Sowing the seeds for a grassroots revival.
These are dark days in Haiti. The promise of economic renewal funded by international development aid has come to nothing. Impunity for human rights violators has given birth to a pervasive sense of insecurity. Common crime is on the increase, and the new police force at times seems almost out of control. The worst of a number of recent incidents occurred at the end of May in Port-au-Prince when a group of senior police officers, three of them former soldiers, allegedly handcuffed and then shot dead 11 people.
Perhaps most worrying of all is that a once vibrant political scene in which grassroots organisations played an active role is now moribund, reduced to a struggle for power between politicians almost totally disconnected from the population. In this context, general elections scheduled for later this year elicit almost universal disdain.
For an analysis of the state of the popular, grassroots sector at this time, Haiti Briefing talked to Rose Anne Auguste, a militant activist and organiser throughout the years since the fall of the Duvaliers. Rose Anne grew up in the southern city of Jérémie, and moved to Port-au-Prince in the mid-1980s to study at the Nurse’s School. There she was instrumental in the founding of a students’ association which joined the new National Federation of Haitian Students (FENEH) – at that time one of the most dynamic forces for social change. Her organising activities got her expelled from the school, but she later completed her nursing studies while continuing to campaign with the Union of Nursing Personnel. In 1992, she founded the Carrefour Feuilles Women’s Health Clinic to provide health care and counselling in one of Port-au-Prince’s largest slum areas. The clinic was originally set up to serve people who had suffered torture or were in hiding because of their political activities.
Rose Anne makes no bones about the crisis affecting the once influential popular, grassroots movement. “There has been a serious deterioration of the popular movement, and this has given our enemies in the imperialist camp quite an opening to place their pawns more strategically.”
Charismatic leaders and demobilisation
While recognising that the extreme repression inflicted on the popular organisations during the 1991-94 coup years accounts for much of the demobilisation within the movement, she also attributes many of the problems to the weakness of the Lavalas current, and to the orientation of the Lavalas government since the end of the coup regime in 1994. “People believed in certain charismatic leaders who said that they wanted change, but then people saw that they didn’t do any better than the Duvaliers – they were reproducing the same system.”
She added, “Of course the imperialists have been manipulating things behind the scenes, but we have to be clear that there has been a lack of will, and an incorrect attitude on the part of many former leftists in the country. All these things taken together have lead the population to lose confidence in the struggle.”
Echoing the now oft-repeated charge that the recent demonstrations in the capital city have involved people in the pay of political forces, Rose Anne bemoans the current political climate: “What we can see today is that this population, that was once willing to participate in policies for the construction of the country, now has to be manipulated. Five or six years ago, the people would demonstrate on the streets, but now they have to be paid to go out.”
A government of lackeys
Rose Anne is clear that the Haitian government controlled by the Lavalas OPL party since 1995 bears much of the responsibility for the current state of affairs: “We have had a government that has not had any real room for manoeuvre. They are lackeys of the bilateral (funding) organisations, and they don’t take into account the economic situation of the population. The government is there because there has to be some form of government – no more than that. The population that faces this government is demobilised, watching what is happening, and sometimes would like to rise up, but is reflecting on the trauma of the coup years.”
For Rose Anne, the fact that the international aid money has not brought about any noticeable improvements for the poor majority is not surprising. “If there were people with political will (in the government), even with a small amount of money they could effectively accompany the people. But what is in fact happening is that there is complicity. Money comes from the North and goes back to the North. There is no real development – because the way that the international community organises it, there can never really be self-development for the countries of the South.”
She blames the OPL government and the current government selected by President Préval for participating in a failed development strategy. “The international community, together with the kind of government we have here, are accomplices. When you look at the reality of this country – the environmental degradation, the socio-economic crisis, the lack of education – what is really happening with the aid money? Well, we are not on the same wavelength at all. For example, at a time when the mountains do not have a single tree, they are cleaning the irrigation canals! Their interventions do not correspond to our reality. I don’t think they are stupid, they are experts. It’s just that they have their own agenda.”
The absence of any alternative strategy to the neo-liberal agenda is, according the Rose Anne, one of the worst failings of the Lavalas government. “There are alternative ideas for fund-raising so we do not have to fall into the trap of structural adjustment, and building roads all over the place when there isn’t even any basic social infrastructure for the population. But people are not thinking about the interests of the country. For them it is globalisation or nothing. The modernisation they talk of is simply the modern form of poverty. That is not to say we can work without any international aid. We do need the solidarity of other governments and other peoples, but what is needed is vision in order to negotiate well, and that is what is lacking here.”
She insists that alternatives to neo-liberal structural adjustment programme do exist: “Half the money we borrow from the International Monetary Fund, we could borrow from Haitians living abroad. Instead of giving tiny plots of land to individuals, large plots could be allocated to collectives so that they could really increase production in the context of environmental protection. There could be health and education programmes at a macro-economic level, not like how the World Bank approaches it, splattering money around.”
Aristide is not the solution
While critical of the OPL branch of the Lavalas movement, Rose Anne is no less damning of the rival Fanmi Lavalas lead by former president Aristide: “I’m not one who thinks the country can depend on Aristide. There are different groups that support him who he can’t control, and they each have their own agenda. Most of them do not have the country’s interests at heart, and only want to take power to make money. Even if Aristide is repeating some nice ideas, he is not part if any organised structure that would guarantee any real change for the population. In any case, we can look at the example of when he returned to power in 1994/5 – it was a catastrophe.”
The level of corruption and manipulation across the established political spectrum convinces Rose Anne that genuine militants in favour of social and political change should not be drawn into contests for political office. She believes that, “There is more important work to be done – more structured work at the grassroots level, helping people to understand the issues better.”
Starting from scratch
“Demobilisation of the popular movement has taken a chronic form right now, to the point where militants who are aware of this talk about starting from zero. Constant work is needed, and it won’t be easy to re-launch a movement of popular organisations quickly.”
According to Rose Anne, this work of sowing the seeds for a grassroots revival has begun: “There are reflection and discussion groups that are trying to analyse the situation, and are asking themselves how they can redevelop something. But we can’t really speak of a base movement. We are faced with very serious problems, and the demobilisation is very real, but efforts are being made to see how we can try to articulate activities. I am not totally negative. It’s complex but not hopeless