ZNet | Haiti
Silencing the Present in Haiti
by Greg Beckett; Anthropology News; January 08, 2005
This year the Republic of Haiti marks the bicentennial of its independence from France. Many are probably unaware of this since major media attention has largely focused on the recent political and tropical "storms": the coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004, and the tropical storm Jeanne that wrought damages to Haiti, including thousands of deaths from flooding, this past September.
For many Haitians, all of these events are intrinsically linked. While there is no dispute about the destruction from Jeanne, many disagree about the associated causes and meanings. The Haitian government, NGOs and foreign media alike all dismiss local explanations of the floods, just as they similarly dismiss alternative accounts of the removal
of Aristide. Yet, the disavowal of such explanations, and the “silencing” of this year’s celebration of Haiti’s bicentennial of independence together hold the key to explaining Haiti’s continued irrelevance in the Atlantic world.
Disaster and Retribution
The foreign media coverage of Jeanne tried to explain the floods in Haiti in terms of an ecological crisis. Haitians themselves, though they understand this connection only too well through daily experience, did not attribute these floods just to deforestation. For many Haitians, the floods carried a much wider political, social and religious meaning, indexing both the anger of the gods and the profound disjuncture between state and nation. Since these floods were relatively isolated to Haiti’s central-west coast near the city of Gonaives, famous as Haiti’s City of Independence, they took on even more significance.
It was at Gonaives that Haiti’s independence from France was formally declared on January 1, 1804. By the end of February
2004 Haitians had once again cast the city as the locus of independence, having served as the starting point for the launching of a “rebellion” against Aristide. So when the floods hit the city later that same year, many saw it as an omen. After all, the name of Aristide’s political party is Fanmi Lavalas incorporating the term (lavalas) for rapid floods that sweep down from the mountains. Originally intended to represent the uprooting of the Duvalier father-son dictatorship lasting from 1957 until 1986, and the social and political rebirth that Aristide, a former Catholic priest, promised when he was first elected president in 1990, the term, and its associations, retain a complex set of meanings.
While the Haitian government and the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, formed last April by the UN Security Council, were quick to refer to the floods as a natural disaster, others noted that a lavalas ravaging such a charged locale could have another meaning: indeed, many saw it as a punishment from God f
or the violence that occurred in the city during the “rebellion.”
Haiti’s Non-Commemorable Past Even more striking than these local explanations are the reactions to them, not just in the foreign media, but among the Haitian elite, missionaries, aid workers and others. Generally, these groups are quick to relegate such local explanations to mere matters of belief to religious “mysticism.” Often they simply switch the topic altogether, from a spiritual explanation involving invisible forces, such as that of vodou gods, to an ecological one involving missing trees. While it is true that Haiti is nearly completely deforested, the preference for explanations based on ecological models shows the differential value that is given to science over other conceptual systems of meaning by foreigners and the elite. This disavowal of local explanations of the floods may seem trivial, but this small example can help reveal what lies at the core of a much more complicated event, the silencing of the commemoration of
the Haitian Revolution during the bicentennial year of 2004. The commemoration of Haiti’s bicentennial was beset by mounting protests. Given the political valence that the 1804 revolution has, it may be entirely possible that the “rebellion” against Aristide was deferred until 2004. As conspiratorial as that sounds, this is exactly the sentiment of many residents of Port-au-Prince. It is also the explanation preferred by Aristide, who has made every attempt to align himself with one of Haiti’s national heroes from the revolution, Toussaint Louverture. When Aristide was deposited in the Central African Republic this February by US forces, he quoted a speech made by Louverture when he himself was “kidnapped” by French colonial forces and taken to die in a French prison. The foreign media has largely ignored such politically-charged uses of history, but it would be no exaggeration to say that every Haitian got the reference. The implication was that the people responsible for this “coup” were a reincarnation of
French colonial forces.
Still, while the gunshots from the slums of Gonaives may have drowned out Aristide’s commemoration speech, it was the international denial of the relevance of these events, and the refusal of almost all countries (save South Africa) to participate in them, that really silenced the celebrations. Those journalists who showed up in Haiti in January seemed much more interested in the “political crisis” than in writing about Haitian history, or Aristide’s claim against France for reparations.
A South African soldier, in Port-au-Prince to guard South African President Thabo Mbeki, explained quite succinctly why the 1804 revolution itself was no longer relevant. Amused by the speeches (and, one suspects, Mbeki’s interest in the poor Caribbean nation), he told me: “In South Africa, we remember what we fought for, and against. It’s only been ten years since the end of Apartheid.” There was, it seems, simply too great a time-depth between the Haitian Revolution and the social and
political world of present-day Haiti.
Non-History in the Atlantic In Port-au-Prince, there is a large sculpture commissioned by Aristide. Meant to be the Eternal Flame of Black Freedom, the monument now stands unfinished, unlit. For the now-fractured “opposition,” the monument, along with Aristide’s use of Toussaint Louverture, are examples of Aristide’s cooptation of the bicentennial. Indeed, opposition groups called for people to back out of commemorative events, in essence not to celebrate the bicentennial as a means of protest against Aristide.
For others, especially those still devoted to Aristide, the monument stands as a symbol of a second US-backed, elite-sponsored coup d’etat. Like the punishing floods, the return of the army, paramilitary groups and foreign troops are seen as a repetition of, alternately: the first coup against Aristide in 1991; the US occupation of 1915-1934; or the French capture and deportation of Toussaint Louverture. Many feel that the struggle for democracy in
Haiti has decisively ended in the farcical dressing-up of former duvalierists in the guise of legitimate political parties. As my friend Alix once told me: “It will be like this forever in Haiti.”
I worry that he might be right, and that the shock of Aristide’s second removal from power and it should be noted that this is not meant as a vindication of Aristide’s presidency will effectively keep most Haitians from ever voting again. People like Alix feel that “democracy” itself has effectively been taken from them. As well, among the mounting problems in Haiti, the return of the army on the political stage will pose a significant problem.
Above all, though, it must be stated that the total disavowal of the Haitian people and of the world-historical importance of the Haitian Revolution by the elite and military, and by foreign journalists and the international community is conceptually similar to the denial and silencing of the revolution in 1804. Perhaps what has really been “commemorated” tha
t is, ritually reproduced is Western colonial power and racism in the Atlantic world.
Greg A Beckett, PhD candidate, U Chicago, researches history and politics in Haiti. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.