By: Paisley Dodds
Michael Norton ? who spent nearly two decades covering Haiti’s coups, rebellions and disasters for The Associated Press ? died Sunday after a long battle with cancer. He was 66.
Norton chronicled the turmoil that followed former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier’s ouster, spent almost a decade watching the rise and fall of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and wrote compelling accounts of Haiti’s crushing poverty that has created a cycle of despair in the country.
His wife said he died in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where they lived.
Born in Minneapolis, Norton left the United States in 1969 for Ireland, but soon moved to Paris, where he found work as an English teacher and fell in love with Haitian singer and activist, Toto Bissainthe.
The couple moved to Haiti in 1986, just months after “Baby Doc” Duvalier was forced into exile following a popular uprising. Bissainthe died in 1994.
Known for his trademark ponytail and corncob pipe, Norton began working for the AP in 1988 after hosting a series of local radio shows in English, French and Haitian Creole.
For many journalists who covered Haiti, a visit to Norton’s house on the outskirts of Petionville was one of the first steps toward understanding Haiti’s turbulent undercurrent.
Unlike many who covered Haiti from hotels, Norton lived like many Haitians ? struggling through power cuts, water shortages, street violence and constant political upheaval.
“I swore I would never sacrifice the truth to any cause, no matter how good,” Norton recently recalled of his time in Haiti.
It was this conviction that often enraged Haiti’s power brokers.
In 2004, when anti-Aristide groups reported a turnout of 60,000 people at a protest in Port-au-Prince, the capital, Norton stuck to his principles.
Using police standards for counting crowds, he reported a far lower number. The result: death threats, angry mobs and Norton’s name singled out on opposition radio programs.
David Beard, who was the AP’s Caribbean news editor from 1992 to 1995, said Norton “helped a generation of readers worldwide understand the despair, joy, and mysteries” of Haiti.
“His diligence and respect for the nation translated as well for writers, reporters, and policymakers who followed his path,” Beard said in an e-mail from Boston, where he works as editor of The Boston Globe’s Web site.
Norton tirelessly covered Haiti until the end, leaving with a final scoop.
Through sources he had built over 20 years, Norton was the first journalist to report that Aristide was ousted Feb. 29, 2004, after a three-week revolt led by gangs and former soldiers.
He left soon after to seek medical attention for a melanoma that had returned.
“He sustained me through difficult times with unconditional friendship,” said Dan Whitman, a friend of Norton’s who worked at the U.S. Embassy in 1999-2001. “Though our professions put information to somewhat different purposes, we had an identical interest in accuracy.”
Norton’s most colorful stories came from covering Haiti’s regular Voodoo pilgrimages. The religion was officially sanctioned during his time in the country.
“We just lost a Haitian journalist, someone who belonged to us,” said Joseph Guyler Delva, a Haitian reporter who heads an association of local journalists and recalled Norton’s fluency in Haitian Creole, a blend of French and African words and syntax.
He said Norton, who was white, was never considered a “foreign” correspondent by Haitians.
Norton joined the AP’s San Juan bureau in 2004, returning to Haiti briefly in 2006, to cover the election of Rene Preval as president.
He retired months later, listening to jazz and writing poetry until the end.
He penned several books, including “And When the Weeds Began to Grow,” and his latest, “Eschatology,” which was published this year. Another book, written in Spanish, was titled, “A quien pueda interesar” or “To Whom It May Concern.”
He often said two books that captured Haiti best were “Alice in Wonderland” and “Exodus.”
“You can’t piece together points of view,” Norton said in 2007 of writing about Haiti.
“You can stack them or align them. But that is like bringing together all the trees in the forest, which becomes impenetrable, like forging a fence from wooden planks. You have to depend on your own intuition, your own capacity to enter into another world, to fall with Alice (in Wonderland) down the hole and subsequently not to lose your sanity or be persnickety about the incomprehensible.”
Norton is survived by his wife, Domnina Alcantara de los Santos.