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8863: Graham Greene Would Still Adore This Hotel (fwd)
Business Week - May 7th, 2001
INTERNATIONAL -- LETTER FROM HAITI
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
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
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
Forwarded by the Haiti Support Group
SEE THE HAITI SUPPORT GROUP WEB SITE: <A
The Haiti Support Group - solidarity with the Haitian people's struggle for
justice, participatory democracy and equitable development, since 1992.