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Haitians and Obama

by Ericq Pierre

Submitted to AlterPresse on February 10, 2009

(What the first Black President of the United States should know about the world’s first independent Black republic.)

Twelve noon, January 20, 2009! Barack Hussein Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States of America. Never before has a U.S. president’s ascension been greeted with such joy and fervor. Some even talk of euphoria on a global scale. From America to Europe, from Africa to Asia, joyful crowds hail Obama’s election as an Event with a capital E. Many say it is the best news they have heard in a long time.

Just yesterday it was the thing to say that the United States was neither ready nor about to elect a Black president. Yet the various American establishments expressed no undue surprise, nor did they have anything in particular to say. Rather they displayed remarkable calm, without overdoing it. This calm was in marked contrast to the excitement in other countries. One might think they had been preparing for such a possibility for a long time, one right in line in with the political and social conquests of this diverse and varied country, both ruthless and generous, over its 233 years of existence. Hardly anyone noticed that the Black establishment was a little more surprised than the White establishment at this victory.

The president’s first decisions indicate that his cabinet will be made up of well-known people from different backgrounds. All observers judge that he has sought out the best and brightest—as was said of John F. Kennedy’s cabinet members in the early 1960s—which has only added to his political capital. Yet it is not clear that he enjoys the unanimous backing of all his colleagues in power in third world countries. Some felt Obama was alluding to them, when he said of Africa that it was not living up to its potential, and far too many of its leaders were not equal to the genius of their peoples. [1] This commentary on the overall management of the leaders on the African continent can be applied to the actions of many other leaders elsewhere—and they know it.

African Americans have obvious reasons to be proud of Obama’s election, more than Black people elsewhere in the world. They know better than anyone what it means, and does not mean. They are well aware that their votes alone would not have been enough to elect him. They can also gauge how far their country has moved in the right direction. While they cannot yet speak of irreversible change, it is not too far away, even if they cannot shake a vague and nagging anxiety that will last through the new president’s entire term in office—and beyond.

Yet it is one thing to applaud and take pride; it is another to help Obama succeed. The president has his hands full, not just with the domestic situation in the United States, but also with Afghanistan, Darfur, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is taking an increasingly dangerous turn. In other words, he must avoid distractions and not spend too much time and energy on various people’s little schemes and plots. This is a warning to our own wheeler-dealers already feeding the rumor mill with both hands by insinuating that members of Obama’s entourage still back the Lavalassien supreme leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and are already actively lobbying for his return to Haiti. As if Haiti’s former president, a professed proud nationalist, can only envision returning to his country with the guarantees of foreign presidents or in the armored cars of a multinational force. That said, this dubious propaganda has not been without effect in Haiti. It has even led influential members of the Haitian establishment to make no effort to mask their lukewarm support of the new U.S. president.

Despite the many different challenges awaiting him, or even because of them, Obama has no other option than to succeed—for his country first and foremost, then for other countries, and to a lesser degree for African Americans. To do so, he will need the help of all his friends. Haiti will likely be there for him, too. But we will have to draw upon a certain tradition of greatness, which enabled us to begin our existence as a people under the banner of pride, dignity, and uprightness. Let’s recall: In 1801, Toussaint Louverture signed a copy of the Constitution he had just written for the Saint-Domingue colony, dedicating it to Napoleon Bonaparte with the caption, “From the First Among Blacks to the First Among Whites.” It was neither arrogance nor bravado, for, while one could find sovereigns or field marshals in Europe to dispute the title of “First Among Whites” with The Little Corporal , there was no one in Saint-Domingue or in Africa to dispute the title of “First Among Blacks” with the Centaur of the Savanna . Moreover, less than three years after this first Constitution, the colony of Saint-Domingue would end three centuries of slavery to become the world’s first independent Black republic under the name of Haiti.

It is thus important for Haitian men and women to try to understand why this feat of valor that raised high hopes for the entire Black race today appears but a footnote to Barack Obama’s electoral victory. It is right to wonder why, in the balance of pride and dignity, Obama’s election seems to tip the scales more than the one and only slave revolt that led to independence. In 2009 the whole world is applauding the first Black President of the United States of America, whereas in 1803, when Haiti won independence, [2] the great powers, which were by and large the same as today, rushed to label Haiti a terrorist state, putting its independence in peril. These great powers then believed that the world’s first independent Black country was not on the right side of history. What side of history are we on, in 2009?

Meanwhile, awaiting an answer, I am sure my fellow Haitians would have liked for Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and all the fathers of the world’s first independent Black state, to regain their place in that ancient chain of emancipation, after forging its first links. With that chain, reaching us through many other freedom fighters like Amilcar Cabral, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, Blacks the world over now proudly connect that history to the present with Barack Obama. They would also like for the first Black President of the United States to recall that, for over a century and a half, the world’s first independent Black country has anchored one end of this chain of emancipation practically alone.

Unfortunately, when our country is spoken of nowadays, it is to say we are a country that cannot feed its children, cannot ensure either their safety or education, and seems to offer them no reason to hold their heads high. A country that cannot govern itself, and depends on others for everything, including the choice of its leaders. A country of limited sovereignty, put bluntly. A country that needs to pull itself together.

We need not look far to see why in 2009, with the first Black President of the United States, the great feat of our ancestors is all but consigned to the ash heap of history. And no matter how tempted we may be to reproach others, we must examine ourselves first if we are to retain what little credibility remains. There is no use denouncing the lingering effects of slavery, colonization, and dictatorship if we continue to behave toward our country like worse predators than the colonists themselves, whether consciously or not.

Thus, if we want to help Obama, we must start by helping ourselves. That means we must pull ourselves together and make the effort to take responsibility for ourselves. We must learn or relearn to use the resources we have judiciously. Although not plentiful, they are not as scant as they say. We must also abandon this habit of asking others for too much, raising undue expectations that keep us from first doing for ourselves. When we negotiate, we should base our position not on poverty or misfortune, but on the effort and sacrifices we are willing to make to look after ourselves. We must at the same time avoid wallowing in victimization, particularly in our relationship with the Obama administration. We must remember that, if he had acted like a victim, he would not be where he is today.

To be sure, Obama can set an example and serve as a model to inspire the young and not-so-young in Haiti, but nothing more. We would be wrong to think that his administration can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Thus, we must convince ourselves that we can still change our country’s destiny. To do so, we must replace the old mindset that has left us lax, distracted, and bowed with a new one that lets us rejoin the fight and stand tall again.

It is incumbent on us all to make sure our country is well governed and respected. How long will we continue to see our country trivialized to such a point that UNICEF thinks it only natural to award first prize to a photo depicting a Haitian girl jumping over smelly, trash-strewn puddles? A picture is worth a thousand words, say the Chinese. We must also ask ourselves why the widely known picture of thousands of young Haitian boys and girls in uniform walking kilometers to school will never receive a UNICEF award? The answer is repugnantly simple: such images that convey a positive message for us fail to sensitize donors and bring in funding. It pains me to draw this conclusion, but we must face reality: Haiti receives aid in all aspects of its national life; as a country it does not inspire respect, nor is its opinion sought.

In this year marked by the arrival of the first Black president of the United States of America, what prevents the leaders and citizens of the first independent Black country in the Americas and in the world from coming together to create the conditions necessary to regain their country’s sovereignty and respect? In the last century, when we were occupied for 19 years by the Americans, our elders found this occupation to be very long and very humiliating, and swore that it would never happen again. Yet since 1993 this has happened again to such an extent that we give the impression of being unable to survive, much less function without a major foreign presence backed by a multinational force. It has been going on for 16 years already, just three years less than the first American occupation.

Why don’t the various authorities come together with civil society and the private sector to develop and adopt a realistic and pragmatic roadmap for the departure within a reasonable time frame of MINUSTAH, which represents the ninth multinational force to sojourn in Haiti since 1993? Must it stay for 20 years as Kofi Annan once suggested? This topic could be high on the agenda for discussions announced by the President of the Republic. Serious proposals on this subject, together with the resulting measures to improve our fellow Haitians’ living conditions, would no doubt help us to regain a little credibility and, who knows, our rightful pride. Pride in Obama, certainly. But above all, pride in ourselves and our efforts. We need it so.

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6 January 2009

[1As reported by Jeune Afrique, issue 2495.

[2Independence was officially declared on January 1, 1804, but won at the Battle of Vertièrres on November 18, 1803.