Editorial 58

The commemoration: what is at stake?

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Our aim was to understand the situation better. When Christopher Columbus approached the Haitian coast in 1492, he was so struck by the beauty of the place that he called it the « valley of Paradise ». Five hundred years later, Haiti is still stunningly beautiful in a devastatingly, heart-wrenchingly tragic sort of way. Exploitation and poverty, resistance and revolt have marked the past 500 years. Half a century before slavery was abolished in the United States, Haitian slaves had the audacity to banish their masters and proclaim the world’s first black Republic.
We wanted to try and understand whether it is in spite of or because of this triumphant leap that this ravaged country is cursed. In short, we wanted to understand whether it is having dreams that is out of place, or having one’s own dreams. Anne Lescot and Florence Santos Da Silva, who conceived and co-coordinated this issue, are possessed of a rare energy and have brought together some very less-than-ordinary pieces of writing. A warm thank you goes out to everyone. Thanks also are due to the French ministry of foreign affairs, which purchased quite a few copies of this issue. By distributing the journal throughout its network, the Ministry has given international distribution a much-needed boost. Circulation – our eternal Achilles heel – is only partially covered by the website.
Is Haiti really cursed? Is it cursed for having chosen freedom too soon? Before 1883, the fledgling republic had to pay an exorbitant 150 million French Francs (eventually reduced to 90 million French Francs) in compensation to France. This was the price of its freedom, which put paid to any potential development for over a century. Is Haiti cursed for not having the experience of others to guide it in its emancipation? The first head of state of the black republic, Dessalines, proclaimed himself emperor nine months later. According to a mad kind of logic that still seems to haunt Haiti, the saviour turned dictator, unleashing 200 years of political violence, with corruption to boot.
Africa is all too familiar with the dangers of mimicry. It is tempting to say that Haiti, for lack of a more viable model of power, led the way down this insidious path by imitating its former masters. How can renewed emancipation be achieved in today’s global world? The story of its own foundation should have paved the way for self-affirmation and yet the dual nature of Haitian society (Voodoo versus Catholicism, gourde versus dollar, Creole versus French, customary law versus civil law, etc.). has created crippling conflict.
The only sense in all this agony is if it serves as a lesson for us all. Expecting the blood that has been shed to create national unity (starting with that spilled with Dessalines’assassination) is like opposing one duality with another. Freedom versus slavery as opposed to the common model of civilisation versus barbarity, or even primitive savagery, which is so often linked with African Haiti: neither works. They prevent the Haiti’s people from thinking within the framework of diversity, within the culturally hybrid context of a people forced into exile, whether they be exiled internally or abroad, within other dreams.
And yet, the richness of wandering peoples is in their experience of the in-between. What is most striking about artists from the diaspora, and particularly Haitian artists, is their fierce attachment to – and blood ties with – the country of their home. They are fascinated by Haiti. She inhabits them. Their contemporary expressions are helping Haiti to take that critical step towards aspiring to something other the excesses, delusions, and disorder of the past. By contributing actively to this emerging national conscience – a conscience that is neither nationalist nor black supremist but that instead is capable of instigating a Haitian renewal. The same applies to everyone heroically fighting for civil rights, like Jean Dominique, the journalist who was assassinated in 2000 and to whom the filmmaker Jonathan Demme has devoted his latest film, The Agronomist.
The general opinion is that the Haitian people’s strength lies in their sense of solidarity and that it is upon this that a state of law should be founded. Western powers must encourage both Haiti’s social fabric and the state of law. In order to provide structure, aid must cease to be conceived as an emergency measure and become a political product and the fruit of dialogue.
Commemorating the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution is useful in that it provides an opportunity to grieve for past humiliations and to lay the way for the future. Demands for compensation and reparation should not be taken at face value but rather within the context of this process of cooperation. They should be viewed as part of the relationship. Haiti plays a greater part in French history than many other countries, as a reminder that slavery was the source of some considerable wealth, as a reminder of France’s colonial past. Was the Declaration of Human Rights not written in Haiti in 1804, even through the French waited some considerable time before applying it? It is imperative that Haiti’s collective memory be restored. The bicentenary celebrations can contribute to this – by embracing Haiti’s cultural expressions, one area that has never ceased to be active.

///Article N° : 5721

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