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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 162 | Enero 1995



Geoculture: The Key to Understanding Haiti?

Aristide is back. He was a prophet. He has been a priest. Now he is “king”. His political movement Lavalas (Avalanche) has lost many cadres and members, but it is still there, because it has not one head but a thousand feet. It is still there, ready to build the future.

Xabier Gorostiaga

Haiti is a small, but extremely complex country. What is happening and will happen in the country's nearly 28,000 square miles could well be transcendental. Is this the first post Cold War experience in US Latin American relations? Or it is just one more disappointing episode along the lines of the United States' historically erroneous policy in its backyard?

The US Army is Everywhere

I have followed Haiti's recent history very closely, especially since the dechouquage of Jean Claude Duvalier in 1986. After that dynastic dictatorship was toppled, I took part in a month of seminars with Haiti's Christian base communities and at the university in Haiti. In February 1991, President Aristide invited me to his inauguration. I just returned to Haiti, a visit that coincided with the installation of Haiti's new Cabinet on November 7. Scarcely a month had passed since the US Army's "friendly intervention" and Aristide's return.

Being so fondly involved with Haiti and with Jean Bertrand Aristide, it is hard for me to offer an objective and meaningful analysis after this brief visit. I find objectivity particularly difficult, coming from Central America: from a Panama that was invaded, from Nicaragua and El Salvador in their dramatic post war situations. My mental categories and fibers of affection were shaken by an earthquake of sorts when, upon arriving at the Port au Prince airport, I found it taken over by the US Army. As I crossed the streets, I constantly came into contact with US armored artillery vehicles on patrol. Perhaps the biggest shock of all was when, invited to the Presidential Palace by President Aristide, I was met by US Army officials who scrupulously checked me over before I entered.

Given this scene, it is not surprising that Nicaraguan and other Central American media friendly to Haiti and Aristide speak of his "brainwashing" by the gringos, of the cooptation of his new government, of the tragic end to an experience that many of us considered to be the first peaceful revolution of civil society in all of Latin America.

"Aristide Brought the Gringos!"

When Gerard Pierre Charles and Rony Smarth picked me up at the airport on November 3, I asked about the role of the US troops. Gerard 's answer was, "The enemies of my enemies can be collaborators." "For how long?," I queried. He answered with a somewhat worried smile that is still with me today.

I asked the same question of countless friends in the Christian base communities, of theologians, intellectuals and artists. In general, they feel hope and even some optimism. Perhaps the most surprising and possibly the most Haitian response was given by the residents of Cité Soleil. It is the poorest, most unsanitary place I can remember seeing, more miserable than the slums of Río de Janeiro or Sao Paulo or the many marginal areas in Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Worse than Central America's numerous Acahualincas [one of Managua's largest slums, right next to the city's main garbage dump]. I have never seen anything so desolate. When I asked the impoverished but happy residents of Cité Soleil the same question I had put to everyone else I encountered, they answered, "The gringos didn't bring Aristide. Aristide brought the gringos, to free us from Cedrás and the Tontons Macoutes."
Unanimity was complete in the tumult of commentaries by those Haitians, who wanted to explain very carefully to me, so I would understand, that it was Aristide who had brought the gringos and would, in the near future, be bringing Clinton as well. "This is a victory for Aristide," they told me. "Haven't you noticed that he arrived with 13 helicopters and he was in the third one?" I had to ask the two Haitian Jesuits accompanying me the "cabalistic" and cultural significance of the numbers 13 and 3. Only that way could I understand Aristide's "military strategy," encoded in those US helicopters.

Serious Questions to Haiti

I could relate many other anecdotes in which cultural elements prevail over political or economic ones. Cultural codes are difficult for an economist like me to understand. But, without going into this country's cultural code, it is very hard to interpret either its history or current reality.

Haiti is also incomprehensible if its crisis is not situated after those in Somalia, Chiapas, Rwanda and the ongoing, uncontrollable one in Bosnia. Haiti is incomprehensible without the Gulf War and the fact that Saddam Hussein remains in power despite his military defeat, with the Western nations incapable of unseating him. It is incomprehensible without the invasion of Panama, and the electoral defeat of the "sepoy" government the United States installed there, headed up by President Endara. The failure of the "made in USA" formula in Panama led to the victory of the nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party and the new progressive Papá Egoró party in the recent elections.

All I am left with is questions. With Haiti, are we beginning the first experience of the post Cold War era in these hot climes of the Caribbean and Central America? After the US Army's thoroughgoing failure in Somalia, and after the indigenous insurrection in Chiapas the very day that NAFTA took effect, are we seeing in Haiti a new reality, where geoculture can compete with geopolitics and geoeconomics? Are we not entering an era of uncertainty, which draws in even the most ardent defenders of neoliberalism, those who have to recognize the failure of their policies in Africa, Latin America, and even "model" countries like Mexico? Will the upcoming Social Summit in Copenhagen in March 1995, in which poverty, unemployment and social integration are to be discussed, be the breaking point of an ideological and totalitarian vision of the market economy as the building block of democracy?
These questions clearly go beyond the case of Haiti. But we would not be adequately interpreting events there if we did not have this framework of questions in both the head and the heart.

"I'll Have to Speak More"

On November 7, President Aristide's Cabinet was sworn in. "We are entering a new phase in the restoration of democratic power in Haiti," Aristide remarked to me. He will hand over the reins of power to the Cabinet so he can stay abreast of and attend to the many demands and needs that the Haitian population has accumulated in the last few years.

Jean Bertrand Aristide has been criticized for being extremely careful and temporizing in his selection of this pluralistic Cabinet. He is criticized for hiding, for his scant public presence, for his silence and foot dragging. In the over two hour interview I had with him on November 7, I reminded him of these criticisms.

"Certainly, it has been a slow process," Aristide admitted. "Could it have been fast? The presidential palace was totally sacked. There was no telephone, no water, no desks or chairs. Nothing. To be able to communicate, to meet with people has been extremely difficult and complex, for both infrastructural and security reasons. I can't create too much tension for the US Army with public appearances or with my movements. It could cause an unwanted incident. US soldiers aren't used to seeing crowds who want to touch and speak with their President. In addition, the FRAPH and the Tontons Macoutes still have a lot of weapons.

"It's true that up to now I haven't spoken enough. I'm going to do that after the government gets established. At the beginning, it was important to listen to all the sectors and take stock of the balance of forces and expectations existing today in Haiti. I think that a stage has now begun in which I'll have to speak more frequently. I'll be able to move more freely once we've guaranteed a minimum of security."
Before leaving his office I asked President Aristide about his future plans. He confirmed his wish to go back to work with the base and dedicate himself to training and organizing the people. He showed no interest in reelection, in continuing in office, which neither is the seat of power nor has the capacity to transform Haiti.

Resigning the Priesthood

President Aristide alluded to the scant international aid his country has received, despite so many generous offers made publicly and with much fanfare. Nonetheless, he is confident that, with the new government and the various ministers entrusted to each sector, international aid will soon begin to flow.

From the institutional point of view, the next phase awaiting the country is to prepare for the legislative elections. Aristide wants them to be held soon if possible, at the beginning of January.

He also told me he would go that same week to the Haitian Cape, to meet with Monsignor Francois Gayot, president of the Bishops' Conference, to improve relations with the Catholic hierarchy. And he showed me his brief but eloquent letter of resignation from the priesthood, which the hierarchy had been demanding since 1990, and reiterated upon his return to the country. Aristide told me that resigning from the priesthood had been one of the saddest moments of his life; he compared it to "cutting off an arm without anesthesia." But he felt that accepting this demand is crucial to normalizing relations with the Vatican and getting the Papal Nuncio to present his credentials. Aristide was, however, worried about the reaction of the Christian communities and had requested the priests and religious workers to prepare a pastoral letter that would make his decision comprehensible to the people.

Development "From Below"

Aristide thinks that, after the legislative elections, the country will enter into "its hardest stage" economic reactivation and new development plans. I told the President of my serious concern that the orthodox structural adjustment policies applied in Nicaragua and other Central American countries would be implemented in Haiti. Aristide responded that, though Haiti has more problems than Central America, it also has some comparative advantages: it has no foreign debt and has a flow of family remittances from Haitians living in the States of more than $400 million annually. He has thus established a Ministry of the Haitian Diaspora to efficiently and autonomously channel these funds and the human capital of so many Haitian emigrants.

Aristide hopes to organize development from below, to mobilize the population, stressing education and the increasing satisfaction of basic needs, helping people see that their own efforts, more than international assistance, will be key to overcoming their extreme poverty and reach a situation of poverty with dignity.

In sharing my concerns with him, I reiterated that the international financial organizations have not, up to now, demonstrated the capacity to understand this kind of "trickle up" policy, that they are holding fast to their adjustment policies based on the market, still dreaming of a growth in which wealth "trickles down" a "dream" that has not become reality anywhere in the world.

Aristide is well aware of the arduous economic challenges ahead and the need to prepare both the executive and legislative branches to claim their own spaces and spark a development process responding to Haiti's dramatic conditions. He is also convinced of the need for an ecological revolution that would transform Haiti's aridness into an example of ecological regeneration based on the efforts and culture of the entire population. "What is key," he insisted, "is an educational effort and an investment in human capital."

The Dominican Republic and Cuba

Claudet Weirgli, Haiti's new Foreign Minister, was Aristide's preferred candidate for Prime Minister. Known in the Vatican for her commitment as a lay Christian and by NGOs and international organizations for her longstanding work in education, Weirgli was enviably calm and serene as she described for me the tremendous problems the country faces. She told me of her interest in playing an active role in the recently created Association of Caribbean States, the Hemispheric Summit in Miami (December 1994) and the Social Summit in Copenhagen (March 1995).

She was surprised and concerned when I showed her newspapers from the Dominican Republic, dated November 5. Although the front pages announced a possible trade agreement between Santo Domingo, Haiti and the United States, she knew nothing of this proposal. Haitian Dominican relations and the need to establish open and constructive links between the two countries is an urgent issue.
The situation must be avoided in which what is known in Santo Domingo as the "Haitian boom" turns into a commercialization of aid to Haiti, flooding the country with goods from Santo Domingo and Miami across the common border.

The visit of a group of Dominican parliamentarians in November began the definition of constructive guidelines for the future, which will move beyond the sad role played by the Dominican Army and that country's elite. Their violation of the international embargo with contraband petroleum and their facilitation of drug trafficking further enriched Cedrás military officers.

Weirgli also told me that what happens in Cuba will be key to Haiti's future. Cuba's link to the Haitian diaspora and special relations with both France and Canada are basic themes of the foreign policy she is guiding.

Five Suggestions

Invited by CRESFED, a sister institution to CRIES, and thanks to the extraordinary interpretation and comments of Gerard Pierre Charles into Creole, I accepted an invitation to speak in Port au Prince on the situation in Nicaragua and Central America. In the end, it became a comparative reflection on Central America and Haiti. From this perspective, I took the liberty of making five suggestions to the Haitians.

1.Draft a social economic pact that would allow for the creation of a national consensus with which to confront the country's dramatic situation.

2. Create a Social and Economic Council, autonomous from the Economic Cabinet but approved by the President, to serve as a sounding board and an exercise in open reflection about the country's overall economic reactivation process.

3. Form a National NGO Council, to define nationally the rules of the game for international cooperation in Haiti. In the absence of this, international cooperation could play a polarizing role and leave no space for the search for an authentically Haitian solution. The international cooperation organizations and NGOs that do not accept the conditions set by Haiti should not be accepted into the country.

4. Establish total transparency in budget and foreign cooperation dealings, in such a way that both councils can forecast events and mobilize social actors.

5. Require the international financial institutions to create a national coordinating commission to ensure that their efforts and assistance not counteract each other.

Perhaps these suggestions, born out of experience in Nicaragua and Central America, could help the Haitians avoid the useless costs we Central Americans have paid for flesh and blood.

Prophet, Priest, King

I visited the Don Bosco Church, still destroyed by fire, where I first met Jean Bertrand Aristide Father "Titid" so many years ago. I also went to the tomb of Father Jean Marie Vincent, one of Aristide's best friends and advisers, murdered only days before Aristide returned to the country. I spoke with Christian base community leaders and theologians and felt from them a hope at times so great that it was difficult for me to relate to it.

Asking them about the space Aristide has to defend himself from US cooptation, about the pressures from the bishops and his resignation from the priesthood, a dear Haitian friend and Jesuit told me: "Aristide has been a prophet, he is a priest, and now it falls to him to be king [President]. It would be hard to live these three Christian charismas simultaneously and in an integrated way. Today is the moment for the wisdom of Aristide's government. The charisma of prophet, along with that of priest, will have to submit to this new charisma."
This interpretation of the facts prevails in the Christian communities. They feel that, once a new and more positive relationship with the Vatican is established, a number of the bishops will take a more benevolent stance and cooperate with the reconstruction of the country. But people do not forget, and there is strong resentment in the Christian communities against the Vatican for having been the only government in the world to recognize the Cedrás government. Everything indicates that the Christian communities will need time to accept Aristide's resignation from the priesthood.

Questions and Criticisms

In days so full of new experiences and reflections, I was able to meet with diverse groups of Haitian intellectuals and artists. They, too, were guided by an attitude of constructive hope, but did not lack the realism to take into account the many conditions, limitations and lack of space facing Aristide. There is consensus among them that the current process will be slow, that at least 10 years will be needed to consolidate a new stage in Haiti's history and development.

Among university professors and students, the atmosphere was much more critical, even aggressive. Criticisms of Aristide's slow pace and of concessions he has made to the bourgeoisie were sharp. They did not agree with the make up of the new Cabinet, and were particularly critical of the new Minister of Construction. They repeatedly mentioned that the Haitian experience was just a dress rehearsal for a US invasion of Cuba and that AID, IMF and World Bank policies rather than those prepared by the Cabinet will determine the country's future. They were especially harsh in their assessment of AID and the new NGOs invading the country. "They are creating artificial NGOs to divide the longstanding NGOs, which have been working in the country for years," they told me.

I found similar criticisms voiced by foreign journalists, who believe a new period of destabilization is being prepared for 1995. These journalists pointed to the potential problem of the attitude taken by the US army, which is reluctant to disarm the FRAPH "squads." Particularly in the country's interior areas, many area residents know where the FRAPH has stockpiled arms. They have reported this to US troops, but the arms have not been confiscated. Many told me that "they're creating a parallel government of NGOs, working with the FRAPH, to make it difficult for Aristide to govern autonomously."
These meetings with student leaders and their professors were not easy. I sensed a great deal of irritation about not getting answers to their concerns and about lacking sufficient channels of participation. I also observed a division between the positions taken by the OPL (Lavalás Party Organization) and those held by the FDNC, the coalition that brought Aristide to power and has put forward Paul Evans, current mayor of Port au Prince, as its upcoming presidential candidate.

Will Clinton be Able To?

On several occasions, Aristide mentioned to me his empathy with Presidential Clinton, which was inspiring him to maintain a constructive relationship with Washington. He even thinks an upcoming Clinton visit to Haiti could happen.

Will the recent US elections allow this hope to stay alive? Can Clinton, reeling from the recent Republican landslide, still fulfill the offers and commitments made to Aristide? Or will the Jesse Helms act alikes in the new Senate, House and governorships destroy the possibility of inaugurating a more constructive US policy towards Latin America is in Haiti? And will the statements by Helms regarding Cuba, Haiti and Proposition 187 in California be what dominates US foreign policy? If the latter, the "new international order" will be revealed to be pure image and a fully devalued one at that.


(Haitian-Latin American Encounter, International Liaison Office)
1. Reform the Armed Forces and Police
The first key to establishing a lasting democratic order in Haiti is to professionalize the armed forces. The Army will be apolitical, as established in the 1987 Constitution, and its function will be to protect the security and integrity of the national territory and to participate in development programs.

The Army which today has 7,000 members and absorbs 40% of the national budget will be reduced to 1,500. There will be three categories: 1) those who will be incorporated into the new Army; 2) those who will be transferred to the Police; 3) those who will return to civilian life. No member of the paramilitary groups will be allowed into the new Army.

The Police must be created with the help of international experts organized by the UN. The new Police, which will replace the arbitrary and violent regime of the chiefs of section, will assure the maintenance of public order and protect the life and goods of citizens.

2. Reform the Judicial System
Haitians today have no access to the judicial system. To guarantee a stable and just democracy and eradicate corruption, independent justice will have to be assured. To this end infrastructure must be developed and institutional structures established. At a minimum, 9 Appeals Courts, 24 Courts of First Recourse and 350 Peace Courts must be created. Technical and professional training must be carried out immediately at all levels of the legal apparatus. It is also necessary to renew many obsolete fundamental laws and establish specialized courts to achieve more efficiency and decongest the civil courts.

3. Reform the State and Economy
Only within the reconciliation framework, the State will have to be renovated, redefined, decentralized and freed from the usual forms of corruption. The goal is a small, more strategic, more competent State. The new State must favor the initiatives and energy of all sectors of civil society, putting an end to the monopolist structures that have kept the great majority of Haitians on the outside. A development model will have to be defined that goes beyond the alternative phase between two models the protectionist one and the neoliberal one and that favors the growth of small and medium sized business, both national and foreign. The assistance of the international community will be fundamental.

It will be necessary to recover the 140,000 jobs lost since the State coup; develop regional level financial structures; implement a progressive fiscal policy that penalizes tax dodgers; stop the depreciation of the national money (today $1=20 gourdes, before the coup $1=7 gourdes); stop inflation, which today has reached 60%; determine concrete goals to reduce the State deficit; guarantee workers' rights; stimulate participation and investment by the Haitian diaspora; democratize property rights; assure the basis for stable self sufficiency in food production.

It will be necessary to invest massively in training the population and constructing an infrastructure that provides roads, transport, communication, potable water and electricity to the whole country.

4. Education, Health, Environment
It is necessary to reverse the Haitian government's historic negligence of basic human needs. In 1990, total public spending in health, education and nutrition was less than $8 per person. In 1987, only 23% of Haitians had access to health services and only 38% had access to potable water. In 1994, only 750,000 children, of a total of 2,000,000, went to school. It is necessary to create schools for all and to implement literacy campaigns throughout the country, with practical and creative programs according to local needs.

Haiti today has 1 doctor for every 7,000 persons, 1 nurse for every 2,200 inhabitants, 1 hospital bed for every 1,300 inhabitants. It is indispensable to improve this situation and the health system.

A climate of political stability will also permit Haiti to recover the green spaces, thus cutting the vicious circle in which the increase in rural poverty and reduction of agricultural productivity lead peasants to ever more environmentally degrading practices. Rural organizations, with total security to organize and participate, are the basis for innovations in rural development and the dissemination
of ecological information.


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