A Lucrative Trade in Souls, Living or Dead : Haiti: Boat-builders and boat people hedge their futures against a return of Aristide.

San Francisco-based novelist Herbert Gold has made 25 trips to Haiti over the years. His new book, "Bohemia," will be published in April.

In mid-February, I drove from Port-au-Prince to Leogane and the beach at Ca Ira, where the tap-tap of hammers echoed across the beach and the boat-builders were busy constructing their armada. No-uniform police-equivalents (that is, well-connected thugs) watched, lounging in the sunglasses that used to mark the Tontons Macoutes of the two Docs, Papa and Baby. Two kinds of sailing vessels were being constructed, small ones the size of large rowboats for fishing and also larger ones.

When I asked what the larger ones were intended to do, the answer came: to carry charcoal. And souls?

The boat-builder had not read Gogol, but he answered: "Dead souls."

Near Ca Ira are deserted sugar cane plantations and tumbledown former sugar refineries where some of these people used to work. The machinery is rusting. There is no work. Once a major sugar producer, Haiti now imports sugar for its own needs through the porous embargo. The only sugar distilleries still operating are the ones that make clairin, the raw white rum that stills hunger, calms need and perhaps brings relief in ecstatic forgetfulness.

One of the boat-builders was willing to talk, so long as I didn't pronounce the word Aristide. He preferred the word God. "Those who think he is God, they don't care if he comes tomorrow or next year. Me, I want him to come today."

What do you think will happen?

"I will know what will happen when I see what happens. Right now I want to walk a little with you so that man behind you does not hear what we are saying."

We strolled along the water. I asked if he was afraid. He said, "If I don't die today, I die tomorrow. Yesterday six men died on the road you passed from Leogane."

Why?

"They just say, 'I wish God come today or tomorrow.' "

So perhaps we shouldn't be talking?

"Us? We got nothing. Things will be better, or most of the people will take the boat to Florida and go. And die."

In February there was motion, with Organization of American States and United Nations observers finally admitted, gestures of the Clinton Administration to let the ruling generals know that the United States means not to let matters drift forever, and the brief visits of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. John Conyers, whom I saw dining with his party at the Hotel Oloffson.

A Haitian friend, once well-connected in Haiti, now a "non-person," explained that the boat people are a resource for some people, like the trade in primitive art and the cocaine passage. "It's part of the government plan," he said. "The boat-builders and captains make money. The police get their share."

And then, when the boat people are returned, they are each given a small sum of money, because Americans are a generous people. And this money is taken by the police and government, so the authorities make money coming and going.

"And best of all," said my friend, "our boat people are a threat to the United States. We cannot fight the Americans, but we can send Haitians to cover the beaches of Florida like an oil slick. Who gains, who loses? This is an orchestration. And the leader of the orchestra is the Haitian authority." He was referring to the leaders of the coup against President Aristide, who tend not to like the words putsch and coup. They prefer the more elegant formulation, "correction of a democracy in decline."

I asked what the United States can do.

"Oh, so easy!" he said, his eyes bright with laughter. "What you must do and we cannot do. Save us! Save us!"

In return, my friend, a musician, offered to give advice to President Clinton on how to properly tongue the tenor saxophone.

That might solve the American presidential music problem, but the Haitian presidential problem is more difficult. It can be put simply: Everyone who does not have a gun in Haiti wants the legally elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, back in office. Everyone who has a gun wants to kill him. These are the democracy-correcters.

Therefore, if Aristide is to return, it has to be under some kind of international protection--not the U.S. Marines--plus pressures to keep his demagogic and messianic tendencies in check. The work of the boat people can't solve everything.

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