A Haitian lilt still caresses the voice of Jean-Marie Wolff, and he is proud of his country – where a slave uprising two centuries ago defeated Napoleon’s army, creating the world’s first black republic.

But the Wantagh resident won’t be among area Haitians who honor their nation’s bicentennial this year by returning to the island nation.

“It would have been the most natural thing for me to go and celebrate, because you always miss your country,” said Wolff, a real estate broker whose living room is adorned with Haitian paintings and a fading photograph of his bespectacled father. “But I’ve never felt safe.”

Although some area Haitians have plans to return to their Caribbean homeland to mark its 200th year, others say they will not because of violence and instability there, or because of frustration with Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Even so, many of the estimated 142,000 Haitians counted in the 2000 Census living in New York City and Long Island – mostly in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and in enclaves in Westbury, Uniondale, Baldwin and Brentwood – say they have much to be proud of in their home country.

Haitian volunteers helped the American colonists win the Revolutionary War, when hundreds of Haitian fighters joined against the British in the 1779 Siege of Savannah.

Twelve years later, in 1791, more than 100,000 slaves rose against Napoleon’s colonial forces in Haiti, eventually prevailing against what was one of the world’s two superpowers. With the French gone, Haiti became history’s first black republic in 1804, helping to inspire independence movements throughout Latin America.

During the New Year’s holiday, a number of area expatriates returned to Haiti – 700 miles southeast of Miami – to ring in the bicentennial.

Roland Delmas, a Brooklyn social studies teacher, was among them, having flown to Haiti for 10 days beginning Dec. 26.

“Pride in Haiti is not only for Haitians, but for every black person who has lived under colonial rule,” said Delmas, 60, who said he avoided downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital, but otherwise felt safe during his stay. “What happened in 1804 sent a signal to people all over the world that they could free themselves.”

But for many Haitian expatriates, their country’s troubled history is also a cause of anguish.

They say the United States, fearing that Haiti’s revolt would inspire black slaves, unfairly withheld diplomatic relations from the fledgling nation until 1862, choking off its early growth. They say the United States should have come to Haiti’s aid in 1838, when France demanded that Haiti pay a ransom of 150 million francs in gold to compensate France for its lost colony.

Haiti eventually paid 90 million francs, currently worth almost $22 billion, Haiti says, which crushed the country under a mountain of debt. Last year, Aristide demanded that France pay restitution. After initially balking, French President Jacques Chirac empaneled a commission to study the request.

Many Haitian expatriates remain angry about U.S. meddling and inaction during the 20th century. They say the United States propped up a series of puppet governments and corrupt dictators in Haiti, who mismanaged the economy, plundered the treasury and murdered their opponents.

It looked like the bad old days had finally come to an end when “Baby Doc,” the son of former dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, was ousted in 1986, paving the way for Aristide’s election four years later.

But turmoil continues to grip Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. About 80 percent of its 7.5 million people live in poverty, corruption continues to sap the economy and international donors withdrew almost all foreign aid – totaling $500 million – after allegations of ballot fraud in the 2000 elections.

Last month, scores of area Haitians canceled trips when the U.S. State Department warned travelers to avoid the country because anti-Aristide demonstrations have led to violence. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled his own plans on Friday, after U.S. diplomats warned him about increasing violence.

“Many canceled because of the warning, even though they wanted to go – even myself,” said Raymond Myrthil, a Uniondale economist and self-described patriot, who hosts a weekly Creole-language radio show. Myrthil bought a $350 ticket to Port-au-Prince in September.

For Wolff, now the 58-year-old owner of ESP Realty in Westbury, Haiti’s often-violent turmoil has been interwoven through his life since his childhood.

In the mid-1950s, his father’s brother, an army officer, was cut down by a hail of machine gunfire near the presidential palace.

Then, when Wolff was a teenager, his politically active father disappeared in 1964, during the Duvalier reign of terror.

Hoping he still might be alive, Wolff’s family waited six years before finally arranging a funeral Mass.

“Every night, you would wake up thinking he was going to be back, but he wouldn’t be,” Wolff said. “That’s the worst kind of closure.”

Violence struck his family in quick succession in the 1990s, first when a cousin disappeared in Haiti without a trace and again two years ago, when a Florida cousin, returning to Haiti to settle a land dispute, was shot dead within minutes of landing in the capital.

Wolff said the incident ended any hope that he would return to Haiti for the long-awaited bicentennial.

“There is a pent-up rage over the atrocities,” Wolff said. “Everyone had hoped Aristide would change things, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.