Making Our Country Safe For Democracy in Haiti


[These are Brian Concannon Jr.'s remarks at the 2006 TransAfrica Forum Annual Foreign Policy Conference, Washington, DC. Panel: Haiti: From a Human Rights and Foreign Policy Debacle Towards a Democratic Justice and Peace. April 1, 2006]

I would like to start with the excellent analogy that Danny Glover made regarding the French kidnapping of Toussaint Louverture in 1802, and the American kidnapping of President Aristide in 2004. When he was captured, Toussaint warned: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous.”

Less than two years later the French had left Haiti, defeated. When President Aristide landed in his own exile, he invoked Toussaint’s famous words. In less than two years, the Haitian people had voted his Lavalas movement back into office.

President Preval’s victory on February 7, 2006 was won with the ballot, not the bullet, but like Haitian Independence in 1804, it was waged with meager resources against the most powerful empire ever seen at the time. Just as General Louverture and his successors needed to overcome the world’s greatest army, that of Napoleon, so President Preval and the Haitian people needed to overcome the world’s greatest election machine, that of the Bush Administration.

In both cases, the Haitians won without the most basic structures. The rebelling slaves lacked the training, logistics and communications considered essential to waging war. President Preval lacked almost everything we consider necessary to successful campaigning. The Fanmi Lavalas party, which had the strongest national organization, boycotted the election when the Interim Government refused to release its imprisoned leaders or stop the systematic brutality against its grassroots activists. The party Preval ran with, Espwa, or “Hope” was hastily assembled for the elections and had no experience and little local organizing capacity.

President Preval was forced to set a very limited schedule of appearances, just to survive until election day, because of attacks against him and his supporters. Even that schedule was further reduced when his opponents attacked his campaign events, in one case destroying the stage. Preval was even forced to cancel his final campaign rally. But despite all those obstacles, Preval won a landslide, with four times more votes than his nearest competitor.

We Abandoned Haiti in Its Hour of Need

When we in the progressive movement talk about Haiti work, it is important to start with the shameful recognition that two years ago we let Haiti down in its hour of need. By “we” I mean the International Community, and specifically the United States, but I also mean the progressive movement in the U.S.

As the U.S. -supported rebellion swept across Haiti in February 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell first declared that the US “cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected President must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect law and are bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people.” But 12 days after that speech Powell’s State Department forced President Aristide onto a plane for the Central African Republic, which allowed “thugs and those who do not respect law” to bring 2 years of “terrible violence to the Haitian people.”

Secretary Powell did a shameful about face, but so did many American progressives. The response to Haiti’s coup in the progressive community was, at best muted. There were a few notable exceptions, including TransAfrica, which condemned the coup both before and after it happened, and a few congressional leaders, especially representatives Maxine Waters, John Conyers and Barbara Lee. But for the most part, organizations that claim to support Haiti’s poor remained silent as Haiti’s poor were shot, beaten and starved. Organizations that claim to support Africa and the African diaspora remained silent as the 14 diaspora countries of the Caribbean Community and the 53 countries of the Africa Union unequivocally condemned the overthrow of a President from the diaspora. Organizations that protested the Bush administration’s removal of an Iraqi dictator acquiesced in the Administration’s removal of Haiti’s popularly elected President.

Many of those who did not speak up for Haiti’s embattled democracy talked about “confusion,” or “complications.” Certainly, the messages coming from the mainstream media, the “Haiti experts”, and the Haitians likely to have access to Americans were confusing and complicated in early 2004. But the message from the Haitian voters was not complicated: President Aristide won 92% of the vote in the 2000 elections. Haiti’s Constitution was not confusing: it provided that President Aristide should have remained in office until February 2006. Haiti’s grassroots movement was clear: they recognized their elected government’s imperfections, but they knew from brutal experience how much worse the unelected successor would be.

Helping Haiti Move Forward

This question about confusion or complication is absolutely vital to anyone who wants to help Haiti over the next five years, because things are going to get more complicated, and more confusing. President Preval was able to overcome the obstacles and win an overwhelming Presidential victory. But progressive candidates with less name recognition and less of a record to run on had more trouble. Although we will not know for sure until the runoff elections in 3 weeks, it looks like Parliament will be fragmented. Progressive parties, if they can make an alliance, might have a slim majority in the Senate, but probably not in the House of Deputies.

As a result, Preval’s government will likely be a compromise government that will include people who do not necessarily subscribe to his progressive ideals. So there will be confusing signals from the executive branch.

There will be confusing signals from the police and the courts. The Interim government persistently infiltrated its people into the police force and onto the bench. These judges and officers were chosen for loyalty rather than competency, and many could not have cleared the bar under a democratic regime. But they are there, they will be hard to remove, and in the meantime they will do immense damage to human rights in Haiti.

There will also be confusing message from our own government, our mainstream media, and even from self-defined progressive sources. These messages will make the case for limiting Haiti’s sovereignty. They will advocate transferring power over the police to the United Nations to an extent that would not be tolerated in a wealthy country. They will advocate the International Community taking control of strategic government services. Most dangerously and persistently, the messages will advocate transferring power to a predatory private sector, and limiting the Haitian government’s ability to provide the basic services that the Haitian people desperately need, certainly deserve, and unequivocally voted for.

We need to respond to the attempts to sow confusion in two ways: we need to critically evaluate the information we receive, and we need to find ways to support the grassroots movement in Haiti.

Evaluating Information

The first way of evaluating information is to heed Harry Belafonte’s advice- as he said yesterday, we need to stop letting the master tell us who we can trust.

The second way of evaluating information is to keep one eye on history. This history includes the manufactured acquiescence in the coup of 2004, but it also includes 300 years before that of the International Community’s support of the brutal exploitation of Haiti’s people and its land. The government, the press and even the religious leaders of the U.S. enthusiastically supported slavery, enthusiastically supported the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti, which reinstated slave labor, and enthusiastically helped make the case for the bloody coup d’etats of 1991 and 2004.

Finally, the history includes a long tradition of calling Haiti a “failed state” to cover-up 300 years of racist and exploitative policies.

The third way of evaluating information is to get good information. Good information on Haiti is unlikely to be thrown onto our doorsteps or stream out of CNN, but it can be found with a little effort. The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti was a website, www.ijdh.org, TransAfrica has a website, so does the Institute for Policy Studies. Some newspapers, especially the San Francisco Bayview, have consistently good Haiti coverage. We need to support the outlets that are covering Haiti responsibly, and encourage others to follow suit.

Supporting the Grassroots Movement in Haiti

The grassroots movement in Haiti understands the country’s complexities, but it does have a clear, and simple plan of action for us to support their objectives. First, it wants us to support the leaders that the Haitian voters elected, because they elected them and not because we would or would not have voted for them. Second, it wants us to support Haiti’s sovereignty.

I’ll give four things that we can all do to ensure a better future for Haiti’s poor: 1) stay engaged; 2) stay informed; 3) get the word out; and 4) provide direct support to the organizations of the grassroots movement.

First, we need to stay engaged, as citizens of our countries, and as members of organizations. We need to write our elected representatives, and insist that our organizations stand up for Haiti’s poor.

Second, we need to stay actively informed. We need to get good information, and urge our sources of information to cover Haiti fairly. We should “Return to the Source” (the conference theme) by going down to Haiti on delegations, to meet with the grassroots groups, hear what they have to say and understand what they need from us. We should invite Haitian grassroots activists up to inform our networks- our churches, our schools and our political and social organizations.

Third, we need to get the word out. We can post messages from the grassroots movement on our websites, in our organizations’ newsletters. We can write our own articles about Haiti, for our networks but also for broader distribution.

Fourth, we can provide direct support. Grassroots groups in Haiti have many needs, and we have much to offer. We can provide much-needed help with organizational development, direct action tactics and communications. We can provide things- computers, office materials, etc. And last, but not least we can provide money. Groups like Lovinsky Pierre Antoine’s September 30th Foundation get by on a shoestring budget, but they need money to buy that shoestring. I saw the Foundation organize impressive demonstrations, mostly with donated labor and supplies. But if poor people give up a day’s work to protest, we can at least get them the few cents’ bus fare. Activists will sit all day in the hot tropical sun to stick up for their rights, but we should get them a bottle of water.

Conclusion

There is no question that Haiti’s grassroots movement will make sure that the tree of liberty keeps growing. The only question is whether it will keep growing from the trunk, or will need to resprout again from the roots. The answer to this question lies as much in the U.S. as in Haiti, it lies as much with the people in this room as with the activists of the September 30th Foundation. Because until we make our country safe for democracy in Haiti, everything that they grow can be chopped down when their leaders displease ours.

Brian Concannon Jr., Esq., directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org. The other participants in the panel were actor/activist Danny Glover, grassroots activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, Coordinator of the September 30th Foundation in Haiti, and Nicole Lee, project manager for TransAfrica Forum’s Haiti Programs.

Leave a comment