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The Raboteau Revolt
Burning barricades of smoldering tires mark every entrance to the liberated territory, a seaside slum which separates the dusty port town of Gonaïves from the Caribbean. Beyond the barricades, people watch tentatively from their stoops as men, women, and children drag rusted-out hulks of stripped sedans and broken-down market stands into the intersections. Graffiti proclaims Down with Aristide or wonders, bitterly: AristideThe people of Raboteau do not understand. Down the dirty lane, lined on both sides with green sewage-filled canals and dilapidated huts, hundreds of marchers are approaching, chanting, singing, and screaming their frustration and anger.
Tell the Americans to take their trash back, shrieks one woman, referring to the 1994 U.S. military occupation, which returned President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a three-year coup détat (1991-1994). Were finished with Aristide. We dont need him anymore. Aristide, traitor.
We made Lavalas, and look where it got us, says a young man, referring to Aristides Lavalas Family political party. This is Raboteau, the home of Amiot The Cuban Métayer, resistance leader during the coup and vocal Aristide supporter after the return, and in August, scene of the Raboteau Revolt when the slumled by Métayerrose up against the former parish priest turned president. The story behind the Revolt is also the story of the ugly underbelly of Aristides political machine and of the erosion of Haitis popular movement.
Métayer is the most well-known Aristide supporter and street leader in the coastal city of Gonaïves. During the coup, he and his family were repeatedly harassed and sometimes arrested for their connection to the now defunct Raboteau Democratic Popular Organization (OPDR), one of hundreds of popular organizations that resisted the military regime. Thus, when a delegation from the capital showed up on July 2 and said the president wanted to see him at the National Palace, Métayer was not surprised and got into the waiting vehicle. Once en route, however, he discovered he was headed to jail.
While authorities claimed Métayers arrest was unconnected, just one day earlier the Organization of American States (OAS) finally published its 80-page report on what the Aristide government and his Lavalas Family party calls the attempted coup détat of December 17, 2001. Early that morning, about 20 armed people entered the National Palace and occupied it for several hours, destroying some offices and then escaping. After a shoot-out and chase, where several people were injured and some police killed, most of the attackers escaped.
According to the OAS, and contrary to the claims of the government, the incident was not a coup attempt. While the report did not go as far as Aristides arch-rivals, the Democratic Convergence coalition of political parties, who claim it was an auto-coup cooked up to rally popular support, OAS investigators did say attackers had police complicity. More importantly, they listed a number of Lavalas officials and party members they say incited and aided the violent armed mob attacks against Convergence party members and headquarters which took place in several cities around the country the following day.
In Gonaïves, for example, the OAS said Métayer led an armed mob who torched buildings of a Convergence party and demanded to meet with its leader. Failing to find him, they grabbed a security guard, killed him with machete blows, and then torched his body with gasoline.
Rather than condemning that and other attackswhere over a dozen offices, homes, and cultural centers were burned and lootedthe next day Prime Minister Yvon Neptune praised them, saying: The people have identified their enemy.
But Lavalas is up against its own enemy, namely the Democratic Convergence, with whom it has been squabbling for two years over fraudulent elections. The dispute led foreign lenders and donors to freeze some $500 million in aid and loans. With the OAS as the chief mediator, the National Palace had to react to the July 1 report and Métayers arrest the following day is seen by many as an attempt to toss the OAS a token, since nobody elseand especially none of the Lavalas officialswas picked up.
The Cuban did not take his fall guy role lightly. He denounced Aristide in radio interviews, and in Gonaïves his supportersformer OPDR members and some thugs who now call themselves the Cannibal Armyerected burning barricades, torched the customs house, and covered city walls with graffiti. At one point, a delegation from the National Palace arrived in a helicopter to negotiate, some say with the help of a briefcase full of cash. Within hours, chants of Down with Aristide were replaced by Long live Aristide but free Métayer and overnight the word Down in anti-Aristide graffiti on scores of walls around town was replaced by Long live.
But the truce only lasted a few weeks. Daily demos soon resumed, and on August 2 Cannibal Army members brazenly hijacked a bulldozer and smashed a house-sized hole in the prison wall, freeing Métayer and some 150 others while their heavily armed soldiers kept the police and guardsmost of whom only carry revolversat bay. They also sacked and set fires at the Court House and City Hall and torched a police car and the citys only garbage truck.
In the demonstrations Métayeradorned in a red scarf to honor Ogou, the Voodou war spiritand Cannibal Army members called for the entire country to rise up together, because Aristide the traitor must go. Métayer, Simeon, and hundreds of others swear the National Palace called Métayer early on December 17 with orders to take to the streets with arms, to lock down the town, to torch opposition headquarters.
If they are going to arrest someone, it shouldnt be the Cuban, fumed Jean Simeon, a 54-year-old mason during a march. They should arrest Aristide, because he is the one who had them call us . We burned for him, we killed for him . We thought it was a coup.
By the end of the week, as suddenly as it had arisen, the Raboteau Revolt was over. Métayer sent his Cannibal Army back to the barracks and suddenly he had a team of six lawyers. He told reporters he had shouted Down with Aristide with only half his heart and his lawyers said he did not break out of jail but was kidnapped, forcibly, at gunpoint.
Today, the fugitive is living a couple of blocks from the police station, occasionally meeting with reporters and preparing his defense. Ordinary Raboteau residents have stopped marching and shouting, only to resume their usual more cautious and cryptic form of complainingelliptical and quiet grumbling. But their anger, now betrayed by not only by their president, but also by their leader, is palpable.
As the social and economic situation has deteriorated in Haitidue, among other reasons, to a decade of neoliberal economic policies, the two-year political impasse, corruption, and the recent collapse of hundreds of pyramid scheme credit unionsanti-government protests have spread throughout the country. Not a day goes by without barricades going up or city buildings being shut down. Usually those in the streets are loosely organized but legitimately angry and fed up citizensfed up with a contracting economy, rising prices, with the lack of services and public schools, with 70 percent unemployment, with tale after tale of government corruption, with impunity and rising crime, with harassment and even murder of journalists. The demonstrations are often met with harsh force. Police have shot and killed demonstrators, and in a recent incident killed 40 goats and a half-dozen cows of peasants who had stopped traffic to demand electricity for their region.
But the mostly spontaneous anti-government demonstrations are not the only show of street heat in Haiti these days. Save for its momentary rebellion, armed gangs like the Cannibal Army are usually running pro-government andespeciallypro-Aristide demonstrations. As the president loses popular support, he and his political machine have increasingly relied on such troops to show up at rallies, set up barricades, denounce this or that politician, or terrorize legitimate protestors. Rights groups like Amnesty International and the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission have denounced them as para- militaries, mercenaries and parallel security forces, but the local press calls them popular organizations because some of their leaders came to the fore in the 1990s as part of the popular movement.
These groups have major weapons. They can break into a prison. They can attack the police. They constitute real armies, armies which are completely illegal, explains Elifaite St. Pierre, Secretary General of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations. The guns come from a variety of sourcesfrom the coup period, from the drugs business, and, some say, from people connected with the National Palace. They are paramilitaries aligned with the political power structure, with Lavalas, and they work for the government, just as the death squads did in Central America.
The UNs independent human rights expert for Haiti, French lawyer Louis Joinet, visited Haiti in September and was shocked at what he found: quasi-public armed leaders of structured paramilitary gangs operating with impunity.
The gang leaderssome call them crowd brokersare paid zombi checks from state businesses like the telephone company or work at the National Palace as aides. When warm bodies are needed, money is distributed in a pattern now so well-known that street thugs do not hesitate to show a well-placed journalist their checks. The prime minister even made a reference to it after two well-known brokerswith very close ties to Aristidetook to the airwaves in September to announce a movement to force him from office. His predecessor exited in much the same way only a few months earlier.
Yvon Neptune must go, raged Paul Raymond into journalists microphones. We brought down Cherestal and well do the same with Neptune. Raymond, once a member of a ti kominote legliz (church-based community group) at Aristides former parish, St. Jean Bosco, then read off a list of officials he called grabbers and thieves and was answered with the crowd of men, his popular organization, shouting Tie them up. For a few weeks, the capital saw demonstrations and press conferences, all accompanied by the same crowd, but suddenly they ended. Obviously, Raymonds handler had decided the demos were not working or had achieved their purpose at some unknown, back-room politics level.
The politico-paramilitary troops were also on hand when Aristide visited the state tax office early this fall. Some of those very same faces blocked downtown streets, cheering wildly and holding up Aristide posters every time he or a camera passed by. That same week, they were on hand for a different assignment. Buses delivered at least 100 of the popular organization members to block a peaceful demonstration of university professors, students, and their supporters. Holding large signs dominated by Aristides grinning face, the counter-demonstrators, some of them the older, destitute women usually seen sweeping city streets, laid siege to the marchers, throwing reams of Aristide flyers, bottles of urine and rocks as the police looked on. The standard pay that day was $10, the equivalent of seven days labor at minimum wage.
The Platforms St. Pierre, a former student activist, was directly threatened by several of the gang members who hissed: Well crush you. Well get you no matter what. Such threats cannot be taken lightly in a country where, last year, a journalist was hacked to death by Lavalas supportersfrom the so-called popular organization Sleep in the Woodsbecause he had opposition party members on his radio program. More recently, reporters have been threatened directly by police and Lavalas authorities, and a St. Marc congressperson announced that anyone saying Down with Aristide should be arrested. A week later he led a Saturday night mobhis popular organization is called Operation Clean Sweepon a house-to-house search for opposition party members to beat up.
It is no wonder, then, that most people call the politico-paramilitary gangs chimè, which in Creole means armed bandits. But the mainstream media consistently labels them organisations populaires or OPs, lumping them together with the authentic church-based, peasant and popular organizations who in the 1980s threatened to bring about real revolution. The bourgeois daily Le Nouvelliste delights in denigrating the OPistes, suggesting they publish an advance schedule of their burning barricades, so that the upper classescommuting from the suburbscan plan their morning drives.
The Haitian press is totally controlled by the bourgeoisie, so its not surprising that while some reporters might innocently confuse real popular organizations with any group from a poor neighborhood, there are others who purposefully obfuscate the term in order to empty it of its political and ideological meaning, explains Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé, director of the Carl Lévêque Cultural Institute (ICKL), a popular education center which has worked with Haitian popular organizations since 1989. It is not a geographic originlike a poor neighborhoodwhich defines a popular organization. The determining element is the choice to struggle for another kind of society.
Popular organizations burst onto the political scene in Haiti in the 1980s as the movement to topple the Duvalier regime gathered strength. When Baby Doc fled in 1986, hundreds of groups sprang up. Neighborhood committees organized to demand basic services, founded theater groups, and schools. Peasant associations mobilized to regain stolen land or to protest exploitative coffee buyers. Liberation theology influenced groups spread from parish to parish, carrying out consciousness-raising literacy campaigns. In Port-au-Prince alone, studies found up to 150 such organizations by the end of the decade. Together with unions, professional associations, student groups, and political parties, these organizations made up Haitis democratic and popular movement which carried Aristide to power in the countrys first-ever democratic elections in 1990.
Once in office, however, Aristidewhom the foreign mainstream press characterized as firebrand and radical but who nonetheless proceeded to implement International Monetary Fund-advised neoliberal policiesdealt what many consider the first blow to the nascent movement by filling state jobs with popular organization leaders, whether or not they were competent, and by converting them into old-fashioned ward captains.
Aristide wanted militants in the public administration, remembers Janil Louis-Juste, social policy and agronomy professor at the State University of Haiti. But he hired them on an individual basis. He co-opted them.
Six months later, the popular movement received its second blow when U.S. operatives in the Haitian Armed Forces carried out the September 30, 1991, coup détat. For almost three years the army and the CIA-linked paramilitary FRAPH (Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress, whose name was clearly chosen for the acronym which sounds like the Creole word for hit) terrorized the country, targeting popular organizations and their supporters. Some 5,000 people were killed. A thousand popular organization members also accepted asylum in the U.S. through a controversial program progressives suspect was aimed at siphoning off the countrys best activists.
By the time he returned to power in 1994, Aristide had lost his radical grassroots base because of the deal he cut with the imperialists. (He returned on the coattails of the U.S. militarys Operation Restore Democracy and he agreed to carry out even more profound neoliberal economic policies.) He once again looked to the individual popular organization leaders for support. He gave them jobs and vehicles and set up the Little Projects of the Presidency which handed out an estimated $7.3 million in grants. The projects were heavily criticized for their favoritism and corruption. At the same time, non-governmental organizationssome well-meaning and others, like the ones funded by U.S. government democracy enhancement programs, less so scooped up organizations with development projects.
Aristide returned to office in 2001 after sitting out for five years (the Constitution forbids back-to-back terms) in elections characterized by extremely low turn-out and riddled with accusations of fraud. Lacking legitimacy and with slipping popularity, he once again turned to former popular leaders and groups, many of whom had evolved into armed gangs.
Today most real popular organizations have disintegrated, says Ertha Charles, a teacher and former youth group leader in the northern town of Pilate. We struggled for democracy. We risked our lives during the coup. But then we saw our leaders run for office or get jobs and fill their pockets. Today many peopleme includedare totally deceived about the ideas we had and about the promises Aristide made to us. Today we are all worse off, not better off. Only a few opportunists, people who attached themselves to someones hem, have jobs. The rest of us have nothing.
The gangs terrorize people with the crimes they commit with impunity when off-duty and, more importantly, discourage people from taking to the streets, from making their voices heard, from organizing.
But not all popular organizations disintegrated or turned into paramilitary gangs. Across the country, despite police and chimé repression, there are groupswomens organizations, youth groups, community radio stations, and peasants associationswhich have hung onto their ideals.
There has definitely been a major retreat of the movement since 1995, but starting about a year and a half ago, we saw a certain stability, especially among peasant organizations, Fils-Aimé adds. His organization works with over a dozen associations around the country. People are starting to figure things out and they are refusing to play the game of Lavalas vs. Convergence. They are thinking about real alternatives.
Convergence, chimè, they are all the same to us,
agrees Clement François, a member of the executive committee
of Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads Together Small
Haitian Peasants), which has about 10,000 members in 8 of Haitis
9 departments. They are merely fighting for personal power.
They are the ones responsible for our terrible situation. The only
thing that will rescue the country now is for all of those who are
sufferingworkers, peasants, exploited peoplefor us to
fight together, for us to struggle.
But the decade of repression and cooptation has taken its toll on an exhausted people and their grassroots organizations. What remains to be seen is whether or not those still committed to real change can organize in a context of repression from police and from armed gangs like the Cannibal Army, gangs whichthe Raboteau Revolt made clearit does not always control.
That is probably the reason Métayer is still free. Even if Lavalas authorities wanted to arrest him and other leaders, they might not be able to handle the backlash from their troops. When Métayer took to the airwaves to announce he heard plans were afoot to eliminate him in October, his gang was immediately in the street, but a day or two laterafter a call from Port-au-Prince or another briefcase?he once again fell silent. Félix Fefe Bien-Aimé was not so lucky. Former director of the National Cemetery and head of the Galil Base popular organization gang (Galil is a machinegun), he and two others were arrested in Port-au-Prince in late September and have not been heard from since, in spite of violent protests by his gang members and demands of human rights organizations.
In any case, while Lavalas tries to keep a handle on its troops in the slums, the enemies of even a populist version of change in Haitisitting up in the elite hillside neighborhoods above Port-au-Princes slums as well as in air-conditioned Washington officesare doing their best to trip up Aristide and also to prevent a radical popular movement from taking root once again.
The external and internal contradictions might lead to the long dragged-out death of the Lavalas machine or to its sudden implosion. Both outcomes will have differing effects on the embryonic efforts to rebuild the democratic and popular movement. As the saying goes, Se lè koulèv la mouri ou konnen longe li (Only when the snake is dead do you know its length).
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