It would be hard to come up with a more tantalizing title than that of Raymond Joseph’s memoir, “For Whom the Dogs Spy.” Dogs spy? On whom? On whose behalf? There must be a story here. Indeed there is, and it begins with voodoo.
Mr. Joseph, the son of a Protestant minister, is not a believer in witch doctors and zombies. But in the 1950s, when dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier took power in Haiti, many of his fellow Haitians were. “In a land where animate and inanimate objects are thought to have soul,” Mr. Joseph explains, “Papa Doc adroitly exploited the people’s beliefs to keep his stranglehold on power.”
The author gives a personal anecdote to illustrate this point. One evening in 1960, Mr. Joseph, then in his late 20s, was sitting outdoors by his pool chatting with a friend, when a stray dog wandered into the yard. His friend signaled Mr. Joseph to keep quiet. “You have to be very careful these days about what you say and where you say it,” the friend explained after the dog had moved on. “You should be extra careful when animals are around, because you don’t know who sent them. . . . Of course, you know that black dog was from Duvalier who sent it to spy on us!”
The black-dog experience “profoundly changed the course of my life,” Mr. Joseph writes. Up to that point, “I was not in the least interested in politics.” But now, he says, he was determined to do what he could “to loosen Papa Doc’s hold on the psyche of Haitians.”
Mr. Joseph has since been at the center of the struggle for democracy in Haiti. He has had distinguished careers as a scholar, journalist and diplomat. While in his 20s, he studied biblical languages and translated the New Testament into Creole. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a reporter for this newspaper, to which he still contributes occasional op-eds. He twice served as Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Joseph is now in his 80s, and in “For Whom the Dogs Spy” he relates his work of more than half a century. His book is a thoughtful political memoir written by a man who was sometimes an insider and always an acute observer.
Shortly after his encounter with the spying dog, Mr. Joseph was tipped off that Papa Doc’s thugs were about to arrest him. Like thousands of Haitian intellectuals during the Duvalier years, he took his family and fled for the U.S. There he helped establish a shortwave radio station that broadcast news and commentary to the island country. His aim, he writes, was to have a “democratic voice to counteract the Haitian dictator and others who espoused communism.” He turned the tables on Papa Doc by creating his own (non-canine) network of informants, including disaffected government workers who wanted the regime to fall.
The broadcasts helped to demystify Papa Doc and inform Haitians about the truth of his regime. They also enraged the dictator, who issued an order to “kill that bug,” referring to Mr. Joseph’s radio station. The following day, in a brilliant stick-it-in-your-eye response, the radio changed its name to Radio Vonvon — vonvon being Creole for “bug.” Duvalier’s insult became a mark of respect. Papa Doc’s later attempts to bribe Mr. Joseph into silence failed, as did an effort to have him assassinated.
In 1971, Mr. Joseph and his brother Leo started up the Haiti-Observateur, a Brooklyn-based weekly that covers Haiti and the Haitian diaspora in the United States. Under Mr. Joseph’s editorship, the Haiti-Observateur was highly critical of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who was ousted twice by coups, in 1991 and 2004. Mr. Joseph devotes a chapter of his book to Mr. Aristide, writing bitterly of the “squandered opportunities” of the Aristide years, the violence of his rule and what he sees as Mr. Aristide’s manipulation of the Haitian constitution to wield power through a puppet president. The former president “failed the ‘Democracy 101’ course,” Mr. Joseph says.
There’s also an interesting chapter on the expanding political power of the Haitian diaspora in New York City. Haitian-Americans helped elect David Dinkins as the first black mayor of New York, Mr. Joseph writes. But when Mr. Dinkins received Mr. Aristide at City Hall and presented him with the key to the city, many Haitian voters deserted him. Mr. Joseph credits the Haitian vote with helping Rudy Giuliani defeat Mr. Dinkins in 1993.
Mr. Joseph was Haiti’s ambassador in Washington at the time of the 2010 earthquake that destroyed the capital city of Port-au-Prince, killed thousands of people and left more than a million homeless. When evangelist Pat Robertson called the disaster God’s punishment for the pact that Haitians supposedly had made with the devil for their independence from France, Mr. Joseph went on national TV to give Americans a lesson in the two nations’ shared history. That so-called pact with the devil in 1791, he said, “allowed the United States of America to become the country it is today.” It was only when Haitian slaves rose up and defeated the French, he said, that France was forced to sell the Louisiana Territory in 1803. “With a stroke of a pen, the new American nation more than doubled its territory overnight.”
“For Whom the Dogs Spy” is an excellent account of the modern political history of one of America’s closest neighbors by someone who has lived through it. It could, however, have been better edited. Typos proliferate and people, places and organizations are named in one chapter but not identified or explained until a later one. A reader who is unfamiliar with the subject is sometimes left hanging. But those are minor complaints about a volume that otherwise has great merit, illuminating a country that, for many Americans, remains too much in the shadows.