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Haiti: the Roots of Freedom

May 2006

Since returning from Haiti, I’ve had a number of conversations with people wanting to know more about “the situation in Haiti.” Many say that they are not convinced that there is any hope, that things are going from bad to worse, that nothing can be done.

We rely on statistics to provide information on the social, economic and political situation of a country. It is true that the statistics on Haiti paint a rather desperate picture. Haiti is the poorest and most densely populated country in the western hemisphere. It has an unemployment rate of more than 70%. As one of France’s richest colonies, it was once referred to as the “pearl of the Caribbean.” Today, it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

But statistics, like most other things, can be manipulated and only tell part of the story. No statistics can capture the history and culture of Haiti, nor the power of Haiti’s historic role as a symbol of resistance to oppressed people everywhere. More importantly, these statistics and the phrasing of some of these questions that I’ve responded to since returning from Haiti assume a lack of agency on the part of the Haitian people, as if 8 million people are passively standing around watching their country go “from bad to worse.”

For Haitians, as for the citizens of many countries, the national flag is a symbol of great pride. Within the folds of cloth and the colors of the Haitian flag is the story of Haiti’s independence. It’s a story so important that there is a Haitian holiday to honor the Haitian flag that is separate from the celebration of Haiti’s independence. May 18th is Flag Day in the Republic of Haiti. It is the day that symbolizes the extraordinary history, fight for freedom, resistance and pride of the Haitian people that the statistics always fail to capture.

Remember that Haiti, after the United States, was the second independent state in the western hemisphere. It was the first Black republic in the world. It is the only country in which there was a slave revolt so successful that it resulted in the birth of a new nation. This is particularly extraordinary in light of Haiti’s proximity to the United States during a time when African slaves were the backbone of the economy and the U.S. was doing its best to stamp out all forms of resistance to slavery. Haiti became a symbol of freedom for enslaved people throughout the new world.

While in Haiti, someone confided to me, “We had this extraordinary fight for our independence. Haiti’s flag is a tangible representation of independence, autonomy, a break from colonialism, a symbol of freedom. But now it seems like Haiti is a country that is moving backwards more than forwards.”

Hearing someone verbalize this last part was both provocative and saddening, but I take heart in the use of the word “moving.” It, at least reaffirms my profound belief that there is movement in Haiti. For me, movement–whether it is backwards or forwards (and both are usually occurring simultaneously)–is a sign of agency and a sign of hope on the part of the Haitian population. Finally, I take heart in the words of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the person who led Haiti to independence, when he was captured by the French. His words are indicative of the strength and resilience of the Haitian people.

“By overthrowing me, they have only brought down in Saint-Domingue the trunk of the tree of freedom of the blacks, it will grow again by its roots because they are deep and numerous.”

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