Caption: Bertrand Vieux stands in the doorway to the now defunct Vieux Family Coffee Plant in Carice, Haiti in April 2012. Bertrand has taken his own advice and has returned to the mountain to lead the people toward a renewed life in agriculture.
Excerpted from the new book: A Tourist of Saints: A Photo Graphic Journal of Haiti
by Philip Holsinger
My friend Bertrand speaks of politics and loyalty. What do you say in return to a man whose brothers were assassinated? Nothing. You listen.
The talk is madness and somehow we laugh. “Why do you think Haitians drink so much?” he asks. “It balances the madness. If we didn’t find a way to laugh we would all go mad.”
Bertrand on political ideology and patriotism:
“Am I a communist? Who is anything? These things you speak of are only systems. A person cannot belong to a system. But I will use whatever system I need to help my country.”
“Communism? I could not live in that system, I was born wild. I am like the mango tree, I grow and sprout fruit and it falls to the ground and is carried away by birds. I am too much of a free spirit. But Fidel had balls. He had no choice. The United States put him in that place. They said, we’ll give you ten percent what it is worth. They offer you ten percent you have no choice. If you had a boat you needed to sell because you were desperate and it is worth two hundred thousand and I offer you twenty thousand, what can you do with twenty thousand? It isn’t enough to feed your family. You know what I mean. It is robbery. Fidel picked a system that he could use, one that gave him more than ten percent.”
“These systems , people use them and use them against each other. Here they killed my brothers, they said they were communists. Because they loved the country, the trees and the fish. Someone was offering them ten percent, you know what I mean? They couldn’t accept it. The people who killed them called themselves capitalists. My brothers were neither communists or capitalists they were patriots. Not patriots for a system but for mango trees. They were loyal to the hills. They loved the hills. Look at these hills now. Thirty years ago they were green. They were covered like that little patch there.”
Bertrand on war:
“All these wars, they only create dead people. They don’t create pumpkins and mangoes.
“World War Two was a brave war! But what about Iraq and Afghanistan! It is about money and oil. They are dropping bombs on the mountains in Afghanistan but there is no one there. Empty mountains. They are not even trying to drop them on anybody. Someone calls and says, fly a mission over there, get rid of some bombs. Millions of dollars of bombs. And a man has a factory making those bombs. Do you think he sees the war? No, he goes home and watches TV. Calls his wife on the way home, says honey pick up the kids from school I’ll be home for dinner in a little while. Is he dying in the war? No! Children are dying. It’s a kids’ war. Children are fighting this war. This isn’t a brave war, this is a war for money!
Bertrand on honesty:
“I’m going to say something that may trouble you, but listen to what I am saying. You know why I like Hitler? He didn’t bluff. He did not hold your hand and [stab] you in the [back] with a knife with the other. He said I’m going to [stab] you! And he didn’t hide what he was doing. I don’t like what Hitler did. He did evil. But he did what he said he would. The politicians all bluff. They tell lies and make promises. This country is run by broken promises.”
I am reminded by a quote from a book Bertrand’s father had me read: “You’re looking where he’s been, Tousasaint said, with his odd half smile. You must look where he’s going.” –Madison Smart Bell, All Souls Rising
Bertrand Vieux (with journalists Rustin Hamilton and Philip Holsinger, and political scientist Mark Elrod) in the first days following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Bertrand on reasons contributing to Port-au-Prince’s overpopulation and how the overpopulation contributes to the suffering following the earthquake. Bertrand on what is happening with people leaving the city to return to the rural communities of their family. Less than zero, Bertrand says. Everybody is now affected. The land is dry, he says. Who will engineer bread, he asks? Buildings will be rebuilt. But what the people need are foundations for agriculture. People need roots to make a life again. They need to be able to farm and feed themselves. They need the government to have the courage to build moral foundations of justice. Then there will be a society, he says.
Bertrand: What happened before, when the Americans came in 1994 to bring President Aristide back… The Haitian people all over the mountains thought that there were going to be jobs, the Americans bringing jobs, because the American military was here, like 22,000, overwhelming force came, with tractors and bulldozers. The Haitian thought they were going to build roads.
Bertrand: So you have like five to six million people living in a city where they should have maybe a million and a half. So you can imagine what kind of stuff is going on here. No water, nothing.
Mark: And no jobs.
Bertrand: No jobs. There were never jobs. There is like ten to fifteen percent, maybe, of people working here. The rest of the people, you know, like beg around. It is a bad situation. It took the earthquake for a lot of people to go, wow wow wow. But you know, it was there before. It was there before.
Rustin: I want you to do a favor for me. Could you go over again how Petionville is more devastated than what it appears.
Bertrand: Definitely. Because When you are looking at Petionville you can see those big buildings, that are well painted, they are well built also, because these engineers, most of the engineers who built Petionville, studied in the States and Europe and stuff like that. But if you can see a crack in a half of the building, I’m pretty sure if the shock came from the bottom then the bottom is also hurt. You cannot say this is a building we are going to rebuild on. I’m pretty sure if an engineer looks at these buildings they are going to have to destroy them and build them back. You know. In case something happen again. Because if they are already cracked and something happen again, that is going to be worse.
Rustin: When do you think they are going to be able to get these kinds of structural engineers that can make those decisions? How long is that going to take?
Bertrand: My friend, which structural engineer do we need right now? We need structural engineer for bread, we need structural engineer for water, we need structural engineer for a little sugar. For the little kids. A little milk, for the little kids. That’s what we need now. Those people with the buildings, they’re going to have to do their things whenever they can do their things. You know what I mean? But you have 95 to 98 percent of the people here who have nothing before and now, and now, they are under zero. Now they are 95 percent lower than zero now. They were already at zero. Now they under zero. Everybody under zero. And they’re going down to the mountain, to their family, to their grandfather, they’re going back to the land. And the land is dry. Because all the trees in this country for years has been cut to make charcoals. So they’re going back to nothing. They’re just rocks in the mountain of Haiti now. They just rocks. You know.
Bertrand: So, if the people really don’t make a good study to utilize the people of Haiti as their strength, as the people are wanting to survive, to make them make, like, pond for fish, pond for shrimp. Make eggs, make ducks, make goat, make cow, plant trees, you know. The simple things, really, has to be rebuilt in this country. The roots of this country has to be rebuilt.
Bertrand: The city will be rebuilt. Those big buildings in the city will be rebuilt. They owned by big people. [Big people] will rebuild them. But I’m talking about the people of Haiti, has to go in their places, and people have to help there. They have to help them in their roots, in the jungle where they come from, so they can stay there and have a life there. Because in a place where you should have two million people you cannot have six million people.
Mark: Do you really think it’s that many?
Bertrand: Yes, there’s a lot of people here. You know, I don’t know how many million. I never count a million people with my eyes. But, you know, when I see right here in front of my house. I was born here. When I was a little kid, and I used to see all these trees here in the mountain. In the morning when you wake up, you couldn’t see because of the fog, you know. We had nature at that time. We had so many different kind of birds. And now when you wake up you are hot. You are hot. Even in the winter cold you feel hot. There is no more water. All the avocado trees have disappeared.
Rustin: It’s not tropical anymore.
Bertrand: It’s not. We’re just living on a desert.
Mark: Cut down for firewood?
Bertrand: For firewoods. And that’s the situation that we have. And we really need engineers to help us with that. That’s what the people need to help us. Stop the cutting of the trees. To stop that. And make people use their little gas. And it’s cheaper than the wood anyway. A tree takes 30-40 years to grow. And they make three sacks… three, four, five bags of charcoals. It’s like you kill a human being who has been there forty years just to use them for two days. It’s really bad.
Bertrand: The people are going back by the thousands where they came from. But you can’t imagine what’s gonna happen then. When they get there. There is nothing there. It’s not like you live in Detroit and you’re going to Los Angeles. Or you leave L.A. and you’re going to Denver.
Mark: There are no jobs…
Bertrand: There is nothing. They came here for the job. Because in 1994, like I tell you, when President Aristide came back under the government of Bill Clinton, they say they are going to help the country restart. But that was just some political words to make everybody look good.
Mark: It’s a bad thing about Americans. We forget things quickly. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Because when we fight a war, we fight the Germans, we can quickly forget about that and we can be friends again. But sometimes it’s bad because when things like this happen, within a few years we forget.
Bertrand: The way I see it happen here I hope it’s not going to happen like that. Because I like the way President Clinton handled so many things here, that he did before. Many people dislike him. And I see President Obama, you know. But, you know, everything is not in human control. So many things out of control in the earth. The magnitude of the problem that men create, it is like men is not able to control it anymore. And many people think there is a kind of people somewhere who control everything. I disbelieve that. I believe a lot of things got out of control.
Rustin: You have told us what you think needs to happen. What do you think will happen?
Bertrand: I really like to say what I would like to happen, rather than guess what will happen. Like I would answer again, what should happen is to get the country from the roots. Just like they had a problem, when President Aristide came back. He said he forgive. He had an amnesty for everybody. I agree for the amnesty. But I disagree with an amnesty of somebody who I know did wrong. To this family and that family and that family. It’s just like if you build a house. You cannot build it on top of mud. I work in construction in America for years. And every time I see they’re going to build something in America, the first thing they do, they take out the mud. They bring the gravel. Then on top of it they build. So, this is the same thing that should happen. There is people here who have to answer in front of the law. They must answer in front of the law. And then we can have a society.
Bertrand: I disagree, because of somebody’s choice in politics they judge them, also. Somebody want to be for Aristide or somebody want to be for the Duvalier people, they have the right. Because there are people in the Duvalier people who was good people. There are people in the Aristide people who was good people. Just like there are in the Duvalier people bad people. In the Aristide people also there are bad people.
Bertrand: It’s one people, it’s one government for the Haitian people. And we help them everywhere they are. In the mountains, in the ghettos, in the big cities, we help everybody. We don’t leave things only to a few people.
Rustin: Where would they get the money to make that kind of change?
Bertrand: Well, you know, the question of the money is with the people with the money. There is only honey where live the bees. And, you know, where the bees are you cannot put your hand. If they wanna give you some, they give you some. And if you wanna use it right for the people, you use it right for the people. People here need some help. And they’ve been helping themselves. When you look at the Haitian people who plant the vegetable, the corn, the beans. They travel miles with their kids. Loaded to come to the market. They have this custom over 400 years, 500 years. And these people live in the street and nobody cares about them. They don’t want to plant vegetables or tomatoes, whatever. But nobody cares about these people here in this country. When they go to the market, it’s a street. They gonna stay in the street. When the rain come, they’re in the rain. When the sun come, they’re in the sun. You know? That should change.
Bertrand: You have to get some people in the government. And the people who’s giving the money has to know who they are giving this money to. Who has the courage, the spiritual courage, to [guide] the money where the money should go. Money is not money. Money is a tool… Not just to have beautiful things for yourself. Sometimes you scared in your house to go out because a thousand people here can’t drink water and you have a nice house with five car here.
Bertrand: I think this society here is completely unbalanced. Completely unbalanced… Mrs. Hillary Clinton, she said a couple things, which I agree with. We’re here and we’re here to do something. I mean, she said “we.” She’s talking about her. She’s talking about her. She’s talking about whatever’s behind her. So I believe her. I believe her. I don’t believe the person. I believe the philosophy that she says that the government behind her wants to come here and do something. And we’re waiting for it. And I hope the Haitian people once again can put their strength into what they give them and then make something out of it…
Rustin: If you had to say, at this point, what is the first thing and this is the second in order to truly make grass roots change in this country, what would that be? I know you want to help the people everywhere, but what does that mean? Planting trees?
Bertrand: The first thing, the first thing, the first thing we study when we are kid in Haiti, little kid, Haiti is a country purely agricul. Which means is an agricultural country. This is one thing we don’t have in Haiti. We have only poor people who plant a little food here, a tomato there, a little mac corn there. All the land of Haiti are sleeping, for years. We import everything… From Argentine we import corn. From United States we import rice. From United States we import beans. We could plant things… What we cannot make we can buy from Argentine, from the States. But if we can make papaya we’re not supposed to be buying it from Santo Domingo. If I go to a bank tomorrow and say I need fifty thousand dollars to make an agricultural project to help 800 peasants, they’re not going to give it to me. But I’m pretty sure if I go back to [get money] to buy some soap to resell in Haiti tomorrow they will give me that money. So there is no money available in no banks in Haiti to help no Haitians.
Bertrand: Some people go to school. Some people don’t go to school. Some people have memories. You know, like they rewind back. I see the lake going up. I say to my friend, eh, something going on on the bottom of the lake. My friend say, no, that’s the water coming from the mountain. I say, no, the water could come like that big on the lake, but if you see the water going six or seven feet in eight months there is a crack on the bottom of the lake. In the lake in the south Haiti, it rise level too, in Miragoane. The lake is going up seven feet too in Miragoane. One day I sit here with my sister, three o’clock in the afternoon, and you know what I heard. HHHoahhharrrrraahhaoooorrrrhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Mark: Like, underground?
Bertrand: Yes. Not even the people in Hollywood can do the noise… This noise make me become like an ant when I heard the noise of mother earth make the cry. Then after six, seven or eight months the water start going up. I said to my friend in the car, eh, Haiti is going to shake. But I like to joke a lot, you know. My friend say, with your goat mouth don’t start talking that shit.
Bertrand: My friend, I come from Santo Domingo and the lady said to me, your country is, is… I say, what? In the custom, you know. She tell me my country is down. And then I say to her, what do you say? I think it is a tire burning, you know, or revolt. Haitian always revolt. And she said, no. It’s an earthquake.
Mark: So, you were in the D.R.?
Bertrand: Yes. I come in the next two days after. And, you know, it is something… I don’t know it is going to happen, but I picture it in my head. I feel it. I tell it to many of my friends: Something going to happen in this country. Because of the lake I see there. Nobody even pay attention.