My grandmother sang the Lavalas song when Mr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president on December of 1990. It was a song of hope, of faith, of love, of redemption. It was similar to a praise song that was known to many Protestant churchgoers in Haiti and in the U.S., except for the fact that the lyrics were slightly modified. The name Seny√É‚Äπ (meaning The Lord) was replaced with Titid (short for Aristide), and “Tonight we are healed” was changed to “At last we are rescued.” This is a translated version of the song:
Oh Titid, Oh Titid,
It was you we were looking for
At last we are rescued!
This song, though few in words, is a depiction of what President Aristide represented to the masses, mainly those without a voice. My grandmother sang the song so much that one day I told her that if she weren’t careful, she would shout out “O Titid” in church, mistaking his name for The Lord’s. Though I didn’t share her optimism, I sometimes prayed that Haiti would be healed somehow. Someday.
My grandmother wept, however, when the president, a man whom many said was going to be Haiti’s savior, was overthrown by a military junta only seven months after his presidency. During that time, more than 5,000 Haitians were reported to have been killed because they opposed the coups. Many of those bodies were eaten by pigs, according to a statement made by President Aristide in a recent interview with Ms. Polgreen, a New York Times’ staff member. (www.nytimes.com/2004/02/17) My grandmother once told me that she sobbed not for the coups, but for the lives that were lost in a most humiliating way. I believed her. But I also believed that she wept for the years lost during the coups as well.
You see, many Haitians (particularly those who belonged in the working or lower class) identified themselves as Lavalas-advocates of democracy and of President Aristide. He was a former priest who was orphaned, celibate, childless, and whose goals, it appeared, were to free Haiti of military oppression, to narrow the economic gap between the bourgeoisie and the working class, to eliminate further bureaucratic corruptions, and most importantly, to continue to buoy the poor to be liberated from poverty, lethargy and unpleasantness.
Thus, my grandmother, along with a myriad number of Haitians, was ecstatic when President Aristide was restored to power in 1994. Having had to raise eleven children in Haiti, she had to rely on the small farm that her husband, my grandfather, was cultivating in order to feed the children, sell whatever she could to send them to school.
When asked why she had so much faith in President Aristide, my grandmother replied, “Arisitide te konn f√É‚Äπ byen l√É‚Äπ li te yon p√É‚Äπ. Li te konn ranmase timoun ki san manman ak san papa, li te bati kote pou yo d√É≈°mi, li te bay yo metye. Li te enterese nan malere menm l√É‚Äπ sa ki rich yo pa t dak√É≈°, menm l√É‚Äπ l√É≈°t p√É‚Äπ te kritike l. Li se espwa yo, espwa peyi a. (Aristide used to do good deeds when he was a priest. He used to gather the motherless, the fatherless and build places for them to sleep and give them the opportunity to learn a trade. He was interested in the welfare of the poor even when the rich didn’t approve of his actions. Even when other parishioners criticized him. He is their hope. He is Haiti’s hope.)
My grandmother also added that because of Mr. Aristide’s philanthropic actions and because of the promises that he made to the people-the commoners particularly, there were causes for celebration, for Haiti was about to undergo a moment of rebirth.
Oddly, a large number of people who identified themselves as Lavalas over a decade ago have now been converted into the Democratic Convergence, the main opposition group that wants to oust President Aristide. As a result, Haiti is experiencing a political upheaval and many are losing their lives for what some say is a senseless cause. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Aristide was asked whether he would consider yielding his power to prevent further carnage. In response, he said, ‘I will leave office Feb. 7, 2006. My responsibility is precisely to prevent that from happening. What we are doing now is preventing bloodshed.’ (NYTimes.com)
Among the people who belong to the Democratic Convergence are University students. In recent marches against the president, over two dozen of students were injured and several were shot and wounded. Apparently, some of the students feel that President Aristide has deceived the poor and has remained in power to fulfill his own personal agenda. In contrast, some of the president’s partisans insist that the Convergence party is the reason for which Haiti’s predicament is so bleak. My grandmother, who remains a Lavalas, states, “The Convergence is burning homes, beating and killing the Lavalas, criticizing Aristide. They don’t give him time to do… they’re too busy killing and hating.”
You may wonder if I, too, am a partisan of President Aristide. Frankly, words alone cannot sway me to put my faith in any President. Nevertheless, when I saw how the poor were being positively affected by the possibilities of democracy, when I noticed how my parents as well as my grandparents had begun to dream of returning to Haiti-a peaceful and harmonious Haiti to live permanently as they always yearned to, when I heard that the president had invited orphans and commoners to dine with him in the White House, I thought, Maybe he will be a priest first and a president second. Maybe he will strive to emulate Jesus in some way like my grandmother thought he would.
Now, I would be lying if I said I weren’t disappointed in what President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has become. A heart-stabber to some, for he has pierced many heart. Perhaps it is not his fault. After all, he never professed to have been Haiti’s rescuer-at least not in so many words. As part of his defense, the president said that there’s been a suspension of $500 million in international aid, which has prevented him from transforming Haiti’s economy. (NyTimes.com/2004/02/17) Amazing, isn’t it? That the aid would be so drastically cut in light of our economic disaster. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised at all.
In short, Haiti is in a lamentable situation. It’s really tragic and ironic considering we just celebrated the 200th anniversary of our independence in 1804, and considering we were the first black republic in the world. Despite it all (including the fact that we are usually portrayed in a disparaging light by the media), we have remained a beautiful, dignified people. At present, that is the only thing that seems to be unvarying in our lives.
(The painting in this article is entitled, “Damballah Titid (President Aristide as Damballah),” and was created by Gerard Fortune (Port-au-Prince, Haiti) Oil on board (32×24), c. 1994 $725 (framed). This piece, and art by other Haitian artists can be found at http://indigoarts.com)