Magazine article Geographical

Looking Back to the Future

Magazine article Geographical

Looking Back to the Future

Article excerpt

In February 1991 Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti's first legitmately elected president after nearly 200 years of independence. He swept to power on a wave of optimism for the future, but within months he was the victim of a military coup. This month, ten years to the day and following controversial elections, he will inaugurated a second time.

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE PROJECT work in Haiti today is in front of the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, near the statue of the slave said to have launched the country's 1791 revolution by blowing on a conch shell. As workers and machines move stones and earth to make a new plaza, the large, freshly spruced up, triple-domed palace gleams a brilliant white in the sunshine.

On a balcony of this same palace, dictator Francois `Papa Doc' Duvalier stood in 1963, dressed as the fearsome voodoo deity Baron Samedi in top hat and tails, and proclaimed himself "the personification of the Haitian fatherland". It is the palace mentioned in the revised version of the Lord's Prayer that Duvalier composed for his subjects: "Our Doc, who art in the National Palace for life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations." Here too, Duvalier's son and successor, Jean-Claude -- `Baby Doc' -- reportedly threw a champagne-and-cocaine farewell party in 1986 before he boarded a flight for France and a life in exile.

In this same palace, a fiery young priest from the slums was inaugurated on 7 February 1991 as Haiti's first legitimately elected president in nearly 200 years of independence. Jean-Bertrand Aristide had captured the imagination of the poverty-stricken would be different. After the ceremony, former US president Jimmy Carter wrote: "1 was greatly impressed by the outpouring of support for the new president and his genuine interest in leading his people toward democracy and social justice. The support he has received from the army is also encouraging." Several months later Aristide was overthrown in a coup d'etat.

This month, a decade to the day after his first swearing-in, Aristide will be inaugurated again. A lot has happened in those ten years, but in Haiti, the more water that flows under the bridge, the less things seem to change.


As you fly into this tiny Caribbean nation the plane descends over the country from north to south. Out the window the isle de la Tortue is visible off the north coast, then the short, stubby northern peninsula, curving to join the narrow mainland. The plane flies over the bay of Port-au-Prince parallel to Highway One that runs along the coast; then one sees the squalid city in the bright sunlight, sprawling up the slopes surrounding a bay that is dotted with tiny, rickety fishing boats. Haiti's name means `mountainous land', and the almost bare mountains seem to rise directly out of the sea. The rivers are a rich brown colour, choked with runoff from unchecked erosion on the denuded slopes.

It wasn't always like this, and a visitor is tempted to wish Haiti could return to the way it was. In his 1938 classic history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, The Black Jacobins, Trinidadian writer CLR James conjured up a vision of what life in France's richest colony was like in the 18th century: "Thousands of small, scrupulously tidy coffee-trees rose on the slopes of the hills, and the abrupt and precipitous mountain-sides were covered to the summits with the luxuriant tropical undergrowth and precious hardwood forests of San Domingo. The traveller from Europe was enchanted at his first glimpse of this paradise, in which the ordered beauty of agriculture and the prodigality of Nature competed equally for his surprise and admiration."


Today, three quarters of Haiti's eight million people are peasant farmers, eking out a life on tiny plots of depleted soil in the countryside. After the 1791 revolution, the new leaders expropriated the large colonial plantations and shared them among the former slaves. …

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