President René Préval’s electoral victory on February 7 suddenly brought peace and hope to Haiti for the first time in two years. Haiti’s poor flooded the polls to vote, and one week later they blockaded nearly every major road in the country to demand that the electoral council name Préval the victor in the first round. Préval has formed a coalition government and has courted all sides of the political spectrum, including both pro-Aristide militants from Cité Soleil as well as light-skinned elites. He has taken a similar approach in his foreign policy, seeking help from the United States and France but also Cuba and Venezuela. It is uncertain how long he will be able to juggle these different interests, and more than six months into his presidency, Préval continues to remain largely an enigma.
Patrick Elie has been an activist in Haiti since 1986, when the nation’s popular movements drove former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier from the country. In the late 1980s, he participated in these movements alongside René Préval, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Antoine Izmery, among other pro-democracy activists struggling against the military governments that assumed power after Duvalier’s ouster. Elie was head of Aristide’s security detail during his first presidential campaign in 1990. When the former priest became the country’s first democratically elected leader, Elie assumed the position of anti-narcotics chief. He went into exile after the military coup and returned to become secretary of state for defense when Aristide was restored to power in 1994. Since 1995, he has not served in government but has remained politically active, and is a founding member of SOS (Citizens’ Watchdog Center), a group that seeks to promote the creation of a national network of grassroots organizations.
Interview with Patrick Elie and introduction by Reed Lindsay.
Reed Lindsay: How accurate is the characterization of Haiti as a country with a history or a culture of violence?
Patrick Elie: It is an image of Haiti that is grossly distorted. The so-called level of violence in Haiti pales in comparison with violence in at least half the countries in the world. Compare the history of Haiti with that of England, France and the U.S. and Germany. Don’t go back to the 1200s. Look back to 1804 and you have more violence in those countries than in Haiti. So the characterization of Haiti as a violent country is a bunch of hogwash. Why is there tension and instability in Haiti? It is simply because in Haiti you have 5 percent of the population controlling 60 percent of the national wealth, while 80 percent live in poverty. If you had such a situation in any other country you’d have a massacre or a civil war but that hasn’t happened in Haiti, which speaks to the self-restraint of the Haitian population. The instability of the last 20 to 25 years has been caused essentially by this elite as well as their foreign allies who cannot truly accept the principal of one citizen-one vote because it would mean that they would lose their privileges and influence. They have tried to quench the will of the poor majority of Haiti and tried to change the rules of the game because they’ve lost in elections. If it were up to the Haitian people (and when I say Haitian people I’m talking about the vast majority of Haitians who are poor) there would be both democracy and stability. If you look at recent history, the Haitian people have chosen to vote rather than to riot. They voted four times in a row for the same political family, the same political leaning, the same agenda. They consistently have picked both democracy and stability.
RL: How does the United States government’s role in Haiti compare to its role in other countries in Latin America?
PE: The role of the U.S. in Haiti is no different than what it is in other countries in Latin America in that the U.S. is interested in dominating Haiti and dictating its policy. That’s the reason why they cannot stand the idea of somebody being elected with a large majority because that means the government will not be easy to manipulate as one that has very little popular legitimacy and from the get-go this was the United States’ problem with Aristide and Lavalas. The role of the U.S. in all of Haitian history has been egregious. The U.S. occupied the country for 20 years from 1915 to 1934 and left us with a repressive army. But this pattern was not particular to Haiti. Go to the DR, and they did the same thing with Trujillo, and the same thing in Nicaragua with Somoza. When the U.S. said it would support democracies rather than military dictatorships, the Haitians did not play along because they did not want the type of democracy that the U.S. wanted to impose. The Haitians, that is, the 80 percent of Haitians who have been excluded for two centuries, wanted a true democracy, where they would define the agenda and get to pick who they wanted rather than be forced to choose between candidates they don’t like. Why has the U.S. occupied the country three times? There are many reasons. There are economic reasons, but even if you don’t concede to that, Haiti has been a powerful symbol for having overthrown slavery and becoming independent and for what it’s doing now, which is proving that the poorest people in the hemisphere, mostly illiterate, can know more about democracy than the people who are pretending to be beacons of civilization. And they can stand up to the will of the U.S. The movement that you see now in Latin America, the new large social movements that are sweeping away the traditional political parties, that also started in a way in Haiti. For the U.S., Haiti is an example that must be crushed, that must be made to fail. That’s the principal interest of the U.S. in Haiti.
RL: But the U.S. hasn’t been the only first world country to play a major role in Haiti in recent years. What about France and Canada?
PE: France’s role in Haiti is a direct result of the demand for reparation that President Aristide put forward. Also, I think France could never get over the defeat of 1804. In all of Haitian history, never has a French president set foot in Haiti. And Santo Domingue is probably the French colony that played the greatest role in French history. It was the richest colony by far, and caused them to lose Louisiana.
With Canada, I can point to a number of reasons why they have switched directions in Haitian policy. One is that Canada is aligning its policy with that of the U.S. more and more after Iraq where they refused to participate because the Chretien government would have been defeated if Canada had gone into Iraq. Haiti was an easy way to please the U.S. Haiti’s a country with no army and no possibility to resist regime change.
RL: How would you characterize the role of Brazil, Argentina and Chile in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti?
PE: The Latin American countries had their own reasons and interests. Brazil wants to be recognized as an emerging power and wanted a seat in the UN Security Council. For countries like Argentina and Chile, they wanted to show that they are countries that count. Despite the fact that I’m against the occupation, if I had to choose to be occupied by U.S. Marines, the French Legionnaires or the Latin American countries and the UN, I’d pick the latter, but the positive thing that could emerge from this crisis is that Latin America will discover Haiti and remember that Haiti is at the origin of their own independence. Also, I believe that Haiti will have the possibility of reorienting its diplomacy toward the Caribbean and Latin America rather than be prisoner of its destructive relationship with the United States.
RL: What about the allegations that UN troops tolerated and sometimes committed abuses in the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince?
PE: I think there were some people within the UN that were truly sympathetic to the Haitian people. We cannot forget the excesses of the UN, especially in the popular neighborhoods like Cite Soleil. But we also must recognize that the UN troops did not go all out in military operations in poor neighborhoods as they were being encouraged to do by the Haitian elite and the governments of the U.S., France and Canada. As President Préval has said, I would like to see the UN mission continue. But we don’t need all those men with guns. We’d rather see doctors and technicians helping us.
RL: Can you evaluate the last two years of rule by the interim government of Primer Minister Gérard Latortue?
PE: I prefer to call it a de facto regime or puppet regime because that’s truly what it was. It was forced upon the Haitian people by the intervention of February 29, 2004, and it was formed with hostility. It was a government that was to be hostile to Lavalas and to help eliminate the movement from the political scene. It was a government that was a model of the kind of government that the three countries that intervened in Haiti would like to see at the helm of the country: a government that answers not to the population of the country but to foreign interests and international organizations like the IMF. As for an assessment of the last two years, I’m 56 years old, and these have easily been the most difficult and terrible years for the country I’ve ever seen.
First of all, there’s the level of repression against the poor people, against Lavalas. This government has allowed ex killers and killers from the army to integrate into the police into units that were nothing else but death squads and go into popular neighborhoods and assassinate people. And the economy has been a disaster. The thing the government did was fire 4,000 to 5000 people in a country with 70 percent unemployment. Of course this is not the type of government the Haitian people would like to see at the helm of the country.
RL: How does Haiti’s popular movement compare to those in other countries in Latin America?
PE: When Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced to leave the country in 1986, nobody expected that after 30 years of repression, the first 15 of which were sheer terror, that there would be this profound movement within the Haitian population that would turn into thousands of grassroots organizations. It was this movement that was the origin of the Haitian saga of the last 20 years. It was this movement rather than the political parties that stood up against the return of dictatorship. It was this movement that confronted the military government when it tried to control the election in 1987 and this movement that swept Aristide into power in 1990. And it was not the political parties, but again this movement that elected René Préval. Don’t believe for one minute that Lespwa [the coalition of political parties and organizations on whose ticket Préval ran for president] has been anything but a label that has been used for the election and a nice slogan, but it was that vast social movement that swept Préval into power. And I think that this movement that literally exploded onto the scene in 1986 preceded what we’ve seen in Venezuela, in Bolivia, and what may be appearing in Mexico and maybe it is the wave of the future for countries like Haiti in Latin America. Instead of trying to mimic countries of Europe, maybe we can forge regional tools for regional democracies. And I think that is what Haitians are trying to do.
RL: Has this popular movement grown stronger or weaker in the last 20 years?
PE: The popular movement in Haiti is very much alive, but it is already a bit better organized because it is battle scarred but battle hardened also. I’ve seen the crowds in 1986 and 1987, and the ones I’ve seen out lately are different. It’s already starting to resemble an army. There is more organization, there is more discipline, and I think there is more ability to stay the course. Of course, much remains to be done, for example, there is no substitute for a national coordination for such a movement. It should exist. For the moment, it is a very loose coordination. That’s where the new political leadership will emerge from. If anything, the last election signals the end of Haiti’s traditional political class. When I say traditional, I mean both those who come from the traditional right and the traditional left. You’ve seen the electoral results of the so-called socialists such as Paul Denis and Serge Gilles. They have been rejected by the Haitian people.
RL: What is the future of Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party in Haiti?
PE: Aristide has played a key historical role in the struggle of the Haitian people to define their own democracy, and I’m sure he will continue to be an influence in the future. Fanmi Lavalas is a political organization. But I don’t think it will be able to survive as a political organization simply because it really has no real autonomy. You could see how it became totally in disarray after president Aristide was kidnapped. It was what I would describe as a charismatic organization, one that depends strictly on its leader and after that you have nothing in terms of structure and in terms of capacity to formulate a political strategy.
A new grassroots movement will have to form that comes from the street and grassroots mobilizations. Lavalas is this movement, but Lavalas and Fanmi Lavalas, although related, are different things. Fanmi Lavalas is a political organization. Lavalas is a political philosophy, not a party. Lavalas and the popular movement are one in the same. It was the name coined for it by President Aristide. But he did not invent the reality of it, he just put a name on it. He doesn’t own it. It owns him.
RL: What lessons can be drawn from the overthrow of Aristide in February 2004 and the ensuing two years?
PE: The lesson to be drawn is that it’s not enough to vote for somebody who is sympathetic to your cause. If you do not stay mobilized and define your political agenda and support that political agenda, what will happen is that either the president or the senators you elected are going to be extremely vulnerable to pressure exerted on them from the powers that be or they’ll start drifting to a more traditional type of power and start having their own agenda. And of course both things can happen. It’s obvious when you look at the last years of President Aristide, all the senators and deputies had their own personal agenda and were completely removed from what the people themselves wanted. So politicians, no matter what label they are under, have to be kept on a leash. And the leash is the grassroots movements permanently mobilized. That is one thing that the popular movement has learned.
RL: Would you include René Préval among the new group of leaders in Latin America who are pushing for regional integration and challenging U.S. hegemony in the region?
PE: Préval is a branch from the same tree. Préval started out like all of us, a Marxist, but he’s been really forged or transformed by the popular movement itself. He was very close to it. We went to school in the popular movement at the same time. He has a good feel for what the people of Haiti want and need. As a leader he does not have the charisma of Aristide, nor is he inclined or able to communicate with them the same way that President Aristide could. But I think that he has the trust of the Haitian people, which is very important. But if the Haitian people do not keep up their mobilization and continue to build it as a structured movement, he will fail. That is a certainty. He will fail because it is the fate of any leadership that is left by itself and does not have behind it a strong an organized people. He might be pushed so far away from the original agenda and what the people want that it would be the equivalent of him being overthrown.
RL: What will Préval be able to accomplish?
PE: From what Préval has indicated, he will address the problems of the poor majority of Haiti, including the most urgent issues such as terminating that exclusion, that quasi-apartheid that predominates in this country. His biggest obstacle might come from those within the Haitian elite and the traditional politicians, who will try to embrace him after failing to block his way. A president only has so much power, and he’s not the one actually doing everything. He depends on a team, and he depends on popular support.
The members of the elite and political parties could have too much influence. What they couldn’t win in the election, they could win by buddying up to Préval. I’ve heard that everywhere he’s gone, he’s gone with members of the moneyed elite. That’s all fine and dandy, he cannot actually govern against the elite all out, but he cannot govern for the elite either. I hope they won’t try to destabilize in the same way they tried to destabilize Aristide. The last two years have been such a fiasco, I don’t know if they have the stomach for something as terrible and disastrous. But Préval will certainly be facing a lot of pressure. And I think somehow the Haitian people know that. All I expect from his presidency is to have the space to organize rather than facing a truly hostile government. But he will be under a lot of constraints.
RL: How can Préval push through reforms that benefit the poor majority without the elite sabotaging his effort?
PE: We start maybe by having the kind of dialogue with the moneyed elite that the people of the South African majority had with the white minority when the one person-one vote principal was being adopted. Obviously the elite want some protection, but they will only have it by exchanging their privileges for rights. It is obvious that things cannot continue as they are, so if there are people who are reasonable within this elite, some compromise might be reached between them and the vast majority of people who have been excluded. The priorities should be set right. Education, health care, production. These should be the priorities. We must have a country that produces. The elite must be engaged in production of wealth rather than being truly parasites. Laws must be voted by the new parliament and be acted upon to close progressively that horrible gap that exists between the tiny elite and the huge majority. That’s the only way to go. And if the elite persist in trying to stand in the way of progress I think they will have to go the way of the Cuban elites that had a field day until Fidel came along. Maybe they are more ready to be persuaded after the last two years. It was the last desperate attempt to stem the flow of history. The last two years have not been particularly happy for the Haitian elites either. The Haitian people as a whole have suffered the consequences of Aristide’s overthrow.
Reed Lindsay is a freelance journalist who has been based in Port-au-Prince since October 2004.