On Dec. 6, I landed in Port-au-Prince: my first visit to Haiti. It began an intense week of learning about what had been for me simply a geographic place.
I came back changed.
Why would a retired grandfather from an affluent suburb devote time to go to one of the poorest countries of the world?
Though Haiti might be a little-known place and a rare stop for tourists, it has a compelling story to tell, and much of that story is about US, as in the United States of America. There is a lot to learn about ourselves flowing from a study of Haiti. That's why.
Among many others, we met a local official who had co-founded a public school for impoverished children. We visited his school for most of a morning.
Two days later, the official, who was an active supporter of the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was assassinated. So goes politics in this island nation a carryover from past brutal times. To this has been added that most American of dirty politics: character assassination, rumors and gossip intended to take down a standing government.
Jan. 1, marked the official beginning of the bicentennial year of the independence of Haiti, the second European colony in the western hemisphere to achieve independence. I don't know if the U.S., first to gain independence, was actively involved in this celebration if so, it has been very quiet. Our two countries have an unpleasant history: we, a nation founded by slave owners; they, a nation founded not long after by slaves who cast off their chains of oppression. They violated our rules; they have paid for that ever since.
This month also marks a second and potentially calamitous event for Haiti: President Aristide remains in office through 2005, but only nine of 27 members of the Senate remain and none of 80 representatives in the Legislature. There are no elections scheduled, likely due to a deliberate attempt by an organized opposition to force the resignation of a democratically elected president, and effectively damage the president's political party. Members of the party, called Lavalas, finally evicted the brutal Duvalier regime in 1986. No agreement has been reached on rules for new elections. Indeed there has been virtually no dialogue about establishing the elections (the opposition refuses to participate).
The United States is almost certainly backing and indirectly funding this destabilization campaign in the circuitous way such things work.
What I see happening in Haiti would be called "regime change" in other contexts, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is rarely possible to uncover the facts about political moves, and I have come to profoundly distrust official political-speak in our country. Indeed the official American political position will likely be denial, with pious words of justification.
What cannot be denied is that the dominant political force in present-day Haiti is a democratically elected government whose interest and main constituency is the poor of this desperately poor country.
A skeptic? Take time to learn
and learn both "sides" equally well. Dismiss hearsay. It will be simple to find the anti-Aristide government position, which seems to be our government's position; it will be harder and more important to find the pro-side.
Take time to learn more about our near neighbor just two hours east of Miami.
The Haitians are a beautiful and historically oppressed people. Their current government represents a positive change from an evil past, and is still a work in progress.
It deserves our active support.
Dick Bernard (email@example.com) lives in Woodbury, Minnesota. Read more about his trip to Haiti at www.chez-nous.net/peace.html.