Huge rally marks 1804 Haitian revolution

Many tens of thousands of cheering Haitians flooded the streets surrounding the National Palace in Port-au-Prince on New Year’s Day in celebration of the 200th anniversary of their country’s independence.

They came to hear President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and international guests such as South African President Thabo Mbeki, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and actor Danny Glover pay tribute to the victorious slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture that resulted in the defeat of Napoleon’s troops and the founding of the first Black republic in 1804.

Mbeki told the crowd, “We celebrate the Haitian revolution because it dealt a deadly blow to the slave traders who had scoured the coasts of West and East Africa for slaves and ruined the lives of millions of Africans.” He said the revolution “communicates an important message to all of us that the poor of the world can and must act together decisively to confront the common challenges they face – poverty, underdevelopment, discrimination and marginalization.”

The rally had a distinctly contemporary theme as well. Besides commemorating the bicentennial of the revolution, the enthusiastic crowd was also demonstrating its support for the programs of embattled President Aristide.

Aristide, 50, says his government has made advances in reducing the infant mortality rate, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and poor housing, but much more needs to be done. Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, with the overwhelming majority of its 8 million people living in extreme poverty. Less than 40 percent have access to safe drinking water, and 85 percent are illiterate. Unemployment is at 70 percent, and the average income is less than $1 a day. Life expectancy is only 53 years.

Most of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny, lighter-skinned bourgeois elite.

Aristide and his Lavalas movement have sought to address these inequities, thereby winning widespread support from the poorest sectors of the population. This has frustrated the wealthy elite in Port-au-Prince and their patrons in Washington and Wall Street, who would prefer to return to the policy of systematic neglect of the popular masses that prevailed under former President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Aristide broke with that legacy in the early 90s. In 2000, he and his allies were re-elected in a landslide victory. However, almost immediately thereafter the United States denounced the election as flawed and led an international campaign to financially blockade the country. Since then, over $500 million in development and humanitarian aid funds has been withheld by the U.S., the European Union, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has spoken of the withholding of this humanitarian aid a way to “leverage” a more desirable political outcome – from his point of view – in Haiti.

In an effort that is eerily reminiscent of the campaign against Allende’s Chile in the 1970s or against Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela today, the U.S. government has bankrolled anti-Aristide political groups, including the so-called “Democratic Convergence,” with tens of millions of dollars. It has sought to paint Aristide as incompetent and unstable, and urged him to resign. Violence is also escalating: more than 30 Lavalas members and supporters have been killed by anti-government paramilitaries over the past year.

The State Department and the U.S. media have played up demonstrations against Aristide, while huge outpourings of support for him, like a Dec. 16 rally that turned out 50,000 people, have gone largely unreported. And because the opposition knows it can’t win in democratic elections, the Democratic Convergence and others have sought to block scheduled legislative elections this year.

At the bicentennial rally people chanted, “Elections, yes! Coup d’etat, No! Aristide for five years!” Aristide’s term is scheduled to run until 2006.

Rep. Maxine Waters expressed support for Aristide, and brought a proclamation from the Congressional Black Caucus. “I believe this celebration sends a message around the world about the will of oppressed peoples to fight for freedom,” she told the Miami Herald.

Actor Danny Glover, who is working with Ron Daniels, chairman of the Haiti Support Project, to bring medical and educational supplies to Haiti in August, stressed the importance of solidarity with the Haitian people. Haiti’s victory in 1804 changed the course of history, Glover told the rally. “It’s not just Haiti’s victory,” he said. “It’s a victory for all those who cherish justice and freedom, even more so today than ever.”

The author can be reached at malmberg@pww.org.