The world’s first black independent state is gearing up for its 200th birthday. But as Haiti’s pioneering history is overshadowed by its contemporary crisis, is there anything left to party about?
On 1 January 2004, the Caribbean nation of Haiti (the left half of the island of Santa Domingo which is shared with the Dominican Republic) will celebrate 200 years of independence.
Celebrations will not be limited to Haitians, but will extend to all persons descended from the African slave trade, as Haiti was the first black independent state in the world.
Today, however, Haiti is no longer defined by its pioneering revolutionary history. Nor is it associated with the sun, sea, and sand image that other Caribbean islands boast of.
Indeed, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere has come to epitomise what is being called a “failed state”.
Yet should the original revolutionary free black state be relegated to the backburner of history?
Haiti’s contribution to black pride and black history is invaluable.
Two hundred years after his death, the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, continues to inspire black liberation movements across continents.
Long before the famous civil rights marches in the US and the UK, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a group of black slaves to freedom by beating back Napoleon, who sought to re-establish black slavery in Haiti.
Toussaint also expelled English and Spanish forces out of Haiti.
Eventually betrayed by Napoleon, Toussaint’s death in a remote mountain dungeon did not put an end to the vision he foresaw for his people.
Haiti won its independence a few months after Toussaint’s death.
Rather like Liberia – which was founded by freed American slaves – contemporary Haiti has little on which to base a claim of freedom.
A popular uprising in 1986, saw a Catholic priest, Jean Betrand Aristide, rise to power. He was legitimised as president five years later, only to be overthrown seven months into office, precipitating an invasion by the United States.
Backed by the US, Aristide sought to improve the country’s health and education systems before handing over power to Rene Preval.
Chaos replaced the US military, which had left Haiti by the late 1990’s. Besides, the US stepped up coastal security, detaining more and more Haitians fleeing political violence and preventing them from claiming asylum in the US.
The return of Aristide in 2000 has done little to restore public confidence.
Nearly two thirds of Haitians are malnourished, a situation made worse by high unemployment and chronic power shortages.
Strangely enough, Haiti seems to have attracted little international attention.
Even neighbouring Caribbean nations have done little to ease the plight of Haitians.
In 1988, Trinidadian calypsonian David Rudder sang: “Haiti, I’m sorry”. However, sympathy alone can do little to solve Haiti’s woes.
But the country’s present state ought not to be seen as a failure on the part of the Haitian people.
Even today, with the Haitian’s daily life symbolised by desperation, the story of Haitian revolution and independence is an inspiring chapter in the history of black struggles for freedom.