By Adele DellaValle-Rauth, The Catholic Virginian, March 17, 2003
As part of our January Richmond Diocese retreat mission in Haiti, jointly led by myself and Bob, our group of nine met with Michelle Karshan, Foreign Press Liaison in Haiti. Michelle hosted us in her home in Port-au-Prince where she lives with her daughter Riva.
In the course of our conversation Michelle brought up the celebration of Haiti's bi-centennial in 2004. "The whole country is gearing up for this," she said excitedly.
Having just experienced the depth of the poverty in the capital city and in the rural countryside, and having visited Haiti many times since 1983, I couldn't resist asking: "What is there for Haiti to celebrate?" The economy is on a downward spiral, the Gourde has gone from 5Gde/$1US to 38Gde/$1US; Aristide is under attack from the foreign press (beginning with his presidency in 1991) but even internally there is some civil unrest and the subject of "regime change" comes up occasionally albeit from a vocal minority; some street violence by gangs has occurred attacking both demonstrators and opposition politicians; international donors have frozen $500 million in aid because of alleged irregularities in the 2000 Parliamentary elections; a U.S.-led embargo since January 2001 has prevented 146M in loans from being disbursed - loans marked and desperately needed for humanitarian use. Of course there is the gnawing challenge and responsibility in all of this to seek the truth and to separate truth from fiction, myth or propaganda.
So - what's to celebrate?
Lots - according to Michelle and others. The struggle for democratic change in Haiti, she declares, has borne fruit. The objectives of this struggle have always been liberty and dignity: liberty, of the body and of thought and expression, and the dignity of having the basic materials for human existence: food, shelter, healthcare and education. There are some undeniable, tangible improvements, fruits of this struggle that dates back to Haiti's emergence in 1804 as the world's first independent Black Republic after a long war with Napoleon's France. Telescoping beyond early transitional years of oppression by self-appointed, punitive leaders, chronic indebtedness to foreign banks, U.S. Thomas Jefferson's embargo until 1862, a demeaning 19 years of U.S. occupation, 29 years of cruel Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorships starting in 1957 and followed by an unstable series of short-term rulers - Haiti has made significant strides toward democracy since 1990:
The Birth and Struggle of Democracy:
- Haiti achieved the first free and fair elections in 1990 - with an overwhelming 67% of the electorate voting for Aristide.
Despite a brutal coup d'etat on Sept. 30, 1991, the bloodiest of 33 coups in 200 years of difficult history, democracy was restored in October 1994 with the return of Aristide.
Dissolution of the army in 1994, by President Aristide, has been called the most significant step forward for democracy in Haiti. The army was replaced by Haiti's first civilian police force.
On Feb. 7, 1996 President Aristide became the first Haitian president to leave voluntarily at the end of his original term (5 years minus 3 years of the coup), passing the mantle to President Rene Preval, Haiti's second freely elected president.
Preval made history as the first president to serve out his full 5-year original term in office without interruption until February 7, 2001.
In elections of November 2000, in which 60% of the 4 million registered voters participated, Aristide was again elected overwhelmingly by the people. The election was in keeping with the constitution and observed by the international community.
Enactments and Advancements:
Ministry of Women's Affairs and Rights created.
Ministry of Tourism created.
The Government of Haiti has been accepted as a full member of CARICOM (Caribbean community).
Haiti has established good trade relations with Venezuela, Japan, Cuba, Belgium, Canada and all of the Caribbean countries.
Decrease in drug transshipping from 13% to 8% in 2000 according to U.S. State Department.
An aggressive campaign to collect unpaid tax and utility bills has generated new revenues for the struggling government.
An extensive land reform program has distributed 2.47 acres of land to each of 1500 peasant families in the fertile Artibonite River Valley.
The government has aggressively pursued an open market approach that has resulted in the development of a competitive and vibrant telecommunication sector.
Government Universal Schooling programs seek to enroll every child in school and build a school in each of Haiti's 565 rural sections; provided for 160,000 more children to enter school fall 2001. Over the last 7 years literacy campaigns have reduced the illiteracy rate from 85% to 55. 20.8% of national budget (2001-2006) devoted to education.
The number of public high schools has doubled since 1994.
A government-led nationwide child immunization program for polio and measles was successfully conducted.
The current legislature has passed laws including Haiti's first money laundering regulations and unprecedented protections for children's rights.
Port-au-Prince international airport and access roadways renovated; road construction underway to connect rural areas.
Jacmel: Installed electrical plant that provides 24-hr. electricity, renovated port and wharf, paved road to nearby beaches.
Successful prosecution of coup regime's military leadership for their role in the Raboteau massacre during the coup period.
For the first time in Haiti's history the rights of the accused are generally respected. Warrants are issued in French and Creole and those arrested are generally brought before a judge within 48 hours.
Two recent landmark trials prove that the Haitian justice system is capable of effectively prosecuting human rights cases: the trial of the Carrefour Feuilles Massacre in May 1999 and the trial of the Raboteau massacre in April 1994 have both resulted in successful prosecution, sentencing and sending the perpetrators to prison.
There is unprecedented freedom to organize, debate, associate, and expression guaranteed; the Constitution in Creole, the language of the people, is widely distributed.
In summary, from independence in history's first successful Black slave revolt, through liberation from 29 years of the Duvaliers to the unprecedented democratic progress since 1990, the Haitian people have continued to defy the odds and continue to struggle with tenacity and unity of purpose.
As our delegation prepared to leave Haiti on January 18, purchases at the Duty-Free shops at the airport were placed in festive bags bearing the blue and red colors of Haiti and inscribed with: "2004 - Se Demen" The emphasis on tomorrow says it all. The majority remains steadfast in its commitment to move forward believing that a better tomorrow lies ahead. Graffiti and banners all around Port-au-Prince and in the countryside echo the Theme.
I began to feel the impending spirit of the Bi-centennial. Michelle helped to show that much progress has been made since 1990 under a democratic form of government. Our group of nine had just experienced over a period of ten days the greatest and richest resource Haiti has to offer: the people. We saw hope where others might despair; a spirit of faith that speaks of resurrection. And we were made to feel welcome. Our hosts often said: "You are at home - this is your home." Let the Bi-centennial celebration of Haiti begin now!
Pre-schoolers near Hinche, Haiti. Government programs are providing for more children to enter school and to build a school in each of Haiti's 565 rural sections.
January 9-18, 2003, Adele DellaValle-Rauth, Diocesan Haiti Twinning Resource and her husband Bob, Consultant to the Pax Christi USA Haiti Task Force, led a Resurrection Parish/Diocesan Retreat to Haiti to visit twinned sites in Haiti and to meet with the Board of Directors of Pax Christi Haiti.
February 7, 2003 Adele DellaValle-Rauth
From the Haiti Dream Keeper Archives