Reflections on Haiti

I wrote this piece after a visit to Haiti in 2004. It was not a good time for the country; the bicentennial had just passed and although the island nation was still standing (threats of riots and even a possible coup had dominated discussion prior to the date). But the future definitely looked bleak. Six years later, after a successful election in 2006, an earthquake, a cholera epidemic and god knows what else, I’m glad to see Haiti still surviving, somehow. My obituary was premature, as I had hoped.

Adieu, Haiti? 

Special to The Haitian Times

I will always remember Haiti as a country that embraced me, a nation where so many of the 3 million or so citizens of Port-au-Prince always said “bonjour” to the blanc as they passed me by on the busy streets, a place where pride has long ruled in the stead of leaders who couldn’t or wouldn’t.

It pains me to write an obituary – even a speculative one – for a country that once held so much promise. Haiti became the world’s first black republic in 1804. To this day, it remains the only former slave nation to have overthrown its rulers on its own. This year, the bicentennary of Haiti’s birth, was supposed to be one big celebration. But deep in their hearts, Haitians seemed to know it was always going to mark the end of a troubled history. Even in April 2002, when I was last in the country, many Haitians already shared a pessimistic and fatalistic sentiment: “If things are not fixed by 2004, then Haiti is finished,” they forewarned. Melodramatic as this statement may have seemed then, 2004 is now here, things are not fixed, and yes, Haiti as we know it may be finished. Even foreign observers seem to agree. In a recent report, Council on Hemispheric Affairs research fellow Jessica Leight – recently returned to Washington from the country – declared that Haiti is entering its “final destructive phase.”

It pains me to think in black and white about a country where even the color of one’s skin was never that simple to delineate. But Haiti has been headed this way for a long time. The country has never been able to rule itself democratically-ironically, most experts agree that it was during the Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier dictatorship that the country functioned best economically, albeit at the expense of human rights and the people’s freedoms. Priest-turned-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was Haiti’s last chance. And he has squandered that opportunity.

Aristide is not solely to blame. Washington, having placed him in power in 1994, promptly turned its back, fearing his leftist slant. During the 1990s, the U.S. military intervention in Haiti focused its strengths on stabilizing the cities, but neglected to go into the countryside and disarm rural rebels. It also left Aristide with a woefully inadequate police force of less than 4,000 men to provide security for a population of nearly 8 million. With the military disbanded, the police and a weak court system were left to fend for themselves.

U.S. policy towards Haiti has always been a shambles. In recent years, Washington has led efforts to freeze some $500 million in international pledges to Haiti, even using its veto rights in the Inter-American Development Bank to assert pressure on Aristide’s government. Most recent CIA involvement in the country is unproven but rumors still abound. In April 2002, the most popular tale going around Port-au-Prince was that CIA planes were regularly dropping drugs into the countryside, which the police would seize and sell, or plant on influential pro-Aristide supporters. While dismissing most of the rumors, COHA Director Larry Birns acknowledges that “certainly, the CIA is crawling all over that place.” And the less one knows, the more one imagines; thanks to intimidation tactics and worse towards those who try to speak freely and truthfully in Haiti, unbiased journalism isn’t readily available to debunk tall tales. “With everything that happens in Haiti, there’s more and less to it than meets the eye,” says Birns. And of course, the CIA is everyone’s favorite scapegoat. But consider that human rights abuser former death squad commander Emmanuel Constant-who lives happily in Queens, New York without real fear of deportation despite extradition requests from Haiti’s courts and an INS deportation order-has admitted that he was employed by the CIA (The CIA denies this claim). It’s no wonder Haiti is rife with stories of spooks.

In recent weeks, the news from Haiti has been about anti-Aristide thugs literally taking over towns in the North, killing anyone who gets in their way, and threatening to march on Port-au-Prince to oust Aristide. For some reason, Aristide is being called on to answer for this, even if he is not to blame. He does rule by decree, but only because the opposition will not allow parliamentary elections to be called until he leaves office. The opposition-known as Group 184 and the Democratic Convergence, the tiny economic elite and disillusioned defectors from the Aristide camp-has a simple strategy: Get rid of Aristide. They know they don’t have the votes to win an election, so he must be gone.

So, what’s next? The Pentagon wants nothing to do with Haiti. The country’s neighbors in CARICOM are considering sanctions as well as diplomatic mediation efforts. The U.S. administration is backing these proposals, also warning Aristide to ensure his supporters do not use violence to crush opposition. Meanwhile, time is running out for a peaceful solution, as the United Nations warns of an impending humanitarian crisis. The opposition continues to call for Aristide’s resignation. But his term expires on Feb.7, 2006, and he has vowed not to leave the presidential palace until that day.
It is difficult to imagine how Haiti can pull itself out of this mess, but one has to hope that the international community will intervene, and set this country back on the track from which it began to veer in 1804.

Nearly two years ago, standing in an empty playground on the corner of the Place des Heroes de L’Independence in Port-au-Prince, I gazed at a statue of former Haitian leader Alexander Pétion. During his rule between 1807 and 1815, the nation became divided as Pétion, a wealthy mulatto, turned his back on Haiti’s blacks. His back turned to the playground, I considered the unintentional symbolism: he had turned his back on Haiti’s children. The world cannot afford to pull a Pétion on Haiti.

I hope this obituary turns out to be premature, melodramatic, fatalistic and above all, wrong.

Copyright: The Haitian Times, 2004