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#2180: Mystical Haitian hotel survives amid turmoil, decay (fwd)


Published Sunday, February 6, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Mystical Haitian hotel survives amid turmoil, decay

 BY DAN PERRY  Associated Press Writer 

 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The old man glides past wicker furniture and
tropical plants, his fluttering silver cane, silk neckerchief and wry
savoir-faire evoking an enchanted Haiti that may only have existed in
imaginations primed on the finest local rum. As he is quick to reveal,
Aubelin Jolicoeur is none other than the stylish gadfly Petit Pierre,
Graham Greene's scene-stealing fixture at Port-au-Prince's Oloffson
 Hotel, immortalized in the 1966 novel The Comedians. Now 75, Jolicoeur
is slowed down to be sure, a shade rumpled perhaps, but still very much
alive. ``I remember Greene,'' he says, pointing out rooms once inhabited
by the likes of Richard Burton, Mick Jagger and Ed Bradley of 60
Minutes. ``Truman Capote introduced us. Greene was a nice man. A quiet
man. A man with powers of observation.''

 Greene's narrato, a man named Brown, portrayed the irrepressible gossip
 columnist Petit Pierre as ``a tiny figure of a man'' who was always on
the hustle for a free glass of rum. ``Even the time of day was humorous
to him. ... He had the quick movements of a monkey, and he seemed to
swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter,'' Greene wrote.
 As for the hotel, called the Trianon in the book, Greene described a
place to ``mingle with the elite ... the musicians, the poets, the
painters. ... You expected a witch to open the door to you or a manic
butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him.''
 In The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis, the Oloffson is a ``white
palace, fragile and pretty, a gingerbread fantasy of turrets and towers,
cupolas and wooden minarets decorated in lace, which paint alone kept
from collapsing into the sea.''

 Like Jolicoeur, despite Haiti's decades of turmoil the hotel lives on,
tall palms lining the walkway from an elaborate fountain to the
three-story wood structure built in 1896 as a family mansion. It became
a hotel in the 1930s after brief service as a hospital for occupying
U.S. Marines.


 The latest in the Oloffson's long line of operators is Richard Morse,
the son of an American scholar and a Haitian dancer who grew up in
Woodbridge, Conn. The Princeton grad was a rock musician who came to
Haiti in the 1980s in search of musical inspiration and wound up
fronting a local band and signing a 15-year lease on the nearly dead
hotel. A tall man with drooping eyelids and an infectious smile, the
42-year-old Morse remembers several incidents during the 1991-1994
military dictatorship when he thought militias or raging mobs would kill
him -- or destroy the hotel. ``It got pretty weird,'' Morse says
philosophically. ``Haiti is a mystical place with mystical zones, and
this hotel is one of them. I figure I'll stay here as long as I'm
 supposed to. I won't hang on.'' His lease runs out in 2002, and for the
moment the Oloffson functions with an easy air of faded glory. About
half of its 20 rooms are occupied.
 Thursday night performances by the band, Ram, are the hottest gig in
town -- a profusion of drums, dancers, guitars and rhythms that fuses
African, Caribbean and North American influences into a hypnotic
concoction. Equal parts frat party and folklore, it pounds on all night,
swirling around the strumming, smiling Morse. A recent mix of guests
included Tim Pershing, a Los Angeles-based freelance photojournalist,
and Franceska Schifrin, a painter, who have adopted two children
 in Haiti. ``Haiti's the kind of place you either run away from or can't
leave. I guess we're the latter,'' Pershing says.
 ``There is a lot of potential in this country, you know,'' insists
Jolicoeur as he eases up to the bar under overhead fans, observes
himself in a huge Gothic mirror and tends to the latest in a long line
of complimentary drinks. It seems incredible today, but Haiti started as
one of the richest countries on earth.
 Saint-Domingue, as it was once called, boasted thousands of plantations
 supplying Europe with coffee, cotton, indigo and especially sugar -- a
crop that generated enormous wealth for slave plantation owners.
 The French Revolution provided egalitarian ideals that helped encourage
African slaves to revolt. In 1804, the renamed Haiti became the world's
first independent black republic. But the country squandered its wealth
with speed, hardly knowing a day of good government. It suffered bouts
of dictatorship, including the 29-year reign of Francois ``Papa
 Doc'' Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, who terrorized the country with
their militia, the sunglasses-wearing, notoriously ruthless Tontons
Macoutes. The younger Duvalier -- Baby Doc -- was deposed in 1986, and a
fitful effort at democracy followed in which a former Catholic priest,
Jean-Betrand Aristide, was elected in 1990, only to be ousted by the
military a year later. An estimated 4,000 civilians died under three
years of bloody military-backed rule before Aristide was reinstated via
a U.S.-led invasion. His successor, Rene Preval, has failed to improve
the dire economic situation or control rampant violent crime, and
democracy is now badly discredited among the people.

 The U.S. State Department has this warning posted on its Web site,
 travel.state.gov: ``Haiti continues to experience occasional civil
unrest, including unofficial roadblocks in all regions of the country. .
. Violence can flare up at anytime.'' Over the years, misuse of
agricultural land, the hunt for charcoal and a lack of regulation turned
large swaths into desert. Once-lush mountains are now enormous brown
mounds of cracked earth, crisscrossed by dry riverbeds. Port-au-Prince
shows the effects of decades of neglect. The city of two million is
 the capital of the poorest country in the hemisphere, a place where the
majority are illiterate and unemployed.


 Nonetheless, Jolicoeur recalls the Duvalier era with a certain
fondness. Through the filter of nostalgia he remembers a more vibrant
intellectual milieu that no longer exists. ``Those were good times,'' he
says, noting that Papa Doc once gave him a Chrysler. In his book The
Immaculate Invasion, Bob Shacochis writes that the Oloffson survived
Haiti's years ``off the map of civilization ... by serving as a crash
house for bohemian reporters (and) aid entrepreneurs, some checking in
for the sole purpose of carousing with the highly literate chameleon
Aubelin Jolicoeur, the hotel's most curious and enduring artifact. Aging
spy, former Duvalierist apparatchik, dapper gallant, and gossip
columnist.'' ``I was all these things,'' Jolicoeur wistfully admits. ``I
am fully aware that I have had my time. Now is the time for somebody

 Information: Rates at the Oloffson Hotel range from $70-$130 per night;
call (011-509) 23-4000 or (011-509) 23-4102; fax (011-509) 23-0919.