There is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, by Greg Beckett (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).
reviewed by Vincent Joos, Florida State University
In 2000, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the Haitian presidential elections for a second time. As many scholars have noted, Aristide’s second term was a period marked by economic and environmental crises. He was sent into exile a second time when ousted through a coup d’état in 2004, and this was followed by years of violence. It would be difficult to describe in full the many crises Haiti went through during this period. Political violence, environmental degradation, rural exodus, and economic instability were the hallmarks of the first decade of the 2000s. However violent and complex this period was, this series of crises was not anything new to Haitians. In There is No More Haiti, Greg Beckett powerfully describes how Haitians from varied social backgrounds live, feel, and narrate crisis and how they understand the patterns underlying political and social ruptures. While much excellent scholarship has examined the Aristide period in Haiti and its aftermath, Beckett’s tour de force gives readers a grounded, nuanced, and polyvalent understanding of the crises of these years as they affected people in all aspects of their daily lives. Instead of trying to tell a complete story of the dizzyingly complex social and political upheavals that rocked this nation in the decade preceding the massive 2010 earthquake, Beckett tactfully tells “a human story, a story about how crisis feels to those who live with it every day” (p. 5).
Storytelling, as Beckett argues, allows us to “understand the lived experience of others in all its complexity and ambiguity” while helping us “to get away from the common understanding of crisis as a discrete event” (p. 11). The many conversations that shape the structure of the book provide readers with intimate understandings of how individual lives and collective crises intertwine in the longue durée. The Haitian voices that figure prominently in this book, and the diversity of viewpoints Beckett engaged throughout his ten years of fieldwork, enable him to successfully “give a Haitian account of crisis” (p. 12). Readers follow ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in an overcrowded city where possibilities of finding work and making a living are imperiled by a succession of extraordinary catastrophes – political, economic, and environmental.
Beckett’s first chapter weaves together a description of an urban forest with an account of the political tensions that beset efforts to preserve it. Port-au-Prince appears here in a new light. A green world full of promises appears in the background of dense and sometimes suspenseful narratives. The latter allow readers to explore the complexity of a city too often depicted as a large, informal slum. Threatened by the rapid urbanization of Port-au-Prince’s outskirts, the forest is a site where multiple crises converge. It is threatened by the growing number of rural dwellers who come to the capital city to find a better life and who have no choice but to build frail dwellings on the outskirts of the city, hence triggering an urban crisis. Through the voices of the people who want to preserve the forest and transform it into a botanic garden, Beckett maps how multiple crises affect all classes of Haitians. As the forest is taken over by an armed gang and as a political crisis engulfed the country, the site and its preservation become the locus of tense debates about belonging, exclusion and the possibility of a democratic future.
The second chapter furthers this discussion. Here, Beckett follows a group of art dealers, chauffeurs, and fixers who migrated from the rural countryside to find work in the capital. Many of these men thrived during the years of the Duvalier dictatorship, often working as tourist guides. When American health authorities falsely declared that Haitians were a high risk group for AIDS in 1982, the Haitian tourism industry collapsed. Since then, the men who worked in this sector have seen their opportunities shrink with each major crisis. Beckett shows how they navigate the informal economy, its networks of solidarity, but also the dangers and instability that traverse it. As these men look for a better life, and as they experience the foreclosure of their future, they reflect on the meaning of compounding crises and the direct effects these have on their lives and aspirations.
The third and fourth chapters provide riveting accounts of the period that led to the violent 2004 coup, and of its aftermath. Beckett’s interlocutors predicted the coup long before it happened and their accounts detail the deep structure of instability that makes political violence predictable. Two key concepts are fleshed out by a wide array of viewpoints captured in conversations: dezòd and blakawout. The first is a widely used term to denote the panic and terror that reigns in the streets of the capital during periods of political upheaval and also indicates the social fractures dividing Haitians. The category of dezòd points to the democratic impasses that were created by the coup. Blakawout (blackout), as Beckett notes, describes both a loss of electric power, “which is a reminder of the state’s lack of capacity,” and a loss of agency, of “the power to control one’s body, to do things in the world” (p. 169). The frequent blackouts are symbolic of the many breakdowns, expected yet nevertheless disrupting, that suffuse the daily lives of a majority of Haitians. In this poignant chapter, Beckett shows how people experiencing successive (literal and metaphorical) blackouts after the coup are forced to navigate between life and death. For instance, the story of Vincent, a man displaced from the forest, the botanic garden where he worked, and from his home, offers a haunting narrative detailing how crisis plunges people into unlivable blackouts.
The last chapter offers a detailed description of the series of disasters that struck Haiti in the late 2000s, and shows that each of these large catastrophes is the result of compounding crises. Beckett’s vivid renderings of daily life in regions destroyed by hurricanes and floods constitute a much-needed analysis of political, infrastructural, and environmental processes that shattered the life of Haitians in the years preceding the 2010 earthquake, but which are less studied than that event. Beckett helps us to understand the existing social and environmental vulnerabilities that contributed to the scale of this megadisaster, and how these vulnerabilities were exacerbated through the international relief effort.
By letting Haitians lay out the key theoretical angles of the book and by crafting narratives that focus on unequal experiences of crises, Beckett offers a sharp reading of the political and economic structures that render our world vulnerable to environmental and social crises. In the meantime, his interlocutors also open windows of hope through their perseverance, inventiveness, and solidarity.