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Subject: Haitians Mark 200th Anniversary of Their Founding Father's Death

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Date Posted: April 07, 2003 6:28:20 EDT

He was born into slavery but rose to lead his people to freedom, laying the foundation for Haiti to become the world's first independent black republic.

With Haitians marking the 200th anniversary of Toussaint Louverture's death Monday, he is being recalled as a leader whose ideals shaped the nation, even though he died in a French prison before his vision could be realized.

Toussaint, the name by which he is usually called in Haiti, demonstrated self-sacrifice that still "demands the utmost from us all," President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said in a speech last month.

Immortalized in the names of streets and schools, Toussaint has taken center-stage in recent exhibitions, ceremonies and radio programs leading up to the anniversary. The government declared Monday a holiday and pronounced 2003 "The Year of Toussaint."

Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture was born in 1743 on the Breda plantation in northern Haiti, then called Santo Domingo. His father had been enslaved in the part of West Africa now known as Benin and was shipped across the Atlantic in a slave ship.

The young Toussaint, nicknamed "Broomstick" for his slimness, caught his master's attention with his intelligence and eventually became steward of the estate's livestock.

By the time a slave uprising broke out in 1791, his master had granted him freedom. Toussaint joined the revolt and became its leader.

His name Louverture means "the opening," and some Haitians say it was because he opened the way to freedom. On Feb. 4, 1794, the slaves were emancipated, ending more than 250 years of bondage.

Toussaint became a French army general and governor of Santo Domingo. He fought successfully against English invaders and an insurrection of light-skinned counterrevolutionaries.

But in February 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a force to re-establish slavery. Toussaint turned to guerrilla warfare inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and its motto of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

When a truce halted the fighting, Toussaint was lured into a trap, captured and sent in chains to France on July 8, 1802.

"In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Santo Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous and deep," he said as he left.

Toussaint died in a dungeon at Fort Joux in the French Alps on April 7, 1803.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as rebel leader and, with his slogan "Cut off their heads and burn down their houses," led his army to decisive victory on Nov. 18, 1803. Ten days later, independence was declared.

Today what was once France's wealthiest colony has become one of the world's poorest nations, hindered by political upheaval and dictatorships. Aristide has said he aims to lead a "rebirth," but many in Haiti - which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic - still subsist on $1 a day or less.

"Toussaint's example used to make me feel proud. Now Haiti is in such a mess, I could care less," said Alcide Louis, 83, who ekes out a living selling hot cakes on a dusty street.

Others say Toussaint's example of seeking justice and peaceful coexistence has relevance today. He "decided to create another world, where white and black would not tear each other apart," first lady Mildred Trouillot Aristide said recently.

Events planned for Monday include a Mass and a ceremony at the National Palace.

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