The Immaculate Invasionby Bob Shacochis
“An unforgettable mixture of hard journalism and sharp commentary that captures much of the absurdity and futility of the 1994 American-led U.N. invasion of Haiti.” —Kenneth Maxwell, Foreign Affairs
Widely celebrated upon its original publication in 1999, National Book Award-winning writer Bob Shacochis’s The Immaculate Invasion is a gritty, poetic, and revelatory look at the American intervention in Haiti in 1994.
In 1994, the United States embarked on Operation Uphold Democracy, a response to the overthrow of the democratically elected Haitian government by a brutal military coup. Bob Shacochis traveled to Haiti for Harper’s and was embedded—long before the idea became popular in Iraq—with a team of Special Forces commandos for eighteen months and came away with tremendous insight into Haiti, the character of American fighters, and what can happen when an intervention turns into a misadventure. With the eye for detail and narrative skills of a critically acclaimed, award-winning novelist, Shacochis captures the exploits and frustrations, the inner lives, and the heroic deeds of young Americans as they struggle to bring democracy to a country ravaged by tyranny.
The Immaculate Invasion is required reading, essential for anyone who wants to understand what has happened in Haiti in the past and what will happen in the future.
“A bitter, funny, engrossing adventure between the mysteries and comedy of the American military machine and the infinite suffering of Haiti.” —Herbert Gold, San Francisco Chronicle
“An unforgettable mixture of hard journalism and sharp commentary that captures much of the absurdity and futility of the 1994 American-led U.N. invasion of Haiti.” —Kenneth Maxwell, Foreign Affairs
“An extraordinary book about an extraordinary event . . . I felt transported to Haiti. I could hear it. I could smell it. At moments I felt moved almost to tears, only to find myself, a page or two later, laughing out loud.” —Tracy Kidder
The tyrants wanted everyone happy, that first carnival after the coup d’état in September 1991. They wanted celebration and, when it was not forthcoming, set about to manufacture it themselves—because the contagion that had infected Haitian society had been cut away, gouged out with less than surgical precision: the disease called Lavalas was in remission, the malignant Aristide removed, and the status quo revived. No single social event was more important to the Haitian people, high or low, elite or peasant, than carnival, and carnival was the government’s responsibility, a once-only chance to exercise its deformed sense of noblesse oblige. But when the tyrants sent the musicians to Champs du Mars to inaugurate the seasonal jubilation, inconceivably, no one came.
There were many reasons for the people’s absence, but the foremost problem, the putschists determined, was the music—the music wasn’t working. The regime had hired compas bands, when what they really needed was a racine band, but racine was Aristide’s music, roots music, the music of the masses.
Racine was the sound of uprising and revolution; a regime-sponsored racine performance would be analogous to Bob Marley playing for the Republican National Convention. But for the moment nobody had the heart for compas; its simple upbeat melodies and trivial lyrics were like a funeral dirge for democracy. Nobody much wanted to release themselves to it except the attach’s, the killers, the macoutes—the ones who, when they danced, danced in blood.
To control a country as fucked up as Haiti, you had to wrap your hands around the throat of everything—the language, the music, especially the songs and the potent rhythms of the songs, because in the people’s centuries-old war against the tyrants, drums were weapons, words were deadly ammunition. And so the generals decided they had to get a racine band out on the Champs du Mars, the quicker the better. One Friday afternoon before Lent began, they summoned Richard Morse, a young Haitian-American musician who ran the Hotel Oloffson, to the Ministry of the Interior—the administrative headquarters for Haiti’s brutish police and new paramilitary security forces. The duty officer directed Richard to a large room crammed with about fifty or sixty red-eyed attachés—it must have been payday for the assassins—and Richard’s thinking, God, what’s going on? These guys have probably been killing people all week and they’re waiting to get paid and here I am.
After about ten minutes, one of the vultures finally said, Get RAM a chair—RAM was the name of Richard’s band—and so they sat him down and then a lieutenant sauntered in and told him he wanted Richard to do a concert, and Richard said, Fine.
The lieutenant said, If a crowd doesn’t show up, I’m going to arrest you.
Richard returned to the hotel and gathered the band for a debate. Pro-Lavalas musicians were being shot, disappeared; bands were going underground, going into exile. The troubadour Manno Charlemagne had been arrested and tortured before taking refuge in an embassy. In Haiti there was never a good answer, never a right answer. Richard kept soliciting advice until the most logical thing somebody said was, Play your songs, don’t say anything, and get the hell out.
That night, spreading out from the band shell on Champs du Mars, there were people as far as you could see, ten thousand people, and cars all the way down to the palace. The stage was surrounded by FADH—the Haitian army—a company of helmeted, well-armed soldiers, and two more truckloads of troops were parked on the street. When RAM started playing, anyone in the audience who raised his arms into the air to dance was swarmed by plainclothes cops and dragged away; two songs into the gig, and Richard had counted a dozen arrests. Good God, he thought, I’d hate to leave this party and have them think I’m part of all this. The intensity escalated, and suddenly everything was quiet, everything was bad, ten thousand faces staring at Richard, the lead singer, the man out front, wondering what he would do next as he stepped back over to the microphone.
He listened to his New York-accented Creole booming, echoing beyond the palace, beyond the Holiday Inn where the macoutes and the journalists congregated, filtering down into the slums, where most of his band members lived. “Join us,” he said, signaling to the female vocalists, who began, a cappella, to deliver the band’s first of many subversions throughout the years of the regime—an old ballad, a traditional part of Haiti’s oral culture of resistance. Kote moun yo? Pas way moun yo. Thirty seconds later, realizing what the band was singing—a parable, in a sort of peasant code, about Aristide—the soldiers pulled the plug.
The sun had gone down long before; now there was no power, no stage lights, and it was pitch black in the park. Behind Richard onstage, a row of drummers hunkered over their handmade congas, RAM’s vodou rhythm section. He turned to tell them to keep drumming, full force, a spontaneous decision that would evolve into a strategy, a method of survival, to be repeated in the difficult years ahead whenever the lights went out and the horror descended. By the time Richard turned back around—fifteen seconds—thousands of people had disappeared into the night. The girls took up the song again, their voices clear and strong in the darkness. The drums were drumming, you could hear their thunderous report throughout the terrified city as RAM played on, drums and vocals, as if nothing were happening, as if this weren’t a nightmare and the dream were still alive.
Petro drums, which beat out the rhythms of Haiti’s ethos, maronnage, the rhythms of the new world, Haitian-born among Indians and slaves—the rhythms of the slaveghosts and vodou and insurrection. Petro was the percussive language of blackout and embargo. Not rada drums—the rhythms of ancient Africa, the mythic Guineé, the lost land beyond the sea—because rada rhythms had proved impotent against the French colonials, rada’s power had dwindled in the Middle Passage. But petro—petro lived, thrived. When you heard petro drums, what you heard, what you knew you were hearing, was war. Petro was the rhythm of war.
Drums and vocals—Kote moun yo? Where are the people? Pas way moun yo. We don’t see them. Meaning Lavalas. Meaning Aristide. Meaning the multitudes who had vanished into the sea and the thousands who, since the coup five months earlier, were already dead or missing.
Richard Morse counted governments, not years, to measure his time in Haiti since 1987, when he had taken a lease on the most famous hotel in the Caribbean. Fifteen, sixteen? Governments went up and down like tin ducks in a shooting gallery, here at the boneyard carnival that was Haiti.
He had come here by himself from New Jersey, a tall, twenty-eight-year-old, sleepy-eyed, surly-faced Princeton grad, his mother a renowned Haitian dancer and his Anglo father a Latin American scholar at Yale—a kid who had grown up in houses with many, many rooms. He had been playing bass in a New Wave band that worked the downtown clubs in Manhattan—pursuing a vague desire for different rhythms, something like that—when he landed in Port-au-Prince in September 1985, and suddenly they’re shooting people everywhere. There’s a mass uprising—the dechoukaj, or uprooting of all things Duvalier. By February, Baskethead—Baby Doc—was aboard a United States Air Force jet, headed for France to play tennis, twenty-nine years of vampirism and dictatorship out the window . . . then back in again, a phantom, six months later, now in the guise of narcotraffickers and military clowns. Still, a true metamorphosis had taken place during the dechoukaj, not from authoritarianism to democracy, but from the bondage of the spirit to the release of the imagination.
Overnight the country seemed intoxicated with possibility, and Richard attached himself to the Hotel Oloffson, a whitewashed, multitiered tropigothic monstrosity nestled within its own private jungle in a high-walled enclave in downtown Port-au-Prince. The Oloffson, by its very architecture and its ceiling-fan ambience, created an indelible vision of faded authority and exotic intrigue, but it was built atop a history that didn’t quite match the Kiplingesque groove of the white man’s burden.
Instead, the Oloffson was a native hybrid, a reproduction that became authentic through the grind and twist of desperate events. In The Comedians, his novel about the Duvalier era, Graham Greene described the grotesque impression the Oloffson, alias the Hotel Trianon, made on one’s senses—”You expected a witch to open the door to you or a manic butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him”—and New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, a frequent guest, modeled his trademark haunted houses after the hotel. A folly, a travel writer once wrote, “of spires, crotchets, finials and conical towers.” The structure was the grandiose vision of the Sam family, who constructed the mansion at the end of the nineteenth century and inhabited it until 1915, when the family’s dubious contribution to the nation, President Guillaume Sam, was dragged into the street, shot, his body torn apart by a mob, and the pieces paraded around town skewered on the ends of poles. Waving the Monroe Doctrine and growling about Germany’s increasing influence in the West Indies, the U.S. Marines seized the occasion as an excuse to invade. They marched into the capital the next day, the Sam family residence—the future Hotel Oloffson—their hospital until they left, nineteen years later, serenaded by Richard’s maternal grandfather, Auguste, a popular resistance singer still remembered for the songs he composed to taunt the American soldiers and their iron-fisted occupation.
Haiti, back in the early seventies, when Baskethead inherited the national palace from his ghoulish father, enjoyed a brief but profitable tenure as an off-the-path destination for the rich and famous (Jackie Onassis, for instance, who became a major collector of Haitian artwork). But once the dechoukaj flamed over the countryside, once Club Med closed its doors in 1986, the blancs—foreigners, white people—wouldn’t come anymore, not as tourists anyway. For generations, there had been the killings, the state-sponsored violence, the crushing and ubiquitous poverty, the incomprehensible polyglot of Creole; now the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta made matters worse with a bogus AIDS-epidemic alert, although sex tourism had indeed brought the virus to Haiti’s shores.
Each of them for their own shameless reasons, Hollywood and the missionaries and the Duvaliers demonized vodou, an ancient polytheistic view of the universe based on the idea that everything in one’s world, animate and inanimate, possessed a spirit or soul. In 1986, I came across the stationery of one of the island’s evangelical missions—Haiti, it read, 6 million souls in witchcraft and Catholicism. And always there was the racial dynamic, a permanent and insurmountable barrier to the majority of whites contemplating a tropic vacation, and so the tourist trade, never more than a golden trickle, dried up, and Haiti, as was its common fate, fell off the map of civilization.
The Oloffson survived it all by serving as a crash house for bohemian reporters—journotrash—and aid entrepreneurs, some checking in for the sole purpose of carousing with the highly literate chameleon Aubelin Joli-coeur, the hotel’s most curious and enduring artifact. Aging spy, former Duvalierist apparatchik, dapper gallant, and gossip columnist for Haiti’s only daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, the spry Jolicoeur was transformed only slightly by Graham Greene into the fictional Petit Pierre. Upon the occasion of the novelist’s death, Jolicoeur wrote in 1991 that Greene had enhanced his reputation “to such an extent that some fans kneel at my feet or kiss my hand in meeting a man living his own legend.”
Year after year, you could sit on the Oloffson’s airy veranda and observe Jolicoeur, his spidery body impeccably suited, a silk ascot at his throat, mount the hotel’s diamond vee of steps to hold soirees in the wicker-and-rattan drawing room. Women were often attracted to the gleam of his bald head and gold-knobbed cane, and he stroked the femmes with lacy prose, prying himself away from their heavenly perfumes to play backgammon with cronies from the CIA. Jolicoeur had been a fixture at the hotel for decades, just as the foreign correspondents had returned on their migrations, year after year, dining on the veranda at twilight, their collegial discourse interrupted by rude bursts of automatic-weapon fire down the street at the national palace, where, in the long march toward democracy after the dechoukaj, coup after coup unfolded, each journalist hesitating with fork in midair, wondering, Didn’t I order a double?
Bartender, s’il vous plaît. Five-star Barbancourt, encore.
When Richard signed a fifteen-year lease on the Oloffson in November 1987, the country, snapping out of its post-Duvalier daydream of better times, had fallen apart again. Driving from Pétion-Ville, the elite suburbs up the mountain, down to Port-au-Prince after sundown was considered insane—random shootings, burning tires, vigilante roadblocks, bodies in the street. But Richard was operating on the theory that if there were elections and they went well, there’d be democracy, and tourists would come to the hotel. And if the elections didn’t go well, the rooms would fill up with journalists. But the elections, foisted prematurely upon a population forever yearning but ill-prepared for such an exercise by the Reagan administration, were catastrophic. Voters (and journalists) were slaughtered as they queued up at polling stations, and everyone bugged out. The entire nation reeled from one near-death experience to another, everybody’s head filled with a kaleidoscopic blur of violent images, while the Americans kept pushing elections, Band-Aids in the trauma unit.
In 1989, George Bush wanted to try the democracy thing again and this time guarantee the result. The White House’s handsomely financed candidate, Marc Bazin, an economist and former World Bank executive, was slotted to ascend to the national palace under the sunny skies of Haiti’s first free and fair election, which would be overseen by Jimmy Carter, whose own bias for Bazin and antipathy toward Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Bazin’s main opponent, was transparent. The subsequent election—in 1990, just as Richard was forming his band—was in fact a triumph for real democracy. The Haitian people, by an overwhelming and euphoric majority, chose for their new president not Bazin but Aristide, a young leftist priest from the slums given to provocative anti-American rhetoric, a disciple of liberation theology, whom the FADH couldn’t seem to assassinate, though they burned down his church and hacked to death many of his congregation. What kind of priest will such earthly trials make you, what kind of president?
Inaugurated in February 1991 for a five-year term, Aristide lasted only seven months before the military pitched him into exile and took to murdering anyone who even dared to mention his name—Titid, little Aristide, Haiti’s apparent messiah. President Bush, underwriter of the island’s nascent democracy, swiftly announced that the coup would not stand, then just as quickly receded into embarrassed silence when informed by his staff that his own crew in Port-au-Prince not only had foreknowledge of the putsch but had allowed it to advance without a word. The United States had been Janus-faced in its intentions toward the island ever since, its policymakers split between statesmen who at least professed to support democracy (and its noisy consequences) in Haiti, and the spies and diplomats, the holy rollers at State and Defense with no vision beyond the institutional culture of the American government—still hard-wired for the cold war—who refused to assign any legitimate meaning to the will of the Haitian masses or to accept the fact that Haitians democratically chose Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the only Haitian president who ever attempted to lead his people out of darkness: the only Haitian chief of state who ever seemed to display an ideology beyond self.
Ironically, early on in the coup that deposed Aristide, as the terror began to coalesce into a system, RAM prospered. The band was putting hit singles on the radio even though people were afraid to come to their concerts, afraid to be identified with racine, with the politics of the petro rhythms. Until the mandarins woke up to the band’s agenda, the group had been showcased on the government-run radio and television stations, but then the generals began to censor their tapes, and the military sent attach’s out to the Oloffson to interview Richard: What do you think about what’s happening here? What do you think of this situation?
Uh . . . what situation?
Military coup d’état. And the attach’s would take Richards hand and make him pat the guns tucked into their hip pockets; they wanted payoffs, and Richard would give them RAM T-shirts and twenty bucks.
After the fiasco on Champs du Mars, the macoutes at last understood where RAM stood in their cosmology, and the band was blacklisted by the government. Then filmmaker Rudi Stern’s documentary on the coup, Killing the Dream, was picked up in Port-au-Prince via satellite, and the generals couldn’t believe it. There was this shithead from RAM sitting in his office at the Oloffson, saying the coup looked planned, that the elite families were involved, that they raised the blood money. Saying the military had tried to make it look like Aristide was a man who had to be stopped for the good of the nation because Aristide was a lunatic, a man who talked poetically about the beauty of necklacing, a man who gave a speech advocating crimes against humanity, and so what else could the military do but make it seem that they had whipped up a coup on the spur of the moment. After that, too often when Richard picked up the phone, somebody was calling in a death threat. Then he was summoned down to police headquarters to be interrogated by Evans François, the brother of Colonel Michel François, police chief and prime coup leader, who carefully explained to Richard that there were a lot of people in Port-au-Prince who would be only too happy to waste him for fifty cents. But they let him walk.
What Richard hadn’t yet figured out was that he and RAM, by their very defiance, were proving to be valuable assets to the tyrants, window dressing for their faux-democratic posturing—freedom of the press, freedom of speech; subterfuge for the idiot Americans who were trying to bargain their way back toward some gloss of decency and moral rectitude without having to actually go the distance with Aristide. But there were limits to even faux tolerance, and Richard Morse, for whatever reason, seemed particularly slow to get the message.
RAM went into the studio to record their first album, and out it came: Aibobo, a vodou term equivalent to Hallelujah or Amen. A song on the album—”Fey”—which Richard knew would create a scandal, was positioned at the end of the tape; he released a politically innocuous single—”Ibo Lele,” later included by director Jonathan Demme on the sound track of the movie Philadelphia—and let the album work its way slowly into the market. By the time the de factos—the coup leaders—discovered “Fey,” it was too late. The song was all over the airwaves, people were singing it in the street, and the regime started closing down radio stations—but only outside of Port-au-Prince—and raising the ante on Richard by threatening his wife, Lunise, a beautiful dark-skinned former dancer whom he had made the lead female vocalist in RAM. This was 1993; the tension was vile, unbearable. Aristide’s champion in the ruling class, a wealthy businessman named Antoine Izmery, was hauled out of church one morning, during a memorial service for those killed in the 1988 attack on Aristide’s church, and murdered in the street. A UN-brokered agreement was being hammered out on Governors Island in New York: Aristide was supposed to come back in October and play the dummy in a power-sharing arrangement with the tyrants. “Fey” was getting played and the rumors were flying: Lunise had been kidnapped, Lunise had been killed.
The band—slum kids mostly, Lavalas diehards—had grown to believe nothing bad was going to happen because Richard had this envelope, these force fields—white guy, American guy—which protected them from harm. Now his phone kept ringing, friends calling to find out if he was dead—Just checking to see if you’re alive, Rich—and what was he supposed to do? Go away? Go where? Grad school? Some pickup job back in Jersey with a lounge singer? He had Lunise, two kids, the hotel, the band. He had become a strange variation of vodou impresario, so wrapped up in the rhythms that they existed within him at the cellular level, they percolated in his blood, and the alternatives were incomprehensible. Life or death—were those the options? What if the options, the true options, were really democracy or repression? He was trying not to get anyone shot, but if you started retreating, where did you stop? Where were the Haitians themselves going to stop, because just about everybody he knew would jump overboard off this festering, floundering slave ship of a nation if they could. Like, Fuck it, let’s just get out of here, two hundred years is enough, let’s just go somewhere else.
Ultimately it would be to the regime’s advantage if he left. He understood that, but he had roots in Haiti, old and new, he had insights that maybe Haiti needed. Still, his family, Lunise and the babies—risking their lives was his biggest fear. If anybody hurt them he might mobilize, go down blazing, but he didn’t even know if that’s really what he would do. He prayed it would never come to that, but it was getting close, getting very close, and like everyone else in Haiti, he was wondering, Where are the Americans?