HAITI'S BICENTENNIAL: What's to Celebrate?
By Adele DellaValle-Rauth
This article appeared in The Catholic Virginian, March 17, 2003 and in the SF Bayview April 9, 2003
As part of our January Richmond Diocese retreat mission in Haiti, jointly led by myself and Bob, our group of nine met with Michelle Karshan, Foreign Press Liaison in Haiti. Michelle hosted us in her home in Port-au-Prince where she lives with her daughter Riva.
In the course of our conversation Michelle brought up the celebration of Haiti's bi-centennial in 2004. "The whole country is gearing up for this," she said excitedly.
Having just experienced the depth of the poverty in the capital city and in the rural countryside, and having visited Haiti many times since 1983, I couldn't resist asking: "What is there for Haiti to celebrate?" The economy is on a downward spiral, the Gourde has gone from 5Gde/$1US to 38Gde/$1US; Aristide is under attack from the foreign press (beginning with his presidency in 1991) but even internally there is some civil unrest and the subject of "regime change" comes up occasionally albeit from a vocal minority; some street violence by gangs has occurred attacking both demonstrators and opposition politicians; international donors have frozen $500 million in aid because of alleged irregularities in the 2000 Parliamentary elections; a U.S.-led embargo since January 2001 has prevented 146M in loans from being disbursed - loans marked and desperately needed for humanitarian use. Of course there is the gnawing challenge and responsibility in all of this to seek the truth and to separate truth from fiction, myth or propaganda.
So - what's to celebrate?
Lots - according to Michelle and others. The struggle for democratic change in Haiti, she declares, has borne fruit. The objectives of this struggle have always been liberty and dignity: liberty, of the body and of thought and expression, and the dignity of having the basic materials for human existence: food, shelter, healthcare and education. There are some undeniable, tangible improvements, fruits of this struggle that dates back to Haiti's emergence in 1804 as the world's first independent Black Republic after a long war with Napoleon's France. Telescoping beyond early transitional years of oppression by self-appointed, punitive leaders, chronic indebtedness to foreign banks, U.S. Thomas Jefferson's embargo until 1862, a demeaning 19 years of U.S. occupation, 29 years of cruel Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorships starting in 1957 and followed by an unstable series of short-term rulers - Haiti has made significant strides toward democracy since 1990:
The Birth and Struggle of Democracy:
- Haiti achieved the first free and fair elections in 1990 - with an overwhelming 67% of the electorate voting for Aristide.
Despite a brutal coup d'etat on Sept. 30, 1991, the bloodiest of 33 coups in 200 years of difficult history, democracy was restored in October 1994 with the return of Aristide.
Dissolution of the army in 1994, by President Aristide, has been called the most significant step forward for democracy in Haiti. The army was replaced by Haiti's first civilian police force.
On Feb. 7, 1996 President Aristide became the first Haitian president to leave voluntarily at the end of his original term (5 years minus 3 years of the coup), passing the mantle to President Rene Preval, Haiti's second freely elected president.
Preval made history as the first president to serve out his full 5-year original term in office without interruption until February 7, 2001.
In elections of November 2000, in which 60% of the 4 million registered voters participated, Aristide was again elected overwhelmingly by the people. The election was in keeping with the constitution and observed by the international community.
Enactments and Advancements:
In summary, from independence in history's first successful Black slave revolt, through liberation from 29 years of the Duvaliers to the unprecedented democratic progress since 1990, the Haitian people have continued to defy the odds and continue to struggle with tenacity and unity of purpose.
As our delegation prepared to leave Haiti on January 18, purchases at the Duty-Free shops at the airport were placed in festive bags bearing the blue and red colors of Haiti and inscribed with: "2004 - Se Demen" The emphasis on tomorrow says it all. The majority remains steadfast in its commitment to move forward believing that a better tomorrow lies ahead. Graffiti and banners all around Port-au-Prince and in the countryside echo the Theme.
I began to feel the impending spirit of the Bi-centennial. Michelle helped to show that much progress has been made since 1990 under a democratic form of government. Our group of nine had just experienced over a period of ten days the greatest and richest resource Haiti has to offer: the people. We saw hope where others might despair; a spirit of faith that speaks of resurrection. And we were made to feel welcome. Our hosts often said: "You are at home - this is your home." Let the Bi-centennial celebration of Haiti begin now!
Pre-schoolers near Hinche, Haiti. Government programs are providing for more children to enter school and to build a school in each of Haiti's 565 rural sections.
January 9-18, 2003, Adele DellaValle-Rauth, Diocesan Haiti Twinning Resource and her husband Bob, Consultant to the Pax Christi USA Haiti Task Force, led a Resurrection Parish/Diocesan Retreat to Haiti to visit twinned sites in Haiti and to meet with the Board of Directors of Pax Christi Haiti.
February 7, 2003 Adele DellaValle-Rauth