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Haiti 1804-2004: Tens of Thousands Mark Bicentennial of Haitian Revolution

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Born out of a slave revolt, Haiti became an independent nation on Jan. 1, 1804. Yesterday thousands celebrated the anniversary but the nation remains deeply divided over the future of the country and of President Jean Bertrand-Aristide. [includes transcript]

Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of the Haitian revolution. And it was born out of a slave revolt.The territory the French called St. Domingue won its independence through a revolutionary struggle that triumphed on Jan. 1, 1804. Before that, it was France’s most lucrative colony for over a century. More than half a million Africans slaved to produce sugar, rum, cotton, tobacco and indigo.

When they rose up and demanded their freedom, and then defeated Napoleon’s army, President George Washing ton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners, supported France in its efforts to suppress the slaves.

This week, Haitians are marking the anniversary with large celebrations. Yesterday, in the Haitian capital there were clashes between police and protesters. Opponents of the government staged a march through downtown Port au-Prince while tens of thousands of government supporters rallied outside the National Palace as President Jean Bertrand-Aristide told them “1804 was the stinging bee; 2004 is sure to be the honey.”

Aristide listed 21 goals he hopes will be accomplished by 2015, from stabilizing the rate of HIV infection to reducing poverty. Aristide’s term expires in 2006, and he didn’t say whether he expects to be in office in 2015. He said “It is possible to build a new Haiti because of what is on our flag, and that is, ’United we are strong. Arisitide then flew by helicopter to Gonaives, the site where the revolutionaries declared independence from the French.

Today, we are going to take a look back at the roots of the Haitian revolution and the state of Haiti today. In a moment we will go down to Port au-Prince to speak with Kim Ives, the editor of the Haitian newspaper, Haiti Progres. But first we will hear a portion of the documentary Haiti: Killing the Dream, produced by Hart and Dana Perry of Crowing Rooster Productions.

  • Excerpt: “Haiti Killing the Dream”, 1992 documentary by Hart and Dana Perry. Courtesy of Crowing Rooster
  • Kim Ives, editor of the Haitian newspaper, _ Haiti Progres_. He is speaking to us from Haiti
  • Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NARRATOR: Haiti is located on the Western part of the island, Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. The French turned it into their most profitable slave colony. In 1791, the slaves revolted. By 1804, the slave armies defeated Napoleon’s legions making Haiti the first independent black republic in the world. Following the example which spread, the United States refused to recognize Haiti, beginning an uneasy relationship between the country founded by slaves and one founded by slave owners. At the turn of the century, America’s view of Haiti was summed up by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan who said, “Dear me, think of it? Niggers speaking French.”

FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, RAMSEY CLARK: It was more than two years before we entered World War I. We decided we had to control Haiti.

U.S. NEWSREEL (1915): In 1915, Haiti, chief city of an island nation torn by internal troubles. Behind these scenes of peace and Semi-tropic tranquility, there’s uneasiness and unrest.

NARRATOR: The U.S. government wanted to control the strategic passage between Haiti and Cuba. The major shipping route to the Panama Canal and the Pacific. So, they created a pretext to justify a military intervention.

U.S. NEWSREEL (1915): And then in 1915, the United States Marines land in Haiti to battle Haitian bandits, threatening destruction of American properties and Haiti’s bandits headed to the hills. This puts an immediate end to troubles in populated areas, but Marines drive into the interior and rout the insurgents out.

FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, RAMSEY CLARK: The arrogance with which we went about it; when you think of a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy–I can see him there bobbing on the deck now — and he’s writing the constitution for the free people of Haiti. There can’t be a more imperialist mentality than that. These people are too dumb to write their own constitution, I have to do it for them.

U.S. NEWSREEL (1915): Haiti’s own Dartiguenave is elected provisional president and the riot ridden republic begins to function as a nation once again. Here are the troops of the Palace Guard, but the United States Marines are ever-present.

NOAM CHOMSKY: It was a murderous, bloody intervention which destroyed the constitutional system, reinstated slavery. The Marines stayed there for 20 years. What they left behind was a military force, a national guard, which essentially took over and ran it under one or another dictatorship since.

NARRATOR: In 1957, the United States propped up the regime of Haiti’s most feared president, Francois Duvalier. Known as Papa Doc, he was a country doctor who became a despot. To ensure he would not be over thrown by the army like his predecessors; Papa Doc built up his own vigilante militia, the infamous Tontons Macoutes. Volunteers for the Macoutes were paid by having free license to steal and extort from the people they tortured, raped and murdered. Toward the end of his life, Duvalier cemented his ties to Washington and arranged for his son, Jean-Claude, to succeed him. After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, 19-year-old Baby Doc took over as president for life. Baby Doc plundered the national treasury and with army support turned Haiti into a major drug trans-shipment stop. In 1986, a popular uprising ended the three decades of Duvalier dictatorship. Baby Doc was flown into exile aboard a U.S. Government jet, taking a vast fortune and leaving behind a devastated but relieved country. After years of living in fear, the Haitian people exploded, taking revenge on the most abusive Tontons Macoutes or uprooting the Duvalier oppression. Some Macoutes who committed capital crimes suffered the popular justice called 'necklacing': a tire filled with gasoline was placed around their bodies and burned.

HOWARD FRENCH: The transitional government that was named, after Jean-Claude Duvalier fell, was an army left government–the CNG. The army hasn’t shown little willingness to stay out of political affairs since then. There have been seven or eight coups since 1986, and the army has been involved in every one of them.

AMY GOODMAM: And that was the New York Times’ Howard French from the documentary, “Haiti: Killing the Dream”, narrated by Ossie Davis. It was written by Juan Gonzalez. You are listening to Democracy Now! When we come back from our break we go to Port-au-Prince where Kim Ives is standing by, editor of “Haiti Progress”. And joining us in the studio is Jocelyn McCalla, the head of the National Coalition of Haitian Rights. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in the studio is Jocelyn McCalla, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, and joining us by telephone in Port-au-Prince is Kim Ives, editor of the Haitian newspaper, Haiti Progres. Let’s go down to Port-au-Prince first. Kim Ives, can you tell us about Independence Day, 200 years later? What happened in Port-au-Prince yesterday?

KIM IVES: Well, Amy, it was a surreal day. Surreal in the sense that if you are to read the press and the NPHR press releases in New York, you get the sense that Haiti was coming apart at the seams, that there was an uprising against the government — in some form or another. In fact, the uprising was just to celebrate Haitian independence. There were tens of thousands of people throughout the streets of Haiti on Wednesday night on December 31st, celebrating independence out in the streets, singing, dancing. It was just incredible to behold. The next day you had — and it was really ironic — you had in front of the palace tens and tens of thousands. I would estimate between 200,000 and 400,000; AP said 10,000 — they upped it to 15,000 when some people protested. And, this is what has become the hallmark of coverage, this total media distortion of what’s going on. That afternoon, the opposition, supported by Washington, carried out some kind of action where they marched. And, their modus operandi now is they announce a march and then they change the route so the police are faced with this provocation on each occasion. They had to stop them from taking their direction. They used some gas. The people had — the opposition march had — prepared for this. They had tires and cinder blocks. This was in Port-au-Prince yesterday afternoon after the celebrations in the morning. They threw everything into the street, created barricades. Finally, they were dispersed and they went on a rampage through the areas of Nazon-la-Lieu, and other parts of the city, tearing up storefronts, smashing car windows. So, it was a real attempt to wreck the day. In Gonaïves, something similar happened. There was a ceremony and they held it. They said they were going to shoot it up and stone it up. They didn’t do that to the actual ceremony, but as people were leaving Gonaïves, they stood behind a row of houses going out of the city and pelted cars with rocks and some cars had their windows shot out, too. So, this is the kind of action the opposition is undertaking to terrorize people and destabilize the country. I think it’s ironic.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the significance of today, Jocelyn McCalla with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, for people who don’t follow the details of Haitian politics today, this 200th anniversary. We heard the beginning of the documentary, the history. Can you take us forward to how we got to this point?

JOCELYN MCCALLA: Well, when the Haitians became — when Haiti became a nation 200 years ago, as the clip that you showed demonstrated, Haiti was isolated from the rest of the world. Haiti — Haitians had vanquished over some of the fiercest and strongest armies in the world, Napoleon’s army. Napoleon was conquering vast areas of Europe, but that tiny part of the island of San-Domingue, he could not vanquish because the slaves were ready and willing to die for freedom and for their liberty. They no longer wanted to remain oppressed. So, Haiti was isolated. The United States did not really assist Haiti even though Haiti became the second independent republic in the western hemisphere. The fear was the Haitian revolution was going to spread to the other colonies. And you also have to remember that during the time when Haiti became independent, it was also the time when the cotton gin became a huge moneymaker for plantations in the South. In fact, the United States imported more slaves during that time than the other colonies, than the other powers in the world. So, there was a very big contradiction there. Because Haitians were isolated, because a lot of the people who ran the colony fled the colony, there was a lack of technology. The resources, the plantations had been destroyed completely, so they had to be rebuilt, and the people who were in the country then had to sort of make do with whatever they could. So, they rebuilt the country, but in a very difficult context. Not unlike the context in which countries that freed themselves from colonialism, from the yoke of imperialism, found themselves in recent years. So, those are the issues.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the, one of the important realities that most Americans are not aware of, isn’t it that the French rather than paying reparations to the Haitians for all of those years of slavery actually exacted reparations from Haiti for its independence and that Haiti spent most of the 19th century paying off the reparations to France that as I understand President Aristide is trying to get back some of those reparations from France.

KIM IVES: That is correct. Part of the reason — part of the success of the Haitian revolution was also hinging on the fact that for them, they wanted to so safeguard their freedom that they spent a lot of resources in building fortifications around the country, one of which remains today one of the most magnificent constructions in the world. This is the citadel La Ferriere in the north. Eventually, the Haitian leader, Jean-Pierre Boyer, decided that they were going to sort of make peace with France, and France exacted, as you said, a heavy price for that. President Aristide has embarked on a — has called for restitution, for reparations to the country and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, his appeal for restitution and reparation is being done in the context in which he is increasingly isolated. His policies are not very popular. The — so, there is not a national consensus on this issue of reparation and restitution, which makes that demand far weaker than it would have been otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Ives in Port-au-Prince, after the big event of what, more than 15,000 people in — outside the palace, President Aristide took a helicopter to Gonaïves. This is a site of Haitian independence and the site of a major massacre more than a decade ago. Can you talk about that?

KIM IVES: Yeah. That’s right. And as I said, Amy, it was on the order of between 200,000 and 400,000 people who were out in front of the palace. The — the helicopters were taken up — as I said, part of the campaign and this is really a photocopy, an exact duplicate practically of what’s been happening in Venezuela, the destabilization campaign and they wanted to do everything they could to disturb, upset and make these ceremonies a mess, and that’s what’s happened. I just want to say if I get cut off, my landline is free because this cell phone may break off. The end result was the — a number of people were afraid to go up to Gonaïves, and they had an estimated about 5,000 or 6,000 people who went out there. There was a lot of gunfire in the area where what they called the armed opposition is operating in the area of Raboteau, and that massacre that happened in 1994, in April of 1994, the Raboteau massacre has been one of the accomplishments of the government. They did manage to convict a number of actors in that as well as a number of those who were out of the country, the leaders of the coup d’état, including General Raoul Cedras, presently in Panama under U.S. — blessed with — blessed with U.S. blessing. So, this is one of the ironies that they have been able to use the very terrain where massacres were carried out against the population to now launch attacks trying to destabilize Haiti’s independence ceremonies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kim, one question, though. There have been since President Aristide has been in office now for two terms after the U.S. occupation to reinstall him, there seems — there definitely is a left opposition that has developed that feels that his regime — or his presidency has not fulfilled the aspirations that the people had. There was recently a battle at the university where some opposition students were attacked by pro-Aristide people that have been attacked. Could you talk about that a little and what contradictions have been developed in the move for progress in Haiti.

KIM IVES: Yeah, well of course, it’s an extremely complicated and complex process. To me, the essence of it is just going back to independence, you had an independence war which was also very complicated. You had the “affranchis,”the freed men; you had the former slave masses. And essentially, at one point in that struggle, the affranchis, the formerly freed, who often had considerable wealth, allied themselves with the newly freed slave masses under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and they managed to throw out the French. But they found that Dessalines had a vision that was a little too radical. He wanted to give the land to all of the peasants and had a PanAfricanist vision at the time, and they said this won’t do, and they assassinated him in 1806. The affranchis, they conspired even with the slave-owning powers of the time, the U.S. and France, according to some historians. And in the end result, the — what is — what we see now is an attempt to retake over that power because those the people, the descendants of those formerly freed — of those newly freed slave masses essentially put President Aristide in power. And so they’re doing their utmost to cut off the people from their vote, from what they’ve selected. I think what we’ve seen is fomenting of an opposition movement which is very artificial. Sure, the Aristide government has — you have criticisms that can be made with it, but this is primarily because he seems to be trying to reconcile irreconcilables. When we talked about the student movement, we have to realize students in this society are a privileged strata, which — and even among the students, it’s just a fraction of the students who are — who are creating these demonstrations. And, I find it ironic that again the media, the AP, the mainstream media, will refer to these marches saying there’s 50,000 who marched in the latest, when in fact there were about 3,000 to 5,000 who marched. So, you see this inflation of this Washington-supported opposition demonstrations. You see a deflation of, for example, the bicentennial celebrations that happened on yesterday, and on the night of the 31st. And to me, what’s important for people to understand is there’s a complete media campaign to portray Haiti as some sort of dictatorship, as sort some of a — JUAN GONZALES: If I can for one second, Kim, just to get our other guests in here for a second, you are shaking your head as you hear Kim say something.

JOCELYN MCCALLA: I’m shaking my head at the notion that there is a media campaign against Haiti. I don’t think that the messenger should be blamed. The situation in Haiti has become far worse under the second term of President Aristide than it has been in a long time. That is the situation that has fueled discontent with his government and that is the situation that has essentially led our organization, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, along with a number of Haitian organizations, Haitian human rights groups, women’s rights groups, students groups, now to say that the human rights violations under this government have become far worse and far more systematic in a single attempt by President Aristide and his government to remain in power and not to tend to the concerns and the appeals of the population in Haiti. And those appeals are very clear. It’s not about trying to not — trying to rob the Haitian people of their dues. In fact, one, one of the things that I would love to see in the country is, in fact, more — a realization of more of the promises or the goals that President Aristide has stated yesterday in his 21-point salute to Haiti. But the problem here is that I cannot stand here and say that this is any new thing. First of all, because one, there’s lots of goals that have been adopted by the international community. In fact, the magic year, 2015 is a year adopted by the UN to see a number of progress indicators in the world. So, Haiti would only be following the international trend not setting its own goals, and its own goals have to be based on what the country has to do now, not simply appease people.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of this assessment? You have the coup from 1991 to 1994 that Juan and I both covered in Haiti, a time when you had the leaders, particularly among them Emmanuel Constant, the paramilitary leader, supported by the U.S. government, by the CIA, by the DIA. It’s one of the reasons that James Woolsley was forced out as director of central intelligence that this guy, Emmanuel Constant, was on the payroll of the intelligence agencies in this country. The only way they would allow Aristide to return, he had been elected in a landslide as a popular priest, was if he gave up his populist platform, like increasing the minimum wage, one of the first things he ever did. And so when he returned in a U.S. military jet, everything changed. And that we now leap forward ten years and the question is —-whose agenda is he serving now? Is he -— do we see a return to what he first campaigned on when he first became president, or do we see something very different that the western community will accept, but that is not very good for Haiti.

JOCELYN MCCALLA: Well, I’m not sure — I think Aristide is really caught between a rock and a hard place. He is trying to follow or to use his populist roots to remain as popular as possible. But at the same time — and that leaves them in a sort of, say, “I’m not going to be a U.S. puppet. I’m not going to be the puppet of France or the international community. I’m just going to be my own man,” but at the same time, is not delivering on the goods that we expect to what the Haitian people themselves are expecting. And they expect — I personally expected — that there would be more freedoms in Haiti today. And unfortunately, those freedoms don’t exist. Now, going back to what happened in 1991, in the period 1991 through 1994, it was obvious that when Aristide was elected back in 1990, even though he was elected through a free and fair election, which I personally witnessed and observed, and one of the greatest scenes that I will always remember is the scene of elderly citizens, Haitians who were invalid, who stood in line for hours to use the ballot and speak their mind. And that is something that has remained with me for quite a long time. That’s why I’m still in that struggle for these people who did it. But very quickly, part of the reason why Aristide was —- why the military was able to move against Aristide is that back in 1991, he had begun to lose the support of the people who voted him into office. So, it was created the opportunity for the military to move in without much opposition to the coup d’état. Even though, basically, once people woke up and said, “Well, these guys have taken away our freedom,” well -—

JUAN GONZALES: If I could interrupt you for a second — is it that the lack of public support made it possible for the coup d’état to occur, or is it that a lesson that Latin America has learned often, that you can’t make revolution by the ballot box. That in essence, what happens is, what happened to Allende in Chile, what has happened to some degree to Chavez right now — the only difference between Chavez is that he has a military background and he has got military backing. You can’t make a real social revolution by a ballot box because eventually the forces of reaction come down on you, and if you don’t have a counterforce, an organized counterforce, whether it’s military or organized political party, you are going to be overthrown or you are going to be crushed, initially.

JOCELYN MCCALLA: One, I would agree with you. In fact, that’s what I’m pointing out. There was not an organized counterpoint. There was not an organized political party. In other words, part of what happened there is that once Aristide became president, power became personal. It was no longer the structure, the situation that allowed it to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you Jocelyn McCalla for joining us, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, and Kim Ives in Port-au-Prince right now, editor of Haiti Progres.

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