Remembering a Haitian homeland

April 22, 2004, midnight | By Karima Tawfik | 17 years, 1 month ago

In December of 2002, sophomore Cyndy Dumay phoned her mother to wish her a happy birthday. Instead of jubilation on the other end of the line, Dumay heard her mother's shaky voice as she described how two days earlier, men had terrorized civilians on the dusty streets of her neighborhood with tear gas. The gas had burned her mother's skin and had also caused vomiting among her relatives back in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dumay's home until age 12.

For the next week, Dumay braced herself for accounts from Haiti, as her mother tried to nurse her cousins and uncles back to health.

Dumay experienced the fear accompanying the violence that erupted in Haiti over the last few months, as a military coup ousted former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide and forced him into exile at the end of February. Graphic photos and television clips of violence that occurred throughout the country have shocked the dozens of Blazers who hail from Haiti.

The tumultuous history

Aristide's troops harmed her family, says Dumay. His men specifically targeted Dumay's home of Petionville, located within the capital of Port-au-Prince, because a large number of residents disapproved of Aristide's presidency.

For years, corruption and social unrest have marred Haiti's politics. Not until 1990 did Haiti hold free and democratic elections, selecting Aristide, a former Roman-Catholic priest, as the new president. Aristide won in 1990 by a landslide because he was a leftist leader who supported the poor majority, according to David Swaney, a social studies teacher who was working in Haiti during the election. "I remember the euphoria when Aristide was elected for president. There was jubilation in the streets," he says.

As Anne Manuel, a ninth-grade U.S. History teacher and a former Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for the Americas, says, "people looked to [Aristide] as a messiah," because of his promise to help the poor.

However, several Haitian students say that Aristide's popularity diminished over the years because of his failure to help the economy and because of his gratuitous use of violence. While in power, Aristide formed a group of dreaded street gangs known as the chimères who in early March began executing members of the opposition, according to The Economist.

Junior Christina Lafontant, who lived in Haiti until she was 14, says that both various gangs and Aristide's government committed crimes in the interest of the president. "He's been turning everything in his favor. The police are practically his little puppets," she says.

A broken promise

The devastated economy exacerbates political turmoil in Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 80 percent of Haitians living in abject poverty.

Lafontant describes the country as a few wealthy individuals controlling the poor masses, leaving the country divided into two distinct classes.
In one area of Haiti, "you could have anything you want." However, in other areas, people cannot afford food or water, and many live in cardboard houses in the slums of the city.

Among other problems, public school systems practically do not operate, says junior Doojy Pierre-Louis, who lived most of his life in Haiti. He says that students like him who could attend private schools did so, because public-school teachers often didn't show up to their classes.

The disproportionate allocation of wealth among the people is the main cause of the violence in Haiti, says John Kozyn, a consultant for the Haitian embassy in Washington, D.C. "The conflict revolves around the empowerment of poor people," he says.

Because of such differences in wealth, constant social struggles and limited freedom of speech, Haitians learn to deal with problems through violence, says junior Jenny Metellus, who moved to the U.S. in 1999. "We're like a bomb ready to explode," she says.

President Aristide never delivered on promises for better schools and better jobs. "Before he was president, he was promising people in Haiti better things. He did the opposite," says Dumay.

Despite continued problems in Haiti, the majority of Haitians still support Aristide, says Kozyn. But at Blair, there seems to be little support for Aristide among Haitian students.

A recuperating country

Terror and apprehension have gripped people in Haiti for the past few months. Beginning in mid-February, Metellus' cousins stayed inside their home in Port-au-Prince for days for fear of being killed by the rebels in the streets. When Metellus called, her cousin apologized and said that she could only whisper because she did not want anyone passing by to hear the conversation and wrongly assume that she and her family were supporters of Aristide.

Metellus' and Dumay's worries for their families have been eased by the fragile stability brought by American and French intervention that began in the first week of March. Dumay's family and hometown are slowly recovering. "Schools are opening. So are businesses. Everything is going back to normal," says Dumay.

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