Today is the 18th of November. Two hundred and eleven years ago to the day, the Haitian rebel army defeated the French at the Battle of Vertieres, just outside the city that is now known as Cap Haitian. This was the final blow in a strange and bloody war; the French surrendered and withdrew from the island within ten years. History was made: no army of slaves had ever defeated a colonial power. By January 1st, 1804, a nation was born and its people were freed. This remarkable victory came from a remarkable mixture of Haitians: freed former slaves who had learned to read and write, slaves who had escaped into the mountains to fight, slaves recently brought from Africa, slaves born into captivity on the island, and even some from the more privileged mulatto class. This army of people of different colors, different faiths, different regions was able to forge unity out of burning necessity, and win.
But uniting against a common enemy is easy. When the dust settled and the French ships had disappeared over the horizon, Haitians were left to face each other. From the moment Jean Jacques Dessalines was assassinated – less than three years after independence – Haiti has been divided by color, class, religion, region, language. And it continues to this day. Today, the 18th of November, 2014, is a day when Haitians should be remembering how powerful they can be when they are fighting on the same side of the war. However, today was not that day: politicians used the day as a pretext for empty protests that resulted in deadly confrontations and three people dead. This is not the French killing the Haitians as it was two hundred and eleven years ago – this is Haitians killing Haitians.
This is our modern unity: every holiday is used as an excuse by the powerful to play the poor like pawns in a game of chess. They make T-shirts and signs and pay for rara bands or mobile sound trucks; then they go to poor neighborhoods and give out money and alcohol to join the protest. Many people don’t know what they are protesting for; some just go for the entertainment. The 17th of October: protests. The 18th of November: protests. The 18th of May: protests. The 14th of October: protests. These days have become as empty as the slogans people shout on the street.
This is why we do something different: on the anniversary of the death of Dessalines, Robi mobilized people from every age group and every neighborhood in Cite Soleil to form a delegation of unity. There were no sound trucks, no signs that said ‘long live X’ or ‘down with Y’. They wore simple white shirts, held flowers, and a banner that said, ‘Papa Dessalines, we ask your forgiveness’. They walked to Dessaline’s memorial, and were blocked from entry by police because of violent protests happening nearby. The delegation remained calm, placed the flowers at the feet of the policemen, and walked back to Cite Soleil, where they spent the afternoon planting trees and talking about the past and the future of the country.
This is how it should be – these days when Haitians remember the sacrifices of their ancestors should be a day of self-reflection, of action, and of something that we could call unity. But instead, today, the 18th of November, 2014, we have three people dead and deep rifts in the social fabric of this nation. We haven’t yet found a new enemy to fight: for the moment, it seems to be ourselves.
-Reflections from Robi about today’s events.