First Black Republic – Haiti

Recently, along the cyber highway, I found my missing-in-action Haitian friend, Rosemarie Lelong.  In 1990, we bade each other tearful goodbyes at “Los Venaditos”, a favorite haunt. We had felt a special affinity, our homelands were shrouded in darkness by military dictatorships. We had a duet of boasts: Haiti was the first black republic in the world; the Philippines, the first constitutional republic in Asia.  Haiti declared its independence from France in 1804. Their anti-colonial revolution was led by Toussaint Louverture, a former slave.  Haiti fell in the clutches of the Duvalier family whose dynastic military dictatorship began with Papa Doc (Francois) in 1957 and ended in 1986 with the fall of his son, Baby Doc (Jean-Claude). Over here, People Power I took place in February 1986, ending the Marcos dictatorship.

The Duvalier imposed a reign of terror. They had their own militia of thugs, the Tonton Macoute who perpetrated the vilest atrocities. Life was unbearable even for mulatto elites like the Lelongs, so Rosie and her siblings migrated to Mexico.

Rose was euphoric when in 1990, Haiti had its first democratic elections. The Tonton Macoute candidate, Roger Lafontant, lost to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest who advocated “liberation theology” which had swept Latin America since the 1980s. He had the support of Antoine Izmery, a wealthy Haitian-Palestinian businessman.

Rosie told us about shocking inequalities in Haiti, only 1% of the population had access to basic resources. Most of Fr. Aristide’s homilies were about wealth distribution and social injustice. The bishop, a gun-toting Tonton Macoute despised him, so did Vatican and right-wing forces whose meetings were held at the Papal Nuncio’s palace.

If Haiti is so poor, why are they fighting over it? Because Haiti has gold and mines. Its 12 million people need food, but everything is imported. The Duvalier allowed rice from Arkansas (Pres. Clinton’s state) to flow into Haiti, so local rice farmers went out of business, like the sugar planters. We have no industries; we do not manufacture anything. There is a lot of smuggling, tax evasion. The only source of income of an incipient middle class is the government; that breeds corruption. It sounded all too familiar.

Rosie said there are only 11 families at the peak of the economic pyramid, none of them black. They are white-skinned descendants of Syrian and Jewish immigrants of long ago who now live in gated, guarded villages. They own the water supply, ports, banks and telecommunications.

In January 1991, barely a year after Rosie and I left Mexico, there was a coup against newly-elected President Aristide, instigated by Lafontant and Tonton Macoute remnants. People Power marched to the palace to protect him, Lafontant was arrested and imprisoned.  Nasty rumors circulated that the USA was involved. Rosie used to say that Haitians have never been allowed to choose their own leaders. Aristide surprised the world when he won by a landslide, despite his progressive ideas. Let us not sing victory, Rosie warned, the USA is addicted to regime change.

Finally, on Feb 7, 1991, Aristide took his oath. Immediately, he raised salaries, which angered the oligarchs who owned all the sweatshops.  He welcomed foreign investments but elicited no reaction from the USA. France was mute when Aristide, with a dose of sarcasm, enjoined them “to recoup their dignity” by “reparation and restitution”. In 1825, France demanded that Haiti pay, for “loss of property” and for liberated slaves.

Like Rosie, Haitians who fled during the Duvalier dictatorship went home in droves. They volunteered for community service; the bureaucracy offered salary cuts when the IMF and World boycotted Aristide. When we last met Rosie was euphoric, Pierre had been appointed ambassador to the USA, and she would tag along as his secretary. Then we lost touch.

I hunted for news about Haiti. On 29 September 1991 certain sectors of the military staged a coup and once again People Power came to the rescue.  To save Aristide’s life, his supporters flew him to Venezuela where he was warmly received by then Pres. Carlos Andres Perez. Shortly after, he was taken to the USA where the United Nations had condemned the coup. In truth, Pres. Aristide was kidnapped by the US and held hostage. He was ordered to remove tariffs on American products, accept toxic economic measures which he rejected. Seven thousand pro-Aristide officials were dismissed and a resident of Florida, Gerard LaFortune, was appointed prime minister.

Aristide was allowed to return in October 1994, when his second term as president was about to end and he could not legally seek a third one.  He visited Cuba to restore diplomatic relations abrogated by Duvalier. He ran and won in 2001, but three years later, was faced with yet another coup that compelled him to fly to South Africa where he stayed until 2011.

The USA wants democracy without Astride, was the first thing Rosie Lelong told me when we reconnected. She is back in Mexico.