The Haitian Coat of Arms
As we all know, events in recent weeks have been difficult for the people of Haiti. Victories have been few, and all accounts suggest the nightmare is far from over. Today, though, is an important day in Haiti, a bright spot in their story for two reasons. Modern politics in Haiti are tied to February 7th, which serves as the date when dictatorial rule ended, and democratic rule began.
The first significant February 7th for the Haitian people comes with the story of Jean-Claude Duvalier, one-time “president for life” of the island nation. With his father’s death, the presidency was handed over to Duvalier in 1971 at the tender age of 19. While the younger Duvalier attempted to make amends for some of his father’s wrongdoings, he eventually turned into a greedy and absent dictator, allowing Haiti to fall apart as he embezzled large amounts of government money. After 15 years in power, a popular uprising forced Jean-Claude Duvalier to flee to France on February 7th, 1986, where he still lives. Hoping to return to his home nation someday, Duvalier recently pledged to donate $8 million to the American Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts.
Five years after Duvalier was ousted, the Haitian people were given reason to celebrate again. On February 7th, 1991, the first democratically-elected president in Haiti’s history, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took office. While Aristide’s time in control was fraught with difficulties and accusations–a military coup removed him from office for multiple years, rumors of human rights abuse, drug trafficking, and more–his rise to power symbolized a major step for a country trying to distance itself from its troubled past.
With the 7th of February being such a momentous day in the history of Haiti, one where progress and triumph can be celebrated, many organizations are picking today to raise money and awareness for those in need after the devastating earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince. A new recording of REM”s song “Everybody Hurts,” featuring vocals from Michael Buble, Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, and others, will be sold with proceeds going the earthquake victims. In New York City’s Webster Hall, they’re holding a dance marathon, with donations going to charity.
For those interested in Haiti and the 20th century, UNC Press has published two great books on the subject: Matthew J. Smith’s Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957, as well as Mary A. Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Together, the books provide a detailed look at the events that led up to the Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide presidencies. Please use this February 7th as an opportunity to help out those in need, and educate yourself on the complex and unique history of Haiti.