke-filled rooms. One can only thank the author for the volume of facts new to this book and the matchless way in which the author draws the context with the unsparing eye of a master film director.
He begins by portraying himself, unkindly, as a burnt-out intellectual in New York. In fact, he had won prizes from Human Rights Watch and the Cannes international festival for his films and was guest-teaching at New York University. For the moment, however, his film projects were stalled and friends had asked him to consider a government post in Haiti for patriotic reasons.
His new life began, one of uncertainty, whispering, innuendo, "true rumors and false information," hints, and friendly and unfriendly vibrations -- all in the course of "serving his country." His motivation was to help rebuild the country, to fuse his identity as an politically-committed filmmaker with practice in his own country.
As his nomination was mooted in Port-au-Prince in early 1996, alliances and intrigues succeeded one another. Rosny Smarth, a member of the leadership of the Organisation Politique Lavalas (OPL) was finally named prime minister, as his party had a majority in both houses of parliament. It was his responsibility to form a cabinet. That did not, however, keep President Préval from offering his own list of members of the future government. This list went into Smarth's pocket, never to emerge. Peck later learned that his own name happened not to be on it.
However, the nomination was Smarth's to make and he asked Peck to serve as his minister of culture. Peck extracted a year's leave of absence from his company; he would be gone twenty months.
In an early chapter entitled, "The Smiles of the Palace," Peck brilliantly recreates the gilded seat of power. The smiles of the guards and protocol-keepers are alternately bored, concerned, sly, timid, obsequious, doubting, and fearful. The palace was a special place created by and for power. It knew only obeisance to the supreme chief. "As loyal as the palace musicians," the Haitian saying had it. There had hardly been a change of personnel in the palace. The values, dress, and procedures continued from the previous regimes with scarcely a ruffle.
Peck soon discerned a special quality to some of the smiles of the palace, smiles which hovered between polite amiability and derision. The Haitian constitution barred two successive presidential terms. But a strong contingent wanted to prolong President Aristide's term by the three years he lost in exile.
The turnover to a new president irritated and embarrassed this group. They tolerated the new president but they were by and for Aristide. In Peck's formulation, he was the one whom they wanted to serve and knew how to serve. They knew the man, they knew the terrain, they knew how to survive. They looked down on the ministers of the new government like Peck from heights of arrogance. They intended to defend their territory, power, and authority. They regarded Peck and his colleagues as usurpers.
In this ironic, passionate language Peck describes the arrogance of the Aristide loyalists, all of whose power, lest we forget, flowed from an event not of their doing: the landing of twenty-two thousand American troops in 1994 with the imprimatur of the United Nations.
As Peck says of himself and his fellow ministers of the Smarth government, "We were in enemy terrain." He recalls the turnover of power in the palace. Aristide relinquished the presidential sash to Réné Préval. There were nice speeches about democracy and the modesty of power. Peck recalls Aristide departing by helicopter -- the "outgoing" president, put deliberately in quotes.
Aristide had symbolized the hope and resistance of all Haiti. Through him, Haiti celebrated its victory. But in Peck's words, he wanted this victory for himself alone. The struggle was his. The rest was accessory.
The cabinet began with high hopes. The ministers were varied, some highly qualified and chosen for their professionalism, some more for their loyalty to Aristide. Peck scandalized Port-au-Prince with his unsparing portraits of them all in this book. Less noticed was the revealing way in which he juxtaposed the personalities with the urgent tasks each of their ministries faced in a devastated Haiti:
Smarth was the best prime minister one could have, in Peck's estimation. He was conciliatory, logical, sensitive, and "rarest of all, modest."
Under the justice portfolio were two secretaries of state: