January 29, 2010
Posted: 08:01 PM ET
For our purposes, let’s say that the center of the moral universe is in Room S-3800 of the UN Secretariat, Manhattan. From here, you are some five hours from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. Your slave will come in any color you like, as Henry Ford said, as long as it’s black. Maximum age: fifteen. He or she can be used for anything. Sex or domestic labor are the most frequent uses, but it’s up to you.
Before you go, let’s be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good. You may have thought you missed your chance to own a slave. Maybe you imagined that slavery died along with the 360,000 Union soldiers whose blood fertilized the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Perhaps you assumed that there was meaning behind the dozen international conventions banning the slave trade, or that the deaths of 30 million people in world wars had spread freedom across the globe.
But you’re in luck. By our mere definition, you are living at a time when there are more slaves than at any point in history. If you’re going to buy one in five hours, however, you’ve really got to stop navel-gazing over things like law and the moral advance of humanity. Get a move on.
First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport. If you choose the Queensboro Bridge to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the drive should take under an hour. With no baggage, you’ll speed through security in time to make a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Flying time: three hours.
The final hour is the strangest. After disembarking, you will cross the tarmac to the terminal where drummers in vodou getup and a dancing midget greet you with song. Based on Transportation Security Administration warnings posted in the departure terminal at JFK, you might expect abject chaos at Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport. Instead, you find orderly lines leading to the visa stamp, no bribes asked, a short wait for your bag, then a breeze through customs. Outside the airport, the cabbies and porters will be aggressive, but not threatening. Assuming you speak no Creole, find an English-speaking porter and offer him $20 to translate for the day.
Ask your translator to hail the most common form of transport, a tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a brightly colored canopy. You will have to take a couple of these, but they only cost 10 gourdes (25 cents) each. Usually handpainted with signs in broken English or Creole, tap-taps often include the words my God or Jesus. My God it’s my life reads one; another announces welcome to Jesus. Many are ornate, featuring windshields covered in frill, doodads, and homages to such figures as Che Guevara, Ronaldinho, or reggae legend Gregory Isaacs. The driver’s navigation is based on memory, instinct. There will be no air conditioning. Earplugs are useful, as the sound system, which cost more than the rig itself, will make your chest vibrate with the beats of Haitian pop and American hip-hop. Up to twenty people may accompany you: five square inches on a wooden bench will miraculously accommodate a woman with a posterior the size of a tractor tire. Prepare your spine.
You’ll want to head up Route de Delmas toward the suburb of Pétionville, where many of the country’s wealthiest thirty families— who control the nation’s economy—maintain a pied-à-terre. As you drive southeast away from the sea, the smells change from rotting fish to rotting vegetables. Exhaust fumes fill the air. You’ll pass a billboard featuring a smiling girl in pigtails and the words: Give me your hand. Give me tomorrow. Down with Child Servitude. Chances are, like the majority of Haitians, you can’t read French or Creole. Like them, you ignore the sign.
Heading out of the airport, you’ll pass two UN peacekeepers, one with a Brazilian patch, the other with an Argentine flag. As you pass the blue helmets, smile, wave, and receive dumbfounded stares in return. The United Nations also has Jordanians and Peruvians here, parked in APVs fifteen minutes northwest, along the edge of the hyperviolent Cité Soleil slum, the poorest and most densely populated six square miles in the poorest and most densely populated country in the hemisphere. The peacekeepers don’t go in much, neither do the national police. If they do, the gangsters that run the place start shooting. Best to steer
clear, although you’d get a cheap price on children there. You might even get offered a child gratis.
You’ll notice the streets of the Haitian capital are, like the tap-taps, overstuffed, banged up, yet colorful. The road surfaces range from bad to terrible, and grind even the toughest SUVs down to the chassis. Parts of Delmas are so steep that the truck may sputter and die under the exertion.
Port-au-Prince was built to accommodate about 150,000 people, and hasn’t seen too many centrally planned upgrades since 1804. Over the last fifty years, some 2 million people, a quarter of the nation’s population, have arrived from the countryside. They’ve brought their animals. Chickens scratch on side streets, and boys lead prizefighting cocks on string leashes. Monstrously fat black pigs root in sooty, putrid garbage piled eight feet high on street corners or even higher in enormous pits that drop off sidewalks and wind behind houses.
A crowd swells out of a Catholic church broadcasting a fervent mass. Most Haitians are Catholic. Despite the efforts of Catholic priests, most also practice vodou. In the countryside, vodou is often all they practice.
You may see a white jeep or van with a siren, a red cross, and the word ambulence handpainted on it. You might assume this is an ambulance. It is not. These private vehicles only carry dead people. Public health is spotty at best. The annual budget for the health care of the UN peacekeepers in Haiti is greater than the annual budget for the country’s Health Ministry. It’s a bad idea to get sick here, as I was to find out.
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