An Ocean Apart

Haitian leader returns black love to sender

When Haitian prime minister Gerard Latortue came to Manhattan last week, he had a curt message for his cousins up north—butt out. Since the overthrow of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February, Latortue has been under fire from African American leaders who view him as an illegitimate steward of the first free black state in the Western Hemisphere. Just last month, 1,500 protestors gathered in Brooklyn to voice their opposition to Latortue and push for Aristide's return. "I think Latortue is a puppet for both Bush administration interests and the interests of the Haitian elite," says Bill Fletcher Jr., president of the Pan-Africanist lobby TransAfrica Forum.

But Latortue charged that his American critics were turning Haitian strife into "a racial issue that doesn't correspond with the aspirations of the Haitian population today," and that criticism of him is being "promoted more by Afro-Americans than by Haitians, in the name of black power." Latortue went on to argue that African American leaders were using Haiti's troubles in hopes of further blemishing President Bush’s questionable foreign policy record.

"I don't think much of [Latortue's] comments. This is not the first off-the-wall statement he's made," says California congresswoman and former Congressional Black Caucus chair Maxine Waters. "He is a person who's been put in place by multinational powers and I don't think he knows very much."

African Americans have long thought themselves vested observers of Haiti. At the end of the elder President Bush's term, Aristide fell victim to an initial coup; he'd been in office just nine months. Haitians fleeing the brutal regime of Aristide's replacement, Raoul Cedras, were sent back to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard—sometimes to be killed. During Bill Clinton's initial run for the White House, he wooed black leaders by promising to offer the refugees safe haven. After Clinton won, he promptly reversed himself—and then reversed himself again after Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica Forum, went on a 27-day hunger strike. As a result of Robinson and other black leaders' efforts, Cedras was forced into exile and Haiti’s first democratically elected president—Aristide—was returned to power.

But since Aristide fell victim to this year's coup, his stateside allies have found it much harder to press the deposed president’s case. Part of it has to do with the climate of America—the war in Iraq, not Haiti, is the foreign policy story of the day. And it's no secret that Bush doesn't enjoy the same cushy relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus that Clinton did. Furthermore, there was much frustration—even among those who opposed the coup—with Aristide after he failed to be the patron saint of Haitian democracy. Now African American leaders, many of them loyal to Aristide, find themselves back at square one: How do they help Haiti, once again, move from a symbol of black hope to an actual functioning democracy?

This year was supposed to mark Haiti's bicentennial, not its cornering of the market in military juntas. Yet despite its inability to bring about a government of the people, in the black diaspora Haiti has always been hallowed ground. The country was established by an army of slaves after they ran the forces of Napoleon off the island of Hispaniola and declared independence in 1804. It was the first and only completely successful slave rebellion, and it emboldened black resistance to slavery throughout the Americas. The efforts of rebels like Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, and Gabriel Prosser are often tied to the success of the Haitian uprising. As a symbol of black nationhood and freedom, Haiti has always enjoyed prime real estate in the Pan-Africanist pantheon.

But the country also has always been mired in poverty and despair, conditions inextricably linked to a series of dictators. Papa Doc "president for life" Duvalier, for one, ruled Haiti with a big stick. In 1991, Aristide came to power, bringing wiith him the promise of a modernized Haiti.

Aristide's two turns were not without rancor, even among his supporters. "Aristide was no choirboy—the guy did a lot of bad things," says Marx-Vilaire Aristide (no relation) of the Haiti Support Project. Vilaire Aristide opposed the coup and the Latortue administration, but believes that Aristide gave a lot of ammo to his critics. "The administration of justice, the way the police was run, Aristide's reliance on gangs, in the end I think came back to haunt him."

Now it's haunting black leaders who backed Aristide as a deliverer of democracy. Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, says that African American leadership and the Congressional Black Caucus fell into an ideological trap that didn't allow enough public criticism of Aristide. "I think [black leaders] could have made stronger statements in respect to Aristide," says McCalla. "But this idea that Haiti was this small country being dumped on by a larger one is a sexier angle for people like Maxine Waters. But you cannot simply transfer local politics onto an international scene."

There seems to be some flexibility in the caucus's position. Maryland congressman and caucus chair Elijah Cummings says he hopes to play a constructive role in Haiti's future. "My belief is that [Latortue] is a man who did not ask for this job," he says. "I think the best probability for law and order, for humanitarian assistance, and for democracy would probably be through this government." Cummings stopped short of saying that Latortue's government should be fully recognized.

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