Originally: Haitian politics force cruise to change course

A ‘Bicentennial Cruise’ commemorating Haiti’s independence has placed 500 voyagers, including some prominent black celebrities and leaders, in the middle of Haiti’s partisan politics.

It was supposed to be a sea voyage commemorating the birth of a nation, not a crash course in Haitian politics.

But that’s exactly what ”Cruising into History,” a seven-day Caribbean excursion commemorating Haiti’s bicentennial, will become today for organizers and 500 voyagers scheduled to set sail from the Port of Miami-Dade.

The cruise passengers, including such luminaries as famed dancer Katherine Dunham and National Urban League President Marc Morial, are in the middle of a political tug of war between supporters of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and those who support Haiti’s current U.S.-backed interim government.

Following pressure from pro-Aristide groups, organizers say they have scaled back their itinerary to prevent the voyage from becoming a showcase for the new government. Instead of visiting historical sites in Haiti, the passengers will see only a private beach.

Chief organizer Ron Daniels of the New York-based Haiti Support Project announced this week that ”Cruising into History” was changing course. The decision, the political activist said in a widely circulated press statement, was the result of discovering that ‘the U.S.-backed `interim government’ is attempting to showcase our arrival in Haiti to bolster its legitimacy.”

So instead of commemorating the Haitian Revolution with a daylong excursion through the northern city of Cap Haitien and the town of Milot, including a horseback trip to see King Henri Christophe’s famous San Souci Palace and the 19th century Citadel fortress, passengers will have to settle for Labadee beach, the private landing for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, outside of Cap Haitien. It’s expected to arrive there Thursday after stops in other Caribbean ports of call.

Daniels declined to speak to The Herald without actor Danny Glover, a key supporter who has championed the cruise since Daniels began planning it more than two years ago with Aristide’s blessing. He and Glover are scheduled to give a news conference today before the boat departs.

U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley, however, called Daniels’ circulated comments “a coerced but nonetheless shameful statement.”

Daniels, he said, had succumbed to a pro-Aristide propaganda campaign, despite efforts by the Haitian government to prepare for the cruise arrival with road improvements and other measures.

”For the organizers to now turn around and accuse the government of wanting to exploit the cruise to bolster their legitimacy — when the fact is, it was the organizers who were in effect pressuring the government that was reluctant to spend scarce resources — is amazingly cruel,” Foley said in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince. “It is also unfortunate they are leaving in the lurch hundreds of merchants in Milot who were hoping to put Milot and the Citadel on the map as a future tourist destination for Americans.”

The controversy over the cruise first erupted during last month’s Democratic National Convention in Boston, when several pro-Aristide Haitian Americans confronted U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, about his support of the trip.

Following the meeting, organizers mounted an Internet pressure campaign, demanding that ”everyone concerned about protecting and saving the life of the average Haitian person in Haiti” contact Daniels and other prominent celebrity supporters including Glover to demand that they “publicly disavow the Feb. 29, 2004, Coup d’etat [against Aristide] and call for an end to the widespread repression of the people of Haiti and Haiti’s occupation [by the U.S. and others].”

In one e-mail, New York attorney and activist Marguerite Laurent even provided a sample letter to send, expressing dismay that “Cruising into History is in somewhat of an alliance with perpetrators of the coup d’etat and has, since early March, not condemned the human rights violations, murders and disappearances taking place in Haiti on a daily basis.”

Laurent did not return a Herald phone call or e-mail seeking comment.

This is not the first time Aristide proponents have attempted to politicize an event commemorating Haiti’s bicentennial.

In May, scores of Aristide supporters protested a fundraising event in North Miami for this summer’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, on the National Mall. Both Haitian interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and Foley were among the attendees.