Preface to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Haïti - Haitii?
Molefi Kete Asante
In one report it is said that Toussaint L’Ouverture had wished that his competitor Dessalines would join the revolution and support the struggle for liberation. As Toussaint engaged in battle after battle against the enemies of Haiti, defeating the Spanish and the British, he was called to a negotiation by the French, but with guile they trapped, arrested, and transported him to exile. However, when he received word that Dessalines had committed himself to the battle for Haiti’s freedom, it is said, that L’Ouverture, erstwhile leader of Haiti, declared, “At last!” Now that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, has written this beautiful poetic treatise of dignity and nobility in honor of his people, our people, humanity, we can say what millions of Haitians have been waiting to say, “At last!”
At last the organic leader of the Haitian people, forcefully and forcibly exiled in South Africa, has spoken the kind word, the sincere concern, the eloquent appeal to sacrifice and sanctity that the people have wanted to hear. The former president of Haiti has written the fascinating and informative book, Haïti - Haitii?
Who better to write such a revealing book about the culture and people of Haiti than one of the most fascinating and interesting individuals in modern history? Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic Catholic priest, was first elected to the presidency of Haiti on December 16, 1990 lifting the veil from the political arena in Haiti where the Duvalierists were preparing to return to power. Aristide was the first democratically elected president in the country’s history, succeeding the brutal Duvalierist era. His landmark victory, with Aristide winning 75% of the vote, was celebrated by the masses of Haitians as a clarion call for reform. Aristide went to work immediately to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to eradicate corruption, to return Haiti to the family of nations as a mature, dignified, and capable nation.
Angered by the outpouring of popular support for Aristide, the powerful economic sector sought to slow the social transformation in the country. Aristide had demonstrated that the grass root issues of the poor, and of his church community, the Ti Legliz, were at the core of Haiti’s political life. They also knew that Aristide had been an outspoken critic of the previous government and that his stature had grown when an armed group, with the military watching, attacked his church, St. Jean Bosco, in September l988. Thirteen members of the church were killed and 70 were hurt in the attack as armed gangs stormed the church. They knew, therefore, that the priest who defied the traditional giants of the society had no fear. He set about his work of ridding the country of ethnic, racial, and color prejudice; vowing to level the economic playing field for the masses; reducing military abuses against the population; interrupting drug trafficking, and fighting all forms of human rights abuses. Indeed, he also balanced the federal budget for the first time that anyone could remember.
In spite of these achievements and perhaps because of them, seven months into his first term, in September 1991, a coup d’etat led by Duvalierist elements in the military tossed the nation into turbulence with more than 1000 people killed and the president eventually sent into exile. The traditional ruling elite, the lions of Petionville, the remnants of Ton Ton Macoute, and the upper classes, did not stand for reform that included empowering the masses. Aristide was in exile from 1991 to 1994, however, during the time of his absence and while the country was run by military leaders thousands of Haitians sought refuge in the United States, risking their lives to cross the ocean in a variety of vessels, some hardly seaworthy, to reach Florida.
In l994 after considerable political diplomacy, sanctions, and boycotts, the United Nations and the U. S. Army returned President Aristide to Haiti. The United Nations forces remained in the country supposedly to ensure that the president would have peace in the nation. The unconstitutional Haitian coup leaders were given a chance to leave the country with amnesty. General Raoul Cedras, the leader of military government, took the offer as President Bill Clinton dispatched troops to Haiti. President Aristide returned to the country and on October 15, 1994 addressed thousands of jubilant Haitians in a moving speech of his vision of the future. Aristide completed his first term in l996 and was elected again in the year 2000, winning overwhelmingly with 80% of the local and parliamentary offices!
In 2004 the Haitian people celebrated their bicentennial of freedom. President Aristide led millions of Haitians in recognition of the country’s freedom. Yet as the celebration was happening, on the border of the country with Dominican Republic armed thugs were preparing to invade the country. President Aristide had been demilitarized the nation because of the abuses of the military and by staking out such a high vision he had inadvertently disarmed the nation and made it vulnerable to what appeared to be a sponsored group of thugs who entered the country with automatic weapons and swept from one city to the next overrunning the local police. On February 25, 2004 President Jean Bertrand Aristide was essentially kidnapped, taken from the presidential palace and placed on a United States plane, accompanied by American military and security agents. Confusion reigned for hours as Haitians and the world community sought to clarify if Aristide had voluntarily given up the presidency or had he been forced to leave the country by the American government. In the end, political experts in the United States and in Haiti and South Africa saw the removal of the president as forced exile because the coup plotters had occupied much of Haiti. The President and family were flown directly to Bangui, Central African Republic and then later to South Africa. An interim government was installed in Haiti under the leadership of Gérard Latortue (returning from the United States) and President Boniface Alexandre who had been leader of the Supreme Court. As Mildred Aristide is reported to have told Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California and Congressman Charles Rangel of New York, “the coup de ‘etat has been completed.”
Since President Aristide was kidnapped in 2004, at the beginning of the third century of Haiti’s independence, he has been hard at work on several projects. Never one to let time past without effectively capturing its spirit, President Aristide has acquired a Doctor of Literature and Philosophy in African Languages, mastered several African languages, and taught students in South Africa about overcoming the travails and vicissitudes of life. A man of the people since before his days as the prophet of La Saline, President Aristide has awakened each day with Haiti on his mind and each day he has sought to perfect and prepare himself for service.
This book Haïti -Haitii? is a portrait of two souls, the soul of a man and the soul of a nation. Aristide is a man in service; this has always been his calling, and this book, more than anything else demonstrates how he has applied this temperament during his time in exile. While he has not engaged in politics, he has been a prime promoter of human rights, systemic decency, and social solidarity with the neglected and unprotected. In essence, he has walked the path of deep devotion to his fellow humans, opening up where he could the closed doors of darkness in order to bring the light of service. We see this in his penetrating style, elegantly constructed verses, and poignant prose. But this book is not merely an aesthetic achievement, which it is, but it is profoundly descriptive of the pain, suffering, and victorious consciousness that Aristide embodies. Of course, that is the point; the man and Haiti, Haiti and Aristide are joined in an historic embrace for eternity.
The nation’s soul, often exposed, violated, and ridiculed, is also a subject of this book. Haiti is the African’s epic against colonialism. It is the pattern, the model, the possibility of victory over oppression; it shows us that the oppressed does not have to remain oppressed forever, and after nearly three hundred years from the 16th century to the 19th century, a people who had been reduced to chattel rose up with an intense dislike for their circumstances and overcame the most modern armies of the era. This is why the author is confident in his celebration of the language that gives us the word “Haiiti,” and the word “Haiti.” Here America comes face-to-face with Africa. This is the meaning, the more profound meaning of the title of this book. I am not sure that the author could have written this book without being touched by the lives of Africans and breathing the air of the continent in every respect. His poetry speaks of his love for Mother Africa.
At the battle of Vertières the determined African men and women rushing to the front of the struggle to end their suffering knew that they did it for posterity. Those who sacrificed their lives, and there were many, were equally the victors with those who claimed independence. This is the meaning of any epic; and to me, Haïti-Haitii? has all the elements of an epic. When Heru defeated Set at Edfu and good overcame evil in the ancient narrative of Kemet it was the prologue to Haiti’s defeat over enslavement and brutality.
Haiti, the pearl of African history, has been rocked by several tragic events during our lifetime. The events that have changed Haiti and challenged (in French, interpellé), the United States, Africa, and Europe are the overthrow of President Aristide by tyranny and guile, the earthquake of January 2010, and the cholera outbreak said to have originated with the many foreign troops in the country. Of course, Haiti has received its share of hurricanes, drought, floods, and petty criminal activity, but the big three events are the ones that must be seen as shattering all expectations in a modern government. To me, the deposing of a popularly elected president with an overwhelming majority by external forces because of his progressive policies and calls for justice for his people is the most egregious of the events. The earthquake is something none of us could have prevented; it was a natural disaster of the greatest magnitude. However, cholera did not have to be introduced to the nation. Haiti had been free of cholera for nearly one hundred years and the evidence now suggests that Bangladeshi troops of the United Nations forces inadvertently caused the epidemic. The strand of cholera now in Haiti has been identified as Asian. Nevertheless, I suggest that President Aristide, the beloved leader of the nation, was prepared to serve the nation during the earthquake reconstruction and the cholera outbreak. Who could have rallied the people? Who could have organized the agencies and the ngos? Who could have stopped the mass looting of the resources of the nation? There is only one voice that the people of Haiti, in general, believe can electrify the masses to do for them what others cannot do for them. The author has shown in this incredibly dynamic book that his writing is as passionate as his speaking. Considered by modern speech scholars as one of the best orators of his generation, the author has brought his love of words, grammar, etymology, and structure to his literary work.
Aristide’s book is written in his native Kreyol, with sections translated by him into Kiswahili, and then translated into English by Mildred Aristide, his brilliant wife, who is an accomplished legal scholar herself. Pointedly, the book is not translated into French. When the author writes, “From 1804 until today,
Who continues to suck dry the sap of the country?” he is asking a question that embarrasses those who fail to realize that France owes Haiti more than 21 billion dollars. This is not a rhetorical question, but one that establishes the severity of the burden that the Haitian people have had to bear. There could be no more sensitive literary approach to the horrendous set of circumstances that were devised by human beings than in Aristide’s questioning style, “Who orchestrated the military coup d’état in 1991, Plus the presidential coup d’état kidnapping in 2004,
In order to bury the neo-liberal death plan deeper
In the entrails of Haiti?”
The answer to this poetic question and others leads the reader to the conclusion that Haiti’s plight is that it has rarely been free of the sticky interventionist fingers of those who have maintained a consistent animus toward the first free black republic in the world. Numerous politicians have ruled Haiti for the interest of their own families or for outside interests. When President Aristide created and led the Fanmi Lavalas to power he had achieved something that was considered impossible; he had resurrected the spirit of the lowest classes and made them the masters of their destiny.
Haiti has never seen a truer democrat than Jean-Bertrand Aristide. No leader since the days when Mackendal and Boukman sought to organize masses has been so committed to the freedom of the people as Aristide. Indeed, the trouble with the ruling classes, as President Barack Obama has seen in the United States, is that they refuse to give up privilege for the benefit of the masses. Unfortunately this situation always sets up the inevitable conflict between justice and injustice, between right and wrong, between liberty and oppression. Aristide cast his lot with the majority of the people and they rewarded him by electing him twice to the highest office in the land. Yet in neither case were the minority rich class and its foreign supporters willing to allow him to complete his term in office.
The president-poet has written: “Condemning the small ant for hiding
Inside a coconut while it takes a needed break
Is popular in the courts here.”
And we are left thinking that this could be anywhere because wherever there is evil, injustice, and oppression one sees the small, the poor, the un-privileged, and the masses running to hide in the coconut. Aristide names this section the “the scissors of legitimate defense” and we are able to read clearly the author’s sense of resistance to utter destruction. Haiti-Haitii is a telling documentary written in poetry, proverbs, aphorisms, and prose, an African sort of writing style, indirection, everything is everything, in order to come at the issue from the four cardinal points of the universe.
Finally in a land of hundreds of artists, none has drawn such a magnificent picture of Haiti’s African roots as Aristide. In a land known for its poets, seers, mystics, and religious leaders, no truth has ever been more powerfully impressed on pages than the words of Aristide in Haiti-Haitii. If this is not Haiti’s epic, or Africa’s, then it is surely the epic of a struggle against all odds confronted by the Haitian people. What Dr. Aristide has given us is the exacting word of reflective, passionate human who sees that good inevitably overcomes evil.
Molefi Kete Asante, author of The History of Africa