Arriving at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince on the eve of the new year, 2004, the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence, tension was thick in the air. Street violence was mounting but still mostly under control. Clashes took place between opposition demonstrators and police or between anti- and pro-Aristide forces. Since the hotel is near the university and its hospital, we witnessed several groups of 100 to 200 anti-Aristide student demonstrators jogging in cadence toward police with signs and banners shouting slogans—A bas Aristide! Down with Aristide! Since my previous trip in June, anti-Aristide slogans had blossomed in some areas of Port-au- Prince, while pro-Aristide graffiti retained its hold in the poorest districts, smaller towns, and rural areas. Our visit to the towns of Fondwa and Jacmel in the south was eventful in the normal Haitian way, but peaceful. Back in the capital, at the end of our five-day trip up-country, cars were being torched, boulders rolled on roads, and gas stations and banks closed in antigovernment actions.
Upon entering my hotel room the phone rang. I answered the phone and heard the voice of Michelle Karshan, the indefatigable foreign press representative for President Aristide. She said: “Charlie, get down to the palace. The president is going to have an open session with the foreign press and I’ll have your pass.” I hitched a ride with a taxi carrying an Italian female and two French male journalists. The palace area was full of people in a wide variety of uniforms displaying a diverse collection of rifles and side arms. Despite the tension and anxiety surrounding the guests and entertainers in the palace (the Dahomey Ballet was one group), the press was treated with respect and the security was functioning.
President Aristide was meeting with a delegation from Taiwan, a government that has always been grateful to Aristide for Haiti’s diplomatic recognition. The 40 or so members of the foreign press were allowed to take pictures of Aristide and the Taiwanese and then were moved to one end of the long presidential conference room while Aristide, his Haitian-American wife, Mildred Trouillot, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and their entourage were grouped at the opposite. When Aristide made his initial statement in English, he was challenged by a reporter from Martinique to speak French. He answered in French that since this was a joint conference with the American Congresswoman, he had opened with remarks in English. That said, he completed his statement in English and repeated it in fluent French and Spanish. Occasionally he’d make a reference or quote a proverb in Kreyol, the everyday language of ordinary Haitians. About half the questions were explicitly or tacitly critical of his handling of the political crisis, especially police tactics with the opposition demonstrations. Aristide spoke eloquently about the meaning of Haiti’s bicentennial celebration of freedom from slavery and asserted the importance of democracy and diverse voices. He also asserted that protestors should obey the law and work with the police. Violence had broken out between police and demonstrators over marchers staying on permitted routes.
Aristide thoughtfully answered questions for nearly an hour, in four languages. He repeatedly appealed to the opposition for negotiation and reconciliation. Toward the end of the press conference I caught the president’s eye, identified myself as from Pittsburgh and posed the following question: “As an American it pains me that the present U.S. administration, itself installed by neither a plurality nor a majority of American voters, should question the legitimacy of Haitian elections. Given this intense American interest in Haitian election procedures, do you have any comments on the upcoming American presidential election?”
This question provoked audible gasps from the assembled press. Aristide answered slowly with a slight twinkle in his eye: “I would certainly not want to interfere in the internal affairs of another country.” After the press laughed, he added very seriously. “What however is admirable about the Americans is that once the legal processes were exhausted and a decision was reached, the American people accepted the result and the government was able to govern. This is unlike Haiti where neither internal nor external forces have allowed the government to govern.”
That indeed is the crux of the matter. The United States in collusion with France blocked international assistance to the duly elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and demanded repayments on debt incurred by past dictator regimes it knew the government couldn’t pay. At the same time, the United States and France funded a wide range of antigovernment organizations in the name of promoting democracy. While Aristide tried to negotiate with the hydra-headed opposition, his opponents steadfastly refused any compromise short of his removal. They knew that they could not defeat Aristide in a fair election, so they boycotted the 2000 presidential election, leaving Aristide 92 percent of the vote. In subsequent legislative elections that the United States and France characterized as flawed, Aristide’s party won a plurality but not a majority of votes in the election of nine senators. In a supreme act of hypocrisy, the Bush administration, renowned for its devotion to democratic niceties, worked with France to block direct aid to the Haitian government on all levels.
By squeezing the government and feeding the opposition, the actions of the United States and France generated the chaos which served as the pretext for the intervention by U.S. and French forces and Aristide’s forcible removal from office. Given the weakened condition of the Haitian state, a small group of ex-Army and paramilitaries with extremely unsavory backgrounds, based in and supplied from the Dominican Republic (allegedly by American sources), provided the coup de grâce. Now warlord gangs roam the countryside targeting Aristide supporters and silencing any voice raised in opposition to the new order.
The Weight of History
Haiti’s eight million people occupy the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Christopher Columbus arrived there in 1492 on the feast of St. Dominic and gave it the name of San Domingo. The native Taino and Arawak peoples who were virtually exterminated by the Spanish called the island “Ayiti,” a name preserved by the former slaves when they achieved an independent republic on January 1, 1804. Independence was only won after more than a decade of fierce fighting. The rebellion began as a slave uprising in 1791 on the plantations of the northern plain led by escaped slaves gathering in swamps and forests with their leader Boukman, a houngan, or Vodou priest. The vast majority of slaves were first or second generation Africans. Under the brilliant general Toussaint Louverture*, the Haitians organized disciplined military formations to complement constant guerilla activity. The French, desiring to retain control over their richest colony, repeatedly attempted to defeat the Haitians without success. In 1803, the Hatians defeated a 40,000-man expeditionary force led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law that was sent to recapture Haiti and restore slavery. Toussaint however died a captive by treachery in a French prison that spring without seeing independence achieved. That precious declaration of independence was issued by Jean-Jacques Dessalines who himself died a violent death two years later in 1806 beginning a near unbroken line of Haitian rulers overthrown by force and violence.
In fact, the only peaceful electoral transitions in Haitian history were Aristide to Preval and Preval to Aristide; however neither of the Aristide presidencies was completed due to violent interruptions. It is also eerie that Aristide like Toussaint was seized under clouded circumstances and taken to a French military garrison town; however, Aristide escaped Bangui while Toussaint died in his cold and damp cell in the rugged Jura Mountains. Aristide was certainly deeply aware of the historic parallels as his statement from exile echoed the last words of Toussaint: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of black liberty. It will spring up from the roots for they are numerous and deep.”
The CIA’s Haiti fact sheet lists unemployment today at 66 percent but then says that two- thirds of the economically active workforce depends on an agricultural sector consisting primarily of subsistence farming.* The fact is that the money economy doesn’t impinge much on the countryside. Haitian agricultural exports are declining and undervalued. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of about $470 is very unevenly distributed. The inflation rate runs at more than 15 percent annually, and, as the Haitian gourde depreciates, the costs of imports rise. A year ago, a dollar bought 25 gourdes; now the rate set by the occupiers is 40 gourdes to the dollar. More than half of the children of Haiti suffer from some level of malnutrition.
Haiti is the poorest of nations, yet the most proud; the most despoiled and the most fiercely beautiful; apparently the most abandoned, yet the most deeply religious. The only slave rebellion in human history to achieve national independence by force of arms, Haiti’s defeat of Napoleon’s army 200 years ago last year caused the French emperor to sell the vast Louisiana territory to the United States, thereby doubling the territory of the United States. The blood of revolutionary slaves (and the yellow fever it carried) made our nation a world power.
However, instead of American gratitude to Haitians for undermining English and French imperial pretensions in the Caribbean when we were yet an infant nation, the republic of Haiti has historically been an object of contempt, ostracism, and intervention by the mighty republic to the north. The United States invaded and occupied Haiti from 1917 to 1935 and, as Paul Farmer demonstrated in his important 1994 book, The Uses of Haiti, for two centuries of U.S. policy, Haiti has served as an object lesson to demonstrate the incapability of blacks to govern themselves. This thesis underlies the cynical and cruel attitude of the “Baby Bush” administration and remains the core of U.S. policy toward Haiti today.
Remember, this is a nation whose army was dismantled under the muzzles of American guns by a popular uprising in the fall of 1994 and legally abolished by presidential decree in 1995 counter to the wishes of the occupiers. Unlike today’s Iraq or the bitter Haitian resistance of Charlemagne Perrault to the American takeover in 1917, no American soldier was killed during the “immaculate invasion” and subsequent occupation from 1995 to 1997. U.S. Marines and Special Forces entered Haiti with a popular legitimacy derived from the restoration of the democratically elected government. Aristide’s aura was better protection for U.S. soldiers than flak jackets. The 1995 Haiti invasion experience stands in stark contrast to recent events in Iraq. The bloodless restoration did not win Aristide any gratitude from the U.S. government however. In fact, it was the dissolution of the Haitian army, the primary instrument of American influence and control over Haiti that hardened U.S hostility toward his regime.
The third American-led occupation of 2004 is untenable and marked like Iraq by a total lack of an exit strategy. It cannot even pretend to have a rationale for the restoration of democracy. The critical need in Haiti is for credible, democratically accountable, competent institutions that work. The tragic history of Haiti is written in the blood of its leaders who died violent deaths in office. The Aristide and Preval elections represented the fairest national elections in the nation’s history and accomplished peaceful transfers of power. These transitions marked an extremely precious democratic experience—the orderly transition of power through free elections. None of this matters to an American elite that intensely dislikes Aristide for his independence and resistance. The United States was prepared to violate basic democratic processes to impose its will. The Franco-American occupiers installed as premier Gerard Latortue who came direct from a wealthy gated community in Florida—that bastion of fair election counts and transparent governmental procedures—to immediately embrace the thugs and gunmen publicly advancing their claim to be the reconstructed Haitian army constituted by an act of the U.S. Congress during the first American occupation.
The shadow of the bicentennial of Haitian independence falls heavily across the present political crisis. Deep historical fissures in Haitian society are exacerbated by the churning of both glorious and bitter historical memory. Gonaives, where Haitian independence was proclaimed by Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1804, was the initial target of the anti-Aristide forces. Political conflict raged there as various pretenders to the mantle of Dessalines fought for control. At the bicentennial commemoration there on January 1, 2004, Aristide and Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, were barely able to preside over a short celebration as street clashes and gunfire erupted.
As the 200th anniversary of the Haitian revolution approached, a campaign was mounted by President Aristide to demand reparations from France. In 1825, France demanded payment of 90 million gold francs in reparation for French property seized by the rebellious slaves before it would accord recognition of independence. Up to 60 percent of the Haitian governmental budget in the 19th century was dedicated to satisfying this shameful demand. On the bicentennial anniversary of Toussaint’s death in a cold, damp French prison, Aristide’s government asked France for reparations in the amount of 21 billion dollars for the imposition of slavery—an amount equal to the value of the gold extracted from Haiti. France has rejected the demand haughtily citing two billion dollars of aid received by Haiti from all donors since 1994 “with little positive effect.” Of that total, the French share was $200 million.
France it should be noted is also unhappy concerning the assertion of Kreyol over French as the dominant language of government under the Aristide-Preval regimes. The downgrading of French undermines the mulatto bureaucrats and intelligentsia with Paris educations, social standing, and pretensions of cultural superiority. The United States also owes something to Haiti. Arguably its debt is greater than that of France. American foreign policy for most of the past 200 years has been hostile and dedicated to keeping the black nation marginalized and impoverished: an object lesson about the failure of independent aspirations and national autonomy—an object lesson about racial inferiority.
On August 31, 2003, in Pittsburgh, reenactors launched a replica of Meriwether Lewis’ keelboat at the forks of the Ohio to mark a different, but interrelated bicentennial—the Lewis and Clark military voyage of western exploration into the heart of Indian country, an event that some argue was among the most important events in U.S. history. Amidst the celebrations of this imperial expedition into the unknown vastness of the North American continent that will stretch out over the next three years, no attention has been paid to the heroic Haitian struggle for freedom. It was the blood of slaves spilled in ferocious guerilla actions and transmitted into the blood of invading soldiers by mosquitoes that gave the United States a title clear of rival European claims to what would become the heartland of our nation. The blood of slaves assisted our rise as a great power. No less a figure than Henry Adams recognized the contribution of Toussaint Louverture to the expansion of U.S. power, the doubling of the nation’s real estate:
St. Domingo was the only centre from which the measures needed for rebuilding the French colonial system could radiate. Before Bonaparte could reach Louisiana he was obliged to crush the power of Toussaint….If he and his Blacks should succumb easily to their fate, the wave of the French empire would role on to Louisiana and sweep up the Mississippi; if Santo Domingo should resist, and succeed in resistance, the recoil would spend its force on Europe while America would be left to pursue its democratic destiny in peace.*
The French have a serious debt to Haiti, but so does the United States. All or part of a dozen states, greater “Louisiane,” should feel a special debt. There is a worldwide, largely religious inspired effort called Jubilee 2000 that would, like the biblical jubilee year, cancel debts. The proposal was to start with the poorest nations. The world community and its institutions of debt management should start with Haiti. France and the United States, the two nations who have the deepest historical debt, should lead by forgiving all debt, opening blocked development capital through networks that express grassroots organizational capacity, and discussing reasonable, sustained, long-term reparations. The world community should honor the freedom struggle of the Haitian slaves and their achievement of nationhood—now, more than ever, as it is once again brutally violated.
Aristide: Past, Present and Future
In 2003, the second Aristide presidency was suffering a crisis of the spirit as well as of the body. Economic strangulation and mounting incidents of violence were increasing the restiveness of the population. Many old allies as well as people on the street were willing to vociferously criticize the president for his lack of leadership. Preoccupied with issues of international debt and governmental financing, the government seemed adrift. Popular organizations that some accused of being merely gangs were increasingly engaging in political violence. How much or little the president himself controlled these activities was a matter of intense disagreement. In June 2003, on an earlier visit, Port-au-Prince remained covered with pro-Aristide wall slogans but violent resistance to the government was increasing, especially along the Dominican border. There were increased accusations of police violence and vigilantism by popular organizations supporting the president. All of this could be seen as the outcome of the slow but relentless squeeze the country was experiencing.
Aristide despite his numerous critics remains the central figure in the Haitian drama. His many near escapes from assassination, his personal courage, his extensive education and eloquence in the native Kreyol tongue are legendary. His achievement in nonviolently dismantling the Haitian army and its brutal paramilitary, under the guns of an occupying army of a mighty nation whose leaders were personally hostile to him, was spiritual jiu-jitsu of a high order. This second U.S. sponsored coup against him has only served to renew his spiritual standing. He remains for many Haitians an embodiment of their fierce desire for independence and justice.
This said, Aristide’s presidency was in serious trouble as the bicentennial approached, under attack from right and left. The right, based in the historically mulatto export business class, disliked Aristide from the beginning though some sectors supported him as the best hope to create a legitimate functioning government. His resistance to World Bank and IMF demands to privatize communications and public works, his recognition of Cuba (done in the last hours of the Preval presidency), his abolition of the army and his championing of Kreyol over French as the language of government, one of the historical instruments of class control, all combined to harden the determination of his enemies. Port-au-Prince was rife with stories of corruption including accusations against the president personally. Many had come to feel that given the broad range and power of his enemies, both foreign and domestic, his governance had become untenable.
The fundamental attack came from Aristide’s powerful foreign enemies with close collaboration from the domestic opposition. Eight contested senatorial elections provided the rationale for the freezing of Inter-American Development Bank loans for health, education, drinking water and road improvement. In 2003, Haiti was forced to use more than 90 percent of its cash reserves to pay for arrears on debt—much of which derived from the Duvalier and military dictatorship era. Haiti struggled to serve 8 million people on a governmental budget of $300 million. Crushing debt, frozen assistance, weak police, and no army left the Aristide government defenseless.
Among the progressive community that had long supported the president there was increasingly bitter criticism. An incident that illustrates the malaise occurred at the June 2003 funeral mass of Fr. Antoine Adrien, an immensely influential figure in the liberation wing of the Catholic Church in Haiti, a confidante and mentor of Aristide. Fr. Adrien had played a key role in the overthrow of the last military leader Prosper Avril and the election of Father Aristide. He was head of the commission that worked to broker a negotiated return of President Aristide after the bloody coup led by Raul Cedras. He had suffered a stroke seven years ago that rendered him without speech. Aristide requested that Adrien’s funeral be held at the palace, but his Spiritans Order confreres demurred, so Aristide and other governmental figures came to the church of St. Martial for the burial.
At the end of his homily, Father Max Dominique shocked the assemblage by attacking the government’s attempts to revise the constitution so that Aristide could run for another term as president. Consecutive terms are forbidden by the army-imposed constitution of 1987. He said that if Father Adrien were alive he would be by the side of the victims of repression by the chimeres, Aristide-allied gangs with names like “swat team,” the “Cannibal Army,” or “domi nan bwa.” He charged that Duvalierism and the Macoutes had returned. Shortly after, in the early morning hours, a group of 20 men visited the compound where Fr. Dominique was staying, loudly demanding that he come out, accusing him of child molestation. The men left after intense discussions with his colleague Fr. William Smarth. Pro-Aristide graffiti was left on the wall. Incidents like these and the mounting number of bodies in the streets while not proven to happen by presidential order fueled the general feeling of insecurity. Ironically, it was the shift of the allegiance of the Cannibal Army in Gonaives that began the unraveling of the Aristide regime.
Much of the criticism from old friends before the latest coup was expressed in sadness rather than anger. Many recognized the vise into which the president was placed. They appreciate the terrible pressures to which Aristide had been subjected. Many say that he never fully recovered from his exile in Washington and the isolation and hostility he encountered there. Many were bitter about the degree to which Haiti accepted and conformed to international lenders’ demands. The central issue for many on the left was the government’s tolerance or even encouragement of vigilantism by the popular organizations or gangs based in the poorest neighborhoods that supported the president. The most traumatic event had been the murder of Jean Dominique, the charismatic and eloquent radio announcer whose brutal assassination after he criticized his former ally Aristide had gone unpunished. Jean Dominique, whose brilliant career has been celebrated in a powerful documentary, The Agronomist, by Jonathon Demme, was the very symbol of Haitian democracy and free expression.
Haiti saw a dangerous recrudescence of violence throughout 2003, but much of it and the most violent came from opposition forces. There were a series of violent demonstrations involving the Democratic Convergence in Gonaives. The opposition seemed bent on a strategy of provoking conflict to provide a rationale for intervention. On April 6, three activists were killed in Cape Haitian when a Lavalas demonstration commemorating the bicentenary of the death of Toussaint Louverture was fired upon. On May 6, 20 commandos attacked the control room of the Peligre hydroelectric plant killing two security guards. A few days later, a shipload of arms, grenades, and bomb-making manuals reportedly from the United States were seized by police in Gonaives. A mysterious fire struck warehouses at the port. Shortly after the attack on the hydroelectric plant near the Dominican border, Haiti’s former police chief was arrested and then released by Dominican authorities despite his declaration: “In the present state of the country, every Haitian worthy of his name ought to take part in plots to overthrow President Jean- Bertrand Aristide.”
In fact, perhaps the greatest achievements of the Aristide/Preval Lavalas regime were the dismantlement of the army, the placing of the police under civilian control, and the creation of a government with vastly reduced weaponry and repressive capacity. Unfortunately, while the government operated for nearly a decade with no army and few trained police, guns did not disappear—rather they were privatized. Armed gangs both hostile and supportive of the government proliferated with the marginalization of state power. The challenges faced by any Haitian government are formidable. They include land tenure, infrastructure improvement, energy development, and the expansion and coordination of education and health services. There is a crying need for the development of an effective civil society. Further deterioration of governmental legitimacy does not bode well for the future.
Finally a word should be said about the Venzuelan connection to Haiti. Both nations have experienced having legitimately elected regimes resistant to U.S. hegemony attacked and threatened with overthrow by vigorous opposition groups who do not stop short of openly violent tactics including attempted coups. In both countries, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute have channeled U.S. taxpayer money to antigovernment forces in the name of promoting democracy. While Chavez has been able to mobilize the poor while neutralizing the army through the loyalty of the middle and lower ranks, Aristide faced organized and increasingly armed opposition with a weak and contested police force and slum-based popular organizations not known for legal niceties, primitively armed and certainly not securely under central control or discipline.
There was a story in the days just preceding the American coup (when you and your spouse are surrounded by heavily armed soldiers and are told by the American envoy that your personal safety cannot be guaranteed unless you leave, that’s a coup), that Chavez was considering sending Venzuelan troops to defend the Aristide government. If true, the American strike can be seen as preemptive. It would certainly have fit the declared Bolivarian mission of Chavez, because in 1816, Simon Bolivar came to independent Haiti where he secured arms and training for his mission of liberation of the Americas from the Spanish yoke. Aristide’s leaving the French military outpost of Bangui in Central Africa, returning to the Caribbean to the dismay of the United States and its minions, visiting Jamaica just across the straits from his ancestral town of Port Salut with the support of the Caribbean nations, and then taking up residence in South Africa where he was welcomed as Haiti’s legitimate head of state, was a tour de force.
People to People Solidarity
What is to be done? For the victims of slavery everywhere, Haiti’s 1804 declaration of independence transformed it into a beacon of hope. In the bicentennial year of its independence, it is subjected once again to the humiliations of foreign administration. For those who have been to Haiti and witnessed the courage and talent of its people, there remain critical people-to-people solidarity efforts. American workers and communities need to build direct bonds of mutual aid and support with Haitian peoples. Churches, activist groups, and unions should reach out in solidarity with indigenous efforts on the ground.
There are important historical precedents for a human solidarity that crosses racial and ethnic lines. Among the approximately 40,000 troops that Napoleon sent to Haiti to reconquer the colony, was a regiment of Polish soldiers who rebelled and crossed over to the Haitian side. Recruited by a promise that Napoleon would restore Poland to nationhood after its final dismemberment and elimination in 1796 by Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these Polish soldiers found themselves in Haiti with the mission to restore slavery. Their desertion and the subsequent granting to them of Haitian citizenship by the fearsome Dessalines is an act worth remembering and celebrating.
The most famous and articulate of those Americans who have aided Haiti both by fearless testimony and by direct aid and exemplary activity is Paul Farmer. A professor at Harvard medical school, Farmer is a recognized expert on the pathology and politics of AIDS. He runs a very fine clinic in central Haiti’s Artibonite Plateau, testifies before Congressional committees, and writes passionate articles about the Haitian crucifixion. He is a part of an amazing network of grassroots efforts in Haiti that maintain connections to U.S. based organizations. These church and activist networks are small in capital but intense in organization and commitment.
My own recent involvement with Haiti grows out of the numerous ties the country maintains with Pittsburgh. Despite a very small Haitian population, Pittsburgh, itself a victim of global economic restructuring and subject to antidemocratic external oversight and approaching bankruptcy, has an extraordinary variety of support and outreach efforts to Haiti. Black churches and Catholic parishes have numerous twinning operations with Haitian congregations. Both Duquesne University through the Spiritans fathers and the very active Pittsburgh-Haiti Solidarity Committee based in the activist Thomas Merton Center, which has been around since the early 1990s, have deep connections to Haiti. Even the Mellon family runs an important hospital in Deschappelles. Through Partners in Progress, a national organization organized out of Pittsburgh, local people are supporting an extraordinary grassroots economic development effort.
Fr. Joseph Philippe is an intense barrel-chested Haitian with a ready smile and boundless energy. Always evaluating the situation, he communicates with the intensity of an organizer. He has a dream and a plan—or several dreams and several plans—with both local and national intent. He has a strong Pittsburgh connection because his religious community, the Spiritans or Holy Ghost Congregation, runs Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. His prime Pittsburgh contact is Professor Rich Gosser, math professor at St. Vincent’s College, the Benedictine school renowned locally as the summer camp of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Father Joseph has developed an extensive fundraising network in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Fr. Joseph’s dream is to create a peasant-based economic development model while constructing the mechanisms to replicate it nationally. Fondwa, his ancestral village 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince high in the mountains just off the road to Jacmel, is the laboratory. The dream has three primary building blocks. The first is Asosyason Peyizan Fondwa (APF), a peasant association that celebrated its 15th anniversary last May. The second is Fonkoze a decade-old grassroots microcredit lending organization. The third is the University of Fondwa that, despite the unsettled nature of the country, opened in January 2004 to coincide with the bicentennial of the republic.
Founded in 1988, the APF peasant association was inspired by Catholic liberation theology or the Ti Legliz (Little Church) movement of grassroots Christian base communities. During the tumultuous decade that witnessed the Aristide election, a brutal military coup and repression of popular organizations, and the U.S. invasion, APF provided water, a health clinic, a primary and secondary school, adult literacy classes, a new road, reforestation efforts, a community store, a children’s home started initially in the family house of Fr. Joseph, and a credit union. The region it serves, Fondwa, with a population of 45,000, is perched on the rugged terrain at the beginning of the long mountainous finger of land that protrudes from southwest Haiti into the sea.
In the last five years, APF has sought to develop small business opportunities and promote methods to improve agricultural techniques and accelerate reforestation projects. Typically, Fr. Joseph does not import skilled labor or finished projects. Each project builds capacity. New projects that are eventually to become freestanding businesses include a carpentry shop to build school furniture for the primary and secondary schools (725 students) and also for the university. A bakery was started but was halted early in its development by a doubling of the price of flour and was on hold while our Pittsburgh group was there. A radio station had started broadcasting in the early evenings to a limited area. The new APF office achieved via satellite Fondwa’s first internet connection.
On a recent trip to the United States before the latest coup, Fr. Joseph was hunting for a welder/generator to start a metal shop near the auto service station APF has organized on the main road between Leogane and Jacmel. While we were visiting Fondwa, the university laboratory was being constructed. The children’s home for orphans and children at risk had been nearly completely rebuilt and greatly expanded. Construction jobs in Fondwa have led to relative prosperity in the region. New tin roofs were evident on many of the traditional homes spread across the valleys. While Fondwa is an extraordinary place, there are many other active peasant associations and bootstrap development efforts across Haiti.
Haiti’s environment has seriously deteriorated. The French removed much of the primeval forests, clearing land for plantations and using the Haitian tropical hardwoods to grace their palaces—especially Versailles. After independence, the peasants farmed the mountainous plots for generations but never owned clear legal title. Geographic dispersion and dense population led to continued destruction of the secondary forests for fuel. In Fondwa, reforestation efforts expanded via a 1999 agreement with the Cuban Agriculture Ministry that brought a team of Cuban agriculture and health specialists to the region. Behind our guesthouse was one of Fondwa’s plant nurseries with close to a hundred bagged individual plants or grasses in each of a dozen species. The APF claims to have planted several hundred thousand trees in the district over 15 years. In fact fingers of green are marching up eroded valleys or stretching via terraces across denuded hillsides. Fr. Joseph reported at a recent fundraiser in Pittsburgh that one peasant family had planted over 1,000 tree seedlings provided by APF.
When we visited in June 2003, Cuban agronomist Efrain, a white haired, reflective and serene man of noble mien, said his stock at this particular nursery had been reduced in half by a large planting the weekend before that placed over 2,000 trees. Many had gone on 60-degree slopes where parallel and level meter-wide-by-meter-deep trenches had been cut by mattock and shovel and in some places were hundreds of feet long. Plants were selected that were deep rooting to promote stability and for compatibility with other plantings. Once stabilized, some terraces could support vegetables, corn or banana trees while others provided trees for shade and eventual lumber.
While the Cubans are in the fields, many Americans are deeply involved in the Fondwa project. One of our Pittsburgh group, Rosemary Edwards, a doctor at Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh, was helping stock and upgrade the existing health clinic. Her main goal is to create a medical laboratory and train the local staff in laboratory practices. Two remarkably good-natured students from Notre Dame University, who in a month had learned to communicate passably well in Kreyol, were exploring possible options for pumping water to the growing Fondwa mountain complex from a spring further down the valley. A University of North Carolina couple was working with an APF peasant leader designing a small intensive fish farm. On a tour of the Cuban agronomy projects with APF we saw succession plantings with thoughtful placement of fruit, nut, and timber producing seedlings on eroded slopes, vegetable plots, pigsties and cornfields. At the children’s center with its new block of rooms, we all were together—Cuban agronomists to Notre Dame interns—surrounded by laughing children playing a hotly contested game of marbles.
The second leg of the dream is also in place, and it is the most spectacularly successful project to date. A dozen years ago, Fr. Philippe started Fonkoze as a microlending institution to serve as an “alternative bank for the organized poor,” particularly working for and with the ti machann, the street market women of Haiti. Fr. Philippe who was an accountant before becoming a priest lured Anne Hastings, a six-figure investment consultant in Washington D.C., to come to Haiti and organize a well-managed grassroots banking and investment vehicle that provides small vital loans to women merchants and marketers. In the last seven years it has grown from three low- paid employees to 230 employees working in 18 Fonkoze branches throughout the country. There is nothing Haiti needs more than real job opportunities that build the social capacity for sustained economic growth. In the words of its 2002 report:
These individuals are tellers, credit managers, data processors, literacy trainers, branch directors, security guards, drivers and custodians. They walk mountain paths to deliver training and credit to the “ti machann.” They work overtime to assure accounts are balanced. They treat Fonkoze clients—mostly women street vendors—with the respect and esteem they deserve.
A visitor to the new multilevel Port-au-Prince office and the central administration office of Fonkoze is swept into beehives of purposeful activity: banks of computers with intent young men and women workers processing loans, offices crowded with successive meetings, and couriers coming and going making deliveries. Even though we were guests of the director, we were subject to electronic detector and wand searches by the security guards. A terrible office robbery in 1998 that took the life of a dedicated Fonkoze employee emphasized the need for tight security in a nation where gangs have guns.
The roots of the organization are watered by an extensive literacy and economic training program that becomes mandatory with one’s second loan. Loans are made to any registered Haitian organization that is not a political party including peasant organizations, agricultural cooperatives, ti machann solidarity groups, women’s collectives, youth groups, and religious communities. The solidarity groups provide social support and mutually ensure the security of the loans. These groups also promote and enable cooperative ventures. Today there are 645 groups managing 35,000 microloans.
The third and perhaps most ambitious part of the plan is to create a new “university of the mountains” to serve the three-quarters of Haiti that lives from the soil in 565 rural communities. The goal is to have three faculties: agronomy, veterinary science, and business management. The purpose of these programs according to the Fondwa University prospectus is: “to help develop agricultural production which shows an understanding of animal and plant production, environmental conservation, and agricultural business administration. We envision sustainable rural development oriented toward preserving ecosystems and efficient land use, as well as efficient use of human and natural resources in small scale agriculture.” In November, at a Partners in Progress fundraiser in Pittsburgh, Fr. Joseph, after teaching the crowd a Haitian religious song, described Fondwa’s goal: “Liberate ourselves and become the agent of liberation for others.”
Each peasant association would pledge to support three students, one in each school, who would contract to return to their sponsoring region for six years to apply the Fondwa rural economic model. The university will have four official languages: Kreyol, Spanish, English, and French. While the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education and the University of Guantanamo are committed to provide instructors in agronomy and veterinary science, the hoped for American university partner to assume the business management function has not yet materialized. In January, the first 19 students began their courses in a situation of mounting instability. In February, the Cuban teachers were evacuated but the American secretary, Renate Schneider, and the Haitian staff of the school were able to conduct classes in extremely difficult circumstances and finish the first semester. A second class of 20 students is being recruited for the fall while money is being raised to support them. What will happen to the highly regarded Cuban agronomists, veterinarians, and medical personnel under the new American installed regime remains uncertain.
What is striking about the country life of Haiti is how material poverty and spiritual richness seems to so intimately coexist. When I visited the markets of Nicaragua several years ago, I was appalled at how far the native products one would have expected to see in the markets had been supplanted by cheap plastic and metal ware from Asia. While native handicrafts have received government promotion in the colonial city Granada, they are almost exclusively produced for the tourist trade. Cheap industrial imports are the flip side of underpriced agricultural exports. Nicaragua is only a bit higher on the global food chain, but the effects of global trade on the countryside are profound.
In Fondwa, dresses are still hand sewn, mats and hats are woven of straw, tools are fabricated over local furnaces, furniture is hand carved, handicrafts in brightly colored and artfully painted metal are ubiquitous. Globalization is all about forcing people into the money economy. Subsistence and family farming is one of the last refuges from the global market whether it’s in Haiti or Guatemala, Poland, or Pittsburgh. For the World Bank and the IMF, if you don’t produce for the money economy you don’t exist or at least you don’t count. Your very existence becomes a negative economic indicator. International agencies ignore or squeeze the subsistence farmer.
Our presence in Fondwa coincided with the feast of Saint Antoine, namesake of its parish church. In a poor area of the poorest country, all 500 people crowded into the church were beautifully and many artfully dressed. There was a well-organized choir with fine voices, drums, and bass. An area was reserved for elders beside and to the left of the altar; we whites or blans (hardly displays of sartorial elegance) had our two rows in front right; and the 60 first communicants occupied the entire center to our left. Four young girls modestly but colorfully draped did interpretive dance on the four corners of the raised sanctuary. The priest gave an energetic half-hour sermon. At the offertory, a mighty chorus arose, “God protect Haiti!” as the assemblage sang perhaps 16 brightly attired young girls from six to 16 years of age came dancing up the aisle with baskets on their heads full of fruit and flowers, the land’s bounty to present at the altar of God. Poverty indeed!
People with only a passing knowledge of Haiti talk about the brightly painted taxi-buses or tap- taps. I prefer the older wooden ones with intricate carving, but the flamboyant metal ones that dominate the Port-au-Prince roads with names like “Dieu Sauveur” or “L’Amour Conquit,” no two the same, inject art and color into the urban landscape. The 19th century houses of downtown Port-au-Prince though crestfallen are elaborate concoctions of towers, gables, and porches. Cap Haitian streets look in places like old New Orleans. But the real architectural wealth of the nation lies in its various regional peasant house styles.
In the north cutting across the Central Plateau toward the Citadel fortress, symbol of Haiti’s resistance and pride, I saw beautifully decorated houses with complex geometric designs. They reminded me of the intricate geometric patterns on house facades in Hausaland in Northern Nigeria, but more intensely colorful. If most of the Caribbean islands are painted in easygoing pastels, Haiti is decidedly a land of primary colors, particularly the ubiquitous national colors, the red and blue of Dessalines’ Haitian flag—the French tricolor with the white removed by a knife. In Fondwa, the peasant houses are constructed of whitewashed split logs with carved lintels and scalloped trim. Haitian painting is justly renowned and internationally respected.
Critical to Haiti’s spiritual coming of age is reflection on and acceptance of the substance and meaning of Haitian history. As part of the Haitian bicentennial, a group of Haitian folk historians and philosophers are constructing a living historical Memory Village under the auspices of the N’ A Sonje “We Will Remember” Foundation. Its goal is the “re-balancing of history” focusing on the tricontinental encounter between African, Native American, and European peoples in Haiti. The prospectus envisions an experience a bit more engaging than Colonial Williamsburg.
The Memory Village is intended to be a living interactive historical village where people from all over the world will have the opportunity to re-live the three main cultures of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from before the turning point of 1492 through the ensuing 500 years by observing historical reenactments of the capture, selling, shipping, and enslaving of African people up to the time of the revolution, and of the 200 years following the victory of independence in Haiti.
The last decade laid the groundwork for a profound national cultural valuation in time for the anniversary of the Haitian revolution through the governmental embrace of Kreyol as the first national language and the 2003 legal recognition of Vodou as a legitimate religious expression by the Aristide government. Kreyol is the rich Franco-African language of all Haitians. The breaking of the domination of French over the workings of government and society opened the door to participation by the rural masses in the basic institutions that impinge on them. The dethroning of French as an instrument of upper-class Haitian domination ensured the hostility of France and cemented an unholy alliance of U.S. and French influence to block international aid to the Lavalas governments.
Kreyolization opens the door to citizenship. So too, the formal acceptance of Vodou as a legitimate spiritual expression of the Haitian community by the government gives protection to an essential component of the Haitian soul and provides a living ancestral link to African belief and philosophy. This legitimization will perhaps be accepted more easily by the local Catholic Church, which at least in practice has provided cover for traditional practices and sacred sites for centuries. Catholic Haitians routinely make pilgrimage to Our Lady’s church and then go wash in the ancestral sacred waterfalls at Saut d’Eau. Haiti’s growing Protestant sects and its traditional French-speaking elite are the most hostile to these ancient practices as well as to Aristide. The practical effect of these Aristide reforms will most certainly be slowed under the interim governing authorities.
The Oloffson is justly renowned as both hotel and cultural phenomenon in Port-au-Prince. Unlike most of the city hotels catering to international visitors, it is not perched high on the steep slopes where Haiti’s elite have their gated homes above the hustle, bustle, and poverty of the port and lower city. A magnificent and improbable pile of Victorian gingerbread wood construction, the building was built by a wealthy Haitian in the late 19th century. It was used as the headquarters of the U.S. Marines during Haiti’s occupation, and the lower priced guest rooms ($70 a night) occupy a wing that once served as the U.S. military hospital.
Famously the site of Graham Greene’s great novel, The Comedians, the hotel’s rooms carry colorful placards with the names of famous guests (I stayed in a room named after Ramsey Clark). Greene’s novel brilliantly evoked the atmosphere of Papa Doc’s Haiti, the opaque veil of mystery and corruption that seemed to infect everything. Today the Oloffson represents liberated space. It is the indispensable location where discussion revolves around the culture, people, and history of Haiti. Pro- and anti-Aristide opinions are heatedly discussed by foreigners though Haitians tend to be guarded in public. Graham Greene described the fear, corruption, and decay of the Duvalier period of the 1960s with murderous Macoutes lurking in the shadows, and the decline of the hotel’s fortunes represented the sinking of Haiti itself. Mr. Brown, the owner, returns to the dark unkempt hotel, called Trianon in the novel, that is without guests or electricity remembering a tourist brochure “nearly true once” that described it in an earlier generation:
A center of Haitian intellectual life. A luxury-hotel which caters equally to the connoisseur of good food and the lover of local customs. Try the special drinks made from the finest Haitian rum, bathe in the luxurious swimming pool, listen to the music of the Haitian drum and watch the Haitian dancers. Mingle with the elite of Haitian intellectual life, the musicians, the poets, the painters who find at the Hotel Trianon a social center….
Today the Haitian drums, the rum, and the rich conversation is restored, and the hotel is still a must stop for travelers, mostly contractors, reporters, staff for NGO’s, and a few tourists who descend from their rooms on the mountain to have a drink on the hotel verandah. The staff is friendlier here than in the pricier locations on the heights, but there is definitely an edge to the place. The city swarms outside its walls, the gardens that share the compound with the rambling buildings are full of Vodou sculptures and spirits, and the rooms are covered with paintings that express the mystical and ecstatic. The present establishment carries the stamp of its operator, Richard Morse. It houses the popular band RAM that he leads. On Thursday nights the band and chorus plays for a packed house and people (black and white together) dance nonstop.
Richard Morse has an album entitled Puritan Voodoo. The title expresses his heritage through an American father who graduated from Yale and a Haitian mother. His Haitian wife is a lead singer and dancer in the band. RAM’s songs are a haunting combination of rolling Caribbean rhythms, driving African drums, and lyrical guitar. His American voice covers the plaintive Kreyol chants of the mostly female chorus. He talks a lot about the senselessness of violence. “We got to get back on the Peace Train; it was the best friend we ever had; got to get back on the Peace Train.” He talks about 200 years without respect. It is way past due for Haiti; justice, too. “Justice! For all our friends and neighbors; Justice for people we don’t even know.”
Recent visitors to Haiti report that conditions have eased somewhat. U.N. forces from Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Rwanda have largely replaced the French and Americans. Their soldiers are more relaxed and relate much better to the populace. There is a palpable infusion of money as the United States and France have removed various blockages and turned on the aid. Port-au- Prince is crawling with USAID contractors and the restaurants and hotels are gearing up. The severe internal contradictions will not easily go away however. Aristide’s Lavelas Party, Haiti’s largest, has been excluded from the new electoral commission. The return of the elite and the restoration of the army do not bode well for either the rural peasantry or for democratic participation.
Haiti’s ongoing crucifixion stands as an historical reproach to five plus centuries of European imperial pretensions and two centuries of U.S. contempt and manipulation. Its combination of extreme poverty and spiritual resistance has inspired poets, painters, and musicians as well as spurred thousands of ordinary Americans to search for ways to express their solidarity and support for the Haitian people in some meaningful way. It is the most African of all the places on the American continent. Its story combines the nobility of humanity’s striving for freedom and self-determination as well as the most degrading examples of chattel slavery, foreign interference, and near perpetual civil war between merchant and farmer, city and country.
The latest sad and almost farcical episode in the humiliation of Haiti is being played out before our eyes. Historically the methods of control are transparent: blockade, internal division, invasion, and occupation. Haiti has always served as an exemplar. It remains a beacon of hope to many because of its revolution and its spiritual resistance, but U.S. and French intervention have made sure it also serves as an object lesson demonstrating the ongoing failure of black self- determination. In May, the New York Times published on page one a photo of a Haitian woman making dirt cakes with earth, salt, and butter, the last step before starvation for the poor of Port- au-Prince. Such images should summon all people of good will to support the ongoing struggle for the nonviolent liberation of Haiti. Haiti matters.
* Readers may be more familiar with the spelling “L’Ouverture,” which means “the opening.” The author prefers “Louverture” because it is believed to be the way Toussaint signed the evocative nickname he adopted at age 49.
* Central Intelligence Agency, World Fact Book 2004, http://www.cia.gov/cia/ publications/factbook/geos/ha.html.
* Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, Earl N. Harbert ed. (New York: Library of America, 1986), 255–6, 264. An interesting collection of texts in French and English concerning the relationship between Haiti and Louisiana was compiled by Francois Latortue, Haiti et La Louisiane: Leurs liasons passees et leurs roles dans l’emergence du Colosse americaine (Port-au-Prince: Bibliotheque Nationale d’Haiti, 2001).