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'Pilgrimage of Hope for Haiti' Plagued by Politics

Aug. 16, 2004 – When the Navigator of the Seas ties up at the West Indian Co. dock on Tuesday morning, it will not be making the usual shop-'til-you-drop call at St. Thomas as part of the usual fun-in-the-sun cruise of the Eastern Caribbean.
Some 500 passengers aboard the Royal Caribbean International vessel, most of them African American or Haitian American, signed on for the week-long voyage to commemorate the 200th anniversary of independence in Haiti, the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
In the end, as the unwitting pawns in a political war of words between loyalists of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and apologists for the present, U.S.-backed interim government of Gerard Latortue, they are getting a lot less than they bargained for.
When they reach Haiti – on Thursday – they will set foot only on the private beach at Labadee, a small island owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and used as a standard stop on its sailings out of Miami.
According to the Hardbeatnews.com Web site, cruise organizer Ron Daniels spent the last two years promoting his project across the nation, with plans for visits to 10 historic sites in Haiti. The trip – billed as a pilgrimage – also was to have included an arts and crafts festival that similarly was two years in the making.
Daniels, director of the New York-based Haitian Support Project, originally planned for the pilgrimage participants to spend a week in Haiti staying at hotels. However, faced with the reality of country's shortage of tourist accommodations, he turned to the idea of a cruise.
His plan then became for the ship to take the passengers to Labadee, with chartered buses to transport them to the town of Cap-Haitien. However, in the end even that idea was dropped.
From Miami the Navigator of the Seas stopped first at Nassau, then headed for St. Thomas. It will proceed to San Juan and Labadee, then return to Miami.
Daniels is a longtime political and social activist who has taught history, political science and pan-African studies at several universities. An Aug. 8 article about the cruise in the Travel Section of the Chicago Sun-Times quotes him as saying that "the key to Haiti's development, in addition to aid from organizations, is a partnership with the African-American community and the Haitian U.S. diaspora. To me, it's a way of finishing the unfinished Haitian revolution."
Citing the importance of the bicentennial anniversary, Daniels and the other organizers proceeded with the project – dubbed "Cruising into History: A Pilgrimage of Hope for Haiti" – despite the political turmoil in the island nation, the poorest in the Caribbean. But, he wrote recently, "to guard against any impression that we endorse this administration and its practices, we have decided to confine our commemorative activities to the grounds at Labadee, which does not require any logistical support, security, assistance or participation from this regime."
The Miami Herald reported on Friday that controversy over the cruise first surfaced at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month, when several pro-Aristide Haitian-Americans confronted Detroit's Democratic Congressman John Conyers about his support for the trip.
After that, according to the report, the Aristide supporters took to the Internet demanding that "everyone concerned about protecting and saving the life of the average Haitian person in Haiti" contact Daniels and his celebrity supporters including actor Danny Glover to demand that they "publicly disavow the Feb. 29, 2004, coup d'etat against Aristide and call for an end to the widespread repression of the people of Haiti and Haiti's occupation by the U.S. and others."
Glover, who had helped organize the trip, backed out on Saturday just hours before the ship sailed from Miami, citing concerns about the legitimacy of the country's current government. According to a Voice of America report, he said he did not want people to think he supports the government installed after Aristide's ouster. According to media reports, poet-activist Sonia Sanchez also opted out.
Among the high-profile people making the cruise are the National Urban League president, Marc Morial; Essence Magazine editor Susan Taylor; the Rev. Tyrone Pitts, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and poet-activist Haki Madbhuti.
At Labadee, they will commemorate the bicentennial of Haiti's independence from France, won when half a million slaves revolted under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture. But it will not be the celebration they had anticipated months and even weeks before.
In the Sun-Times travel article, Maureen Jenkins wrote that the cruise participants would "lend their financial, cultural and moral support to a nation's people who despite their economic and political struggles have not lost their joie de vivre … organizers hope to motivate Americans of all backgrounds — but especially African Americans — to play a more active role in the economic rebirth of this land. And that's on a variety of levels, from grass-roots activism to civic involvement to tourist visits."
The Miami Herald report stated that U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James Foley accused Daniels of having succumbed to a pro-Aristide propaganda campaign, despite efforts by the Haitian government to prepare for the cruise passengers' arrival with infrastructure improvements and other measures.
"For the organizers to now turn around and accuse the government of wanting to exploit the cruise to bolster their legitimacy — when the fact is, it was the organizers who were in effect pressuring the government that was reluctant to spend scarce resources — is amazingly cruel," Foley was quoted as saying. "It is also unfortunate they are leaving in the lurch hundreds of merchants in Milot who were hoping to put Milot and the Citadel on the map as a future tourist destination for Americans."
An Associated Press report quoted Jean Lionel Pressoir, head of the Haitian Solidarity Development Organization, which aims to develop tourism in Haiti, as saying that hundreds of Haitian tour guides, artisans and others spent months preparing for the planned festival. He said that, all told, he had worked with about 2,000 Haitians on the project.

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