Freedom can't be enjoyed yet, Haitians say
As their homeland's bicentennial approaches, Haitians on the island and in South Florida debate what they have to celebrate.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES AND JANE REGAN
Emboldened by Haiti's hard-won independence war, the feared and revered Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave turned revolutionary hero, addressed the first free black republic in the Western Hemisphere:
``Citizens, it is not enough to have expelled from your country
the barbarians who have bloodied it for two centuries . . . which held
for so long our spirits in the most
humiliating torpor. . . . We must at last live independent or die.''
The speech was delivered Jan. 1, 1804, in Gonaves, Haiti. Dessalines
was the proud black warrior who tore the white out of the French flag to
create a new banner
representing the only successful slave uprising in history. But in the 200 years since his rousing proclamation, Haiti has barely tasted the fruits of independence.
Instead, the Haitian republic has endured decade after decade of turmoil. The world beholds a country in shambles, ravaged by AIDS and lacking even basic services such as paved roads, running water and consistent electricity. Democratic stability remains a distant dream.
On the eve of the 200th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, many Haitians are asking themselves whether it is cause for celebration.
The answer is far from simple. For some, the fact that their ancestors accomplished what no other black population has -- topple slavery from the ground up -- is worth the grand-scale celebration planned to start Jan. 1.
''This is important and we should make it as big as we can,''
said 21-year-old Nayeli Fanfan, who moved to Miami from Haiti three years
ago. ``If we don't celebrate it,
how are we going to remind people of what we accomplished?''
For others, the occasion carries painful reminders of turmoil fueled by dictatorships, coups d'etat, military juntas and the undeniable casualties of black-on-black violence.
HAPPY AND SAD
''I am happy we've been free for so long, but I am also very
sad at our present state,'' said Jessica Dorcee, a 19-year-old Miami Lakes
resident born to Haitian parents.
She plans to spend Jan. 1 praying for ``my Haitian people.''
``When I look at the present state of Haiti, there is nothing much to celebrate. . . . What have we gotten out of being free besides hardship, pain?''
Events in Haiti over the past few days have added to the conflict many Haitians feel about the bicentennial. More than three days of student-led anti-government protests have crippled the capital, Port-au-Prince. On Friday, government supporters set up burning barricades around the National Palace to keep protesters away and police fired tear gas at demonstrators.
A day earlier, about 50,000 protesters demanded the resignation
of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in one of the largest protests in a
decade. Dozens of people were
In South Florida, home to 214,893 Haitians as of the 2000 Census,
Haitian Americans responded with sadness and concern. In several businesses
along Northeast 54th
Street in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, the response was the same: Aristide must go.
''How can you celebrate when people are dying?'' said a store owner, who declined to give her name. ``The situation in Haiti right now is one you cannot speak of.''
Alex Dupuy, a scholar at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said fellow Haitians should approach 2004 with an honest reflection on who they are and where the country is headed.
''We should have a critical examination of what the revolution
was really about,'' he said. ``But nobody is going to do that, certainly
not the people in power. The real
celebration should be of the masses, those who rose up against their oppressor. That is worth celebrating, but to do so means we have to ask the question of what were
these masses aiming for and why didn't they succeed.''
More than 200 years after Dessalines helped Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the revolution, empower slaves with the famous cry, ''Cut off heads, burn down houses'' (koupe tt, boule kay), Haitians continue to battle for the liberties the revolutionaries sought.
Haitians have to look no further than the very city where Dessalines officially declared Haiti independent. Gonaves is today the site of anti-government demonstrations and reprisals from police that have left more than a dozen dead since an armed gang in the seaside slum of Raboteau revolted against Aristide in September.
The gang and its supporters -- whose numbers appear to be growing -- say they want Aristide to step down. On Dec. 1, assailants torched the City Hall for the second time in months. It is being renovated for the Jan. 1 celebrations, Aristide has announced.
''We believed in Aristide like Jesus Christ,'' Alvarez Thermitus, a Gonaves resident who has gone from dreaming about becoming a soccer star to wondering how to feed his family, said recently before joining an anti-government protest.
''I believe in God in heaven, but he was a god for us here in
Raboteau,'' Thermitus said of Aristide, a former priest. ``But he has done
too much harm. His police are
worse than the army. He has forgotten the poor. He needs to go. We need a different president. We won't drink pumpkin soup [the traditional New Year's Day meal] with Aristide.''
If Haitians in the diaspora are torn, then those living with
the day-to-day reality of dashed hopes in Haiti like Thermitus are even
more conflicted about Jan. 1 and the
celebrations announced by Aristide's government.
A glance around the poor neighborhood of Fort Mercredi, which
overlooks Port-au-Prince and the harbor, tells the story. A brand-new portrait
of Aristide and a sign
demanding restitution and reparations of $21.7 billion from France go mostly unnoticed by the men, women and children wearily carrying buckets down the bumpy paths of this slum.
At a nearby primary school, a teacher is cynical.
''How can we celebrate 2004? Look, here we are practically on the site of a fort our ancestors used to fight the French,'' said the woman, who declined to give her name, fearing reprisal from Aristide supporters. ``Today, it's a couple of walls surrounded by the slum that has grown up around it. We have no water, no electricity. Half the kids around here don't go to school. Is this what 200 years of independence got us?''
On the outskirts of the capital, the director of a brand-new public high school, named after Dessalines, disagrees.
''It's true the country has a series of economic problems, but
that doesn't mean that we can't celebrate 2004, because 2004 is the pride
of all Haitians,'' Aldophe Bertin
said. ``If people want to criticize the president, they can, but right here before you is a living example of what he has done for the country, and there are many others. I
just hope that over the next 200 years, the country changes and develops like all other countries.''
Such hope for Haiti's future is also shared by Haitians in South Florida, many of whom are planning to commemorate the bicentennial by offering a special prayer for Haiti.
''Like all Haitians, I wish Haiti could change,'' said Frantz
Mortimer, a North Miami Beach social worker and poet who was born in Gonaves
35 years ago. ``This is my