A Christmas Hope for a Troubled Country

A Christmas Hope for a Troubled Country
By CHRIS HEDGES

Published: December 23, 2004

ON Christmas Eve in Lincoln Center, Papa Noel will pay a visit to the stage. The play, “How Papa Noel Forgot Haiti,” written by Jean Jean-Pierre and Paul Uhry Newman, is a cautionary tale about the danger of expecting help from the outside rather than from within. And in the end Papa Noel, the Haitian version of Santa Claus, decides to wait for another year, a year when Haiti is not in turmoil and plagued by unrest.

The performance, which will star Danny Glover as Papa Noel, is set on the day before Christmas in Haiti. Using Haitian music and dance, the story centers on a Haitian girl’s faith that Papa Noel will visit Haiti, even though he has never been there before. Magali, the girl, finds a broken fanal, a Christmas lantern made from colored paper in the shape of a house. The traditional fanal becomes a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of the impoverished residents on the island.

“It is a story about self-reliance,” said Mr. Jean-Pierre. “Papa Noel has not visited Haiti since the birth of our nation, although people want Haitians to believe the opposite. The play is a metaphor. It says do not wait for outsiders to come and do it for you. Do it yourself.”

The play, which will be performed only on Christmas Eve, is another in a line of events and productions orchestrated by Mr. Jean-Pierre, whose work as a journalist, musician, composer and playwright has made him a leading Haitian activist.

The play is the product of dark humor. “It is a running joke in Haiti that Papa Noel never comes because it is too dark,” Mr. Jean-Pierre says. “He can’t see us. We have too many blackouts.” It is a statement about a country and a people he worries most of the world has forgotten.

Mr. Jean-Pierre has spent much of the past year raising money to replant trees in Haiti, where during the past year roughly 4,000 people were killed in mudslides caused by deforestation.

“We subsidize a small company that builds cooking stoves that do not heat with charcoal,” he said, adding that he was working with two nonprofit groups trying to plant one million trees over the next two years. “The deforestation and erosion is a disaster for the country.”

Mr. Jean-Pierre, 50, who has a disarming smile, was born in Port-au-Prince. His father, who worked in the state-owned seaport, also had children with other women. His mother raised him and set high academic standards. But it was music that captured him.

“I was exposed to all kinds of music in Haiti,” he said, seated in a restaurant in Greenwich Village. “I would get up in the morning and hear Polish music. I would switch to the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and the Papas. I loved Haitian music, especially the big bands. I would beat out the rhythms with spoons and knives, many of which I broke on the table top.”

He became a drummer for a band in high school after he agreed to keep up his grades at the private Roman Catholic school he attended. His talents as a drummer led to performances with popular recording artists like the Haitian star Ansy Derose, the Brazilian vocalist Nelson Ned and the Puerto Rican singer Daniel Santos.

But the political climate in Haiti was stifling. “It was the time of Papa Doc Duvalier, who declared himself president for life,” Mr. Jean-Pierre said. “There was a tremendous brain drain. The majority of the nurses and doctors left for the United States, Canada and Africa. This was encouraged by the regime that did not want an opposition led by those who were capable and educated.”

He arrived in New York in 1974 speaking little English and not sure how he was going to make a living. He got a job in a factory and at night attended Rockland Community College and later Pace University. He started playing in a funk band that performed in clubs like the old Limelight in Manhattan.

Mr. Jean-Pierre, who is divorced and has a son, settled in Spring Valley, N.Y., where he still lives. He was able to earn a living, but the disasters engulfing his homeland haunted him and the pull of the island grew as time passed.

“All Haitians are political,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are also bad at it.”

HE began to write about Haiti for The Rockland Journal-News, which led to articles for The Village Voice and reports for United Nations radio. He returned to Haiti in 1995 not as a reporter, but as an investigator for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal and educational group focusing on human rights.

He gathered evidence surrounding the murders of leading Haitian figures including Guy Mallory, the minister of justice, and Antoine Izméry, a businessman and supporter of the former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

He also uncovered the story of Alerte Belance, a Haitian woman whose arm was hacked off and who was left for dead by thugs associated with a right-wing paramilitary group, the Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress, or Fraph. Her story became a rallying cry for anti-Fraph demonstrators, and she is a plaintiff in a human rights suit filed in New York.

Mr. Jean-Pierre also believes that the United States has not been a very good ally to Haiti. “Washington has never been interested in developing Haiti,” he said. “It is a pool of cheap labor and a market for subsidized crops and goods from the United States.”