Haiti's new prime minister and former South Florida resident Gerard Latortue is returning to champion the country's bicentennial celebration, but the visit is not without controversy.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES AND DAVID OVALLE
Long before he was tapped to head Haiti's new government, Gerard Latortue was a connoisseur of Haitian history, committed to the country's legacy.
His Boca Raton home was a treasure trove of rare books, like a 19th century memoir of a lieutenant general describing the first days of the Haitian Revolution, and an 1850 theater playbill about revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.
So it seems logical that Latortue, who became Haiti's new prime minister two months ago, is visiting North Miami today to help raise funds for a program at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., that will commemorate the bicentennial of Haitian independence.
It is scheduled for June 23-27 and June 30-July 4 on the National Mall.
The live exhibit, two years in the making, is one of the few projects supported by former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that the Latortue government has embraced.
Officials say it's a worthy, nonpolitical cause that reminds people that this is the country's bicentennial year, amid all its troubles.
''It's there to highlight Haitian culture and we are putting a lot of emphasis on it,'' said Alix Baptiste, Latortue's undersecretary of state for Haitians living abroad, who helped organize the 6 p.m. fundraiser today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St.
But the invitation-only event, which also will be attended by the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, James Foley, isn't without controversy. Aristide supporters, still upset by his Feb. 29 ouster after a string of violent rebel uprisings, say they plan to demonstrate outside the event, protesting against the United States and its ''puppet, installed'' government.
Also, some members of the North Miami City Council are irked that Mayor Josaphat Celestin, a Haitian American, organized the event on the city's behalf without their knowledge.
Councilman Jacques Despinosse, who has verbally sparred with Celestin in the past, said there are so many questions surrounding the fall of Aristide's government that the event is too politically sensitive to be hosted by his city, which is home to one of the largest Haitian-American communities in South Florida.
''No one knows the reason why he's doing it. It's his show,'' Despinosse, who is also Haitian American, said of the mayor.
Councilman Michael Blynn said he welcomed the delegation but was wary of protesters.
''I don't like being in a controversial situation,'' he said. ``I think the mayor should have at least given us an opportunity to express our concerns.''
Celestin said there is no cost to North Miami taxpayers to host the fundraiser, which hopes to raise between $75,000 and $300,000.
''This is a Haitian cultural event, not a political event,'' Celestin said.
Controversy aside, event supporters say they chose North Miami because of its central location and large Haitian population.
They say that regardless of political affiliations, Haitians should support the festival because it highlights Haiti in a positive way.
The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which celebrates folk culture around the world and in the United States, draws between 1 million and 1.6 million visitors, said Loretta Cooper, director of development for the festival.
Organizers have contributed $800,000 toward the Haiti program's $1.6 million price tag, she said.
The additional funds have to be raised by the Haitian government under the contract signed by the Aristide administration.
The money will go to pay for transportation, lodging, food and a per diem for 85 Haitian artisans, artists and performers who will be flown in from Haiti as part of a live exhibit of arts, culture and music.
Visitors will, for instance, be able to learn firsthand how artisans use bamboo to make furniture or how sugar cane is made into kleren, Haiti's traditional moonshine. They also will learn from stone carvers how their enslaved African ancestors were able to create the Citadel, the 19th century mountaintop fortress built to defend Haiti's independence from France.
''The general public will see a dynamic program,'' Cooper said. ``We think because Haiti has been in the news so much you simply cannot get better press, and we think people are going to be extremely curious about Haiti.
``We are very, very excited.''