Interviewed by Anthony Fenton, Justin Podur, and AndrÃ©a Schmidt
Patrick Elie is a Haitian activist, based in Port-au-Prince, with a long history of involvement in the Lavalas movement. He served as Haitiâ€™s drug czar and Minister of Defense during Aristideâ€™s first presidency. On September 26, 2005, as Haiti entered its first electoral race since a US- and Canadian-backed coup dâ€™Ã©tat cut short Aristideâ€™s second term as president, we spent an afternoon with Elie. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics: elections under occupation, the war on drugs, the repression and disintegration of the Lavalas movement, Canadaâ€™s intervention in Haiti, his critique of Fanmi Lavalas and vision and strategy for popular Haitian resistance to come. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
QUESTION: Do you think these elections stand any chance of resolving the fundamental problems or disparity between the majority of the poor and the wealth of the elite in Haiti today?
ELIE: Thereâ€™s no chance that these elections will do anything but deepen the crisis. Of that Iâ€™m pretty sure. This is a system that has hit a wall, and we keep hitting our head against that wall. That system is dead. As it is dying, it is inflicting immense suffering on the Haitian people. But it has no chance to renew itself.
And more and more, I tend to compare it to the system they had in South Africa, where a minority had not only the economic power, but also held the political power. And what we are seeing now is an attempt by these economic so-called elite, after the Lavalas movement, after the emergence of the masses on the political scene, to try and win back the monopoly not only on economic power but also on political power.
And I donâ€™t think this is going to succeed. Itâ€™s not. Itâ€™s only going to prolong the agony of this system. And we have, as a people, to build the replacement to that system. We have not only to destroy it, help bring it down, but we also have to have a project. And this is what is most important at the moment.
QUESTION: Letâ€™s go back a little bit. You are in a unique position because you were the drug czar and you created the national police. How did both institutions evolve, through the second coup up to the present.
ELIE: Letâ€™s talk about the drug situation first. When I was put in charge of the fight against drug trafficking by President Aristide back in 1991, I was a bit naÃ¯ve in the sense that I really thought that we had to buy into this war against drugs that the US has been pushing. Because it so happens that the drug traffickers in Haiti are not interested in democracy, and they do hamper democracy.
But I came to realize with time that even though this fight has to be waged at the national level, by identifying the top barons of drug trafficking and neutralizing them, if we donâ€™t have also a diplomatic action, if we donâ€™t try to get together with the countries of the region so that we can denounce the fact that the US is not only the engine pulling the whole drug trafficking train alongâ€¦ I compare it to what they did with alcohol: prohibition was not at all about the health of the population. All [the war on drugs] is, is a power gain, itâ€™s a tool of social control, itâ€™s a tool of foreign policy, a new tool of foreign policy after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Now you are not a communist, youâ€™re a narco-state. And itâ€™s also, within the US itself, the way the state is reinforcing itself, building a police state and able to pass laws that are incompatible with freedom and a number of amendments of the US constitution. But using that war against drugs scheme, theyâ€™re able to force these things on the American people as they are forcing them on the Colombian people and the Haitian people. So itâ€™s a more complex issue than I saw at the origin. I was only seeing that my job was to eradicate drug trafficking, but itâ€™s much more complex than I saw it.
And of course, given the economic situation in Haiti, which as you can very well see is dire, drug trafficking is always going to be a huge problem for us and weâ€™ll draw a lot of our resources to eradicate this traffic if the US keeps on with the policy it has with the issue of drugs. So this is a problem which no government is going to come and solve by snapping their fingers.
As for the Haitian police, one has to remind oneself when we look at what it has become over the years, that this police was created when Haiti was for all intents and purposes under occupation â€“ under military occupation by the US. [And it was created] at a time when our economic resources, which were already very small, had been completely wiped out by the coup dâ€™Ã©tat and the following embargo years. So, we did not have complete control of the process of setting up the police.
And what happened is â€“ the way I describe it is that the police turned out to be a kind of bastard child that came out of our own will to create a democratic police, and the USâ€™s will to create a police that would replace the army as a tool to secure US interests and eventually act as an arbiter of political life in Haiti.
Iâ€™ve seen this police go more and more toward behaving like the old army. The corruption seeped in slowly and now, especially after February 29 2004, what we see is the militarization of the police. If youâ€™ve been around the city, you see that most police that you meet are armed with war-type weapons: assault rifles, battle rifles, and this sort of thing. It is truly a police that has its own people as the enemy. Youâ€™ve heard, I suppose, about the number of raids these police have waged on poor neighborhoods, killing dozens of people.
So we do have a serious problem with this police. If we do succeed in having a truly democratic government, it is a problem it is going to have to address as a priority. And we are running the risk, as the political process has been confiscated by the so-called international community and by the traditional economic elite, that they will rebuild the army.
I was listening the other day to Charles Baker, who is one of the leaders of the 184 [Group 184: the coalition of â€œcivil societyâ€ led by Haitiâ€™s business Ã©lite that served as the domestic political force behind the February 2004 coup dâ€™Ã©tat] now is running for president. He wants to increase the police size to 40,000 members and create an army of 20,000. So heâ€™s going to double the size of the Haitian public service simply by putting it into repression. Right there, you can see the project. Thereâ€™s going to be no money left for education, no money left for health care, and of course, no money left to help the Haitian peasant produce the food that we need. Consequently, the misery is going to deepen, and youâ€™re going to need those killers to keep the poor people in check.
QUESTION: The head of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reinsertion for the UNDP talks about July 6th, when they killed Dred WilmÃ© in Cite Soleil, as a victory for Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH. Can you put that into context?
ELIE: Well, you see, DDR programs are based on the assumption that there was some kind of an internal conflict â€“ semi-civil war. And itâ€™s made to bring about a more serene environment. So it MUST be extended to both sides of the divide.
And yet what weâ€™ve seen is that on the one hand, the so-called rebels, ex-FaDH, ex-FRAPH, have been given immunity, many of them have been able to keep their weapons and are now participating as a political party, an armed political party, in this campaign. And others have been, after handing in a couple of rusty rifles, been incorporated into the police, been given jobs.
On the other hand, the other so-called army has been given nothing but [the] bullets [that have been shot at it]. People who had jobs were fired, and people who are being described as combatants, people who know the terrain, people who know how to use fire-armsâ€”which is the same rationality they had taken to incorporate these ex-FaDH into the policeâ€”nothing like that has been extended to the guys in CitÃ© Soleil and Bel Air. And obviously they know the terrain, [so] they would have been the best kind of guys to bring some order in these areas.
And as I mentioned, for them, not only has there been no reinsertion, but thousands of poor people who had found jobs in the Haitian public or para-public sector during President Aristideâ€™s and President PrÃ©valâ€™s tenure were summarily fired when this government came to power. It was the first thing they did. And now itâ€™s wondering why there is no social appeasement. All this government and the UN is offering the poor people of CitÃ© Soleil is total acceptance and submissions of the poor conditions they are living in and which have gotten only worse since February 29, 2004. So there is no DDR, itâ€™s a mostlyâ€”itâ€™s what Iâ€™d say is a reward process for the one who helped overthrow the democratic, freely-elected President of Haiti.
QUESTION: The head of DDR basically acknowledge that the FaDH are still organized, but that the UN canâ€™t actually do anything about it until they rear their heads. But he wouldnâ€™t be explicit about what party they are backing and whose armed militia they are.
ELIE: There is something ominous about this particular election. You have four candidates for the presidency and political parties who are ex-FaDH. You have Colonel Himmler RÃ©bu, Guy Philippe, Major Dany Toussaint, and Frank Romain, who everybody should know because heâ€™s been doing his killing since Papa Doc Duvalier late-50s. Also, thereâ€™s a political party called MUP. Even though the candidate himself is not an ex-FaDH, the power behind this party is also General Prosper Avril [who from 1988-1990 headed the military dictatorship that ruled Haiti after Baby Docâ€™s departure]. So I would tend to think that the ex-Duvalierist network and the FaDH network would back up these parties.
And to the ex-military, you also have to add the ex-death squad members of FRAPH, because Jodel Chamblain, whoâ€™s been judged and sentenced twice for his involvement in countless murders, is running for candidate in the party of Guy Philippe. Because they completely erased his trial for IzmÃ©ryâ€™s murder, and theyâ€™ve sprung him loose on the Raboteau massacre. So now heâ€™s running for office. This is the kind of situation weâ€™re in and they tell us that they are taking us to democracy, just like theyâ€™re taking cattle to the killing house.
QUESTION: Weâ€™re interested in your critique of Lavalas.
ELIE: Well, we have to have a bit of historical background to understand my position on Fanmi Lavalas. Fanmi Lavalas does not have a monopoly on Lavalas. Lavalas is a large movement of the Haitian people. Fanmi Lavalas is a political organization that was built to go after political power.
Now, to understand what happened, how the movement sort of slid away from its original objective, one has to take account of first that it is a movement that had no prior experience. We had been under dictatorship for thirty years, so it was new movement, very dynamic, but also completely inexperienced. And by going after power in the election of 1990, the movement exposed itself to the repression that would follow. And that repression exerted terrible casualties on this movement, either by killing the grassroots leaders or forcingâ€”or enticingâ€”them into exile. So when President Aristide came back, that movement had been weakened. He came under occupation, and the movement was only a shadow of itself in terms of grassroots organization. And also the conditions were different.
Then, also, we know about PrÃ©valâ€™s presidency. What we can say about it that is positive is that PrÃ©val kind of opened the Lavalas movement and his presidency toward the peasants, because Lavalas was really first based in the cities. It carried along the peasants because the peasants and the poor in the cities are related, but it didnâ€™t have an organic tie with the peasants. Under PrÃ©val that was opened as a possibility that offered new blood and an anchor for the movement.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, Fanmi Lavalas was created as a political organization. But a lot of the people who came to it, especially the cadres, did not come as they did in the first wave of Lavalas, out of political conviction. They came and joined because they knew that this machine was going to win. They came for the personal advantage that running for office and being part of a political power structure brings to you. And it is this mentality that slipped into Fanmi Lavalas, and became hegemonicâ€”even though there are very good militants, very honest people in Fanmi Lavalas, the tone was being given by these opportunists. Unfortunately, President Aristide was never able to rein them in.
During the three years of President Aristideâ€™s power, I must say that I could see in the people themselves, especially in the poor people, resentment toward Fanmi Lavalas, resentment against these guys who were running around in these huge cars, building houses, getting rich. This resentment tended, generally, to spare President Aristide himself. But the policy that was being followed and the head-honchos of Fanmi Lavalasâ€”the senators, the deputies, the mayorsâ€”were being resented by the population because they were nothing but traditional Haitian politicians under a new disguise.
So many of these people actually participated in sabotaging the presidency of President Aristide. One thing that happened that for me was terrible was the fact that the policy of opening toward peasants that had been undertaken by PrÃ©val was ditched by President Aristide. And we started losing the power base in the countryside, which made it easy for the likes of Guy Philippe and Chamblain to come in and do their military-type raids. If the Haitian peasant had felt at the time a unity with the regime, these guys would not have walked 200 yards into Haitian territory. The peasants would have run them out. But that did not happen. The peasants were more or less indifferent to the power struggle that was going on because they didnâ€™t feel that it was about them.
Again, my critiques toward Fanmi Lavalas, as a party or a political organization, is that it relied too much on President Aristideâ€™s personal charisma and popularity, and never actually built a real network and a real structure to direct the party or the political fight. So when the enemy hit on February 29 and was able to kidnap the leader, the leadership either ran or didnâ€™t have a clue of what to do, how to adapt to the new situation, and how to serve as cadre to the popular resistance to this new situation. The result is that you had an army with soldiers that were very determined, especially in the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince or of Cap. But the generals were either outside of the country or fending for themselves.
And the other thing is that there was no strategy put forward by Fanmi Lavalas. They only had a slogan; â€œBring President Aristide back.â€ And Iâ€™d like to compare it to the situation back in the war of independence when the French came in and snatched away Toussaint Louverture. The masses then did not say â€œBring Louverture back,â€ they developed an alternative toward independence which had become indispensable because it was the only way to secure the abolishment of slavery. But they developed new tools. And this was what was [on the agenda] in this occupation: to develop new tools, new strategy. And that has not been done.
For example, the total confusion that you have today regarding the participation or non-participation in the election is a result of that lack of vision, that lack of an ability to think strategically. If youâ€™re not going to an election, you have to be able to mobilize people for beyond the election.
Given the fact that what the so-called electoral council has created is not an electoral card but a national identity card, which makes you a Haitian and if you donâ€™t have it, you do not exist, I was of the opinion that we should have mobilized for every Haitian to have this card and separate that from the decision to go and vote in a rigged election. First of all, it would have allowed us to remobilize, and second, it would have shown the world and ourselves that itâ€™s not because weâ€™re not interested in politics that we do not go in vote in these rigged electionsâ€”because look, we went and got this national identity card. But weâ€™re not voting in this election because itâ€™s rigged, itâ€™s not about us, itâ€™s not about our problem.
Yet Fanmi Lavalas leadership did not take this strategy. They kept with a slogan. And now a month before this process is over, they run into this election in a balkanized way. Which is exactly what Langley wanted. If there was still going to be a Lavalas movement, it had to be broken into little rivulets. And so far, Iâ€™d say, theyâ€™ve been able to do it.
QUESTION: This leads us to another question about vision and programs for the future. Under conditions of long-term occupation it makes it hard to plan for a country. What sort of vision must a popular movement develop in order to be able to move forward?
ELIE: The crisis weâ€™re facing, itâ€™s so deep that there cannot be a ready-made answer to that challenge. When President Mbeki was the only head of state to come to the celebration of Haitiâ€™s bi-centennial, and when South Africa was the country that extended its hand to President Aristide in exile, this got me thinking. South Africans had been kept out of the electoral process altogether for tens of years. And yet they were able to have a significant political impact, a significant diplomacy nevertheless, even though they didnâ€™t have a single mayor, a single deputy, a single senator. So I said, this is somewhere we can learn from: build grassroots organizations, network them, and evolve a political agenda from these grassroots organizations. Itâ€™s going to take more time than simply organizing an electoral campaign. But itâ€™s going to have the ability to resist the reaction that weâ€™re going to meet, the opposition weâ€™re going to meet from the powers that be locally and internationally. Because itâ€™s going to become the property of the people themselves. Theyâ€™re not going to be simply relying on a Messiah who turns out to be powerless without the people behind him.
I think we have to build for at least the mid-term, so that when we regain our sovereignty it will be for a long time. Weâ€™ve lost it twice in ten years, so obviously something is wrong. And since I donâ€™t believe that we can regain our sovereignty with military action, the only way weâ€™re going to do it is by mobilizing, organizing, and by being able, also to wage a diplomatic campaign, an action on public opinion, networking with countries like Venezuela where you have a strong grassroots movement aside from Mr. Chavez himself, who is a charismatic leader, but you do also have a grassroots movement that is the best guarantee against the kind of operation that weâ€™ve seen performed here on February 29th. They couldnâ€™t do it in Venezuela. And why is that? Because you had this ability to mobilize and resist.
QUESTION: What is your perception of the role the Canadian government has been playing throughout this process?
ELIE: I must tell you that having lived in Canada for many years, I was a bit taken aback by Canadaâ€™s attitude in this crisis.
Canada was never truly a champion of the peoplesâ€™ right to self-determination: they tolerated the Duvalier dictatorship with no problems. I remember even being arrested in Canada for demonstrating against Duvalier. Yet I had never seen Canada acting really as a neo-colonial power in Haiti. For example, during the first coup against President Aristide, Canada had a more supportive attitude toward those who were fighting for the return of constitutional order.
This time, really, Canada has been acting a bit like the busboy of the US. Itâ€™s like Haiti was used as a making up gift to the US after Canadaâ€™s position on the Iraq war. But maybe thereâ€™s also the possibility that Canada, who had never had colonies, if I remember well, might decide to try its hand at nation-building in Haiti. Itâ€™s a project the size of which Canada thinks it can handle.
Now thereâ€™s also the question that has been raised of some special Canadian economic interests in Haiti, most notably the gold mine. And I think that this would be a catastrophy in Haiti. We donâ€™t need people coming here with cyanide like theyâ€™ve done in Guyana, and adding to our environmental problems. The greatest wealth that we have in Haiti is the Haitian people, and they should be put at the top of the list of priorities, not the gold that is in the ground and should remain there. Our wealth is above our land. It is our people, what they can plant, what they can produce, what they can create. Donâ€™t talk to me about iridium or gold, then come here with cyanide, waste the countryside, and take your money and leave. This is a project that Iâ€™m going to denounce and oppose as much as I can. And I know that Haitians, especially in the area where the Sainte-GenÃ©viÃ¨ve company want to dig a gold mine, are opposed to this project.
I can tell the Canadian public that the Haitian people have a PhD in resistance. Theyâ€™re going to resist. They have a strong culture. And theyâ€™re not going to become a toy or modeling clay in the hands of some Canadian politicians.