Living with Crises in Port-au-Prince

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Flickr: Siri B.L.)

Based on a decade’s worth of research in Haiti, the United States, and Canada, There is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince examines how Haitians living in Port-au-Prince manage living with the crisis that is a part of their everyday lives. Greg Beckett contributes an ethnographic study that offers the readers a Haitian account of crisis which diverges in some ways from a general perspective. Beckett centers his narrative in Port-au-Prince and covers events from the fall of Jean-Baptiste Aristide in 2004 to the earthquake in 2010. The book’s title comes from a saying spoken by those in the city that reveals an unfulfilled promise and hope by Haitians of a particular generation. They came of age during the Duvalier’s regime to only face the closing of opportunities that generated a crisis.

Beckett argues that Haitians in Port-au-Prince rely on social connections to manage crises, enabling them to normalize it as it becomes a routine part of their everyday lives. For example, Beckett’s interviewees who were a part of Port-au-Prince’s tourist economy continued to rely on one another through an informal exchange of goods and services. Through his ethnography conducted with members of the Haitian elite with roots in the capital, foreigners living in the city and rural migrants who came to make Port-au-Prince their home, Beckett presents a series of stories within one another thematically. This approach uses different challenges of living in the city to show the reader how Haitians understand and cope with the certainty of uncertain trouble. These threads all culminate with the 2010 earthquake as Beckett returned to see how Haitians managed to live with a crisis that was greater than the others. Just as before, it was through social connections that Port-au-Prince’s inhabitants dealt with the trauma of this crisis.

Readers are left with an ethnography that gives Haitian studies an account of life after the Duvalier regimes in the capital. Interdisciplinary works in history, anthropology, and sociology have contributed studies of Haiti, examining the Haitian Revolution and its impact on the surrounding Caribbean and the Duvalier regime’s rise during the mid-twentieth century. The focus of scholars such as Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has been to examine distinctive aspects of Haitian culture, history, and politics but not at the expense of fetishizing them. Beckett’s study offers more than just a Haitian account of crisis; he also compares it to general understandings of disaster itself. This study puts the 2010 earthquake in a new light as its aftermath exacerbates long-standing struggles and conflicts that interfered with Port-au-Prince’s inhabitants’ way of life. There is No More Haiti provides the readers with a socio-cultural anthropological work that fits into the larger literature in Haitian studies from the past twenty years.

Formally, Beckett organizes his work thematically into five sections including an introduction and a postscript. This approach allows the reader to focus on living with a crisis as an everyday experience as opposed to separate noteworthy events. For example, Beckett begins by focusing on attempts to preserve and grow the forest of Habitation Leclerc in the face of urban growth in Port-au-Prince. He connects this struggle with the larger issue of deforestation in Haiti. Beckett’s focus on the labor of several of his interviewees in Port-au-Prince illustrates the importance of social networks in dealing with the uncertainties of an informal economy. A few of these people were part of a larger migration from the countryside to Port-au-Prince in search of success and a new way of life.

Beckett makes his case about the false hope that filled a generation of Haitians in Port-au-Prince whose lives cycle in and out of political instability, coups, and destruction, ultimately challenging their ability to survive. There is No More Haiti leaves readers with questions regarding the class differences in Port-au-Prince, revealing a combination of natural factors and fault lines of inequality that highlight the asymmetrical relationship between elite foreigners and Haitians of Port-au-Prince. Although Beckett’s experiences and questions differ among groups in Port-au-Prince, one has to wonder to what degree their upbringings and backgrounds inform how each group interprets crisis. Still, it does not take away this work’s focus on the lives of people whose struggles are often lost in the narrativizing of Haiti and its histories.

By living and studying the lives of Haitians in Port-au-Prince, Beckett presents how the city’s inhabitants normalize crisis, revealing that a crisis is an ongoing phenomenon as opposed to an event that occurs within a series of other events.

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Antony Keane-Dawes

Antony Keane-Dawes has a PhD from the University of South Carolina. His dissertation, “Reimagined Community: Imperial Occupation and Liberation in Santo Domingo, 1818–44,” explores ideas of nationalism, nation-building, and race in the Dominican Republic.