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To pass on our experience: an interview with Patrick Elie

Patrick Elie is a Haitian activist who worked in the first Aristide administration. I interviewed him in Port au Prince on October 5, 2011.

Justin Podur (JP): Can we start with your analysis of the Preval administration of 2006-2011? What could he have accomplished under the circumstances? What did he accomplish?

Patrick Elie (PE): Preval was re-elected on a wave of hope and expectation by the Haitian popular movement and the Haitian masses in general. However – and this is where I had my differences with the approach that he took – I thought that given this popular enthusiasm, it was a time to make more radical changes. However, President Preval thought that what was the most important was stability. Based on that assumption, he played it really safe and created what he called a plural government, inviting other political groups who had been very strongly opposed to him and to Lavalas to join the government. He did calm the political scene somehow. However, I don't think that this will last. The only way stability is going to come to Haiti is through changes, not through keeping things quiet. He had a difficult job, but I still keep my assessment.

What dominated and undid most of the gains that Mr. Preval was able to make was the earthquake. This was a totally devastating blow for him politically and personally, as a human being, he was really shaken. There were inroads – infrastructure, road-building, the accent put on national production, and Mr. Preval always paid special attention to the Haitian peasant which I think is exactly right. But how much of these gains remain now?

JP: After the earthquake, Preval and others argued that the election should be delayed. What did you think about that argument?

PE: The election had to be delayed. In my opinion, it shouldn't have been delayed by a couple of months. I think the whole question of elections had to be put aside in view of the incredible emergency of that situation. It was not the time for political ambitions to play out. And I believe the way the elections turned out prove my point.

JP: Preval was pushing for a candidate, Jude Celestin, who eventually dropped out --

PE: Because of pressure from the international community. I think that Jude Celestin was a very poor choice as a candidate. Mr. Celestin had not been part of the democratic popular movement. He was almost like a rabbit pulled out of a hat. And also, I never understood what was the ideological or political cement holding that platform called “Unity”. It was a makeshift operation that gathered together people from all persuasions. So, in my opinion, it was doomed from the beginning.

Now of course the international community, especially the US, also helped to doom it. Not because of Mr. Celestin himself, but because in some indirect way, this would have meant a continuation of the Lavalas experience. Not because Mr. Celestin was Lavalas, but because whether he claims it or not, Mr. Preval originates from this movement. The US especially, but also Canada and France, thought that the moment had come to close this chapter of Haitian politics.

JP: Is it closed? What do you think of Martelly, the government that came out of the electoral process?

PE: It is a catastrophe. I've been involved in politics for many years, since I was seven years old, and I have rarely felt so fearful about the immediate future of Haiti. There are a number of reasons. The first is the popular movement as we speak – and I hope temporarily – is in disarray. There is no political offer. And the political leadership needs to be renewed, reinvigorated with new ideas, using the experiences that we had during those 25 years, good and bad, and this has not really started yet. The second reason I am fearful is that the US has had a vision for Haiti, to shape it, to destroy the independence of the small Haitian peasant landowners who have some kind of autonomy. It started in 1915 with the first occupation and it has never relented. It went through phases – dictatorship, the economic weapon, but now, the earthquake provided them with an incredible opportunity. Haiti's more dependent. The opportunity has arisen to shape it. And Martelly is perfect for that.

JP: Why is that?

PE: Martelly has no true political experience. He has no popular legitimacy. He is trying to do something that is utterly impossible: He is trying to restore the system from which he and his cohort benefited – the old dictatorship. It's not going to be possible, except in the short-term, and then it is going to fail miserably. You do not make history go backward. In his failure, he is going to wreak havoc on the country. Truly, what's going to happen, is that he's going to be on the stage, but the real people deciding the policy of Haiti is going to be the international community.

JP: How is that different from Preval though?

PE: Preval had political experience. He'd been a militant since the mid-1960s, and after that a companion of President Aristide. He had popular legitimacy which allowed him, dependent as Haiti is, some leeway that I don't think Mr. Martelly is going to enjoy.

JP: The big military force in Haiti for the past seven years has been the United Nations, the Brazilian-commanded MINUSTAH. Before the earthquake we used to hear about how the business community has been pressuring MINUSTAH to crack down on the poor neighbourhoods. Where has that gone since the earthquake?

PE: Compared to 2004-2006 it has reduced. MINUSTAH's action in the poor neighbourhoods has been much less brutal. I would surmise that the reason some of the people who called MINUSTAH are asking for its departure, is because they want the return of a so-called National Force, which would be more brutal in its interaction with the popular neighbourhoods.

JP: Martelly's in favour of this, too, and the argument is made on sovereignty grounds. This makes it difficult to simply say MINUSTAH should leave if it is going to be replaced with a reconstituted Haitian Army, even more beholden to the US.

PE: I don't think we should have simplistic choices. We need a public force in this country, like in any country. But we need one that is truly at the service of the nation and its population. We're being offered the choice between a foreign occupying force or an occupying so-called National Army. These are not choices to be accepted. A public force answering to the Haitian people could be built.

JP: Aristide was trying to do that with the PNH. How would the situation be different now, than then, for Martelly to try to build such a force?

PE: I was there while the PNH was being created. Haitian control of this force was very weak. It was a constant fight between what President Aristide wanted and what the US wanted to impose. Constant. What came out of that was what I call a “bastard” force, and in the years since it hasn't gotten any better. What it needs is a revamping, a reorientation, and some serious oversight.

JP: Which is what the UN claims it has been doing for the past seven years.

PE: If this is what they have to show for it after seven years, it is a disappointing result. They had almost all the power for seven years to decide and to instruct. In that sense I can understand why people are calling for them to depart.

Another worry that I have is that security in this country is mostly privatized. You have more private security here than police. Control by the state of these private security companies is feeble. We might go down another step. Whenever contractors from the US come in, whatever their business is, they always bring their own security apparatus. I think the Haitian state will have even less control on those foreign security companies than under the Haitian security companies.

JP: You suggested that movements need to learn from the past. This might be a good time to reflect. What mistakes do you think the movement made in the past few years?

PE: Just the other day I was talking to a friend. I said, although I hate the comparison between Lavalas and Martelly, there is one to be made. I think we underestimated the difficulty in bringing about profound change in this country and the obstacles and the counter-forces that we would be meeting. Martelly is underestimating the difficulty of rolling back history. I believe that in our attempt to change the Haitian political system and Haitian society, we were a bit naive, and in too much of a hurry.

On December 16, 1990, President Aristide was put in the National Palace. But the National Palace is only a building. It's not power. Power is has to do with the economy, the level of organization, the level of consciousness of the masses. This part we neglected. We didn't know enough about the network of economic, military, and diplomatic forces that were going to be opposing us with the utmost violence. That's how a President elected by almost the whole population, seven months later was deposed in a very violent coup. You don't lose power like that if you have it. My opinion is we never truly had power. What we discovered was the enormous possibilities that existed in the popular movement and the tremendous thirst for change and for dignity and for equality.

This even though economically, given two coups and a constant hostility, there were no real gains. The consciousness of their own existence as a potential force is probably our most important gain. But we have to build upon that.

JP: What about co-optation, the buying off of leaders, things like that?

PE: There was some of that. In 1990, it was not a political party that was elected. It was a leader, on an electable platform. Once again, same thing that resembled what Mr. Preval tried to put togeher recently, with people coming from different ideological backgrounds, etc. The future will have to rely more on the grassroots social movement rather than those makeshift political parties or electoral platforms. We have to rebuild that solid base.

JP: Is there any space for that, given the global trend of NGO-izing movements which is very strong here?

PE: It's a serious difficulty. Especially in the cities, people are becoming cynical. It's what's in it for me today, rather than what's in it for us tomorrow. It's much less so in the countryside. It has to be included in our equation and see how we can progress in spite of those difficulties. We also have a population that is very young. The people who voted for President Aristide back in 1990 are now on the downslope of their lives given the life expectancy in Haiti. Most Haitian people were not into their teens when that happened. There is an absolute necessity of education, of transmission of the experience of people my age, or even younger.

JP: Last question: Duvalier and Aristide came back in rapid succession of one another, and I'm still wondering about the timing and the politics of both happened.

PE: The return of Aristide had been a demand of the Haitian people. The timing had to do with the fact that Mr. Preval was still president, and had he waited a couple of months more, this return would not have happened --

JP: And maybe if he had done it sooner he would have been in trouble with the US.

PE: Yes, but to be frank, had I been president of Haiti, to see a leader returning that has more popularity than I do, would have rubbed me the wrong way. I do believe – and it was proven – that President Preval was not adverse to the return of President Aristide, no matter what differences might exist between them in style and vision, Mr. Preval made that possible.

Mr. Duvalier's return is a different story. Whatever his personal reasons, having to do with trying to get back some of the loot in Switzerland, I think it was also a test. One way to gauge the extent of the disarray of the Haitian masses. And so far it's a test that has been successful. The whole judicial process against Mr. Duvalier has been blocked. He obviously has the protection of the Haitian state, whereas President Aristide is still in some danger. It's obvious that people now in charge are hostile to him, and that his popularity is still very strong, at least in the cities. I don't know about the countryside. I think what he's done so far is the way to go. It's no time to have a head-on confrontation with the forces that are now operating in this country. I also think that as a movement, we should let go of electoral politics as our main purpose and go back to fundamentals – education, organization, and developing a vision that is truly national and rooted in the Haitian population.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He is in Haiti from Oct 3-10.

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