Haiti's bicentennial: Force a thread of history
In Haiti's two centuries of independence, this little nation born of bloody revolt has known great turbulence and little peace
BY TRENTON DANIEL
Haiti's status as the first black republic created by a slave revolt has remained a source of pride through its 200-year history, even as its people have struggled with bloody juntas, messy politics and epic poverty -- woes that have vexed the country since the beginning.
''You cannot deny it took a lot of guts, courage to pull off
this revolution. We have to celebrate the Haitian revolution. In a way
it was a phenomenon,'' says Jocelyn
McCalla, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.
``But at the same time we recognize it, what we Haitians in particular have to move away from is this idea you build a country on the basis of slash-and-burn politics.''
Long before that revolution, Haiti, like the neighboring Dominican Republic, was the home of more than a million Arawak Taíno Indians. One of their names for the land was Ayiti, or ''mountainous'' island. The island's current name, Hispaniola, was a colonial creation, meaning Spanish Island.
Columbus ''discovered'' Hispaniola in 1492, speaking favorably
of the Indians. The Spaniards wiped them out anyway -- with guns and smallpox
-- and to replenish the
labor supply for the cane fields, they imported African slaves.
Later, Spain recognized France's claim to St. Dominigue, the western third of the island. In time, the region came to furnish much of the French empire's wealth.
St. Dominigue was so rich that, in 1789, it supplied two-thirds of the overseas trade of France and was the greatest individual market for the European slave trade, noted historian C.L.R. James.
But instead of bowing down, Haitian slaves revolted -- for 12
years -- with former slaves as their leaders. Founding father Toussaint
L'Ouverture, who died before
independence in a French prison cell, remains an icon.
Haiti's independence from French and British conquest was officially realized on Jan. 1, 1804, when one of L'Ouverture's successors, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared himself leader of the independent republic and later, imitating Napoleon, emperor.
And with that, Haiti's people found not only freedom, but also a future of sporadic world isolation. Led by the French, the United States and Latin American countries did not give recognition for decades. Finally France recognized Haiti in 1825.
The rest of the century and much of the next were politically tumultuous; between 1843 and 1915, only one of 22 leaders served his full term of office. Haitian society split along color lines between blacks and Haitians of mixed descent.
The United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson, invaded in 1915 to ''protect American and foreign interests,'' and troops remained until 1934. The United States left a sturdy infrastructure, but also an army that turned violent.
In 1957, François ''Papa Doc'' Duvalier was elected president on a platform courting Haiti's black middle-class vote. He soon created his own private militia, the Ton Ton Macoutes, and publicly wore the dark wardrobe of a Vodou spirit, Baron Samdi, as another means of intimidation.
Just before his death in 1971, Duvalier passed the mantle to his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude ``Baby Doc.''
The Duvalier dynasty collapsed in 1986. Jean-Claude and his luxury-loving wife Michle Bennett fled to France aboard an U.S. Air Force jet. The immediate aftermath was dubbed the dechoukaj, Creole for uprooting.
Following Duvalier's ouster, Haiti returned to military rule: strongmen toppled strongmen. But in the late 1980s, a diminutive Roman Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to power by preaching liberation theology from a Port-au-Prince slum pulpit. He easily won a 1990 election, surprising the light-skinned elite.
Seven months later, a military junta ousted Aristide. The new
regime and its paramilitary soldiers killed and tortured thousands, the
United Nations responded with an
embargo, and South Florida received an influx of Haitian ``boat people.''
''The country was really deteriorating. The ministries were not functioning, the gas was so expensive, and the food was starting to get expensive,'' recalled Mousson Roux, a restaurant owner and Haitian music promoter at the time. ``The coup was devastating. To me, it is what triggered the snowball of deterioration.''
Three years later, President Bill Clinton deployed 20,000 troops to Haiti to restore Aristide. Already, the challenges were formidable, scholars say.
''When he first returned, he had a serious problem -- how to
reconcile his political base and [fulfill] what he promised to do vis--vis
the economy,'' says University of
Virginia professor Robert Fatton Jr.
There were concerns that Aristide would seek to extend his five-year term, but he relinquished power to handpicked -- and popularly elected -- successor René Préval.
The 2000 elections returned Aristide to power. Then his Fanmi Lavalas party swept a legislative vote that May, but the Organization of American States said the electoral council had to recalculate some Senate seats. The government refused, the opposition cried foul, and the international community blocked, and continues to withhold, millions of dollars in aid.
Today as under the Duvaliers, the one-time ''Pearl of the Antilles'' is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.
Still, the island nation -- or ''Haiti Cherie,'' as in a popular song -- remains defiantly resili,ent and proud.
Said Carol de Lynch, a West Little River-based Vodou priestess: ``When you love your country so much, you blind yourself to the situation, even if it hurts you.''
Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.