Originally: World apart, close connections: Extract of address by Michèle Pierre-Louis on May 13, 2004 when receiving an honorary doctorate from St Michael?s College, Vermont
Click here to learn more about the organization the author heads, FOKAL: Fondation Connaissance et Liberte, a Soros foundation in Haiti
On the other side of the ocean, do we have reasons to celebrate? One might be tempted to say no, with regards to the dramatic recent events that once more put Haiti on the map in the most horrific way. And yet, I dare say we also have reasons to celebrate, perhaps in a different manner. First, for all the historical events I mentioned earlier. The slave revolution which two hundred years ago created the state of Haiti alarmed and excited public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. ?Its repercussions?, wrote recently David Geggus, (a great scholar from the University of Gainesville) ?ranged from the world commodity markets to the imagination of poets, from council of chambers of great powers to the slave quarters in Virginia and Brazil.? In an Atlantic world dominated by Europeans and the slave trade, the Haitian Revolution gave full meaning to the new concepts of freedom and racial equality. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 has indeed several major claims to a prominent place in world history.
The two hundred years that followed were however troubled and deeply marked by what Michel Wolf Trouillot has termed the struggles of State against Nation. It is impossible here to expound on the complexities of these battles but suffice it to say that they paved the way for where we are today.
At the beginning of this year 2004 of our bicentennial, our country was left profoundly shaken by an unprecedented wave of political violence. Today we are painfully attempting to raise our heads and look toward the future. The conditions that produce violence and tolerate, or even favor, impunity, have certainly not disappeared. On the contrary, such conditions persist and we must question this very persistence.
But at least Aristide is no longer. That is to say, he is no longer president of Haiti, less than three months after December 5, 2003. On that day, his partisans, accompanied by the police, launched a savage attack against the department of social sciences of the State University of Haiti, destroying all the painstakingly acquired material (desks, chairs, computers, all the administrative files), beating the students and permanently crippling the Chairman of the University by breaking his knees with an iron bar. My colleagues and I were captive witnesses of these dramatic events.
At the crack of dawn on February 29, 2004, under peculiar circumstances that remain to be elucidated, Aristide left the National Palace and the country. The US government appears to have, once again, taken one of its secret short cuts to solve the infamous ?Haitian crisis? and thus maintained control of action and initiative in our country. Indeed, a massive anti-Aristide mobilization across the country had not succeeded in obtaining his resignation, in part because the same US government upheld and protected him until the very last moment.
However, that massive wave of protest had met with blind, violent repression on the part of the Lavalas party, university students and the independent media being the most specifically targeted victims, although not the only ones. Repression was accompanied by a constant discourse of hatred by the chief of State. His attacks were aimed mainly at a ?bourgeoisie? who participated in a civil society movement he thought to be fueled by class and color prejudice in a conspiracy against himself, the former priest of the slums.
According to that rhetoric, Aristide is the apostle of the poor (the Haitian majority excluded from all rights), hated by the rich allies of imperialism who never left him a chance to enforce his reforms. Such is the imposture that has so seduced Aristide?s political and academic American allies and friends, as well as many other so called friends of Haiti in their caricatured vision of our reality, and, in some unfortunate cases, their vested interests in Aristide?s cause. In their curious logic, Aristide is a man anointed with the sanctity of righteousness and absolved in advance of all possible drifts toward tyranny because he never had the support of an important part of the traditional Haitian upper and middle classes who backed the 1991 military coup that sent Aristide into exile in the United States, and because he was originally the emblem of social and political change for the rural and urban poor.
That in years subsequent to his first advent to presidency (1990):
? he made strong alliances with members of that very same traditional privileged class out of personal gainful interest,
? he reduced the Haitian State to a space of private plunder more than any preceding man in power,
? he vassalized all our institutions, dilapidated national resources and public goods, allowed (and possibly profited from) the expansion of drug trafficking, armed civilian thugs as his own private force and instrument of extortion?
None of this seems to cause his American supporters to waiver in their faith. We sometimes wonder what perverse disrespect looms behind such inexplicable blindness. Similarly, the ?Haitian crisis? thus perceived from the singularly narrow angle of the involvement of the Bush administration in the illegal destitution of a so-called elected president, is now just another argument against the party in office in this American electoral year.
This is by no means to disguise or diminish the role played by the privileged classes in Haiti to maintain a retrograde political system that denies basic rights to the majority and is geared only to maintain their interests and advantages. But the convenient manipulation of notions of exploitation to justify tyranny, already used and abused by Duvalier, cannot replace rational analysis, all the more since the exclusion of the underprivileged from the political scene was never so effective in Haiti as under the Lavalas rule.
Aristide, as he became the main instrument of his own fall, rendered possible a dangerous reconfiguration of our fragile political landscape in which now appear and reappear incongruous and undesirable figures that may announce the continuation of status quo at worse, and improvisation or uncertainty at best.
Who really thinks of real change in Haiti? Who dares to bring forth ethical issues? Who strongly affirms the need for new approaches in social interactions? Who proclaims universal rights for all Haitian citizens and who consequently believes that our country?s political problems must be solved without foreign military interventions? Who will truly bring forth projects for growth and liberation? These are questions we must ponder in this year of the bicentennial of our independence, two hundred years that we must revisit with a new lucid and courageous outlook..
This will be our way of commemorating. We intend to share these thoughts with the many young men and women, who come to read and learn every day in the fifty five libraries the Foundation I work for has helped to establish throughout the country, especially in the new Resource Center we just built for them in Port-au-Prince. And mostly for the children, a source of joy, wonderment and anxiety all at once: the children of Haiti who deserve a better environment to project and protect their future.
I also believe our most important riches to be our cultural and artistic life. André Malraux, the famous French writer and philosopher who wrote among other novels ?The human condition?, visited Haiti in 1976. Already old and sick, he was writing at that time his last book about Art, ?L?intemporel?. During his visit, he became so engrossed with Haitian art, especially the paintings and sculptures of the artistic group from peasant origins known as ?Saint Soleil?, that right after he went back home, he wrote a chapter on haitian paintings. When his editor told him no addition could be made to the book, Malraux then removed the chapter he had written on Goya and replaced it by the text on Haitian art. Haiti?s literature, the oldest in the region, is celebrated everywhere, and in a few weeks, the Smithsonian?s Institute in Washington DC will pay a tribute to Haiti?s bicentennial by hosting an exhibit on Haitian art and popular culture at this year?s ?Folk life festival?. We do have things to show to the world, besides poverty, wretchedness and violence. Things of beauty and creativity.