The Haitian Revolution and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante
There was no other place for me to be on January 1, 2004, but in Haiti, called Ayiti by the local people, during the bicentennial celebration of the first African republic in the world. When the Africans of Haiti revolted against the French government and defeated Napoleon’s Grand Army of France in 1804, a new chapter had been written in the history of liberation. New names emerged in history to reflect the honor they had won: Papa Boukman, Mariesaint Dede Bazile, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe, and Petion. These are the names of Africans that live in Haitian history.
Here I was in this historic country on one of the most significant commemorations in the history of the African world? And yet as we were beginning our celebrations there were other forces arrayed to disrupt the festivities of the 200th year of Haitian Independence.
A full year earlier it was reported that four Western powers that included the United States, Canada, France, and Britain met to discuss ways of destabilizing Haiti. These reports ran rampant in the black community in the United States. We worried that the democracy the Haitian people enjoyed in electing their president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide would be stolen from them. This country which occupies about a third of the island of Hispaniola, the other two thirds being occupied by Dominican Republic, was once the richest colony the Europeans ever had. It produced nearly one half of the wealth of France when it was under the control of that nation. The Africans who entered Ayiti, entered early, after all this was the first land that Columbus saw when he sailed across the Atlantic toward America. It was historic in Europe’s consciousness, but ever more for Africans, it was the land where our ancestors first tasted the whip on their backs, the land where they first planted and harvested sugar for the white man. Ayiti, the land of the Taino Indians became in time the land of the blacks who badly defeated the white nation of France.
What is Ayiti to us? It remains one of the most potent symbols of black revolution against injustice in the annals of history. It is a statement of the will of the oppressed to throw off their shackles. It engages the imagination of the entire world with its disciplined assertion of African opposition to European slavery. Ayiti showed other oppressed people that oppression does not last forever if the people have a will to fight to overthrow their oppressors. Blacks in other colonies in the Caribbean and in the southern states of the United States found examples in the Haitian people. There is a veritable line of heroes who took the Haitian model for their revolts and rebellions. In the United States the most noteworthy was Nat Turner, but there were others like Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser, all inspired by the deeds of the Haitians. And so, it was that way in other parts of the Americas.
Under the leadership of Toussaint, Dessalines, and Christophe, military heroes of gigantic proportions, the Africans of Ayiti whipped, defeated, and humiliated the greatest white army of its day.
The battle of Vertiers will live in history as the proudest moment of the Ayitian Revolution. I stood at Vertiers before the glorious statues of the giants of the revolution and wept because we have not retained the consciousness of what our ancestors did at that sacred place. Last week I heard from a friend in Ayiti that now French and American soldiers regular urinate on the statues at Vertiers. How quickly we lose our way in history when the oppressor believes that it is still possible to humiliate black people.
Napoleon had sent LeClerc and Rochambeau, two of his favorite generals to subdue the rebellion in France’s wealthiest colony. But when the battles were over, the enslaved had thrown off the shackles of slavery and sent the French back to their homeland.
Here on this Island, shared with the Dominican Republic, Papa Boukman and Mariesaint Dede Bazile in a ritual of defiance on August 14, 1791 declared the enslaved Africans in revolt against the brutal French slave masters. The holy area, marked only by a tree more than 250 years old, is called Bois-Caiman. So it was here in this isolated region of the country, under a huge stand of trees, that Boukman, a nyanga, and his accompanist, Mariesaint Dede, carried out the African ceremony that committed the black people of Ayiti to revolution.
When they had defeated the French Army, the Haitian people had every intention of remaining free, although they were the only free African nation in the American hemisphere. As it would be, up rose another leader who was a builder. The name he had from slavery was Henry Christophe. He built the great fortress of La Citadel and the great palace of Sans Souci. The first building was to protect the country; the second was for him to live in and host the people of Ayiti.
Every visitor to Ayiti must visit La Citadel, the massive, wonder-of-the-world fortress erected by King Henry Christophe the Great. He built seventeen fortresses along the coast of Ayiti to protect the liberty of the first black republic. But clearly none of these fortresses came close to the magnificence of La Citadel with its 365 windows, each window was armed with a cannon, its massive walls built with stones, rocks, and the blood of animals, and its impregnable mountain fastness earned for it the name Invincibility. Napoleon never tried to recapture Ayiti, La Citadel was never attacked, and it remains till this day the soul of Ayiti.
Once at the small town on the point called Fort Liberté where Christophe proclaimed himself King of Ayiti I pondered the meaning of the Revolution. Here we were 200 years after the defeat of the French and yet so many French and white Americans wanted to dismiss Haiti from the history books. They also wanted to destabilize a popularly elected leader who was leaning toward more progressive politics.
When a group of one hundred thugs was given guns and access and allowed to terrorize a country that had deliberately disarmed its police and abandoned its military as symbols of peace the plot was fully hatched.
I do not believe that whites have ever forgiven the African people of Ayiti for defeating the greatest European military power of its day. What it proved was that the will of the people to be free was stronger than all of the forces of military power.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had legitimately won grants and loans from the Inter American Bank to assist the people with roads, schools, and employment, but the American government had blocked the money from distribution in the country. The government could not fulfill its pledges to the people without the money. Consequently there was disappointment and frustration.
This allowed a small cadre of Aristide’s enemies to instigate unrest because he had not fulfilled his promises and the representative elections had been flawed. Meanwhile, Aristide was in his second term and had one year more to go before a new election would be held in 2005. Nevertheless, the plan afoot was to topple the democratically-elected leader during the year of Ayiti’s most historic celebration.
The kidnapping and overthrowing of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide remains a stain on the idea of democracy. But it almost always goes without saying that those who shout the most for democracy can be seen all over the world doing the least for democracy.
On the morning of January 1, 2004, at 5 AM, I went along with a great flow of Ayitian people to the Presidential Palace Plaza for the ritual “eating of soup with the peasants” that had been announced by President Jean Bertrand Aristide. During the enslavement of Africans by the French it was against the law and custom for blacks to eat soup, so the Ayitians turned the eating of pumpkin soup into a national symbol of resistance.
President Aristide announced two centuries of freedom and announced a millennium of peace, but the trouble was already brewing in the town of Gonaives.
When President Thabo Mbeki, immensely popular in the Caribbean, came to the podium to speak there was intense and prolonged applause. The people of Ayiti felt that they had at long last found an African nation whose history was such a parallel to their own. They applauded the South African people and listened eagerly to every word by President Mbeki. There were no incidents of violence or misbehavior during the speeches of President Thabo Mbeki, Prime Minister Perry Christie of the Bahamas, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters of the United States.
An Afrocentric philosophy, where the people always work in their best interests, will place contemporary Ayiti on the same base as historic and heroic Ayiti. This country, ostracized by Europe, invaded twice by the United States, bankrupted by France, and isolated from other Caribbean islands by white racist colonialists has maintained African courage, dignity, and heroism despite the political, economic, and cultural daggers stuck in its back.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who sought dignity for his country, should be accorded respect because history will certainly show him, even with his faults, as one of Ayiti’s most enlightened leaders.
Molefi Kete Asante is one of the most published contemporary scholars, having written more than sixty books and three hundred articles.