The New Reality in Haiti

Roger Annis: On February 7, the Haitian people elected René Préval as president. He promised deep-going reforms in favor of the poor majority of Haiti. How do you view the election and its outcome?

Patrick Elie: The election is a very positive sign for Haiti’s future. For despite the fact that it was rigged, held under a regime of foreign occupation, the people managed to take hold of it and use it to advance their struggle for social justice.

There were many obstacles that blocked the peoples’ participation. They had to obtain a computerized registration card. There were only 800 polling stations, compared to 12,000 in the 2000 election that elected President Aristide. And, of course, the counting of the ballots was in the hands of those who wanted to use the election to choose a candidate of Haiti’s elite.

But the people intervened at two decisive moments. First of all, they mobilized massively to get out and vote on February 7. They voted for the one candidate, René Préval, who represented their historic struggle for a just society. Then, six days later, they mobilized again in massive numbers to block the theft of the vote. It was this action that forced the election authorities to accept the reality — that Mr. Préval had won an overwhelming victory.

These actions by the Haitian people are a testament to their courage, their ingenuity, and their deep understanding and commitment to democracy.

RA: What are the prospects, then, for a return to the constitutional rule that was overthrown in 2004?

PE: Well, the future is very uncertain, fraught with danger. The occupation power is still in place and shows no sign of leaving. Legislative elections, supposed to be held in March, have been postponed. Mr. Préval needs a elected legislature before he can assume the presidency, and the legislature must be composed of candidates that support his program if he is to be able to carry it out. The last time he was president, from 1996 to 2000, opponents in the legislature blocked many of the policies that he wished to implement.

RA: What about the occupying powers? Some friends of Haiti are asking why President-elect Préval made statements recently in Brazil and Chile asking for the UN armed forces to remain in Haiti for the foreseeable future. What is your view?

PE: I liken the situation to one where you are sitting in a boat and an uninvited guest jumps in and almost capsizes the boat. You want him out; he is not welcome. But he can’t simply jump out and risk, once again, capsizing the boat. It has to be an orderly exit.

If the UN were to pull out overnight, it would leave a power vacuum that the rightist forces are better placed to fill than us at this point. This would create an extreme danger of a whole new round of violence and killing directed at the people. We demand that the UN forces cease their repressive operations and rein in the Haitian National Police. A withdrawal must be done such that the security of the people is assured.

I and other militants have the responsibility to demand that the UN withdraw its occupation of Haiti and return the country to sovereign rule. Mr. Préval and his government has the responsibility to carry this out in a timely and responsible way. The two roles are not identical.

RA: Would you join a government headed by Mr. Préval?

PE: No, I will not. Not because I would not agree with the government that Mr. Préval will create, but because we must work to strengthen the grassroots movements. We must develop and strengthen organizations to ensure that democracy is not only representative, but also participatory. Otherwise, we stand no chance of winning this struggle.

I will stay out and keep pushing from the outside, if you will. It is our responsibility to defend Mr. Préval’s government from threats of coups and from foreign interference, so that he and his colleagues may govern freely. It will be his responsibility to give us the space to organize and strengthen the popular movements.

RA: We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the popular uprising that overthrew the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti. Since then, it has been a lengthy and difficult struggle for democracy and social improvements. How would you describe these years?

PE: The past 20 years have been a time of constant clash between a people, the majority of whom are poor, and a tiny, wealthy elite. The people are stating very strongly their will to have a democratic system, a system where the terrible gap between rich and poor will be reduced and where social justice will prevail.

The Haitian people have shown their resolve and a peaceful character of their quest. The violence and instability in the country comes from the stubbornness of the rich minority and the constant interference of foreign powers. The first time (1991 coup), it was the U.S. that interfered. But the last time — and I am speaking of 2003 until the present time — a triumvirate composed of the U.S., France, and Canada carried out another coup.

What we have learned over these years is that the resolve of the Haitian people in their quest for democracy cannot be stopped. Depending on how the elite and the foreign powers react to the latest victory of the people, we will move forward or not. They can continue to make us suffer, but they cannot stop the movement.

RA: What are some of the lessons you draw from this experience?

PE: We have fought against incredible odds. We have faced so much violence against the people, and suffered so many killed. The foreign powers and international financial institutions reduced the financial capacities of our governments to zero. There was no miracle solution to our problems.

Where we have perhaps come up short is in the building and strengthening of the popular organizations — trade unions, women’s rights committees, neighbourhood committees working on the social services, and so on. In 1991, for example, we saw the coup against our government coming months ahead of time. We were receiving all kinds of information. But what could we do? We did not control the army, and the popular movements were still quite weak. We did not have the relationship of forces required to stop the coup-makers, as we saw the people in Venezuela do so successfully in 2002.

RA: Is there a role for a political party in this? Lavalas seems to be more of a social movement or electoral coalition than a political party.

PE: I think that the exact form that the people will give to their political organization remains to be seen. Obviously, in Haiti we will not develop the kinds of political parties that are seen in countries like France or Canada. But definitely, we must move a step forward — to go from being a movement, largely unstructured, to forming a new political leadership out of the grassroots movements.

We must develop something that is attuned to our history and our culture, and that opens the door very wide to the participation of the masses. This is the challenge for the coming five years. It is a tall order, but it is indispensable and I think we can succeed.

RA: What sort of program would you advocate for a Lavalas party?

PE: First of all, it must be a program where every child must be able to go to school and every citizen has access to education and health care. There must be laws adopted for a better distribution of national wealth. It is intolerable that 5% of the population should control 60% of the collective wealth, and the top 1% controls 50% — while 80% of Haitians live on less that two dollars per day. These are numbers that no society can live with. We’ve reached the breaking point.

We do have a number of assets, the most important of which is the extraordinary resolve of the Haitian people, their creativity, their very high level of political consciousness. We must also add to this the vital contribution that the Haitian diaspora can make. It numbers two million.

We are developing a people-to-people diplomacy which will allow us to draw support from friendly governments and peoples in the region and from countries like Canada and the U.S. Until now, Haiti has been very isolated from the other Caribbean and Latin American countries. We must work to break down this isolation and create unity among the peoples.

RA: Throughout Latin America, popular movements are gaining strength and bringing new governments to power. Does this have an impact in Haiti?

PE: I believe so, if only indirectly at the moment. It’s good that you should point out the changes in the region. What we must do in Haiti is establish stronger links to these countries in the region and start learning from each other.

You will note that in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, the changes did not come about through traditional political parties, but from vast and profound social movements. It resembles a lot what has been going on in Haiti since 1986. So, we have experience that we can share with these brothers and sisters, and they can teach us a few things that we haven’t yet experienced.

RA: What is the attitude of young Haitians to the foreign occupation and repression they have endured?

PE: Their reaction is one of anger. They’ve been frustrated so much, even though they respected the rules of the democratic game. Anger, but also resolve. These people that you saw in the streets on February 7, voting at the ballot places, then one week later protesting the attempt to steal their votes, voting again with their feet — they are young people. Less than 25 years old. Truly, the young masses have an extraordinary courage and determination.

We have a very serious situation on our hands today with the threat of continued repression in the poor neighbourhoods in Port au Prince, such as Cité Soleil and Belair. The young people there have fought back. Many are armed. It is vital that we find a way to avoid further bloodshed and deescalate the armed conflict.

These young people are called all kinds of slanderous names — “bandits,” “gangsters,” etc. But these descriptions are false. They have been forced to defend themselves over the past two years as any self-respecting people would do. They are the future of our country, and we must act to protect them. The new government and the occupying powers must offer an avenue for social reinsertion that is real and meaningful.

RA: What is your message to the Canadian government? Recently, after the February 7 election, it hosted an official visit by the unelected prime minister Gerard Latortue. He went on to visit Quebec Premier Jean Charest. Meanwhile, you faced interrogation and harassment from CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, when you arrived in Canada for your speaking tour.

PE: My travel problem is an annoyance, a nuisance, but it pales in comparison to the harm that the latest policy initiative toward Haiti has caused for Canada. The Canadian government’s support to the coup has really damaged its image, both in Haiti and in the region.

It could have welcomed a visit from the newly elected president, as even the U.S. seems prepared to do. Instead, it hosted a visit from Mr. Latortue, the representative of an unelected and illegitimate government. This is a very bad sign.

We call on the Canadian government to stop imposing a regime on the Haitian people. It’s obvious that this will not work. Our message to the Canadian government is the same as to the Haitian elite. There is a new reality in Haiti as of February 7, and it would be best for you to adapt to it and seek to work with the Haitian people and its elected leadership, rather than try, once again, to disrupt the country’s progress. If the elite and their foreign backers persist in obstructing democracy, the result can only be disastrous for the country as a whole.

We are calling on the Canadian government to use its influence to pressure for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners. There has been no motion on this since February 7, and this is scandalous.

It is also crucial that the upcoming legislative election be free and fair.

RA: How is your speaking tour across Canada going?

PE: The tour has been excellent. All across Canada, I am finding a great interest and support for the aspirations of the Haitian people. Attendance at my meetings is high, we have met with members of parliament in many cities, and we are getting some media attention.

This tour is creating new bonds of solidarity that must grow and strengthen in the coming months. With our colleagues in the Canada Haiti Action Network and its local affiliates, we are discussing specific projects to take our work forward. We would like to see more people going to Haiti from Canada to see for themselves what is going on. And we hope to see more speaking tours that would bring Haitian grassroots leaders to Canada.

During the tour, I am introducing a key project for SOS in the coming period, the launching of a “Jean Dominique Popular University.”* a project for educational broadcasts over the radio on matters of social and political importance. Fifty percent of the Haitian population is illiterate, so the airwaves and audio cassette tapes will be the means for us to broadcast the project’s educational programs. We are looking for financial support for this project from our friends around the world.

* Jean Dominique was Haiti’s most renowned and beloved radio journalist, assassinated in 2001. His killers have never been identified.

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