The freedom bell stands in the pantheon just outside the grounds of a razed presidential palace, quietly serving as a symbol of the fight for social justice in an unequal and divided society.
More than two centuries after it was sounded to announce slavery’s abolition, fueling the Haitian Revolution, the call for equality by the country’s impoverished black masses still rings hallow.
Now, opponents of President Michel Martelly are invoking Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a revolutionary hero who proclaimed the world’s first black republic, to decry government abuses and give a voice to their struggle. The new battle line is as much about race and class as access to wealth and power.
“From the moment he arrived in power, he knew that the masses were in need,” street vendor Gérard Baptichon, 47, said about Martelly. “The first thing he should have done is to ensure that everyone could eat; that all those who were worse off could afford a cup of rice.”
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Five years after its most devastating earthquake, a century since the 1915 U.S. occupation and on its 211th anniversary, Haiti risks returning to its tumultuous past.
A pre-electoral crisis looms. Municipal and legislative elections are postponed. And uncertainties surround a prophetic day: Jan. 12. That’s when Haitians will commemorate the more than 300,000 earthquake dead while they watch to see what happens in this nation of 10 million as the terms of most members of parliament expire.
Earlier this week, Martelly, the chief judge of the Supreme Court and the heads of the two houses of parliament signed a political accord in hopes of averting the crisis. But the tentative agreement, which calls for extending the terms of the lower chamber until April 24, 2015, and senators until Sept. 9, 2015, is based on the passing of an electoral law before Jan. 12. If no law is approved, Martelly will rule by decree.
“As Haitians, we wouldn’t like to have a Jan. 12 that arrives with difficulties, and aggravates Jan. 12, 2010,” said Leon Brutus, 74, attending Mass inside the temporary structure of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which was destroyed by the earthquake.
The ongoing political stalemate, while nothing new, is exacerbated by Haiti’s post-quake reality: The influx of millions in foreign aid and government construction contracts — granted mostly to foreign firms — have not stimulated the economy as much as many had hoped, and Haitians are feeling the aftershocks.
“People are hungry,” protester Ericq Cherry, 48, said during a recent violent anti-government demonstration.
Hunger is sprouting resentment and deep frustrations that today are being tapped by those leading the increasing, and often violent, street mobilizations against Martelly. He’s being accused of not only dragging his feet on elections, but also of corruption and of trying to be a defacto dictator.
Opponents say Martelly and his former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, a casualty of the growing discontent, are trying to “re-colonize” Haiti by putting foreign interests above national concerns as they grant lucrative mining contracts and development deals to foreign companies.
A former singer, Martelly built his popularity on songs with populist sentiments. Now as a president fighting for political survival, he’s being accused of exacerbating the fragile class and color divide with his governance style.
“He never misses an opportunity to tout his family’s riches while the Haitian people languish in abject poverty,” Attorney André Michel, a leader of the Patriotic Movement of the Democratic Opposition (MOPOD) group said about Martelly, whose spokesman did not respond to a Miami Herald request for comment.
“The excess, the taste of profit, the carnival sprees, corruption of the political and economic elites who have more light skin people, brings back old demons that go back to slavery and our history,” said Michel, whose client has levied corruption charges against Martelly’s wife and son. They’ve denied the accusations.
MOPOD and other opposition groups have ramped up their resignation demands, vowing to achieve a symbolic victory on Thursday — Haitian Independence Day and the first day of the New Year — by breaking through police barricades in front of the National Palace, “to drink pumpkin soup,” the independence day celebratory meal, with Martelly.
Martelly’s supporters and some detractors say the problem is that he governs with his cronies, many of whom are light-skinned. They argue that Martelly, who has tapped former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul to replace Lamothe, should finish his term. Haiti, they say, needs to end its vicious cycle of political instability, which is eroding investor confidence and jobs. Lamothe, who took office in May 2012, was the country’s longest-serving prime minister when he resigned last month under international and domestic pressure.
“The people must realize the only thing they can do to improve their situation is to create wealth,” said Georges Michel, a historian and friend of the president. “It’s not through burning tires they will get anything. It’s a counterproductive activity and goes against what Laurent Lamothe and Michel Martelly was trying to do for them.”
Michel, no relation to the MOPOD leader, says Dessalines cannot be a dividing force in the current tensions.
“The same way that in the United States George Washington belongs to all, Jean-Jacques Dessalines belongs to not one single body or group, but to all Haitians,” he said. “He is the father of the nation, of all Haitians.”
Unlike in the U.S., the color issue is not black and white here. The well-known Creole proverb coined by a 19th century peasant leader —“neg rich se milat, milat pov se neg” (a rich black is a mulatto, a poor mulatto is black) — embodies what all Haitians here know: Without wealth, a black person gets nowhere but a light-skinned person has status just by who they are.
After Haiti gained its independence from France, Dessalines wanted to solidify blacks and mulattoes and push for land reform. Mulattoes were opposed, and in 1806 Dessalines was assassinated.
Some accuse Alexandre Pétion, the mulatto general who would succeed him as president but of the southern part of Haiti, of the murder. Others note that blacks and mulattoes plotted together to kill Dessalines and mulattoes also tried to save him.
“Dessalines knew that without the unity of blacks and mulattoes, we couldn’t advance,” said Wesner Emmanuel, a former senator and historian. “They had to come together for us to achieve independence.”
But earlier this year, protesters took their feelings of exclusion to the wealthy hillside of Pétionville, home to the mulatto elite and the black middle class, who long struggled to achieve parity with them. As fed-up protesters marched, they declared: “Dessalines is going to see Pétion.”
Some opposition leaders say the call is an invitation for the offspring of Pétion to join them in their “nationalist fight for a united and new Haiti,” because for too long the two constituencies have lived different lives.
Others view it as part of the ongoing racial tensions that have long been exploited by Haitian politicians, from dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In his 1991 inauguration speech, the twice-exiled former priest targeted Haiti’s elite, labeling them “rocks in the water” who will soon “know the suffering of the rocks in the sun,” referring to those living in the slums.
“The rocks exposed to the sun should be able to taste the freshness of those waters,” said Assad Volcy, an opposition leader in the newly formed Pitit Desalin, Children of Dessalines, platform.
But Volcy said turning to Dessalines, a former slave, isn’t about skin color but about changing the mentality in a country, where, according to a recent World Bank poverty report, 20 percent of the population holds 64 percent of the wealth.
“This minority has been exploiting the country since the death of the nation’s father,” Volcy said. “What is worse today is they want to be in direct control of the political space by electing senators and deputies.”
Volcy said invoking Dessalines is a reminder that Haiti “is being governed by the children of those who assassinated Dessalines.”
Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political science professor and author of Roots of Haitian Despotism (2007), said that although Dessalines was a populist and nationalist, he was no different from any of Haiti’s leaders.
“He gave the land to his buddies and Pétion did the same thing. They all did the same thing. They got power and started rewarding their cronies and are all authoritarian personalities,” he said.
But the difference today is that “those who have been marginalized are conscious now that they have been marginalized and they resent it,” Fatton said. “They are no longer willing to put up with it.”
HAITI’S LONG STRUGGLE
Dec. 6: Columbus lands on the northern end of what the native Arawak Taíno Indians called Quiskeya, Bohio, Babeque.
Aug. 14: Pivotal ceremony of Bois Cayman takes place to inspire a slave rebellion.
Aug. 22: Slaves revolt
September: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s founding father, joins slave revolt.
The Liberty Bell is sounded by Toussaint L’Ouverture to announce the abolition of slavery on Aug. 29.
January: L'Ouverture invades Santo Domingo, declares slavery abolished.
July 8: New constitution promulgated. L'Ouverture declared governor general for life.
April 7: L'Ouverture dies in captivity in France.
May 18: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of L'Ouverture's successors, rips white from French Tricolor and the Haitian flag is born.
Nov. 18: French evacuate.
Jan. 1: Dessalines declares St. Domingue’s independence at Gonaives, and former colony officially becomes Haiti.
October: Revolt against Dessalines, who had declared himself Emperor-for-life. He is assassinated Oct. 17.
Dec. 28: Henri Christophe is elected President of Haiti.
Feb. 17: Christophe has himself named president for life in a new Constiuttion.
March 11: Alexandre Pétion, a mulatto, is elected president of the southern Republic of Haiti, while Christophe rules the northern State of Haiti.
March 26: Christophe had himself named Henry I, King of the Kingdom of Haiti.
Oct. 9: Pétion declared himself president-for-life.
March 30: Jean-Pierre Boyer is appointed president-for-life upon Pétion’s death. Two years later, he would reunite Haiti upon the death of Henry I and his son.
Feb. 9: Boyer invades Santo Domingo and controls the entire island.
April 17: France recognizes Haiti’s independence after Boyer agrees to pay 150 million, later reduced to 90 million, gold Francs.
May 7: Northern city of Cap-Haïtien is destroyed by earthquake.
June 5: United States recognizes Haiti.
July 28: President Woodrow Wilson sends U.S. Marines to Haiti, beginning a 19-year occupation.
Aug. 14: American occupation ends.
Aug. 21: Haiti celebrates second independence day, désoccupation.
Oct. 22: Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier inaugurated as president.
Duvalier declared president-for-life.
April 21: Duvalier dies; son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” is his successor as president-for-life.
Haitian “boat people” appear in U.S. waters
Duvalier flees into exile to France amid popular uprising; Henri Namphy and junta assume power.
A new Haitian constitution is ratified by referendum.
Feb. 7: Leslie Manigat sworn in as president in an army-organized election.
June 20: Manigat ousted by Namphy
Sept. 17: Namphy ousted; Prosper Avril assumes power.
March 10: Prosper Avril resigns.
Dec. 16: Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide sweeps polls with 67 percent of the counted vote.
Feb. 7: Aristide inaugurated.
Sept. 30: Aristide ousted in a military coup; goes into exile.
Sept. 18: Former President Jimmy Carter announces deal with junta that will avoid armed conflict.
Sept. 19: President Bill Clinton sends 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti to help return Aristide.
Oct. 15: Aristide and government-in-exile return.
Dec. 17: Former Prime Minister René Préval elected to succeed Aristide
April 7: Jean Léopold Dominique, Haiti’s best known radio commentator, is gunned down by unknown assailants
Nov. 26: Aristide wins presidential elections. Foreign observers and major opposition parties boycott poll. U.N. peacekeeping force withdraws from the country.
Feb. 7: Aristide inaugurated for second term. An opposition bloc announces a “shadow” government.
Oct. 29: More than 200 Haitian migrants land in Key Biscayne and are placed in mandatory detention while their asylum cases are reviewed.
Jan. 1: Haiti celebrates 200 years of independence.
Feb. 29: Aristide forced from power fort the second time, and flees into exile. Boniface Alexandre is later inaugurated as interim president.
March 12: Gérard Latortue, a South Florida resident and retired U.N. official, becomes interim prime minister.
March: UN Resolution 1529 authorizes a three-month multinational interim peacekeeping force.
February: René Préval elected president a second time.
April: Food riots force the ouster of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.
August: The first of four back-to-back storms in 30 days hits Haiti.
May: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton appointed U.N. special envoy to Haiti to help invigorate the economy after the storms.
Jan. 12: A 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti, killing more than 300,000 and injuring an equal number. About 1.5 million are left homeless. Massive infrastructure damage in Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities.
Jan. 16: ‘Baby Doc’ returns to Haiti after more than two decades in exile in France.
March 18: Aristide arrives back in Haiti after seven years in exile in South Africa.
April 4: After weeks of crisis amid calls for a re-do of the presidential elections, former singer Michel J. Martelly is declared winner of a presidential run-off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat. Préval becomes the only president in Haiti to have successfully completed two mandates.
May 14: Martelly is sworn in as president of Haiti. It is the first time an incumbent president peacefully transferred power to a member of the opposition.
Feb. 24: Garry Conille resigns as prime minister after five months.
May 4: Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe, a Martelly friend and close confidante, appointed prime minister.
Oct. 4: ‘Baby Doc’ dies of a heart attack at age 63.
Dec 8: A presidential commission issues a 10-page report calling for the resignation of the prime minister, head of the supreme court and the nine member electoral council to calm anti-government nationwide street protests and unblock a three year political crisis.
Dec. 13: Lamothe resigns under international and domestic pressure.
Dec 25: Former Mayor of Port-au-Prince Evans Paul tapped by Martelly to become prime minister.
Dec. 29: Martelly, the head of the Supreme Court and the leaders of both houses of parliament sign a tentative political accord to avert a political crisis by extending the terms of senators and deputies in the lower house as long as they vote an electoral law, before Jan. 12, so delayed elections can take place.
- Miami Herald archives, Jacqueline Charles
Sources: Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians and the Struggle for Hispaniola, by Michele Wucker; Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995, by Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., and Nancy Gordon Heinl, Revised and Expanded by Michael Heinl, Miami Herald archives