A day in historic Cap Haitien

Cap Haitien is Haiti’s second largest city. It lies on the northern coastline and mountains rise sharply not even a kilometre inland in the city center. To the south and east, a large flat agricultural plain stretches all the way to the border with the Dominican Republic, about 60 km away.

We arrived after a difficult 11-hour drive that covered perhaps 200 km. We experienced a 45 minute delay when rain made the downhill mountain road we were on too slippery and dangerous. The brief but intense rain flooded rivers and streams in our path. We had to ford three rushing rivers. Here was a blunt illustration of the consequences of the deforestation of much of Haiti.

Cap Haitien is a city of tremendous historical significance both to Haitians and the world. The city and surrounding region is where many of the great monuments of Haiti’s independence struggle of 1791 to 1804 are located. These include a monument to Toussaint Louverture, located at his birthplace, Bréda. He was one of the central leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Nearby, a stunning monument commemorates the location of the final military victory over the French colonialism and slavery, at Vertières in late 1803.

Also in the area is Bwakayiman (Bois Caymen). This is where a grand assembly took place on August 13, 14, 1791 that brought together Africans, Indigenous people, and some white settlers to decide on a coordinated uprising against slavery across the north of Haiti. Seven days later, the uprising was launched.

Cap Haitien is filled with architectural gems from the colonial and post independence periods including gingerbread mansions and the former presidential mansions of two presidents.

The city fell to rightist gangs in February, 2004 in the lead up to the foreign intervention that overthrew the elected government and its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The center of the city still has the remains of government buildings that were burned to the ground by the rightists. Most members of the Haitian National Police (PNH) fled the city during the coup rather than defend it against the heavily armed gangs. An armed, popular resistance was formed but was unable to hold the city. Many lives were lost.

Today, the very visible presence of foreign military troops and compounds are daily reminders that Haiti is once again an occupied country. A UN compound sits right in the center of the city, staffed with soldiers from Nepal.

Residents speak with great anger about the UN’s military presence in Haiti. MINUSTAH, the French acronym for the UN sponsored military presence in Haiti, spends some $600 million per year while projects to improve chronic social problems remain unfunded. MINUSTAH has taken over many facilities and built barbed wire compounds but give nothing in return to the Haitian people. The Chilean compound next to the airport has a painted sign on its wall proclaiming the compound is another fine example of “cooperation” between Haiti and Chile!

More than one thousand French soldiers landed in the Cap Haitien and across the north of Haiti at the time of the coup. They defiled the national monument to independence mentioned earlier in this article by lowering the Haitian flag and raising the French flag over it. Street vendors reported that French soldiers would take cold drinks from them and when asked for payment would reply, “Go get your money from Dessalines.” Jean-Jacques Dessalines was the central military of the final stage of Haiti’s revolution and its first president.

Our evening at the Cap was spent in a meeting with about 40 adult students at a local private school. They shared their concerns about Cap Haitien and the country at large. Many spoke of their burning resentment at MINUSTAH’s presence.

One woman said, “Why is MINUSTAH here when there is no war to be fought? They drive around with gun and armoured vehicles and point their weapons in our faces. Is this what they do in their own countries?”

Another student said “Every time I walk by these foreign soldiers on the street the hair on my neck stands out. I want to eat them alive”.

The discussion ranged from the difficulties students face in the educational system to problems with the health and prison system. One woman who had heard of our efforts in Port de Paix (see my August 8 report) urged us to visit the local prison in Cap Haitien and investigate conditions. She reported that a woman was living with her children in her car outside the prison and pleading for her husband’s release. He was imprisoned for alleged vagrancy while returning home late at night. He has not faced trial but officials said he could be freed if he paid a 10,000 gourdes (US$350) fine. Unfortunately, our visit ended before we could visit the prison.

An exchange took place between the students whether Haiti should once again create a professional army. President Jean Bertrand Aristide disbanded the Haitian army in 1995. Some students felt that the country needed an army once again in order to defend itself against foreign occupation. Others disagreed, fearing that the reconstitution of the notoriously corrupt and violent Haitian army would lead to greater oppression of the poor and protection of the elite.

Towards the end of the meeting, a woman recounted her experience in taking her gravely ill three month-old baby to a doctor. She was referred to a surgeon, and after lengthy delay she was told the doctor would not perform the surgery without collateral. He demanded that the woman turn over her house and car keys as assurance of payment for the surgery. Haiti’s hospitals are notorious for charging fees for every service including materials such as rubber gloves used in examination, and doctors charge a fortune for their services.

Cuba’s medical system provides a striking contrast within Haiti itself. There are 500 medical personnel practicing in clinics throughout the country and in many areas this is the only medical service available. Their services are entirely free.

During the discussion, several students appealed for help to publish their writings. | August 11, 2007

Cap Haitien is Haiti’s second largest city. It lies on the northern coastline and mountains rise sharply not even a kilometre inland in the city center. To the south and east, a large flat agricultural plain stretches all the way to the border with the Dominican Republic, about 60 km away.