Boston Haitian Reporter
Brian Concannon Jr.
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the United States of America proclaimed its freedom from the British monarchy, declaring it self evident that “all men are created equal.” This Declaration of Independence changed the world: it created the United States of America, but it also created hope throughout the world that freedom from oppression was possible. The Declaration inspired people to come help Americans win their freedom, and to fight for the liberation of their own countries.
A contingent of freed slaves from France’s St. Domingue colony (now Haiti) responded to the Declaration by sailing to the American South and joining the American army fighting against England’s King George. They particularly distinguished themselves at the Battle of Savannah in September 1779. After they helped the U.S. secure its independence, the soldiers from St. Domingue returned home, determined to apply their American lessons in freedom and in fighting for it. Napoleon Bonaparte, St. Domingue’s master and head of the world’s strongest army was equally determined to stop them. He realized that an independent Haiti could change the world, declaring that “the freedom of the Negroes, if recognized in St. Domingue and legalized by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World.”
The Haitians proved Napoleon right. They defeated the French army and declared independence on January 1, 2004. They abolished slavery, the first country to do so, and quickly became a rallying point for freedom seekers throughout the world. In 1806, Francisco de Miranda, seeking to liberate South America, visited Haiti and its Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines for advice and inspiration. On Christmas Eve 1815, Simon Bolivar, expelled from Venezuela and pushed out of Jamaica, found a warm welcome in the southern city of Les Cayes. President Alexander P étion gave Bolivar guns, ammunition and a printing press, asking in return the liberation of South America’s slaves. Bolivar set sail for Venezuela in April 1816, and printed a proclamation of abolition in July. But he lost the war and was back in Les Cayes in September.
Resupplied by Pétion, Bolivar left again in December 1816. This time he won the military campaign, securing independence for Spain’s South American colonies. But this time Bolivar did not print an emancipation proclamation, and slavery remained in South America for decades. Five years after Bolivar, Greeks seeking independence from Turkey asked Haiti’s President Boyer for help. Boyer could not afford the guns and money they sought, but did what he could, sending 25,000 pounds of coffee.
The world has never forgiven Haiti for making all of its citizens free and for being a rallying point for freedom-seeker. In 1826 the newly independent countries of the region organized the Congress of American States. Instead of giving Haiti the place of honor that its contributions to creating this new, independent world deserved, the U.S. and the South American Republics refused Haiti any place at all. The U.S. declared even a discussion of Haitian participation unacceptable, the Foreign Minister of the host, Colombia, affirmed his country’s “great repugnance against maintaining with Haiti those relations… generally observed among civilized nations.” The U.S. would not even officially recognize Haiti until 1862.
Two hundred years after Haiti’s independence, the countries of the Americas had another opportunity to pay Haiti back for making them free. In February 2004, insurgents crossed the border from the Dominican Republic and started shooting police officers, breaking prisoners out of jail and burning courthouses and other government buildings. Haiti requested assistance under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document signed by thirty-four countries promising to protect and support each other’s democracies. Although some countries tried to help, notably Venezuela, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, the hemisphere’s most powerful countries either did nothing or actually aided the insurgents.
The U.S. response to the attack on Haiti’s democracy was to kidnap the elected President and fly him to the Central African Republic, then send Marines to Haiti to install an unconstitutional replacement government. When the U.S. needed its soldiers elsewhere in the world, Brazil agreed to lead MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Argentina, Chile and Paraguay agreed to send soldiers. The South American troops in Haiti do stop some of the worst abuses of Haiti’s insurgents and police, but they also cooperate with the police and insurgents in many areas, and have abandoned their plan to disarm the insurgents. The UN peacekeepers have made illegal, warrantless arrests of political dissidents, at least one of whom has shown up dead. They regularly invade poor neighborhoods that are the bastion of the Lavalas movement, shooting wildly enough to kill innocent bystanders. The Brazilian General leading MINUSTAH announced that his troops would execute suspected criminals.
The last week of January 2005, the Fifth Annual World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, bringing together 150,000 grassroots leaders, intellectuals and activists to discuss how the world can be made more free and more just. The conference’s theme was “Another World is Possible,” and the speakers and participants showed that another, more fair treatment of Haiti is possible. The conference’s keynote speaker, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, discussed the debt that the world owes Haiti in a press conference. He acknowledged that Haiti’s Constitutional President had been kidnapped, and declared that he and other Latin American Presidents understood that there could be no solution to Haiti’s crisis without President Aristide.
At a workshop in Porto Alegre, called “Haiti, the International Community’s Dictatorship,” speakers from Haiti, the U.S. and the Caribbean led a discussion of the human rights crisis in Haiti, and explored ways that people from outside Haiti could promote the country’s sovereignty and the return of its democracy. The workshop tent was filled for three hours with people from all over South and North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and even Asia. They were happy to hear of Haiti’s historic contributions to freedom and saddened to hear of the country’s current suffering. Many people, especially Brazilians, asked what they could do to help, and hundreds signed the “Porto Alegre Declaration on Haiti,” a petition calling for the return of Haiti’s democratic government.
The Porto Alegre conference fell on the heels of CARICOM’s strong stand in favor of democracy in Haiti. CARICOM is a group of 15 Caribbean nations, including Haiti, that have committed themselves to basic democratic principles. CARICOM suspended relations with Haiti after the February 29, 2004 coup d’etat, because the new government did not meet its democratic standards. The U.S. has ever since applied intense pressure on CARICOM to reverse this principled position, and over the last year many member states have advocated a compromise. But in January, CARICOM declared definitively that it would not recognize the government in Port-au-Prince until there was one elected by the people.
The support of CARICOM, President Chavez and the World Social Forum participants will not in itself free Haiti’s political prisoners from jail. Nor will it free Haiti’s poor from the fear of attack in their homes and neighborhoods or death by starvation or treatable disease. But the support is a start, and if just a fraction of those peoples who can trace their own freedom to Haiti’s assistance or example as a rallying point for freedom seekers join in, another world is possible.
Brian Concannon is the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (www.ijdh.org), and participated in the “Haiti, the International Community’s Dictatorship” workshop at the World Social Forum