Haiti: Democracy for Whom?

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

an interview with Cecilia Green

Cecilia Green spoke with David Finkel of the ATC editorially shortly after she returned from a delegation to Haiti. She has served as coordinator of the Haiti Solidarity Group in Ann Arbor and will be Visiting Faculty at the Evergreen State College in the ‘Political Economy and Social Change” Program for the academic year 1993-94.

Against the Current. You were in Haiti at the time the highly publicized negotiations for “restoring democracy’ were being concluded. How do people on the ground in Haiti view the talks on returning Aristide to office?

Cecilia Green: While we were there, the New York Pact was signed on July 17. There are actually two agreements: the Governors’ Island Accord between (exiled) President Aristide and (military coup leader) Cedras, and the New York Pact, signed supposedly by representatives of various sectors.

Inside Haiti, people’s feelings range from cautious optimism to more unequivocal condemnation of the compromises Aristide was forced to make. It’s important to point out that nobody condemns Aristide himself, either verbally or in print—people appreciate very much that he was under tremendous pressure. In fact, he was blackmailed to sign; he was told that there would be an agreement with or without him, that the international sanctions against Haiti would be lifted if he refused to sign.

Those who are cautiously optimistic are very happy that Aristide’s return seems to be unconditional. At the same time, they are sharply disappointed by the amnesty for the military leaders.

The signers of the New York Pact included two illegal parliamentarians [stooges of the military installed through rigged elections—ed.]. In fact, nine pro-Aristide representatives refused to sign this pact, feeling that it legitimized the illegal parliament. One of them said they were being treated like children. And they are afraid these illegal representatives will take control of the Parliament and undercut the power of Aristide.

In the negotiations, Washington and the United Nations hurried Aristide to sign, yet there’s so much time before he returns and no impatience with Cedras! He will be in power until Aristide returns October 30; people feel that’s too late.

Economic sanctions against the junta are to be lifted as soon as the parliament has ratified Aristide’s choice for Prime Minister. He has picked a businessman named Malval, viewed as a compromise candidate. He is reportedly a friend of Aristide, but has expressed criticisms.

Malval chaired a highly symbolic meeting in Miami July 22-23, bringing together the Haitian private sector, U.S. investors, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and President Aristide. He is a central player in the emerging international economic strategy for Haiti.

People there are taking a wait-and-see attitude, and there’s relief among some that there’s some kind of breakthrough. They even felt very emboldened by the negotiations and used them as an opportunity to put increased pressure on the regime. There’s an increase in demonstrations and open actions against the junta, and activists also felt sufficiently emboldened to come out of hiding. Many are returning to their original places of residence—sometimes with dire consequences, as they are hunted down and have to go back into hiding. And because of the more open activity by the people, there’s an increase in repression.

ATC: What’s the role of the international agencies and the United Nations in particular on monitoring human rights?

CG: In Cap-Haitien, the capital of the northern part of Haiti, we found people to be quite dissatisfied with the Organization of American States (OAS)-UN joint mission. We went to talk with them—it was easy to see why they were dissatisfied.

At the mission, they talked about how the OAS is “neutral,” and has to give equal weight to “all sides,” with the implication that “all sides” are being repressive—which is quite ridiculous.

The procedure for filing a complaint in Cap-Haitien is to come to the OAS-UN mission office, which is located very close to the government offices (including the police). When we pointed out that this might have a very intimidating effect, the official in the office quipped that Cap Haitien is a very small city. That’s completely false—it’s not that small. They could find lots of other locations.

In any case they begin by listening to the victim’s side of the story, then take the report for corroboration—to the military, to see if it’s true! They are putting the victims in danger. There are cases of people having complained to the OAS-UN being subsequently harassed.

They tried to tell us that the popular side are “equally capable of abuse” and are “preparing for revenge” against the military. One businessman implied that people are already taking revenge, citing the sale of machetes—which are the work tool of the Haitian peasants.

People working in this human rights office make a starting salary of U.S. $6000 per month. Obviously, there’s a suspicion that the kind of people they get see the work as a financial option, not a human rights commitment. But we were told that the quality of the so-called civilian observers has been improving. Yet the mandate of the mission is so limited, by its “neutrality,” as to be crippling.

ATC: In a previous interview (ATC 43) you made some comments about the popular movement in Haiti. Now that you’ve been able to make some direct observations, did you find anything surprising or unexpected?
CG.: That’s hard to say. It’s just that everything is so much more vivid and shocking. We did spend a lot of time in Cape Haitien with peasant groups. That’s what I can primarily talk about.

We spoke to people under the auspices of the church, in particular the “Ti Legliz,” which means “Little Church” [the section of the church sympathetic to grassroots popular organizing—ed.]. Our meetings with a group from the peasant movement, and with an association containing several peasants’ as well as women’s organizations, were organized by a priest from Ti Legliz.

The peasants are under so much repression they are not allowed to meet. We were told the popular organizations have suffered tremendously, since gatherings of more than three or so people are banned. Yet we did feel good that despite all the repression the people remain absolutely clear about what they want.

When we met with this particular peasant organization, Rassemblement d’ Organizations Paysannes de Limonade, we asked how they felt about the embargo (international economic sanctions imposed against the military junta). They expressed unequivocal support; in fact, they would like to see the embargo kept in place until the actual return of Aristide. As rural people with their own gardens, they realize they are in a little better position than people in the cities to cope with the severe hardships the embargo entails.

The embargo is somewhat effective, as indicated by long lines we saw for gas. Some people sleep overnight in the gas line. Government vehicles cut in and serve members of the elite in the line. The official price is still a little under $4 Haitian per gallon, but the black market price is $10 or $15.

The peasant organizations are very clear about what they want to see. They spent a lot of time recounting to us cases of abuse. They’re under a lot of pressure from what are called Section Chiefs, who were also named by the OAS-UN people as the main source of repression in the rural areas.

These are sort of district headmen who have been in place since the Duvalier regime. Aristide was dismantling their power before he was overthrown. Torture, rape, burning people’s homes’ and a lot of extortion are the main activities of the Section Chiefs. They steal the cattle, even the land of the peasants, play all kinds of tricks and extort money through illegal taxes.

The Opportunity to Organize

The peasants also took time to tell us what they had begun to do under Aristide. Many organizing efforts had begun even before. Typically 1986 was the official founding year for their organization; the work had begun earlier but under Aristide they were able to mobilize, and the women began to mobilize as well.

Aristide had begun to check the power of the Section Chiefs. They were also able to get, for the first time, what they called “good justice,” meaning access to the justice system. With the coup all that has gone. Of the judges Aristide appointed, those who aren’t in hiding are muzzled.

We spoke as well to very important teacher activists. What we found is that the coup government has closed several schools and fired many teachers, especially in the public school system. Haiti still operates eighty percent under the jurisdiction of private schools, an elite system. Under Aristide many public schools had been established. The teachers’ union was particularly strong there.

The private schools had taken the opportunity provided by the coup to lash out against these “new schools, and had gotten many of them closed down. And in one public school alone, 800 out of 5,000 students were expelled.

We had an interview with the head of a federation of teachers’ unions in the north. He was still in a state of semi-clandestinity. He had lost his job and was sleeping in a different place each night He brought with him two other teachers who had also been fired, arrested and one of them tortured.

We also spoke to a university professor who had been fired. He said he was one of almost 200 faculty members who had been dismissed, leaving 2,000 to 6,000-7,000 students with no teaching faculty. Three faculties (university departments) had been closed down, including, L’Ecole Normal (the education school for teacher training), which is a traditional site of activism.

Surprisingly, the medical school students are reputed to be the most militant and radical of all, though that faculty hasn’t been dosed down. Some of the medical faculty, those who are pro-coup, come to work armed to chase their colleagues off the campus.

The Haitian bourgeoisie tend to send their children overseas to school, to Europe or the United States. The university thus has a fair number of working-class students, although it can accept only 5,000 or so among the 40,000 eligible. That’s one of the reasons they are so militant and why the university is such a target of repression.

The military, in fact, goes to the working-class districts to go after the students.

We were staying at a guest house, run by Catholic sisters, called Hospice St Joseph, which has become a refuge for people who are being harassed and hunted by the military. Among those we met were two journalists from Cite Soleil, which is like the Soweto of Haiti. To find people organizing under the horrendous conditions of this massive urban slum within Port-au-Prince was quite inspirational. We didn’t get a full sense of how they do it, but there is underground organizing there.

Both these journalists had been beaten. One had both arms broken, and one cast had just been removed that morning. He reported to us that people in Cite Soleil are so adamant about democracy, there’s graffiti all over denouncing Cedras and saying, we want “Titid” (Aristide) back.

We heard shooting around the guest house. One person staying at the hospice had put his mattress outside to sleep in the fresh air, a bullet whizzed past his head. Police were shooting up the neighborhood. This is their method of intimidating communities—and people get killed that way.

We saw tremendous contrast, when we were able to get to the suburban areas of Port-au-Prince. In Petionville, the wealthy suburbs, the owners have built walled fortresses to protect themselves from the people—even though the crime rate in Haiti isn’t at all high, in comparison for example with Jamaica.

Conditions in Haitian prisons are an international scandal, with twenty-four people crowded in a tiny cell without basic sanitation. There is so little food that Prisoners agreed to take turns eating, they eat every other day. We were told of one starving prisoner whose stomach shrank so much that when his turn to eat came he died.

The Friends of Prisoners told us about some of the projects they had been able to start under Aristide. They had started to put pumps in the cells, and were able to go into the cells and talk to the prisoners. Now they can only see people through a very tiny window. From accounts of how prisoners live, you don’t even want to think about it.

After all that to go to the UN-OAS and hear them talk about the danger of “people’s revenge” was very disturbing.

ATC: In our earlier interview [ATC 43] we discussed aspects of the Clinton administration’s blockade of refugees, and the U.S. economic and political strategy toward Haiti. What can you add from what you saw on this visit as well as other recent events?

CG: An organization called the U.S. Catholic Conference has been contracted by the U.S. embassy to prepare files for asylum claims. They do the initial interview, then someone comes from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to do the official interview.

Here again, we got a sense from the person in charge of the office that they expect to have many asylum claims from the military, in expectation of revenge after Aristide’s return. They say that “both sides” are potentially criminal and that the military face repression too! Only when you press them do they say that they’re “not talking about now,” but what they anticipate.

Democracy for Dollars

One gets the impression that a situation is being set up in advance where President Aristide and those perceived as his supporters will be accused of human rights abuses, so that he has to be “equally” monitored. The OAS monitoring mandate goes till next June, to overlap with Aristide’s return. They told us their role then would remain the same, to monitor “abuses on both sides.”

The impression I got is that the United States is pushing for the return of some kind of formal, top-down democracy. Actually, when you look at the terms of the agreements it isn’t even formally democratic, because it violates many points of the Haitian constitution. It’s evident that the process is geared toward preempting and excluding any role for the popular organizations.

A military dictatorship is too volatile for U.S. interests, especially because it Might lead to revolution. They want a formal, constitutional solution with the State Department’s Agency for International Development (USAID) program in place. They are already plotting Haiti’s economic future, negotiating contracts, mobilizing their technical experts with an eye to planning Haiti’s economy to replace peasant agriculture with export-oriented agribusiness and maquiladora-type miniplants.

You see them now, in the Land-rovers. Some of the USAID reports document the appalling conditions and low wages. But when Aristide proposed to increase the daily minimum wage from three Haitian dollars to five, AID conducted a systematic campaign against it, claiming he was going to destroy Haiti’s economy and investment opportunities.

A report has come out from the National Labor Committee, called “Haiti After the Coup: Sweatshop or Real Development?” It denounces the role of AID and the National Endowment for Democracy. And the House of Representatives did pass a law, which is now in Senate hearings, to restrict the role of AID and to dismantle NED as it now exists. Yet we still see this same “solution” being plotted for Haiti.

The time has come for the U.S. labor movement to express proactive solidarity with Haitian workers, not just solidarity fed by protectionist impulses, for example, over the fear or threat of job loss. I believe the U.S. left should look much more closely at the struggles of students, workers and peasants in Haiti in the months ahead.

September-October 1993—ATC 46