In February 2004, rebel forces in Haiti launched a successful armed campaign to overthrow populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Anti-Aristide militias, comprised mainly of soldiers from the disbanded Haitian army, seized power and a wave of violence engulfed the country. As the coup unfolded, hundreds of activists and members of the pro-Aristide Lavalas political party were jailed without charge, according to Amnesty International.
On May 9, 2004, just months after the coup, a contingent of U.S. Marines entered the home of Annette Auguste after midnight, arresting one of Haiti's most well-known folk singers, community leaders and prominent Lavalas supporters. Auguste, also known as So Ann ("Sister Anne" in Creole) was apprehended on suspicion of "possessing information that could pose a threat" to the U.S. troops operating in Haiti under the umbrella of the UN intern force.
"U.S. Marines destroyed my home, killed my dogs and abducted me in the middle of the night," says So Ann over the phone from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. "I was locked in prison for more than two years for my political beliefs and the conditions were terrible-a dozen women stuffed into a prison cell for two people."
So Ann, a 62-year-old grandmother, was released from jail in August 2006 after a major international campaign for her release, backed by Amnesty International. Next week, So Ann, considered a Haitian folk-hero, will be speaking and performing at a series of events in Montreal on one of her first international trips after prison.
Living the message
"I was just recently released from two years of prison without trial and I am going to Canada to tell the people about our struggles for freedom in Haiti," she says. "Montreal is going to hear about what the U.S. Marines did to me, the situation of Haiti's political prisoners and the coup against Aristide that the government of Canada supported." (Canada deployed 550 troops to the Caribbean island.)
"These are the simple reasons why I am coming all the way to snowy Montreal, even with my knees aching from my time in prison," she says. "I will also be in Montreal to play my music which tells of the Haitian peoples' long fight for justice."
So Ann's latest record, "So Ann, Political Prisoner: What else can they do to me?" was released in 2005 by the Manhattan-based Crowing Rooster Arts. With 11 tracks, the album showcases the voices of her 19-singer women's choir along with percussion, guitars and keyboards. Most impressive about the release is that it was officially released while So Ann was behind bars.
"So Ann lives the message she sings," says Kim Ives, a New York-based documentary filmmaker and long-time friend of So Ann. "Last September, after So Ann was released from prison, I went with her on her first return to CitÃ© Soleil (an impoverished district of Port-au-Prince); once word spread that So Ann was in the hood, thousands upon thousands filled the streets around her celebrating her release from jail."
So Ann's political history in Haiti stretches back beyond the 2004 coup to the brutal Duvalier era of the 1970.s. During the first years of the second Duvalier dictatorship, under Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, So Ann fled to the U.S., settling in Brooklyn, where she developed a heavy reputation within New York's Haitian Diaspora as a democracy activist and folk singer. She wrote Creole protest anthems against the Duvalier regime and the subsequent military juntas.
"My music tells of Haiti's struggle today and the story of our history," So Ann says. "From our independence victory over France in 1804 to the bloody years of Duvalier and the coups against Aristide, our story is full of suffering but also a strong will to struggle."
Prisons still full
Upon returning to Haiti in 1994, So Ann became a leading organizer within Aristide.s Lavalas party, forging a relationship of mutual respect with the president while becoming a heavyweight progressive political organizer in the country. Upon being released from prison, So Ann's political clout among Haiti's poor has grown. Today, her music, which reflects on the struggles of Haiti's downtrodden, who live in the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere, has made her more popular than ever, even as she remains committed to affecting change in her own country.
"[Haiti's current president and one-time Aristide ally RenÃ©] PrÃ©val is not using the power he was granted in the last elections to release all the political prisoners in Haiti's jails," she says. "Until all political prisoners are free, Haiti is not free."