Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Palabras Prohibidas


The closer they came to the promised land, the more they felt the net tightening around them.

So writes perhaps Haiti’s greatest author, Jacques Stephen Alexis, at the conclusion of arguably his finest novel, Compere General Soleil, translated masterfully into English as General Sun, My Brother by the American professor Carrol F. Coates.

Alexis was depicting the struggles against tyranny, both political and economic, of a desperately poor worker and former restavek (a child from a poor family who goes to work in rich households as a kind of indentured servant) named Hilarion Hilarius, his lover Claire-Heureuse, their young baby and their friends and relatives in 1930s Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as they are preyed upon by the ravenous opportunists of the political and economic classes that control both countries.

Alexis knew of what he wrote. A committed left-wing activist during the dictatorship of Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier (and indeed, long before), Alexis helped form the Part d'Entente Populaire (Party of Popular Accord) in Haiti 1958, serving as the country's representative to the Thirteenth Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in Moscow the following year, as well as traveling to the Conference of Communist Worker's Parties in Beijing in November 1960, where he met the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. Setting sail from Cuba with a group of supporters on an ill-fated expedition to oust Duvalier on April 22, 1961 (the writer's thirty-ninth birthday), once ashore in Haiti, Alexis and his group were seized by Haitian soldiers, with the writer was eventually stoned to death by a group of peasants and street children at the urging of the local army and Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier's feared paramilitary henchmen.

Francois Duvalier succeeded in silencing the voice, if not the legacy, of Jacques Stephen Alexis.

In the present day, there are still those who, if perhaps not disposed to immediately take the step of publicly, physically murdering their opponents, seek to do as much through vilification and character assassination.

I have seen this first-hand in India, where supporters of that country’s hegemony in the restive Kashmir region have often sought to cast independence activists there, and indeed, most of the population, in the role of some sort of quasi-Taliban because of the unconscionable acts of a handful of violent jihadists. And, of course, I have seen it in Haiti, where individuals who have risked their lives to build a better country than the one that Jacques Stephen Alexis left behind are still regularly maligned by a privileged few with little knowledge and even less ethical and intellectual integrity,

As such, freedom of speech, especially when it’s the freedom to speak words that the powerful or the intolerant don’t want to hear, has always been an issue near and dear to my heart. And so, in that spirit, I ask you to read and meditate on a recent article I wrote for the Inter Press Service about a new film called The Price of Sugar, and a Paris conference, which deals with the state of Haitians laboring in the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic. It is a film that has sparked considerable controversy, and one whose message it would appear is very unwelcome in certain quarters in the halls of the powerful of Haiti’s’ neighbor to the East.

“Body blows wear them down,” a pugilistically-inclined friend once wrote to me, of those who would seek to scuttle an open and honest discussion of what transpires under cloaks of plotting and dissembling surrounding places such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “Though not as glamorous, they’re better for real challengers. Work the ribs. The arms will drop!"

While less inclined to view any discussion in terms of a take-no-prisoners kind of combat, I would just suggest that, as George Orwell once wrote in his preface to Animal Farm (which saw Orwell vilified by the British left for daring to criticize the Stalinist Soviet Union), if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

1 comment:

Sutton said...

Great article. Thanks for sending it along.