Originally: Haiti Marks Bittersweet Bicentennial
More than a dozen foreign delegations, civil rights activists and actors, including Danny Glover, arrived for the bash but a gloomy air hung over the impoverished nation as islanders questioned whether President Jean-Bertrand Aristide could guide Haiti out of its latest crisis of poverty, political turmoil and social unrest.
Many world leaders have pulled out of the celebrations and entertainers are boycotting state events for Thursday. Some of the nation’s 8 million people are asking how much more suffering they must endure before their ancestors’ triumph on Jan. 1, 1804, can be realized.
“We come from a country with a very rich history, but we are poor in so many other ways,” says Pierre Jean-Joseph, a 32-year-old artist. “Happiness is relative.”
To mark the event Thursday, fireworks are set to illuminate the Champs de Mars plaza. Some foreign delegates will dine at state galas, drummers will bang out a dizzying rhythm for days and a monument to Haiti’s forefathers will be dedicated.
Haiti was born after the world’s only successful slave rebellion. Toussaint Louverture’s army of former slaves crushed Napoleon’s troops, making Haiti the first black republic and the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, which still flourished in parts of the United States.
However, a string of leaders then drove the country into disarray.
In 1904, a disillusioned President Rosalvo Bobo looked to 2004’s bicentennial, saying the next century might hold more promise. But the years that followed were no less brutal ? one president was blown up, another was poisoned and a third was dismembered. Nine fled and six were overthrown.
“Haitians have always been a little bit skeptical of their independence,” says J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, a cultural anthropologist at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pa., and observer in the 1995 elections.
“You never quite know what to expect.”
There was a flicker of hope in 1990 after 29 years of the Duvalier family dictatorship. Aristide, then a slum priest making fiery promises to the poor, was elected by a landslide but then overthrown the next year.
He was restored in 1994 during a U.S. occupation but forced to step down in 1996 because of term limits. But Aristide, now 50, has been dogged by political troubles since his 2000 re-election, largely because of legislative elections that observers said were flawed.
The disputed vote led to a strangling impasse with the opposition, which refuses to participate in new elections unless Aristide steps down ? a demand he has refused.
Meanwhile, violent anti-government protests have killed at least 41 people since September.
Many blame Aristide for using police and thugs to stymie dissent. Some accuse him of using his ancestors’ accomplishments to mask his failures.
“Aristide is no longer the man of the people,” said Theodore Beaubrun Jr., lead singer of the popular roots band Boukman Eksperyans, which is boycotting some state-sponsored events.
Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
With Haiti’s independence, France demanded repayment on a debt of 120 million gold francs ? about $22 billion today ? draining the country’s coffers.
Recently, international lenders and donors suspended more than $500 million in loans and grants after the contested legislative elections.
Aristide has tried to draw parallels between Haiti and its African cousins, which faced similar struggles. But Haiti has taken a vastly different path from countries like South Africa ? Africa’s youngest republic ? which is sending a delegation headed by President Thabo Mbeki.
While Mbeki has sought to fulfill Nelson Mandela’s legacy of healing racial divisions and attracting investors, Aristide has been unable to close the political divide or ease crushing poverty.
Some argue Aristide has polarized Haitians by categorizing opponents as part of the light-skinned elite.
“Years ago, there was a lot of hope,” says Evelyn Scott, who makes sequined bicentennial T-shirts. “But somehow I think the hope and the appreciation for the event itself has been lost.”