Regarding cruise ships, the terrorism of tourism in the Caribbean, and the Western media’s summer 2019 discourse about “poisonings” at resorts in the Dominican Republic
By Ren Ellis Neyra
Our horn is genuinely planet-shattering.– David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out.”
Resort and cruise ship tourists are the vacationing vassals of white supremacist, domestic terrorism. Resort and cruise ship tourists enact unethical humanist praxis on holiday. Paradise’s resorts respatialize the blueprints of military architecture. Cruise ships not only redraw the designs and trajectories of 19th century U.S. Naval ships trespassing Caribbean waterways, but also course the wakes of imperial and pirating slavers, what Olaudah Equiano described as “pestilential,” “hollow place[s]” (Equiano, Chapter II).
Tootling through the unsovereign Atlantic Ocean’s movements, naturally, the white liberal sensorium of David Foster Wallace could not sense why he felt “dread” and “despair” (35) on his cruise ship’s “angelically white, festive, imperial” hulk (39). In his travel exposé on “lethally” pampering whiteness, “Shipping Out,” Foster Wallace’s historically individuated discomfort cannot see the forest for the trees: cruise ships require ecological, ethical, and antiblack disaster to operate. Their proprietors and tourist-tenants remain unphased by the discourses of global warming and, now, of a global pandemic because these capitalist enterprises begin with the slave trade. Why would they slow for “the anthropocene,” or COVID-19? Razed mangrove forests, destroyed coral reefs, dispersed kinships, beshitted ecosystems are essential to these two temples made in homage to the Bad Taste of xenophobic, global white supremacist tourism.
The subject position of cruise and resort tourists on holiday (and I don’t care in this instance if they are North American, European, or even Caribbeaners) camouflages a specific antecedent to the propaganda of scripted ‘free’ movement: imperial military invasion. The bows of cruise ships point to what is beneath the faux beaches of their resort counterparts: chemical warfare and death. As scholar Javier Arbona, independent curator Marina Reyes Franco, and poet-philosopher Édouard Glissant have variously theorized, the military base is the spatial and ideological progenitor of the 20th and 21st century tourist resort, the cruise ship port, and the [imported] beach. U.S. imperialism’s protestant attitudes about using land have long been behind making the invasions and chemicals that clear, and keep cleared, the beaches that splay in the resort romance of the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary’s tourist proxy. Some of you are only on the (imported) beach because it—an imperial military—already has been.
If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we’d tried napalm out on you, at your expense.– Harun Farocki, Inextinguishable Fire .
On December 28, 1962, U.S.-backed Dominican military airplanes napalm-bombed the community of Palma Sola in the southwestern region of San Juan de la Maguana, in the Dominican-Haitian borderlands. The way of life of the people of San Juan de la Maguana had long-posed a constitutive refusal of capitalism’s and Catholic Christendom’s development. Human deaths from the White Helmets gunfire and the napalm’s glue-fire are estimated between 600-800. Seven hundred more people were arrested for the threat that their vodounist spiritual and communal land practices posed to elite Dominican- and U.S.-capitalist development, specifically the privatizing of communal land for state-taxed commerce and sugar cane, plantation farming.
U.S. Marines’ invasions of the entire island of Hispaniola in the late 19th-early 20th century, which led to occupations of bothsides of the island, followed by loans of unrepayable debt to both countries, were crucial to creating the conditions for the Dominican (and Haitian), U.S. friendly elite class that supported the 1962 massacre in the highlands. The slow-burning, fulgurant attack concentrated decades of U.S. Navy and Marines “weapons testing” in the Puerto Rican archipelago, particularly in Vieques and the Vieques Sound, including napalm.
The success of napalm as an agent of chemical warfare is its adhesive, prolonged flammability. Under contract with the U.S. State Department, Dow Chemicals, based in Midland, Michigan, manufactured napalm beginning in the 1960s at a factory where hundreds of household products, such as adhesive plastic wrap, as well as herbicides and pesticides were manufactured.
“It was almost adhesive… It was extremely noxious”: This is how the U.S. American tourist, Jack Spruill, described the sensation of the chemical smell in his and his wife’s resort hotel room in 2017 in Punta Cana. Spruill’s claims emerged during the summer of 2019 in a rash of news reports that construed a phenomenon of U.S. citizen “tourist deaths” at resorts in the DR. The numbers waffle between nine and 12, depending on whether one dates the deaths from 2019 or 2018, respectively. The Dominican Minister of Tourism responded with numbers and security rhetoric: over 30 million tourists have safely visited the DR in the last five years.
Some resort tourists report walking into their hotel rooms and feeling on their skin, in their eyes, and in their throats the burning brush of a chemical in the air. Spruill remembers he and his wife leaving “to spend time in the resort. When they returned, it smelled like someone had sprayed air freshener to cover the chemical smell.” One theory about three tourists who died in the past three years at a resort in the southeast of the island was that their mini-bar alcohol was contaminated with a poisonous agent. The FBI’s toxicology report regarding those three deaths states that they were due to “natural causes.”
In response to the media attention, a series of U.S.-based and one Ontario-based, white, heterosexual couples reported feeling sick while at resorts in years past: one pair in 2016, one pair in 2017, and one pair in 2018. The Epoch Times reports: “several travelers said they smelled a strange, intense chemical odor in their hotel rooms before getting sick. [Kaylynn] Knull and [Tom] Schwander [of Colorado] said they were nauseous, drooling uncontrollably … Their U.S. doctors suspected possible poisoning by a compound found in insecticide, and the couple is now suing the owners of the resort.”
In an interview with CNN, “Knull said she thought back on what she had seen days earlier: A maintenance person spraying palm plants that covered air conditioning units. . . ‘I wondered if someone sprayed our unit…They are always constantly out there taking care of the plants. We saw them out there with bug sprayers.’” This observed attention to plants, or rather, to chemicals, vigorously maintains the picture-ready image of Paradise that resort tourists want to behold, and temporarily rids the area of indigenous creatures that they do not want to see. According to the Knull-Schwanders, whose first trip outside of the U.S. was to the resort, they may have been poisoned by organophosphates, a chemical used in insecticides, such as roach spray.
Poisoning—and white anxiety thereabout, i.e., local/Caribbean white and North American white anxiety—is not new to the island of San Domingue/Hispaniola. Nor is the U.S. government’s paranoia about anyone who touches foot on the island of Black freedom being touched, in turn, by the dangerous potential of flourishing Black life, as Sara Johnson argues in The Fear of French Negroes. In Enlightenment logics, Black vitality negates white claims of superior being, which, unironically, require a fleet of apparatuses and human and animal servants to pamperingly upkeep white fragility, and particularly white women’s paradoxically vulnerable and virulent nature.
Before the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, poisoning invasive, French plantation blancs was a tactic used by Black and Indigenous maroons and uprising enslaved Africans to oust the sadistic structure, perhaps most famously by the maroon houngan [vodoun priest] Makandal. The French assassinated Makandal in 1758, under suspicion of leading a poisoning plot. And believing, too, as is their monadic, patriarchal tendency, that assassinating him would isolate the plot by eliminating that Black. As a character in Évelynne Trouillot’s novel The Infamous Rosalie, however, Makandal is disaggregated into an expansive, dispersed system of marronage. When the French burn Makandal alive in the novel, the main character, Lisette, guards her facial expressions that could be detected by the otherwise emotionally illiterate whites, so that she can relay word of Makandal to Blacks enslaved on plantations and those in marronage, with whom she is in kinship. What Lisette knows, that whites do not, is that what they think of as Makandal—i.e, the head of a plot that will die when he does—is a plurality that will not die.
In Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of this World, years before the poisoning plot, Makandal works enslaved on the repugnant, rapist Lenormand de Mézy’s plantation. After one of Makandal’s arms is amputated by the sugar cane mill, he devotes himself to the lives of plants and creatures. “[He] discovered the secret life of strange species given to disguise, confusion, and camouflage, protectors of the little armored beings that avoid the pathways of ants… But now what interested Macandal most was the fungi… The Mandingue crumbled the flesh of a fungus between his fingers, and his nose caught the whiff of poison” (17-18). Makandal’s relationship to fugitive networks of plants and “little armored beings” informs an imaginative practice of self-defense and guerilla warfare. And this maroon ecological relationship—amidst and beyond enslavement—conveys a sense of Black and Indigenous perception by which whiteness as an agent of anti-ecological land and sea control is threatened—on existential and epistemic levels.
The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being…– Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, 1988
In the context of neo-liberal, walled-in resort tourism, the traveling citizen-subject that deploys a discourse of consumption as rights is not a poisonous agent, but is the invasive species. The astringent chemicals, herbicides, and insecticides marshalled in resort and cruise ship tourism’s upkeep, the hierarchical transactional conditions, the active amnesia of extorted lands, all constitute an invasive toxin: Man. The chemical conditions required to mollify that genre of visitor, who rehearses his disdain for others through his tacky performance of the ‘free movement of Man,’ are far morepoisonous for Dominicans who work at and around resorts.
Dangerous is the tourist’s perception of what is wrong with the picture. The tourist’s ethical and imaginative incapacity points directly to the menace of locking the self into one homogeneousperceptual position (i.e., whiteness). It only occurs to the citizen-tourist to think of the Other when he needs to blame someone for the assaultive inexplicability of his own self-disgust.
At a moment in human history being re-defined by the biopolitical event of COVID-19, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Bahamas recently turned away cruise ships and their symptomatic passengers. As time passes, we will witness more tourists from the dying empires of little England and the post-Enlightenment dunce, the U.S., be turned away by Caribbean countries, given the paraded recklessness of their domestic healthcare industries. But we would do well to recall that two Latin American countries issued travel warnings about the U.S. in 2019, following Bahamas’ and Bahrain’s 2016 travel warnings regarding the rise of publicly documented police and vigilante killings of Black adults and Black children. These phenomena are interconnected: they reveal different modes of antiblackness “at home” and “abroad,” and that the virus carried by tourists is not only potentially COVID-19, but also their bad faith perception of history, and their place in it. The uprisings ongoing in Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic unmask the corporate andNGO faces of so-called democratic, North-American political procedure, and obliterate the fable of benign imperialists on vacation.
Tourists, you are the vassals of dying empires—citizens with the taste for settler colonial leisure, slavery, and primitive accumulation. You owe enormous debts to former colonies. Your countries, as Aimé Césaire argues in Discourse on Colonialism, claimed dominion over others’ lands as progress after profiting from their cultural and ecological destruction. You are not victims, but omens of death. Heed the chemical smells of your bad taste. Heed how your unhygienic ways and “horrible looks” have been clocked by Africans and Caribbeaners for centuries (Equiano 70; Prince 24). May your sensoria pay the price of the ticket.
Tourist, don’t take my picture / You don’t understand my position-Felix Morisseau-Leroy, “Tourist”
What Jamaica Kincaid wrote of the figure of the English tourist, “A tourist is an ugly human being,” I only slightly re-score: the citizen-tourist is a vigilante vassal of poisonous whiteness—which misnames “blackwater,” the excremental ooze that cruise ships expel into the the Caribbean Sea, black, when what passes through violent homo sapiens as homo oeconomicus is white (Kincaid 17).
You, tourist of the Caribbean, belong to a Caribbean imaginary, its cosmogony, ecosystems, and spiritual poetics. Perhaps intestinal upheaval reveals a possible shift of consciousness. Perhaps your gut knows that your head’s claims on self through visitor economies and settler economies entangle you in the violence of global war—and that feels bad. You—I will shift where I let you go—and do not—in the sentences ahead. For there are other sensoria and modes of perception to consider, most of which are not thinking about you at all. It is tempting to end with a blood-curdling, guerilla poisoning fantasy. I, instead, close with a sensorial and semantic shift of imagination away from the overvalued position of the viewer/consumer.
Many of the summer and fall 2019 articles about tourists feeling sick on Dominican resort vacations render the visual-compositional category of long-distance, drone shots of homogeneous coast, which reel from the genre of Tourist Ad, which historically connects to military aerial photography. The one other visual genre used in these exposés is the close-up, individuated, and banal Instagram selfie of couples. In this visual genre, we see them either smiling on vacation or frowning in bowel consternation upon return home. This combination of distanced/tamed/paradisiacal shoreline and centered-cropped, visitor-couple visualizes how tourism retraces xenophobic perceptual practices.
Missing from both modes of representation are the perspectives of Dominicans, which I will not ‘re-center.’ After all, resorts are constructed to not see the inhabitants of a place. Instead, I invoke a smaller scale, perceptual practice beyond resort walls and cruise ship sides.
Recall the 800 Dominican and Haitian deaths by military gunfire and napalm in the antiblack military invasion of Palma Sola camouflaged as an anti-Communist action. Their resistance historically connects to the healing and philosophical practices of Olivorio Mateo, whom, along with the Haitian-Dominican Charlemagne Péralte, the U.S. military hunted down and brutally killed in 1922 and 1919, respectively, during its lengthy occupation of the island. Both Mateo and Péralte arguably became more powerful in their afterlives through the hundreds of people who fought for their island’s autonomy and refused U.S. annexation. In Dixa Ramírez’s words, “Mateo’s followers found a spiritual loophole through which to refuse colonial and imperial narratives of how [non-white] racialized and gendered subjects” should live and feel. The “spiritual loophole” of perception continues to survive Mateo’s death, because it precedes it.
This “spiritual loophole” is operative in how, over 200 hundred years earlier, Makandal did not die, but metamorphosed from the perspective of the imminently insurgent San Domingue Africans. As rendered here:
In his cycle of metamorphoses, Macandal had often entered the mysterious world of insects, making up for the lack of his human arm with the possession of several feet, four wings, or long antennae. He had been a fly, centipede, moth, ant, tarantula, ladybug, even a glow-worm with phosphorescent green lights. When the moment came, the bonds of the Mandingue, no longer possessing a body to bind, would trace the shape of a man in the air for a second before they slipped down the post. And Macandal, transformed into a buzzing mosquito, would light on the very tricorne of the commander of the troops to laugh at the dismay of the whites… (Carpentier 44-46).
None in Christendom’s red-ant hierarchy could control Black perception’s metamorphoses.
Makandal made the “masters” “sense the hatred of the slaves in palpable terms” (Robinson 169).
As we are witnessing now, in the Haitian Revolution’s long aftermath, whiteness trades health for militarization. After the janky, imperial fantasies of cruises sink, after overgrowth enshrines resorts, there will be what there was before: “protectors of the little armored beings that avoid the pathways of ants.” There will be those who, Césaire says, “fell the trees of Paradise,” outgrow the anti-indigenous accoutrements of cheap luxury. There will be what, undetectably, there is: morphing, rhizomic relations between forest, beach, sea floor, moon, waves, and homo sapiens capable of changing perceptual positions therewith.
Ren Ellis Neyra is the author of The Cry of the Senses: Listening to Latinx and Caribbean Poetics (Duke University Press, November 2020). They teach Caribbean, Latinx, and African diaspora poetics and theory in the English Department at Wesleyan University. Read their scholarly and art writing in Artforum, Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies, and elsewhere.
* The writer thanks the editors, Marisol Lebrón and Kevin Murphy, for their generosity and precision, and the artists, Irene de Andrés, Sofía Gallisá Muriente, Joiri Minaya, and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, for their images and attentiveness.
 Read: Jan Lundius and Mats Lundahl, Peasants and Religion: A Socioeconomic Study of Dios Olivorio and the Palma Sola Movement in the Dominican Republic. (London and New York: Palgrave, 2000); Lusitania Martínez, Palma Sola: Opresión y esperanza (su geografía mítica y social) (Santo Domingo: Ediciones CEDEE, 1991).
 Read: Anne Eller, “Raining Blood: Spiritual Power, Gendered Violence, and Anticolonial lives in the Nineteenth-Century Dominican Borderlands.” (Hispanic American Historical Review 99, no. 3, 2019); Lorgia García-Peña, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and the Archives of Contradiction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 58-92; Dixa Ramírez, “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects” (Small Axe 56, 2018).
 Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” In Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon. (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2006), 107-169.
 See Equiano’s observations of hideous and unwashed white male traders and sailors, and Mary Prince’s observations (first published in 1831) of the vile Mr. D— in The History of Mary Prince (New York and London: Penguin Books, 2000), 24.
 Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, A Universe of Fragile Mirrors. (Miami: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2016).
 Dixa Ramírez, “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects” (Small Axe 56, 2018), 160.