The Raboteau Revolt


Burning barricades of smoldering tires mark every entrance to the “liberated
territory,” a seaside slum which separates the dusty port town
of Gonaïves from the Caribbean. Beyond the barricades, people
watch tentatively from their stoops as men, women, and children
drag rusted-out hulks of stripped sedans and broken-down market
stands into the intersections. Graffiti proclaims “Down with
Aristide” or wonders, bitterly: “Aristide—The people
of Raboteau do not understand.” Down the dirty lane, lined
on both sides with green sewage-filled canals and dilapidated huts,
hundreds of marchers are approaching, chanting, singing, and screaming
their frustration and anger.

“Tell
the Americans to take their trash back,” shrieks one woman,
referring to the 1994 U.S. military occupation, which returned President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a three-year coup d’état
(1991-1994). “We’re finished with Aristide. We don’t
need him anymore. Aristide, traitor.”

“We
made Lavalas, and look where it got us,” says a young man,
referring to Aristide’s Lavalas Family political party. This
is Raboteau, the home of Amiot “The Cuban” Métayer,
resistance leader during the coup and vocal Aristide supporter after
“the return,” and in August, scene of the Raboteau Revolt
when the slum—led by Métayer—rose up against the
former parish priest turned president. The story behind the Revolt
is also the story of the ugly underbelly of Aristide’s political
machine and of the erosion of Haiti’s popular movement.

Métayer
is the most well-known Aristide supporter and street leader in the
coastal city of Gonaïves. During the coup, he and his family
were repeatedly harassed and sometimes arrested for their connection
to the now defunct Raboteau Democratic Popular Organization (OPDR),
one of hundreds of popular organizations that resisted the military
regime. Thus, when a delegation from the capital showed up on July
2 and said the president wanted to see him at the National Palace,
Métayer was not surprised and got into the waiting vehicle.
Once en route, however, he discovered he was headed to jail.

While
authorities claimed Métayer’s arrest was unconnected,
just one day earlier the Organization of American States (OAS) finally
published its 80-page report on what the Aristide government and
his Lavalas Family party calls the “attempted coup d’état”
of December 17, 2001. Early that morning, about 20 armed people
entered the National Palace and occupied it for several hours, destroying
some offices and then escaping. After a shoot-out and chase, where
several people were injured and some police killed, most of the
attackers escaped.

According
to the OAS, and contrary to the claims of the government, the incident
was not a coup attempt. While the report did not go as far as Aristide’s
arch-rivals, the Democratic Convergence coalition of political parties,
who claim it was an “auto-coup” cooked up to rally popular
support, OAS investigators did say attackers had police complicity.
More importantly, they listed a number of Lavalas officials and
party members they say incited and aided the violent armed mob attacks
against Convergence party members and headquarters which took place
in several cities around the country the following day.

In
Gonaïves, for example, the OAS said Métayer led an
armed mob who torched buildings of a Convergence party and demanded
to meet with its leader. Failing to find him, they grabbed a security
guard, killed him with machete blows, and then torched his body
with gasoline.

Rather
than condemning that and other attacks—where over a dozen offices,
homes, and cultural centers were burned and looted—the next
day Prime Minister Yvon Neptune praised them, saying: “The
people have identified their enemy.”

But
Lavalas is up against its own enemy, namely the Democratic Convergence,
with whom it has been squabbling for two years over fraudulent elections.
The dispute led foreign lenders and donors to freeze some $500 million
in aid and loans. With the OAS as the chief mediator, the National
Palace had to react to the July 1 report and Métayer’s
arrest the following day is seen by many as an attempt to toss the
OAS a token, since nobody else—and especially none of the Lavalas
officials—was picked up.

“The
Cuban” did not take his fall guy role lightly. He denounced
Aristide in radio interviews, and in Gonaïves his supporters—former
OPDR members and some thugs who now call themselves the “Cannibal
Army”—erected burning barricades, torched the customs
house, and covered city walls with graffiti. At one point, a delegation
from the National Palace arrived in a helicopter to “negotiate,”
some say with the help of a briefcase full of cash. Within hours,
chants of “Down with Aristide” were replaced by “Long
live Aristide but free Métayer” and overnight the word
“Down” in anti-Aristide graffiti on scores of walls around
town was replaced by “Long live.”

But
the truce only lasted a few weeks. Daily demos soon resumed, and
on August 2 Cannibal Army members brazenly hijacked a bulldozer
and smashed a house-sized hole in the prison wall, freeing Métayer
and some 150 others while their heavily armed “soldiers”
kept the police and guards—most of whom only carry revolvers—at
bay. They also sacked and set fires at the Court House and City
Hall and torched a police car and the city’s only garbage truck.

In
the demonstrations Métayer—adorned in a red scarf to honor
Ogou, the Voodou war spirit—and Cannibal Army members called
for the entire country “to rise up together, because Aristide
the traitor must go.” Métayer, Simeon, and hundreds of
others swear the National Palace called Métayer early on December
17 with orders to take to the streets with arms, to “lock down
the town,” to torch opposition headquarters.

“If
they are going to arrest someone, it shouldn’t be the Cuban,”
fumed Jean Simeon, a 54-year-old mason during a march. “They
should arrest Aristide, because he is the one who had them call
us…. We burned for him, we killed for him…. We thought
it was a coup.”

By
the end of the week, as suddenly as it had arisen, the Raboteau
Revolt was over. Métayer sent his “Cannibal Army”
back to the barracks and suddenly he had a team of six lawyers.
He told reporters he had shouted “Down with Aristide”
with only “half his heart” and his lawyers said he did
not break out of jail but was “kidnapped, forcibly, at gunpoint.”

Today,
“the fugitive” is living a couple of blocks from the police
station, occasionally meeting with reporters and preparing his defense.
Ordinary Raboteau residents have stopped marching and shouting,
only to resume their usual more cautious and cryptic form of complaining—elliptical
and quiet grumbling. But their anger, now betrayed by not only by
their president, but also by their leader, is palpable.

As
the social and economic situation has deteriorated in Haiti—due,
among other reasons, to a decade of neoliberal economic policies,
the two-year political impasse, corruption, and the recent collapse
of hundreds of pyramid scheme credit unions—anti-government
protests have spread throughout the country. Not a day goes by without
barricades going up or city buildings being shut down. Usually those
in the streets are loosely organized but legitimately angry and
fed up citizens—fed up with a contracting economy, rising prices,
with the lack of services and public schools, with 70 percent unemployment,
with tale after tale of government corruption, with impunity and
rising crime, with harassment and even murder of journalists. The
demonstrations are often met with harsh force. Police have shot
and killed demonstrators, and in a recent incident killed 40 goats
and a half-dozen cows of peasants who had stopped traffic to demand
electricity for their region.

But
the mostly spontaneous anti-government demonstrations are not the
only show of “street heat” in Haiti these days. Save for
its momentary rebellion, armed gangs like the Cannibal Army are
usually running pro-government and—especially—pro-Aristide
demonstrations. As the president loses popular support, he and his
political machine have increasingly relied on such troops to show
up at rallies, set up barricades, denounce this or that politician,
or terrorize legitimate protestors. Rights groups like Amnesty International
and the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission have denounced
them as “para- militaries,” “mercenaries” and
“parallel security forces,” but the local press calls
them “popular organizations” because some of their leaders
came to the fore in the 1990s as part of the popular movement.

“These
groups have major weapons. They can break into a prison. They can
attack the police. They constitute real armies, armies which are
completely illegal,” explains Elifaite St. Pierre, Secretary
General of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations. The
guns come from a variety of sources—from the coup period, from
the drugs business, and, some say, from people connected with the
National Palace. “They are paramilitaries aligned with the
political power structure, with Lavalas, and they work for the government,
just as the death squads did in Central America.”

The
UN’s independent human rights expert for Haiti, French lawyer
Louis Joinet, visited Haiti in September and was shocked at what
he found: “quasi-public armed leaders” of structured paramilitary
gangs operating with “impunity.”

The
gang leaders—some call them “crowd brokers”—are
paid “zombi” checks from state businesses like the telephone
company or work at the National Palace as “aides.” When
warm bodies are needed, money is distributed in a pattern now so
well-known that street thugs do not hesitate to show a well-placed
journalist their checks. The prime minister even made a reference
to it after two well-known brokers—with very close ties to
Aristide—took to the airwaves in September to announce a “movement”
to force him from office. His predecessor exited in much the same
way only a few months earlier.

“Yvon
Neptune must go,” raged Paul Raymond into journalists’
microphones. “We brought down Cherestal and we’ll do the
same with Neptune.” Raymond, once a member of a “ti
kominote legliz
” (church-based community group) at Aristide’s
former parish, St. Jean Bosco, then read off a list of officials
he called “grabbers” and “thieves” and was answered
with the crowd of men, his “popular organization,” shouting
“Tie them up.” For a few weeks, the capital saw demonstrations
and press conferences, all accompanied by the same crowd, but suddenly
they ended. Obviously, Raymond’s handler had decided the demos
were not working or had achieved their purpose at some unknown,
back-room politics level.

The
politico-paramilitary troops were also on hand when Aristide visited
the state tax office early this fall. Some of those very same faces
blocked downtown streets, cheering wildly and holding up Aristide
posters every time he or a camera passed by. That same week, they
were on hand for a different assignment. Buses delivered at least
100 of the “popular organization” members to block a peaceful
demonstration of university professors, students, and their supporters.
Holding large signs dominated by Aristide’s grinning face,
the counter-demonstrators, some of them the older, destitute women
usually seen sweeping city streets, laid siege to the marchers,
throwing reams of Aristide flyers, bottles of urine and rocks as
the police looked on. The standard pay that day was $10, the equivalent
of seven days’ labor at minimum wage.

The
Platform’s St. Pierre, a former student activist, was directly
threatened by several of the gang members who hissed: “We’ll
crush you. We’ll get you no matter what.” Such threats
cannot be taken lightly in a country where, last year, a journalist
was hacked to death by Lavalas supporters—from the so-called
“popular organization” “Sleep in the Woods”—because
he had opposition party members on his radio program. More recently,
reporters have been threatened directly by police and Lavalas authorities,
and a St. Marc congressperson announced that anyone saying “Down
with Aristide” should be arrested. A week later he led a Saturday
night mob—his “popular organization” is called “Operation
Clean Sweep”—on a house-to-house search for opposition
party members to beat up.

It
is no wonder, then, that most people call the politico-paramilitary
gangs “chimè,” which in Creole means armed
bandits. But the mainstream media consistently labels them “organisations
populaires
” or “OPs,” lumping them together with
the authentic church-based, peasant and popular organizations who
in the 1980s threatened to bring about real revolution. The bourgeois
daily Le Nouvelliste delights in denigrating the “OPistes,”
suggesting they publish an advance schedule of their burning barricades,
so that the upper classes—commuting from the suburbs—can
plan their morning drives.

“The
Haitian press is totally controlled by the bourgeoisie, so it’s
not surprising that while some reporters might innocently confuse
real popular organizations with any group from a poor neighborhood,
there are others who purposefully obfuscate the term in order to
empty it of its political and ideological meaning,” explains
Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé, director of the Carl Lévêque
Cultural Institute (ICKL), a popular education center which has
worked with Haitian popular organizations since 1989. “It is
not a geographic origin—like a poor neighborhood—which
defines a popular organization. The determining element is the choice
to struggle for another kind of society.”

Popular
organizations burst onto the political scene in Haiti in the 1980s
as the movement to topple the Duvalier regime gathered strength.
When “Baby Doc” fled in 1986, hundreds of groups sprang
up. Neighborhood committees organized to demand basic services,
founded theater groups, and schools. Peasant associations mobilized
to regain stolen land or to protest exploitative coffee buyers.
Liberation theology influenced groups spread from parish to parish,
carrying out consciousness-raising literacy campaigns. In Port-au-Prince
alone, studies found up to 150 such organizations by the end of
the decade. Together with unions, professional associations, student
groups, and political parties, these organizations made up Haiti’s
democratic and popular movement which carried Aristide to power
in the country’s first-ever democratic elections in 1990.

Once in office,
however, Aristide—whom the foreign mainstream press characterized
as “firebrand” and “radical” but who nonetheless
proceeded to implement International Monetary Fund-advised neoliberal
policies—dealt what many consider the first blow to the nascent
movement by filling state jobs with popular organization leaders,
whether or not they were competent, and by converting them into
old-fashioned ward captains.

“Aristide
wanted militants in the public administration,” remembers Janil
Louis-Juste, social policy and agronomy professor at the State University
of Haiti. “But he hired them on an individual basis. He co-opted
them.”

Six
months later, the popular movement received its second blow when
U.S. operatives in the Haitian Armed Forces carried out the September
30, 1991, coup d’état. For almost three years the army
and the CIA-linked paramilitary FRAPH (Front for Haitian Advancement
and Progress, whose name was clearly chosen for the acronym which
sounds like the Creole word for “hit”) terrorized the
country, targeting popular organizations and their supporters. Some
5,000 people were killed. A thousand popular organization members
also accepted asylum in the U.S. through a controversial program
progressives suspect was aimed at siphoning off the country’s
best activists.

By
the time he returned to power in 1994, Aristide had lost his radical
grassroots base because of the deal he cut with the imperialists.
(He returned on the coattails of the U.S. military’s “Operation
Restore Democracy” and he agreed to carry out even more profound
neoliberal economic policies.) He once again looked to the individual
popular organization leaders for support. He gave them jobs and
vehicles and set up the “Little Projects of the Presidency”
which handed out an estimated $7.3 million in “grants.”
The projects were heavily criticized for their favoritism and corruption.
 At the same time, non-governmental organizations—some
well-meaning and others, like the ones funded by U.S. government
“democracy enhancement” programs, less so— scooped
up organizations with “development” projects.

Aristide
returned to office in 2001 after sitting out for five years (the
Constitution forbids back-to-back terms) in elections characterized
by extremely low turn-out and riddled with accusations of fraud.
Lacking legitimacy and with slipping popularity, he once again turned
to former popular leaders and groups, many of whom had evolved into
armed gangs.

“Today
most real popular organizations have disintegrated,” says Ertha
Charles, a teacher and former youth group leader in the northern
town of Pilate. “We struggled for democracy. We risked our
lives during the coup. But then we saw our leaders run for office
or get jobs and fill their pockets. Today many people—me included—are
totally deceived about the ideas we had and about the promises Aristide
made to us. Today we are all worse off, not better off. Only a few
opportunists, people who attached themselves to someone’s hem,
have jobs. The rest of us have nothing.”

The
gangs terrorize people with the crimes they commit with impunity
when “off-duty” and, more importantly, discourage people
from taking to the streets, from making their voices heard, from
organizing.

But
not all popular organizations disintegrated or turned into paramilitary
gangs. Across the country, despite police and chimé
repression, there are groups—women’s organizations, youth
groups, community radio stations, and peasants associations—which
have hung onto their ideals.

“There
has definitely been a major retreat of the movement since 1995,
but starting about a year and a half ago, we saw a certain stability,
especially among peasant organizations,” Fils-Aimé adds.
His organization works with over a dozen associations around the
country. “People are starting to figure things out and they
are refusing to play the game of Lavalas vs. Convergence. They are
thinking about real alternatives.”

“Lavalas,
Convergence, chimè, they are all the same to us,”
agrees Clement François, a member of the executive committee
of Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads Together Small
Haitian Peasants), which has about 10,000 members in 8 of Haiti’s
9 departments. “They are merely fighting for personal power.
They are the ones responsible for our terrible situation. The only
thing that will rescue the country now is for all of those who are
suffering—workers, peasants, exploited people—for us to
fight together, for us to struggle.”

But
the decade of repression and cooptation has taken its toll on an
exhausted people and their grassroots organizations. What remains
to be seen is whether or not those still committed to real change
can organize in a context of repression from police and from armed
gangs like the Cannibal Army, gangs which—the Raboteau Revolt
made clear—it does not always control.

That
is probably the reason Métayer is still free. Even if Lavalas
authorities wanted to arrest him and other leaders, they might not
be able to handle the backlash from their troops. When Métayer
took to the airwaves to announce he heard plans were afoot to eliminate
him in October, his gang was immediately in the street, but a day
or two later—after a call from Port-au-Prince or another briefcase?—he
once again fell silent. Félix “Fefe” Bien-Aimé
was not so lucky. Former director of the National Cemetery and head
of the “Galil Base popular organization” gang (Galil is
a machinegun), he and two others were arrested in Port-au-Prince
in late September and have not been heard from since, in spite of
violent protests by his gang members and demands of human rights
organizations.

In
any case, while Lavalas tries to keep a handle on its troops in
the slums, the enemies of even a populist version of change in Haiti—sitting
up in the elite hillside neighborhoods above Port-au-Prince’s
slums as well as in air-conditioned Washington offices—are
doing their best to trip up Aristide and also to prevent a radical
popular movement from taking root once again.

The
external and internal contradictions might lead to the long dragged-out
death of the Lavalas machine or to its sudden implosion. Both outcomes
will have differing effects on the embryonic efforts to rebuild
the democratic and popular movement. As the saying goes, Se lè
koulèv la mouri ou konnen longe li
(”Only when the
snake is dead do you know its length”).