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7730: Michael Deibert article from Windows on Haiti (fwd)
From: A Wellington <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Notes from the Last Testament
May 1, 2001
In downtown Port-au-Prince, two great landmarks serve as symbols of change
in Haiti, one reflecting the country's progress, the other its ever-present
turbulence. Champ de Mars, the huge pedestrian square immediately west of
the white-marbled National Palace, where the Duvaliers and their violent
protégés ruled Haiti for over thirty years, was once little more than a
rubbishy wasteland, its proximity to the Casernes Dessalines military
barracks only adding to the sense of danger and uncertainty the area evoked.
Ten years after Haiti's first democratic elections, the park has been
transformed into an elegant piazza-style meeting place, complete with
electric lamps, a band shell, overflowing greenery and splashing waterfalls.
On any given day, the park is filled with city residents of all ages
studying, debating politics or simply relaxing among its soothing
perimeters. This in a city of some 2 million that experiences daily
blackouts and water shortages, and where a raging crime wave often sees the
streets emptied by eight in the evening.
Only a few miles away, on Grand Rue, near the desperately poor neighborhood
of La Saline, sits St. Jean Bosco, the church where Haitian president
Jean-Bertrand Aristide preached until September 11, 1988, the day a
government-sponsored massacre there killed twelve people and gutted the
sacristy with fire. The ruins of the cathedral now stand as a monument, a
shrine, really, to the democracy movement in Haiti, gaining its holiness not
from the sacrifice of its former pastor, but from the sacrifice of those who
died within its walls.
On January 9th of this year, a news conference took place at St. Jean Bosco.
Six weeks earlier, Aristide, now married and living in a large home in the
suburb of Tabarre, had regained the presidency (a post he had first gained
in 1991, only to be ousted by a violent military coup seven months later,
exiled and returned to power only under threat of an imminent U.S. invasion)
in a controversial election. In response to disputed senatorial elections
this past May thought to be rigged to favor Fanmi Lavalas (the political
confederation that Aristide belongs to), a coalition of opposition parties
had boycotted the presidential contest and formed a federation of their own,
announcing their formation of a parallel government (complete with a
parallel president, ex-schoolteacher and human-rights lawyer Gerard
Responding to an opposition declaration likening the setting up of their
government to "loading a cannon," Paul Raymond, leader of the pro-Lavalas
TKL (or Little Church) group, stood up at the remains of the church to
denounce the opposition. "We are giving these people three days to rectify
their positions," he said, naming politicians, journalists and priests
opposing the Lavalas government, 'and after that, we'll eliminate them
personally. Their blood will serve as the ink, their skulls as the inkwells
and their skin as the parchment for writing Haiti's second declaration of
independence," His words were familiar. They were the words with which the
greatest hero of Haitian independence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared his
nation's sovereignty from France two centuries earlier.
One by one, and finally in droves, other Lavalas OP's (Organisations
Populaires or Popular Organizations) stood up to condemn and distance
themselves from the remarks, but within hours of the statement, foreign
representatives in the capital were condemning the Lavalas party for
sanctioning it and opposition politicians were clamoring that Raymond be
arrested (much as Lavalas partisans are now demanding Gourgue's arrest). The
deadline given for the cessation of opposition activities came and went
without incident, and the foreign press moved on to other stories, such as
Aristide's upcoming inauguration.
Radical organizations, headed by people such as Raymond, René Civil, and
Ronald "Cadavre" Camille (perhaps best known for leading a violent, drunken
confrontation with capital police this past summer), trace their origins
back to the coup years of 1991-94, the years of Aristide's exile and a time
that leapt ahead of nearly all others in terms of wanton and brutal
bloodletting, even in the march of Haiti's violent history. Civil, for
example, first came to prominence during the early days of the Raoul Cedras
putsch regime, appearing on the radio denouncing the coup and announcing the
formation of the JPP, the Popular Power Youth party, an organization whose
slang name ("Jan li pase, li pase") was taken from a popular compas song and
loosely translates into the anarchic sentiment "the way that it falls is the
way that it falls."
The chimeres, as these organizations are known, are very much a part of the
current political landscape, and their presence, as well as that of former
Duvalierists in the new administration, has led to the appearance of
anti-government enclaves, particularly in the countryside, where a former
Aristide ally leads his peasant organization in a state of siege from
affiliates of the President's party. But in Port-au-Prince and throughout
the country, there are thousands of grassroots organizations that also serve
to form Aristide's massive power base. They don't call press conferences, or
issue threats on hallowed ground, or rampage through the streets at a given
signal. And they are waiting for the world to listen.
Members of SOPUDEP (the Organization for the Socioeconomic Development of
Petionville) meet in the dusty, crowded suburb of Delmas. In an open-air,
borrowed pavilion, Dol Joseph Bozer, SOPUDEP's Secretary General, stood
before a gathering of over a hundred people and stated the everyone present
would give journalists, who contain so much power to shape perceptions of
Haiti, "interviews in all frankness and with all our soul, even though it
puts our lives at risk." As if to punctuate his words, the sounds of
evangelical hymns from a nearby church drifted across the cement lot.
"I've got something that I want to tell the international press," a muscular
man named Jean said in the middle of the road, the night darkening and
children running through the dusty lanes calling to one another. "Why are
all these countries giving so much attention to these little political
groups (the opposition) that don't have any support? We had them already.
They were in Parliament. They didn't do their work. We threw them out and we
don't need them back...I don't want a job from Aristide. I want all Haitians
to have the freedom to put their heads together to solve their problems."
Later, in a sparsely furnished room, a dozen activists sat in a semi-circle
on folding chairs. A young woman composed a handwritten list detailing not
only their names, but their positions in the organization: secretary
general, representative for women's issues, representative for cultural
issues, etc., stating that the only reason to be anonymous would be if they
were doing something that should be hidden. They had, they said, been
involved in the democratic struggle even before St. Jean Bosco.
"From 1957 to 1986 this country was being destroyed, and it was being
destroyed by the macoute system, where they would steal and kill," explained
Dol Joseph Bozer, referring to Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier's feared
paramilitary enforcers. "But it is still that macoute system that is in
place today, and they are the ones that are really still in power. They are
the ones who have the money and the arms and all the intellectuals behind
Bozer draws a fine delineation between Haiti's president and his supporters'
alleged role in the country's current troubles.
"Lies always dominate over the truth in Haiti. What they're saying about
Aristide now couldn't be less true. He's the one who took us out of the
chains that we are in, he's the one who helped us to see when we couldn't
"In 1991 Aristide was like a political baby, and he was mistaken about a
number of people who were false prophets," asserts Yves Marie Lame, whose
function was designated Porte Parole. "Aristide has always emphasized the
importance of OP's, because it's those organizations that bring people
together to struggle for a different country, to make a difference for their
children. It's not the politicians in power who are going to do anything for
the country, it's the people...That is the political base of the new
But what of Paul Raymond and others speaking for Lavalas? And the
characterization that the chimeres are a tool of Aristide's Lavalas to
ensure support and terrorize the opposition?
"They say that Lavalas is a bunch of chimere, that they're not educated,"
declared Yves Marie, with air of someone finally being able to get something
off their chest that they've wanted to say for a very long time. "But we're
educated. I'm an engineer; this man's an engineer, so is he. You can take
anybody on the street who doesn't have anything and pay them to say they're
Lavalassian (one who follows Lavalas), but it doesn't mean that they
represent us. A true Lavalassian is what you do, not what you say. A true
Lavalassian is one who is a patriot and trying to do something for their
"We don't have money, we almost have nothing," concludes Dol Joseph, leaning
close and looking me directly in the eye. "But we just put the money we do
have together and the capacity we have to work and think together to make
things better in our community. It's the action, what we're doing, that's
important, not what we're saying. We are clean and proper people."
Driving through Haiti's Central Plateau on Route Nationale 3, one passes
startling mountain vistas and lakes, beautiful doe-eyed children walking to
school in pink and blue uniforms and t-shirt clad toddlers carrying buckets
of water on their heads. Fording a river, the road rises into a grove of
lemon trees as the tap-tap "Justice" passes by. Upon entering Hinche, the
region's capital, the difference in pace and mood from the capital is
striking. People move slowly and smile easily.
In the nearby village of Papaye resides Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, and he has
been brooding in anger and an acute sense of betrayal ever since
self-proclaimed Lavalas partisans disrupted a meeting of the organization he
leads, the Mouvman Peyizan Papaye (Papaye Peasant's Movement or MPP) on
November 2nd. Gunfire erupted and six people, including Chavannes' younger
brother, Dieugrand, were wounded. Many believe the attack was an attempt to
kill the MPP leader, who has become one of the Lavalas government's fiercest
critics, and virtually the only one with deep and widespread popular
support, however regional. The allegations are all the more damaging given
the fact the fact that Jean-Baptiste had, up until 1997, been one of
Aristide's closest confidantes and supporters, standing side by side with
him against the Duvalier dictatorship and the ensuing juntas (as well as
being present during the murderous siege of St. Jean Bosco), in many ways a
rural counterpart to Aristide's urban priest.
It was late at night by the time Jean-Baptiste was located, at the end of a
rocky dirt road, in a guarded MPP compound set amid papaya fields lit by a
high country moon. He seemed healthy and vigorous, and greeted his visitor
with a hearty, very Latin American laugh, seemingly possessed of a great
energy despite the late hour, and spoke at length on a small, gazebo-shaped
meeting area towards the back of the complex, illuminated by a single
light-bulb, with owls hooting and crickets humming an incessant rhythmic
"I was born into a peasant family in the small community of Bassin Zim,"
Chavannes began, in a forceful, gravelly voice. " My father couldn't read or
write but he made sure that his children went to school. He didn't want his
children to suffer from this problem. My mother couldn't read or write
either, but she's teaching herself now, at 77 years." Indeed she was.
Visiting her small home in Hinche, this journalist saw a blackboard, chalk,
and books sitting in a corner, ready for the day's lesson..
"In 1973, we formed two groups to advocate for change on behalf of the
peasants, one in Papaye and one in Bassin Zim. In one year we had three new
groups. Then we had nine new groups form the year after that"
But organizing in the Haiti of Duvalier was no easy task. "We realized that
we had rights before we died on this earth that the landlords and the chefs
de section (the Duvalier family's feared combination local sheriff/mayor/tax
collector) did not respect. The campesinos were taxed on everything they
grew and received nothing in return. No services, no schools, no food, no
clothes. Nothing. The only thing we had were numbers, there were more of us
than there were of them. When we realized this, more and more peasants
wanted to join our groups. Little by little, we began creating cooperatives
and lending credit, building on that base, until today we have a national
organization, with 15,00 groups and over 200,00 members."
By the time Duvalier fils fled the country in 1986, he added, the entire
country knew about the MPP's work in the Central Plateau. In 1987, the MPP
held its first national congress in Papaye and invited Aristide, who was
then the parish priest at St. Jean Bosco, to attend.
"On the day of the 11th of September massacre at St. Jean Bosco, I was with
him," Jean-Baptiste continued, an edge, lingering somewhere between anger
and sadness, creeping into his voice for the first time. "I saw the killing.
We barely escaped and hid together, side by side, that night. When he was
having his problems with the Catholic Church (Aristide's relationship with
his nominal clerical bosses was never particularly warm, and in 1990 he was
expelled from the Salesian order for exalting "violence and class
struggle"), the MPP was defending him. We had marches and protests
supporting him. And when he assented to become a candidate for president in
1990, I was with him…I served on a presidential commission and would consult
with the state about rural agriculture, advising and struggling with
Aristide for our common goals. "
During the years of Aristide's exile, the MPP suffered terribly: property
was seized and members of the movement were jailed, beaten and murdered. But
after Aristide returned in 1994, the two found it difficult to resume their
"There was tension between us," admits Jean-Baptiste. " He wanted (to extend
his presidential term) for three more years. There were a lot of gran manje
(big eaters, a derisive term used to refer to high living political types)
in the palace and in the parliament. This began to be a factor between us.
We began to have two separate projects."
"In 1995 (after Aristide abided by the Constitution which forbids
consecutive presidential terms), Lavalas had to deicide on a candidate, and
many people thought that I would be that person. OPL (Organization of
Struggling People, an opposition organization blamed for much of the
political deadlock of the Preval years, which Preval "resolved" by
dissolving Parliament in 1998) also approached me about being their
candidate for president. But I decided that no, I wasn't going to be that
candidate, and I decided to support Preval.
'I was thinking that with Preval, things would get better. But, around
'96-'97, it was hard for me to reconcile with myself what I saw Fanmi
Lavalas becoming. There were all kinds of people, drug traffickers, many
ex-military people. We couldn't have dealings with those kinds of people. I
was certain that we had two different projects now."
And then, it seems, the struggle began in earnest.
"In March of 1997, in a park in Hinche, I denounced Aristide as a criminal.
Since then, we've tried to dismantle and kill this heroic image that has
been created of Aristide, so he is doing everything possible to eliminate
us. At this point, we have two projects that are colliding"
>From there, things seemed to deteriorate even further, with the disputed May
elections marking a new low in relations between the two, and a deepening of
Chavannes' personal sense of outrage.
"We denounced the theft of the May elections," he continued. " There were
armed groups that were sent from the National Palace in Port au Prince to
the Central Plateau because Aristide wasn't about to win anything here. And
instead he won everything - he stole everything. So these illegitimate
officials, these Lavalas judges, started to steal from the people, and began
imposing new taxes. For example, they raised the tax on selling pigs, which
was five dollars and is now twenty-five dollars. The chef de section system
returned to the countryside. The Lavalas judges have decided that the MPP
doesn't have a right to organize and hold meetings. These are the practices
of a dictatorship that, for us, ended a long time ago. This isn't just in
the Central Plateau but all over the country." This past fall, the MPP began
organizing formally to oppose the new government, culminating in a huge
rally in September in Hinche, that was, by all accounts, the largest
anti-Lavalas demonstration in the country's history
"We went to Hinche with over 8,000 people. The chimere Lavalas were all over
the place, screaming at us, throwing things at us, but we were able to get
to the park and deliver our message. This was historic because of the number
of people who came out to support us. The opposition wasted $25,000 trying
to organize and we did it on the pure strength of the MPP. It was a complete
rejection of Lavalas and their elections. We were saying that there was no
election and there is no authority."
Jean-Baptiste proceeded to give a chilling account of the events of November
"We decided to hold a meeting to address this lack of democracy, this
illegitimate authority. Over 1000 people attended, even though we had
received threats not to hold it. We have been given a right by the
constitution to assemble and to protest and we were not willing to accept
anyone terminating that right. At the meeting, with the backing of the local
mayors, there was an attack on the people with stones and firearms. They
burned our cars. They even burned down the house of the guy who let us use
the space. It was something that was unthinkable, but it happened...Now he
wants to enforce his image through fear, so people shut their mouths and
have the silence of the cemetery. So he can go on with all the stealing and
all the trafficking he wants."
"After the massacre of November 2nd, where my brother almost died, Aristide
lost even more support in the community. And so now everyone in the country
knows what happened on that night. It's an example of what Aristide plans
for the country as a whole"
How, I asked, could the movement that brought Aristide to power in 1991 have
fragmented so brutally in a mere nine years?
"The movement of 1991 included many types of organizations: peasants, women
groups, students…Their main goal was opposing the Duvalierists and we
believed that Aristide represented this goal…(The coup and resulting junta
under General Cedras and Port-au-Prince police colonel Michel Francois)
tried to eliminate the movement that allowed Aristide to come to power.
(But) what happened is that it wasn't Cedras but Aristide who almost
eliminated the popular movements. Aristide has terrorized or bought out
their leaders to form the chimere Lavalas.…Aristide always used to talk, now
Aristide keeps his mouth shut and they do his talking for him."
And what does he see as the role of the MPP in the future of Haiti?
"Our fundamental objective is the construction of a green Haiti, a Haiti
where there's food and life for everybody. We know it's a long process,
which takes a lot of patience, a lot of struggle and fighting…But we're
growing amidst this crisis. Every action they take against us only makes us
stronger…We will send a message that we will proceed peacefully and
lawfully, because we're fighting for democracy, not just for us, but for
It was very late. Beyond the glow of the bulb hanging above him, the night
was black. In the darkness, the fertile fields and hills of Papaye rolled
historically on, impassive to the drama of men
"For me, Aristide is nothing but a political cadaver who will pass like
garbage through the history of Haiti. He has only one chance, and that is to
come out and say that there was no election in 2000, and agree to start the
process over again. He should say, "I will win, but I'll win a fair
election." I know that he's too sick with power to say that. I would tell
him to enter the palace provisionally and organize clean and fair elections.
But if not, he will bury himself face down in the history of the country and
Late one afternoon, Edzer Pierre is sitting as the day ebbs away, drinking
Barbancourt rum and a corrosive red alcoholic concoction bought from street
vendors. A bearded artist and former activist, whose serious manner and
deep, authoritative voice put one in mind of no one so much as the late
reggae singer Peter Tosh, Edzer currently resides in a crowded, tumble down
apartment-cum-studio in downtown Port-au-Prince, which he appeared to be
sharing with several people, including a man who made about a million trips
to the icebox set on the steps for more drinks, and a quiet, serious woman
with a small son, Ti Johnny, whose smile and laugh could have electrified
several city blocks if human goodwill could be transformed into current. One
of Edzer's paintings, a deep green bull's head festooned with attached
stones and an earring, gazed down from its easel. The sound of many radios
and traffic and human voices trickled in through the porous wooden walls.
All around, life. Despite his disengagement from the arena of political
activism, Edzer remains immensely valuable as a source of information on the
maturation of the Haitian political left as well as a sober analytic voice
of the country's current turmoil.
"The conflict between Fanmi Lavalas and the opposition isn't a real
conflict," he asserts. "It's comparable to two intellectuals sitting down
and not being able to get along because one if coming on to the other's
girlfriend. The conflicts between Aristide and (opposition leader) Gerard
Pierre-Charles amount to ego and bullshit."
"During the 1980's there were student organizations working with popular
organizations working with labor organizations, etc." Edzer explained. "Now
there's a new generation of political activists now who have come onto the
scene since the return of Aristide...without the level of political maturity
that a lot of the older ones had developed over the years. A lot of the
people who are acting now are acting neither with the same vision for global
change nor the political autonomy that they were acting with in the 1980's.
I mean, 3/4 of the people who are now making speeches on behalf of Lavalas
had nothing to do with the political struggle that I was involved with. And
that's one of the big problems that I have with Lavalas as it's functioning
now. Why can't they control the people who speak in their name?"
In part, Edzer believes, some of the political problems Haiti was facing
were problems that were common to any populist movement, bred with a certain
poverty, desperation and sectarianism, having to come to terms with actually
holding the reins of power and being forced to confront some of their more
radical populist promises.
"One of the biggest problems we're facing right now is that of corruption in
the state." Edzer is sitting outside now, on his front steps, smoking
cigarettes. Night was falling, but the streets were still full of people. An
orange aureole glow from cooking fires caressed people in silhouette as they
walked by; men and women, the outline of the small head of a child. "You
have an emergent ti bourgeoisie political class who decided to enter into
the government to make it responsive to the population. But these people
have come face to face with a contradiction. They become their own class, a
political class, and then they begin to want to defend their interests and
the interests of their class, such as their jobs and the privileges that
those jobs provide. "
"I think that both sides in this conflict are involved in the chimere
problem." Edzer continued, as if addressing the unspoken lingering question
in the back of my mind. "For instance, in Ti Goave (a town in western Haiti
plagued by pre-election violence), when the opposition wasn't pleased with
the way the elections were going, they sent people out into the streets to
burn tires. There's a huge population of people who will do anything for
money. (They're) not a political force, they're a political tool…They're
always looking for jobs, and any time there's going to be a political
action, intermediaries are going to organize them to go do that action. But
I don't believe that anybody gave René Civil a mandate to speak…There's no
profound political project going on there, it just is what it is, which is a
lot of posturing. Anybody can get on the radio and say the price of food has
to come down, the price of gas has to come down. But the difference will be
in what capacity that person has to analyze the situation and understand why
the prices are high."
To Edzer, Jean Bertrand Aristide is seen as little more than a symptom of
the wider forces of Haitian society
"I never believed that Aristide was 100% a leftist. He was the servant of
the masses of Haitian people. He was following a revolutionary impulse of
the people. I imagine, if I were in Aristide's place, the struggle would be
between the needs of the poor in this country and the impositions and the
restrictions (by the international community). The space that existed for
radical critique and radical action doesn't exist anymore. A lot of people
such as myself who were educated to believe in radical change, and who were
educated to have an analysis of the situation that was more profound than
just liberation theology, have no place in the current political situation,
not just in Haiti but all over the world. Political struggle is a science."
Did he still believe in the dream of building a new society?
"Well, there's something that makes me very sad. Because the Haitian people
missed two occasions that we will never be able to make up for again. First
there was the 16th of December (that date of Aristide's first inauguration).
That wasn't an election, it was a popular insurrection. What the population
wanted was work, justice, and food. The second occasion was the coup d'etat.
Aristide preached non-violence because the international community put
pressure on him to preach non-violence. But the majority of young people
were ready to burst the situation wide open. They were waiting for Aristide
to give them the word, but it never came. And that's how the coup d'état
passed. But the activists were ready."
"I don't have any regrets at all about all the struggles we've gone through
over the years." Edzer sighed as he lit another in the night's litany of
cigarettes. "Now, at the very least, I can sit on my steps and talk to a
Michael Deibert is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His
writing on Haiti and other topics, as well as his poetry and fiction, has
appeared in The Village Voice, Salon and Poetalk, among other publications.
He recently completed his first novel, based on his experiences while living
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