Haiti’s movement from below endures
Despite those in power trying to keep him out, the return of Aristide to Haiti has rekindled hope among the poor.
One crowd gathers in support of the former president, Jean-Bertand Aristide, now returned from exile
As twice ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his family were escorted out from the airport tarmac in Port-au-Prince, loud chants of “Titid, Titid, Titid” rose from an ecstatic gathering that filled every space of a causeway leading out from the airport.
Sitting on walls, a few climbing a telephone pole, rows of youth jumped in excitement at the return of Aristide from exile in South Africa – a heroic figure for the people whose history is one indelibly rooted in resistance.
As the gates swung open for two police vehicles, an SUV with dark tinted windows and a white van carrying guests, an airport grounds man with a huge smile on his face clasped the hands of a skinny police officer motioning the cars through.
Heavily armed UN soldiers with sky-blue helmets stood in rows some 30 meters away.
The caravan made its way alongside the airport route. In waves, thousands poured in from the slums carrying flags and banners on foot. One man dressed as Jean Jacques Dessalines – the founding leader of Haiti – charged down the street atop a horse, waving the crowd forward. Many were on motorcycles or piled into trucks zooming through the dusty air.
Movement songs rang out. “Nou pap janm trayi san nou, san nou se san Aristide… li menm ki rasanble nou tout, fok nou tout ansanm fe youn” sang the jubilant flood of people, calling for unity in struggle.
A small group of former presidential security men and police provided escort. Around them surged a crowd estimated at between 7,000 to 15,000 strong.
Upon reaching the grounds of Aristide’s home, crowds jumbled inside- sitting on trees and opening the side gate to let more in. It was so packed in the area around the front door that the family could barely make its way inside their house.
The return of an icon
In recent weeks, rumours swirled of Aristide’s return. For decades he has been the most popular figure among Haiti’s rural poor and urban slum dwellers.
Even with a resource-starved state his administrations launched a steady stream of social investment programs [PDF]: building more schools than in any time in the country’s history, a national literacy ALPHA campaign, constructing and refurbishing medical clinics, the hospital of La Paix, and a university training doctors with the help of Cubans.
The poor have not forgotten this. Even under intense pressure from foreign powers, Aristide was able to disband Haiti’s brutal military and refuse to go forward on privatisation sell-offs of state institutions that René Préval, his technocrat predecessor, took up.
Aristide is one of the few living people referred to as a hero by those in the tent cities dotting the capital after the January 11, 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand people, possibly more.
On the day of his return, one group of Cité Soleil residents explained that they were unsure of what time Aristide’s plane was landing.
The expected day and time of the arrival kept shifting, as powerful forces worked to avert the return. Adding to the confusion, perhaps intentionally, one elite radio station falsely broadcast that his plane would not arrive until March 22nd.
Many in the crowd chanted that the “eleksyon/seleksyon” in the next few days was “fini” – worthless. Maryse Narcisse, official spokeswoman of Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas (FL), called for a general boycott. Aristide denounced the continued exclusion of FL from elections just after he landed.
One of the biggest concerns FL now faces is reorganising. FL today remains widely popular among Haiti’s poor majority – surviving against all odds – but its infrastructure has been weakened over the years.
Those remaining closest around Aristide are battle-scarred veterans of Haiti’s social conflict, who remained steadfastly loyal as Aristide and his movement were relentlessly slandered by media monopolies over the years.
Most of these core leaders are in their 40s or 50s, variously targeted for assassination, thrown in jail, or pushed into exile by the illegal regimes that took office after the coups against Aristide in 1991 and 2004.
Many in the movement fondly remember fallen comrades such as Lovinsky Pierre Antoine, one of many brilliant grassroots organisers of FL who was disappeared – the tell-tale sign of a rightist paramilitary hit job.
Setbacks aside, FL remains the only national level popular movement. It has the potential, in some ways, to be better organised and more effective than it was in the past, to learn from its successes and failures.
No longer dragged down by the opportunistic politicians who attached themselves to Lavalas after it returned to office in 1994 (with international support), which then jumped ship when the US-financed opposition gained strength.
The FL leadership remaining is more principled, committed, and progressive. The legend of the movement’s struggle, and Aristide’s refusal (alongside others in FL) to bow to elite pressure still has the hearts of many of the capital’s impoverished youth and rural families across the countryside.
Yet sectors of Haitian society have become politically apathetic, basically exhausted by years of political violence.
The Michel Martelly campaign, one of two candidates now running for the presidency, has sought to tap into apathy and disillusionment with a massive text and voice message cell phone campaign, propelling a corporatist project through hip rhetoric.
While most appeared disinterested in the elections, Martelly’s campaign has had some success.
Problems at the polls
It was clear that with the first round of elections on November 28, 2010, many people were either unwilling or unable to vote.
The two final contenders from that round received a total of 10.4% according to the initial results; 4.3% voted for Martelly and 6% voted for Manigat. With an extremely low 27.1% of registered voters taking part, the bar was set low for the second round.
It is not yet clear how the voting for the second round of the (s)election, on March 20, has gone.
Al Jazeera found at one polling station that voting papers were missing. According to independent election monitors and some mainstream media it was a lower turnout but generally peaceful, while USAID and UN officials on the ground claimed it was slightly higher than the poorly attended first round.
In neighbourhoods and tent cities in the capital it was clear that many people were going on with their normal daily affairs.
Two independent journalists, Ansel Herz and Wadner Pierre, and myself, documented at two voting centres (at Building 2004 in central Port-au-Prince and another near the Karade tent city) that the same employees of Martelly’s campaign – in official ballot observer T-shirts – were handing out food, illegally campaigning and coordinating voters just yards away.
At another voting centre, election workers told us that a group shouting Martelly’s slogan “tet kale” attempted to pressure them into allowing the group to vote without IDs or inking themselves.
At a voting centre in Ti Plaz Kazo, a handful of supporters of Lavalas exclaimed they would vote for Martelly to give him a chance as a political outsider.
Martelly’s advertising campaign has been intense. But unknown to many he has also found allies amongst death squad leaders who reliable sources allege have cut deals with the DEA.
The Associated Press reports that 150 former soldiers are training in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour.
This is worrisome: In the past, paramilitary waves of terror were largely overlooked by the media here and the foreign journalists that parachute in for brief stints.
In the coming years, Martelly’s camp and a rejuvenated FL may well become the two major political movements.
For now the left has been excluded from elections, and the right remains very divided with a number of big business politicians calling fraud, and an elite former first lady Mirlande Manigat running against Martelly’s well-funded top down movement.
Reorganising a movement
While it is clear many have jumped on the Martelly bandwagon pumped up by Wyclef Jean and other popular musicians, I also spoke to some who were backing Manigat because of her academic background, or out of pure disgust at Martelly’s ultra rightist-affiliations or simply his vulgar public persona.
In Pétionville, the ‘green zone’ of Haiti’s capital – where posters of Martelly and Manigat plaster the walls – some residents will privately acknowledge their fondness for Aristide but cower in public conversations, scared of the reaction it might provoke among those heavily swayed by years of elite media propaganda.
Torn by coups and cataclysmic natural disasters, Haiti’s poor majority have successfully struggled for an inspirational victory with the return of Aristide and his family. Some lost their lives for it.
Their stories – such as the trials and tribulations of the late liberation priest Gérard Jean-Juste, a valiant anti-coup pro-democracy fighter until he lost his battle with cancer – are now part of a popular history.
While Aristide will undoubtedly serve as a key figure and strategist to a reorganising popular movement, his stated intention to invest his time in education is important.
His status can bring support and attention to grassroots projects that deserve significant help, such as those being launched on a shoestring budget at the Aristide Foundation for Democracy (Fondasyon Arisitid pou Demokrasi).
Lavalas and its affiliates around this country will need to strengthen their own discipline to avoid scuffles and rogue actions, that elites and the big business media never fail to pin on the movement as a whole or on Aristide personally – a longtime bogeyman who they conveniently blame for pulling all the strings of what is a disparate and truly dirt poor mass movement.
Building collectives within the tent cities, FL’s base could work with a new generation of youth alongside more veteran cadre and supporters.
The popular movement can come back stronger, shedding those that held it back and damaged it, while expanding its circle of solidarity. Its organisers know that it will have to navigate carefully the many odd alliances that will likely spring up and the eventual attempts by various opportunists to wiggle their way back into its ranks.
Following a historical and world trend
The same resistance that propelled Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Charlemagne Péralte, and Daniel Fignole, in many ways has been one single popular movement that has congealed throughout this country’s history – part of what the late anthropologist Eric Wolf described as resistance to 500 years of war against the poor in the Americas.
Crucially, the movement in Haiti, while bounded to its own historical significance, is not alone.
It shares much in common with the movements in the Middle East and the Bolivarian tide that has swept parts of Latin America but run up against an onslaught of destabilisation and its own problems.
Progressives in North America are well aware of Haiti’s struggle, as are many in Africa.
Haiti’s popular movement can find valuable allies amongst the ALBA bloc or amongst groups organising transnationally through the World Social Forum.
It can build up its training capabilities, able to benefit from its small middle class and socialist wings.
While US and UN officials have done everything in their power to keep Aristide from returning home, he is here now – accomplishing one of the major demands of the popular movement that has proven its resilience time and again.
Jeb Sprague is the author of the forthcoming book Haiti and the Roots of Paramilitarism and was the recipient of a 2008 Project Censored Award, who also regularly blogs and tweets. Also find here a link to Aristide’s entire return speech.