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8863: Graham Greene Would Still Adore This Hotel (fwd)

From: Tttnhm@aol.com

Business Week - May 7th, 2001


Graham Greene Would Still Adore This Hotel  
By Monica Roman
As I pull on my swimsuit, I'm like any other tourist who has just arrived in 
the Caribbean: I can't wait to get to the hotel pool. But before I dive in, I 
strain to see if there are any blood stains. You see, this is not just any 
hotel pool--it's the one in which Doctor Philipot was found dead in Graham 
Greene's novel, The Comedians.

Wait a minute, I remind myself: That's fantasy, not reality. But the two 
worlds seem to intersect at the Hotel Oloffson (Greene called it the Trianon) 
in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork 
decorations it had the air of a Charles Addams house in a number of The New 
Yorker," Greene wrote. "You expected a witch to open the door to you or a 
maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him."

Despite my morbid imaginings, all I see in the pool are a few leaves, so I 
jump in. But the feeling that I've stepped into The Comedians returns when I 
meet Richard A. Morse, the Oloffson's proprietor. Like the book's Monsieur 
Brown, Morse's family connections led him to an antiquated hotel that he 
hoped to restore to its former grandeur. The son of the late Richard M. 
Morse, an American professor who taught Latin American history at Yale and 
Stanford universities, and Emerante de Pradines, a famed Haitian dancer, 
Morse took over the Oloffson in 1987, a year after dictator Jean-Claude "Baby 
Doc" Duvalier went into exile.

Morse, a Princeton University graduate, came to study the music of vodou, 
Haiti's polytheistic religion, but he "needed a day job." Through the 
intercession of his half-brother, Jean Max Sam, Morse obtained a 15-year 
lease on the Oloffson, which was built as a home for the Sams in the 19th 
century. The family lived there until President Guillaume Sam was torn to 
pieces by a mob in 1915. The incident led to the first American invasion, 
when the mansion was used as a hospital by the Marines.

Ever since Morse took over the Oloffson, Haiti's political climate has been 
anything but hospitable to tourism. After a period of chaos following the 
Duvalier era, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, became President in 
February, 1991, but was overthrown seven months later. A reign of terror 
under Raoul Cédras ensued. Aristide was ultimately restored to power after a 
second American invasion, in October, 1994.

Instead of becoming a magnet for tourists, the Oloffson hosted employees of 
nongovernmental organizations, health-care workers, missionaries, reporters, 
Peace Corps volunteers, and adventure seekers, dubbed "minglers" by Herbert 
Gold in his book Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth.

It's whispered that some journalists who hung out at the Oloffson would pay a 
$20 finder's fee to Haitians who located corpses that could be photographed. 
That's a lot of money in a country where 80% of the 8 million residents live 
in poverty, and the per-capita gross national product is $460.

Even today, the talk on the Oloffson porch inevitably leads to dead 
bodies--particularly when the body in question is a blanc, Creole for 
foreigner. Carjackings, AIDS, and random murders have scared away all but a 
few intrepid tourists. "We don't have enough dead bodies to bring in the 
foreign press, but we have just enough to keep the tourists away," says Morse.

The international community has turned its back on Haiti because its 
government has repeatedly broken its promises to foster democracy. More than 
$500 million in foreign aid has been frozen since former President René 
Préval, an Aristide protege, suspended the parliament in January, 1999. Last 
year's legislative elections, in which Aristide's La Fanmi Lavalas party won 
80% of the seats, were marred by fraud allegations. After he was elected 
again in November, 2000, Aristide wrote Bill Clinton offering to include 
other political parties in his Cabinet, but the opposition parties have 
rebuffed his overtures. Given President George W. Bush's avowed reluctance to 
engage in "nation-building," it's unlikely the U.S. would intervene if 
Aristide is overthrown a second time.

With all the political uncertainty, Morse hasn't invested much in the 
hotel--and it shows. Americans used to the sanitized efficiency of Hyatts and 
Hiltons grouse about the 20 minutes it takes to get hot water and the 
unreliable phones. Port-au-Prince has an electricity shortage, and 
after-dinner chats are often punctuated by sudden darkness--whereupon Morse's 
aunt, Anna de Pradines, hits the switch on the hotel's generator, and the 
lights come back on.

My favorite pastime is sitting on the Oloffson veranda and waiting to see if 
someone interesting will join me. I'm never disappointed. There's the Haitian 
radiology professor who reads palms, a Danish "honorary consul" making a 
documentary about Haitian art, and an American detective looking into the 
case of a Louisiana woman murdered while vacationing in Haiti. "The Oloffson 
is the best hotel in the world. It's like hotels used to be. You actually 
meet people," says Leah Gordon, co-author of Lonely Planet Dominican Republic 
and Haiti.

Everyone I meet wants to know why I'm here. "Everyone comes to Haiti for a 
reason," says my driver, Alix, as we climb the hill to the rich suburb of 
Pétionville. "For some people, it's sex. For others, it's drugs." When I tell 
him I've come for art, he doesn't seem convinced. 

Looking for the ghosts of Graham Greene novels and buying folk art aren't the 
only reasons I'm at the Oloffson. I'm also here to see Morse's band, RAM, 
which has a hypnotic sound that he describes as "vodou rock 'n' roots." 
Fortunately for the Oloffson's cash register, Haitians and expats alike pack 
the hotel every Thursday to hear the 14-piece band. If Morse, 43, is the 
band's houngan, or priest, his wife, Lunise, 30, embodies Lasirene, the 
goddess of seduction.

Over the years, RAM's wide appeal has led to some tense showdowns between 
Aristide supporters and former Tontons Macoutes--the notorious security force 
named for "Uncle Knapsack," the bogeyman in a Haitian fairy tale. As 
chronicled by Bob Shacochis in The Immaculate Invasion, Morse would take his 
life in his hands by performing Fey, "a harmless arrangement of folklore" 
that became a protest anthem during the Cédras regime. Today, as Morse warns 
that Aristide is in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of Haitian 
dictators, the hotelier acknowledges: "People get killed here for saying 
stuff like that." There's speculation that the reason Morse is still alive 
lies in his American citizenship. Asked if it's true, Morse says: "Some 
people say that." 

Sometimes it seems like everyone in Port-au-Prince knows Morse. When a Peace 
Corps volunteer named Jason Wians helps me make my way through the 
city--which is perilously short of street signs, traffic signals, and manhole 
covers--to see the brilliantly colored murals at Holy Trinity Church, the 
caretaker points to one and asks: "You know Richard Morse? Richard has many 
artists' paintings because they used them to buy drinks."

When I tell Morse the story, he offers his own version: The artist Stevenson 
Magloire "didn't always like the prices his dealers offered, so he'd 
sometimes trade with me." One day in 1994, Magloire called Morse looking for 
a copy of RAM's first CD. When Morse said he didn't have one, Magloire 
replied: "This is the last thing I'll ever ask you for." The next day he was 
found murdered, prompting Morse to write Aziyan, a song mourning the death of 
a friend.

Writing and performing have helped Morse come to terms with the violence and 
mystery of life in Haiti. But some hotel guests think Morse puts more energy 
into his music than into the Oloffson. "Richard needs to decide whether he 
wants to run a hotel or be in a band," says Bryant Freeman, a University of 
Kansas professor who frequently visits the Oloffson. Still, working in a band 
has one advantage: If the Oloffson is ever forced to close the way the 
Trianon did, Morse won't have to become an undertaker like his counterpart in 
The Comedians. 

Forwarded by the Haiti Support Group


The Haiti Support Group - solidarity with the Haitian people's struggle for 
justice, participatory democracy and equitable development, since 1992.