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Black is the color of liberty
An interview with Haitian attorney Marguerite Laurent
by Wanda Sabir
Marguerite Laurent has a visual presence that is just as striking as her written one, which is how I met her initially. Born in Haiti, her family moved to New York in 1968 when her dad couldn't keep steady employment under the Duvalier regime. Proud of her heritage, more specifically a cultural and religious legacy vilified by colonists and their henchmen in her homeland, the fiery sister has taken on the task of rectifying this slander through her poetry, dance and legal advocacy.
A founding member of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership (1995), Laurent, who studied law at the University of Connecticut and also has a graduate degree in dance from [Hartford Conservatory], was all ready to spend h
er time touring with her dance-theatre company in celebration of Haiti's bicentennial - this included a kickoff at Carnegie Hall in January, [to be] followed by a gig on the Cruisin' Into History tour this August - when the coup foiled all of her plans.
Back in riot gear, Laurent is armed with her literary tools, shooting off multiple articles a week as she keeps her index finger of the pulse of her homeland.
In town for the recent Haiti forum at Pro Arts Gallery Sunday, May 2, sponsored by PEN Oakland and the Haiti Action Committee, I was able to speak to the busy woman the following morning at length about Haitian history, her work with the Haitian Lawyers Leadership (HLL) and the spirit of Erzilidanto, her patron goddess. Quite dramatic even on the phone, the sister held me spellbound as she shared her life story, which is the story of an African nation, the first pan-African nation, Ayiti or Haiti. Laurent credits her parents for her consciousness.
Marguerite Laurent: "My father
always had a saying - he was a Maroon, his lineage are all 'Neg Mawon,' those runaway captives who were never slaves. There's a very strong pride in “Neg Mawon”. It's like Dessalines said, that 'if that's a civilized nation (referring to the Europeans), I'll gladly be a savage African.' My father said, 'We'll always be Neg Mawon.' which meant the same thing as Dessalines - if the blood of the European tribe is how they get their sort of civilization, then I'd rather be a savage African. Here was a father whose father was a Vodun priest."
I'm kind of blown away … for a moment.
Marguerite Laurent: "Really, every Haitian has this history, but they don't want to talk about it because they've been colonized by the priests and the captors who tell them that what they're representing is satanic. Meanwhile, (the Europeans) are out there studying it and getting Ph.D.s in it, while Black people say it's not important. The suppression of religion in Haiti is one of the crimes of the Euro
pean powers, while they advocate freedom of religion in their own countries."
Wanda Sabir: Your poem that you read Sunday at Pro Arts spoke to the colonial influence on Haitian culture.
Marguerite Laurent: "This is how I became who I am. [Read Papa Maroon Lineage ] It's a piece I wrote when I went to Haiti in 1995. One of the U.S. ambassadors to Haiti [and]USAID, when they saw a group of Haitian American lawyers who wanted to help Haiti, they saw depleted funding sources - they saw us as a threat. And so they spent a lot of time trying to throw us out of Haiti, and eventually they did."
Wanda Sabir: You're not welcome in Haiti?
Marguerite Laurent: "HLL is diametrically opposed to USAID ideals. We want to develop Haiti; they want to keep it dependent. That's the fight that we fight. That's the struggle that we try to expose to the world, that Haitians for years and decades and centuries have tried to become indepen
dent and that it is of course the imperialist drama to keep you dependent.
"If you're educated in your own liberty and in self-reliance, self-reliance begins with understanding your own heritage and your own culture. But if you're dependent on their god, their sort of democracy, their military to take you out of chaos into order - their sort of order - then you are dependent, and that is the colonial blueprint for debt, dependency and foreign domination.
"That's the cycle that we try to break, and Haitians have been trying to break that cycle for 200 years. Our commitment, as Dessalines said, is to live free (and) independent or die. And many of us have been dying, but because of our culture and what we believe about death: the corporal body, the spirit never dies because spirit triumphs over temporality.
"That's why Haitians were able to walk into European canons - men, women and children. The song that they sang while they were doing it was 'Bullets are dust. Bullets are dust.'
The spirit overcomes. The irresistible essence will live on forever.
"Even as we deal today with the occupiers - the two greatest Western superpowers are on our land - Canada and the United States, and they brought with them our old colonizer, France, something our founding fathers said would never happen - and they're there in 2004 to say 'Yes, we can.'
"But they always come through the economic route, through Black opportunists. They always come through them because they hate being African and so they project that upon … they do the work of the colonizers, people like André Apaid and the Mafia families in Haiti who have exploited the Haitian people.
"What people don't understand is that there is a certain level of propaganda in trying to create certain realities to project this reality. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. What they don't tell you is not only do we have (poverty, but we also have) the most millionaires in the entire Caribbean. They won't adv
ertise that. Naturally people would wonder, well, why aren't you developing the country? They prefer to project all that on Aristide and say, why is he a millionaire?"
Marguerite says that her point is, if "the American Dream is to 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' to rise from humble beginnings, why is it that the first time it's done by a poor Haitian that for some reason, he's corrupt?" This was in response to a question raised by Ishmael Reed the previous day at the Haiti Forum, a question he had received via email.
Why is the U.S. so interested in Haiti, is a question many people ask. One answer is unskilled and cheap labor. Another reason is that when there is no democracy and people are being oppressed, there is no time off, overtime, or benefits … then poverty is systemic.
Marguerite Laurent: "At the height of the coup in 1994, Disney made (according to the National Labor Committee) $1.1 billion in profit in Haiti. This is when you had 70,000 fleeing Haiti."
eople do not leave Haiti because they are poor; they leave because their lives are in danger. If one looks at the period when Lavalas was governing Haiti, the people were not trying to escape.
I ask Marguerite about Disney's divestment.
"I can't speak to that, but one way corporations keep from paying taxes is they get a Haitian organization, such as Apaid, whose sweatshop is a subcontractor. It's a Haitian business front, which means, as a Haitian business, it's not subject to certain laws," she said.
"Apaid and the elite in Haiti are so used to exploiting and robbing people blind, they don't want to lose that, which is why they want to be in control of the government in Haiti. When they're not in control, you have the people in control for the first time in 200 years in Parliament asking the local representatives, 'Listen, I worked 70 hours and they only paid me for 20.' Now there's no one to go to."
"There's another thing I have to say. Wal-Mart made $2.8 billion i
n profit in 1994. When they try to give you this idea that Haiti is poor, that they have nothing to give, they don't let you know that those in the know have been leaching that country dry. This is what they're defending in Haiti now, the right to greed and profit and exploitation and labor, almost slave-like."
"There's no safety. Apaid had a factory where they were making some product that had chemicals in it that ate people's skin off. The people - there's so many Haitians - and people are trying to find jobs, so they'll work under the coldest circumstances. And that's why the Haitian Lawyers Leadership is here. One of our campaigns is to confront these companies. HLL wants to tell Americans what their companies are doing abroad."
"They're always asking," says Marguerite, "why are you complaining when all of these people are coming to America? If Haitians in America work, at least there are laws that protect them. They will get paid every week in the Untied States, but in Haiti they
could decide that 'the local situation is too bad, so I'm not paying you.' I always say Haitians would stay in Haiti if American companies down there would treat them the way they treat American (workers) in America.
"But they don't. If you look at the statistics, Haitians do not leave Haiti for poverty. They don't leave just because they're poor, (which is) one of the reasons the United States gives, that they are 'economic refugees not political refugees.' Our (American) laws provide refugee status for political refugees.
"It's only when the government is killing them (as it is now) and they have no choice and they are trying to save their lives that they run away from Haiti. For instance, during the 10 years that you had Lavalas leading Haiti from 1990 to 2004, the only time you had Haitians leaving in droves was during the 32nd coup d'état, 1991-94. There was no one leaving in droves from 1995 to 2004. But there are people leaving Haiti in droves right now even though the U.S. ha
s circled Haiti and is turning back those who are making it through. It's survival.
"If the world would stop and let Haiti live, this migration would stop. It would also stop if Haitians were able to develop Haiti. If (only) these greedy corporations could see Haitian workers in the same manner they see American workers with the same human rights. We have a minimum wage - it's the lowest minimum wage in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps the world, okay? - yet the corporations feel deprived that they have to pay that money.
The minimum wage is $1.60 a day. Before, it was 60 cents. But people like Apaid feel it's highway robbery, that people don't deserve to get paid that much, Marguerite says. The workers have absolutely no benefits, and if they work overtime, they have no compensation.
"Of course the unions get help. Just recently in the free trade zone (visit haitisupportgroup.com or her site for favorite links), the workers had unionized, (but) the Guy Philippe people sent death sq
uads to come in and beat up the workers so that they would renounce the union. This is the work of the mercenaries the United States is paying."
Wanda Sabir: Is this recent?
Marguerite Laurent: "Yes. In Ouanaminthe, a border town to the Dominican Republic, is a corporation (Groupo M) out of the Dominican Republic that subcontracts for Wal-Mart, Tommy Hilfiger, to these indigenous corporations who are doing the work. These workers had unionized."
The HLL formed to get Aristide back, then, once he returned, they wanted to "institutionalize the rule of law. At that time, earlier that year or the end of 1993, the Haitian Minister of Justice Guy Malary was killed by one of the FRAPH people, the same people running Haiti now."
"Malary was killed because he was President Aristide's justice minister and he was working to bring back democracy to Haiti, obviously, as a lawyer, and as someone who worked very heard all his life to create democracy for Haiti defending the 1987 Constitution
. We took up, we wanted to honor Malary, so we wanted to pick up his work and not let it to have been in vain. One of his primary things was the Constitution rewritten by the occupiers, like Roosevelt in 1915."
She laughs at my bafflement. I hadn't realized that the Haitian Constitution had been rewritten by this government. It was of course to benefit those white men who wanted to own land, something Dessalines disallowed when Haiti was liberated in 1804.
Marguerite Laurent: "One of the things Dessalines and the Haitian revolutionaries put in the Constitution was that if you were not Haitian, you could not own land. And of course that was something to protect (the people) because we had nothing. We had that little territory, and we bled for it for 300 years. There were a lot of ways Europeans tried to own land - they married Haitian women, all sorts of things. But up to (the time of) the illegal Constitution, there was a prohibition against it. You had to become a Haitian citizen and there w
ere certain rules to protect Haitians. It was the only place in the entire Caribbean and in the world, because the rest of the world was colonized, where all you had to do was step on it and, if you were a captive, you became free. Dessalines paid (about) $50 a head to anybody who brought a freed person, who commandeered a boat that was going to the Carolinas or anywhere in the Caribbean.
"Haiti is the only place, I'm glad to say as a lawyer, where a Black man could testify against a white man. Up until the Civil Rights Movement, it had never happened in America. For all of those reasons the HLL wanted the people to know our legal heritage as well as our revolutionary heritage."
Wanda Sabir: Which Constitution is Haiti operating under now?
Marguerite Laurent: "They are trying to destroy the 1987 Constitution, which is the Constitution that was written, and a lot of blood was spilled for Haiti to have that Constitution. One of the things that happened with that Constitution, every time
a military government would come into power they would amend the Constitution to extend the length of their tenure. One of the things the people who wrote the 1987 Constitution (did) was to amend the Constitution. You had to have two different parliaments. One parliament could do the amendment, the another would have to ratify it."
That's what happened with regards to getting rid of the military. It was amended, and this parliament, prior to Aristide's "coup-nap," would have had the opportunity to ratify it.
Marguerite Laurent: "The same thing happened with dual citizenship. As lawyers, we saw that 2-3 percent of the Haitian population in Haiti were millionaires, and they refused to pay taxes and they refused to have any social responsibility, and we felt that all those Haitians who left Haiti from 1967 to now, they have a right to participate in Haitian development."
"One of the things we stood for and still stand for is to try to have dual citizenship so Haitians living abroad cou
ld participate. So we were working towards that, and we did get that passed - the dual citizenship law. We needed to have the new parliament ratify it this year. We're talking about 10 years of work here.
"Those who we struggle against definitely do not want anyone except their puppets to lead Haiti. For them it was horrible to think that with one more parliament Haitians (abroad) would have had dual citizenship in Haiti.
"There are almost 3 million Haitians outside of Haiti, 8.5 million (inside), definitely more. Our detractors know - she references the Ottawa Initiative - at the end of it, it says that by 2019 if nothing is done, there will be 20 million Haitians. That is scary to those who are authors of the initiative. Tend the herd, put them in prison - there's no reproduction. Look at America's population control."
Look at Palestine, Rwanda, I add.
Marguerite Laurent: "Look at how the Duvaliers repackaged the U.S., (along with other) ex-Black people (more recently) who
for one reason or another didn't get the job they wanted or were disappointed with Aristide, who made certain deals with the devil, such as agreeing to privatize certain state-owned assets - all of those things we had to do to have a voice to see the light of day.
"A lot of people blame President Aristide who live in the United States, or who are very well off, as they sit in front of their TVs and think that 200 years of corruption and exploitation, somehow this man (Aristide) is going to change it in the term he didn't have the first time (because of the coup in 1991), and now the second time."
When one adds the U.S. embargo against the people that prevented humanitarian aid, fresh water, food, and much needed services to reach them, it's amazing that Aristide was able to accomplish as much as he did - all this while a media campaign of disinformation and the Civil Society or Group 184 (funded in part by the U.S.) did everything to stop him.
"Haiti was paying interest on this loa
n it didn't get, while the International Monetary Fund was making the Haitian government pay $30 million on loans Duvalier took out. Those are the abuses and the crimes the Haitian people have had to face in the last three to four years. But those are not the things you hear about on CNN.
"The Haiti Lawyers Leadership in the last 10 years is pushing for dual leadership. We are also trying to put together (the ability) for Haitians who live abroad who maintain their Haitian citizenship to vote. Most major countries allow their citizens living abroad to have a procedure to vote. We've been pushing for that also.
"Our work was to enfranchise, empower the people, allow them to participate in the process. As part of our work was also to study, promote and educate the people about our culture - how beautiful Haitian language is, how colorful, and how it has these wonderful adages and life wisdom embedded in it. Just the proverbs alone are a rich resource of wisdom.
"Haitian Kreyol is a lan
guage of proverbs as ancient, more ancient than Hebrew. It's a language made out of an amalgamation of the (languages of the Africans who settled in Haiti). It's a language that teaches. Our language is like our value. Kreyòl reflects the values of an ancient people.
"My father spoke in proverbs. Every time we did something wrong, he recited a proverb. Even in the Bible, a lesson is not taught directly. The details can always bury you.
"Pierre Labossiere and I were talking about certain things. While I was in Jamaica, for the first time in 200 years the defense minister from France went to Haiti and I saw a picture of her with this interim person, Latortue, in the Jamaican papers. I hope someone from the leadership, I hope someone from the Aristide community is responding to this. Part of our Campaign No. 7 is to continue to pursue the $21.8 billion (and counting) France owes Haiti, for them using our grand grands as property. After the meeting with the French foreign minister, Latortue came
out and denounced the request for that money back.
"I said to Pierre Labossiere, "What gives him the legal competence to denounce the people's right to justice? He quoted the proverb, 'The dew's going to go wild until the sun rises. They will do everything until the sun of truth comes out.' In one little proverb, we have (multiple) meanings. That's what Haitian Kreyòl is about."
She speaks of Boukman and Cecil Fatiman, a sister who is one of the biggest Vodun priestesses and a champion for human rights. The two met in a secret place in a wood clearing called Bwa Kayiman, Aug. 14, 1791, along with 200 delegations from various plantations who agreed to begin the Haitian revolution. They called on Ezilidanto, the goddess whose veve (cosmogram) is a heart with a dagger in it. Because Vodun was outlawed, the African people had to meet in secret, Marguerite said.
Marguerite Laurent: "What's so great about Haiti is the women, in terms of their spiritual powers, sometimes are even great
er in their connection to the universe than men. It was a woman who led that secret ceremony that started the Haitian revolution. And it was a woman's spirit that inhabited that woman - and that woman's spirit was Ezilidanto, the Haitian love goddess. Her symbol is the heart with the dagger going through it."
"She is the irreducible spirit, irreducible essence of the mother/goddess. She is a warrior. She chose Boukman. She told Boukman through Cecil Fatiman. I don't know if you've ever seen possession? The body is the only mechanism to communicate with the ancestors. The body is the sacred temple.
"Which is why they could never understand how the Europeans could defile the body and make it work to produce profit, because the body is sacred. It's the realm of the spirit, where the irreducible element will push out all of this small personality, so the small personality of Cecil Fatiman was pushed out and the great goddess came through. But you have to have some sort of discipline for that
to happen. You can't be just anybody.
"That's why in my lineage, my grandfather was the Vodun priest of that era or that arena. Most Haitians have that in their families - a place where the family portal is. In my family, it's the place where that first original African went. A lot of the Africans, after they fought in the revolution, wanted to go back to Africa. There is a lot of folklore about these Africans. A lot of them didn't want to live in the Western Hemisphere.
"The African within our family found a place in Fond Des Blancs (Southern Haiti) where a clay pot is filled with water. That portal connects us to our 'line going back to the beginning of time.'
"In Haitian cosmology we are descendents of God. We have everlasting life. As human beings we are sacred vessels of spirit. She compared this to the Christian notion of kinship with Jesus the son of God.
"Today you go where my parents are from, where my grandfather is from, you'll find that little house of spirit
s - generations upon generations of Haitians have gone to touch or draw through sounds or Veve those gods or universal spirits, whomever one wanted to call. [...]
"In Haitian cosmology, you have to have male and female to create. Out of Adam's rib came creation? That doesn't make sense to Africans."
Marguerite says in answer to a question about Vodun that "Haitians are 80 percent Catholic and 100 percent Vodun." So even though her parents, once they came to America, didn't practice the religion, all the stories and songs she learned from her mother and her father were a wealth of information too.
"I'll ask her, Mom, what happened at this ceremony? And she'll respond, 'I only went to eat the food.' We're been trained not to take it seriously, but if a child got sick he would go to a Vodun priest, when she was in Haiti, that is. For most Haitians, Vodun is a way of life. It isn't just spirituality. It's about bad vibe makeovers. It's a part of my play. Hold on, I'll read you
a piece. I talk about my parents and where they were from - 'Red, Black and Moonlight.' Visit the website http://www.margueritelaurent.com/index.html.
"Vodun is metaphysical and practical. It's also healing. It has a mythological aspect. I have a degree in dance from the Harvard Conservatory. I learned those songs from my mother, who said she didn't know any of this," Marguerite says.
Clearly proud of Haitian history, Marguerite is a great storyteller, the time we have all too short.
"Not only did Haiti do away with slavery, winning combat with the greatest army of that time, Napoleon Bonaparte, they also freed five Latin American countries: Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia… (she can't recall the other two.)
"Bolivar was the founder of Bolivia. We gave him sanctuary. We are the first Pan-Americans and the first Pan-Africans. We kept our mother (Africa's) culture. That's revolutionary, (especially) at a point in time when you had the Arabs conquering North Africa.
i is the first African country that didn't take its conqueror's religion or culture. It's the mother of African mother cultures. It's something that is not analyzed enough. We are fighting a spiritual fight with the sky god, whom we need to bring back to the earth again.
"We want to work to fulfill our revolutionary legacy - a Pan African task force for Haitians to live freely and work in the Americas. That's our ultimate goal. We have freed many, many nations, and it's because we started freeing many nations that the world stands as it does and chattel slavery is gone. Yet, we have been isolated and we can't get asylum anywhere in the world, and we can't come out of Haiti, which is one of the reasons why we are contained in poverty.
Getting back to the Haitian Lawyers Leadership, Marguerite says, "As someone who has passports, I believe that it's (incumbent ) upon me to fight for all Haitians (and articulate legally) the reasons why they should have passports to be in the Americas, j
ust like the European Union has it so that if you're from France you can go work in Italy. They have a universal passport. You don't lose your French citizenship.
"I think that (for) Haitians, our fulfillment of a revolutionary legacy would be for Haitians to have a Pan-American passport. That is why the U.S. ambassador kicked us (the Haitian Lawyers Leadership) out of Haiti because of our revolutionary ideas. We weren't looking for democracy, we were looking for justice, universal, primary justice for all of Latin America. The entire region has a history of suppression by death squads supported by the United States."
France is back, and with this deliberate affront, Haitians are geared for a fight that reaches back hundreds of years to Boukman and Fatiman and that meeting on the mountaintop. The courage under fire Haitians live with daily is dauntless - the rallying cry, "Bullets are dust," revived if the incidents on Flag Day last week, May 18, are any indicator.
However, the worl
d should not stand by and watch innocent people murdered for demanding justice and liberty and their right to unimpeded leadership of their democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Email Wanda at email@example.com.