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In the city where the assassinated President of Haiti is to be buried, the politics of color takes root

Born in the small town of Trou-du-Nord in the north-east, came of age in the northern port city of Cap-Haitien, and earning his living in Port-de-Paix in the north-west, Jovenel Moïse, the man who became the President of Haiti, was a self-proclaimed Mountain andeyò.

This is the etiquette that Haitians in this city use for the people of the hinterland. Mount the city is used for those in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

This distinction is now fueling tensions in this colorful historic town of French-inspired gingerbread houses, narrow streets and large rural plantations – not only because of secular exclusion and inequality, but also because of race and skin color undertones in the world’s first black republic founded by former slaves.

It is a recurring theme in Haitian history, where political conflicts have long been rooted not only in regionalism, but in the politics of what historians call colorism: noirism, with an emphasis on darkness, against the mulatto, emphasizing the Métis heritage.

As Haiti prepared to bid farewell to Moïse more than two weeks after his assassination in a cheeky midnight attack inside his private residence in the nation’s capital on Thursday, tensions at Cap-Haitien rose as supporters and not – supporters equated his death with a plot by the country’s elite based in Port-au-Prince against the poor black majority

The roads leading to the city from the capital were blocked and flaming barricades were erected. A bridge was set on fire and shots were fired as protesters spread through the city, demanding justice for the late president. Protesters shot at a restaurant as journalists attempted to film, attacked a foreign videographer outside an oceanfront hotel and threw stones at a diplomatic car, forcing security officers to shoot their guns and to flee with a foreign diplomat.

For some here, Moïse was killed by the “red people” of Port-au-Prince, the lighter-skinned Haitians he called “oligarchs”. Speech after speech, the besieged leader, pursued by corruption allegations from the moment he took office in 2017, blamed the “oligarchs” while trying to explain his failure to keep his campaign pledge to bring “the land, the rivers, people and the sun together to have a rich country.

“There was no improvement under him because they were oppressing him,” said François Augustin, 64, a local resident, accusing the national parliament and the business elite of the president’s broken promises.

Emile Eyma Jr., local historian and president of the Société Capoise d’histoire et du patrimoine, said that the introduction of race into the discourse on the death of Moses is concerning, but it is a question that Haiti must approach because “it masks the real problems of the campaign.”

“Until we address it, colorism and regionalism will always be used politically,” he said. “These are not the fundamental problems of the country; it is production, because we do not produce; we have become dependent on imports, and the country’s wealth is unequal. The justice issues, the corruption issue, these are the real issues.

Tensions and the use of color as a marker of oppression open a dangerous Pandora’s Box, fear some Haitian experts.

Before becoming president, Moïse was the head of a local chamber of commerce, which made him part of Haiti’s “black” elite. Yet throughout his presidency, it was his humble beginnings as a “peasant’s son” that he used in his speeches as he rose up against “a small group of people”, which he said , held Haiti hostage and was responsible for its economic, political and social development. turmoil.

Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born political scientist and author of several books on Haiti, says that the portrayal of Moses as a foreigner coming to Port-au-Prince and taking power, only to be assassinated by the “red people”, is a theme of Haitian policy which dates back to the assassination of the country’s first ruler, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the former slave who declared Haiti free from French rule on January 1, 1804.

“In recent times, power-seeking politicians have manipulated” the color issue time and again, Fatton said, which has helped obscure “the reality that” the fair-skinned mulatto “and” the elite black “behaved with the same contempt. for the poor black majority.

“It is true that color has always been a marker of relative privilege since the colonial days of slavery, like the Affluent, “free” people of color were mostly mulattoes, ”Fatton said. “This contributed to the roots of ‘colorism’ in the political conflicts that marked Haitian history before and after the founding of the republic in 1804.”

Fatton said he was concerned where the color issue would lead to division.

With Haiti in the midst of an electoral cycle to choose a new president, members of parliament and local officials, Moïse’s supporters seek to pass him off as a national hero, rather than an unpopular president, as part of the campaign. an electoral strategy to win the elections by claiming its proximity.

During a Catholic mass in his memory Thursday at Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Cathedral, the half-empty church was filled with people wearing T-shirts bearing the likeness of Moses.

“Thank you, President Jovenel Moïse because you gave your life for the people’s fight, and it will continue”, read some of the shirts in Creole.

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on July 7.

Others have invoked the name of a key hero of the Haitian revolution and the self-proclaimed Emperor of Haiti, Henry Christophe.

“Henry Christophe welcomes you President Jovenel Moïse”, can we read on these shirts.

As Haitians paid homage to Moses inside the cathedral, some shouted, “Justice before the funeral,” while others said he “was not a dog. He cannot be buried until he has obtained justice.

Jefferson Etienne, 28, said the death of a president was not something he would have ever considered in his life, and compared it to “a stab in the heart”.

Although he does not know who killed the president, he denounced “the mercenaries who are holding this country hostage”.

The mercenaries, he said, are the economic elites who had become the targets of Moses’ speeches.

“They threw the country into a black hole,” said Etienne, 28, sitting inside the church with his body splashed with paint after spending the last three days painting street poles in honor of the president. “Every time we find a president who speaks for us … either he is forced into exile or he is assassinated.”

In the 18th century, this city, then known under the name of Cap-Français or Cap-Henri, was one of the richest ports of the French Empire and even bore the nickname of “Paris of the Antilles”, due to its its wealth and its French influence. architecture. It was here that the last major battle of the Haitian Revolution took place, after black and mixed-race slaves decided in 1802 to join forces to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

Some are aware that Cap-Haitien was also once the capital of the State of Haiti, when Christophe, hero of independence, reigned over the north and Alexandre Pétion, who had lighter skin, reigned over the south, present day Port-au-Prince.

While the geographic division disappeared when President Jean Pierre Boyer united the country in 1818 following the suicide of Christophe, divisions persist socially and politically in the Haitian psyche.

“I never liked visiting Port-au-Prince,” said Ronald Fils-Aimé, 43, standing in a public square where French colonizers once displayed the heads of slaves on poles to deter revolt. “They always give the people of Cap-Haitien the impression that they are less intelligent.

The people of the capital, he said, don’t care how the northerners speak Haitian-Kreyòl and their preference for the language over French.

“We don’t speak the same way as they do,” he said.

Like others here, Fils-Aimé turned to history to put the death of Moses in context.

“Once a president comes from the north, they kill him,” he said.

Before the death of Moïse, there were four presidents in Haitian history assassinated in office: Jean-Jacques Dessalines on October 17, 1806; Sylvain Salnave on December 19, 1869; Cincinnatus Leconte on August 8, 1912; and Vilbrun Guillaume Sam on July 27, 1915.

Sam’s murder – he was dragged outside the French embassy and assassinated – led to the US occupation of Haiti for 19 years.

While Haitians may not be able to name all assassinated presidents, there is one name they constantly bring up: Dessalines.

In recent days, Moïse’s supporters in Port-au-Prince have hailed him as the reincarnation of Dessalines, who was killed outside Port-au-Prince in a plot by, among others, Alexandre Pétion.

During Thursday’s mass, Monsignor Launay Saturné, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Haiti and Archbishop of Cap-Haitien, avoided racial and color tensions.

But he spoke of the other tensions that the Catholic Church has tried to deal with in recent years: the violence that tears the lives of poor communities in Haiti.

No one is safe, he said, as he spoke of the president becoming the latest “victim of a serious crime”.

The priority in Haiti, he said, should be political stability and an end to killings.

“We need to breathe,” he said. “To get back to a normal life.

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