Unrest doesn't stop local Haitians from
making the trip home
By Joy L. Woodson
STAMFORD -- Before Marguerite Laurent of Stamford traveled to Haiti last month, she quelled thoughts that she might be kidnapped, robbed or killed there.
In the weeks before her departure, the U.S. State Department issued a statement suggesting Americans delay travel plans to Haiti because of ongoing civil unrest and violent demonstrations.
According to the State Department, Haiti has no safe areas. Roads are poor, medical facilities are scare and the U.S. Embassy frequently is closed.
But for the bicentennial independence celebration of her native Haiti, Laurent made the pilgrimage.
"There was just no way that I would not be under Haitian sky on Jan. 1, 2004," she said. "I went basically to pay my respects to the ancestors."
In 1804, African slaves defeated Napoleon's army and Haiti became the first black republic.
Laurent has friends who decided not to make the trip, asking instead that she bring back mementos.
"Many people who planned on going believed the hype that there would be bloodshed," she said.
From where she stood on the steps of the palace building in Port-au-Prince during bicentennial events, there was only celebration, Laurent said.
But there were violent demonstrations that day by those who oppose and support the government. According to The Associated Press, 47 people have been killed there in such clashes in the past four months.
Pressure has mounted on President Jean-Bertrand Aristide since his Lavalas Family Party won the 2000 election, which opponents say was flawed.
The Democratic Platform, a group of opposition parties, students and business leaders, want Aristide to resign before new elections are held.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and Haiti's first freely elected leader, has said he plans to govern until his term ends in 2006.
The situation has deteriorated so much that recently scheduled parliamentary elections did not take place, said Harry Fouche, Haitian consul general in New York.
"The government is saying we have to have an election because we cannot have a vacuum," Fouche said. "What the opposition is saying is we cannot have elections because we don't trust you."
Fouche spoke during a World Affairs Forum lecture at the Ferguson Library on Jan. 21 and urged a small crowd of Stamford Haitians to travel to Haiti during the bicentennial year.
"This year, to us in Haiti, is an important year," he said. "It is a pilgrimage year."
Haiti remains open for business, he said.
"People should not be frightened," Fouche said. "Haiti is no more violent than New York City is."
The Rev. Jean Ridly Julien, executive director of the Haitian-American Catholic Center of Greater Stamford, said he is hesitant to visit Haiti.
"I would like to go," Julien said, "and so many people would like to go and some of them have bought their tickets. . . . But when you go over there, you know you are going to get murdered, to get killed by somebody, so why do we have to go?"
Angelucci Manigat, 40, of Stamford, said political strife has stopped him from returning to Haiti for 17 years. The bicentennial celebration would have been the perfect time to visit, he said.
"I was one of those people that was supposed to travel," he said. "Because of the political turmoil, I postponed my trip. I didn't think it was safe."
Laurent, who moved from Haiti in 1968 when she was 5, said Haitian-Americans must be steadfast in their intention to return to the country despite "misinformation."
"All I kept hearing before I was going is don't go, it's dangerous," she said. "I had angst, but I was just determined to be there. I'm sure the ancestors were told to stay in their chains and stay in slavery, but that didn't deter them."
Some Stamford Haitians are celebrating the milestone and planning to travel there, said Maude Mexil, Haitian family mentor at CTE, the city's anti-poverty agency.
Thousands of Haitian Roman Catholics gathered in Bridgeport to celebrate the bicentennial Jan. 1. In July, Norwalk held its first Haitian-American Day parade as a prelude to the 200th anniversary.
Three percent of Stamford's population is Haitian, or 3,524 people, according to the 2000 census. In Norwalk, about 1.8 percent, or 1,499, of the population is Haitian.
"They've been going like crazy," Mexil said. "(Many) say it's dangerous and think that it will stop people from going, but it does not stop them for real."
Haitians have a pride that is unmistakable, Fouche said. An average of $850 million in cash, food and clothing is sent back from the diaspora, he said.
According to the United Nations Human Development report, the average life expectancy in Haiti is 49 years, about half of the country's 8 million inhabitants are literate and half are malnourished. Haiti ranks 150th in the U.N.'s human development index of 175 countries and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Still, Julien said, Haitians who have left are returning.
"When you've got your family over there and your friends over there, you have to do something," he said. "That's your country."