Thursday, August 20, 2009
Haiti Liberte: Diaspora Unity Congress Ignores Class Struggle
By Wadner Pierre
From August 6 - 9, 2009, about 300 Haitians from different corners of Haiti's diaspora - often called the 11th Department - gathered in Miami Beach, Florida for the 2009 Haitian Diaspora Unity Congress. The event was organized by the Haitian League, whose Chairman of the Board is Dr. Bernier Lauredan. He is a Haitian pediatrician living in New Jersey, where the first conference was held last year without, apparently, too much success.
The chair of this year's Congress was Dr. Rudolph Moise, a physician and actor well known in Miami for his more or less conventional activism.
Several former Lavalas government officials took part including former Minister for Haitians Living Abroad Leslie Voltaire, former minister without portfolio Marc Bazin, former Justice Minister Camille Leblanc, former Planning Minister Anthony Dessources, and former inspector of the Haitian National Police Luc Eucher Joseph, now Secretary of State of Justice and Public Safety. These officials are considered by Haiti's masses as politically bourgeois and, excepting Voltaire, were never Lavalas Family party members.
Meanwhile, there were also members or associates of President Boniface Alexandre's and Prime Minister Gérard Latortue's de facto government (2004 - 2006). The most prominent of them was Bernard Gousse, the former de facto Justice Minister, whom the Miami-based popular organization Veye Yo brands as a criminal for his role in ordering several deadly crackdowns on rebellious shanty towns and the first arrest of the late Father Gérard Jean-Juste, Veye Yo's founder.
Several current Haitian government officials were present including Kelly Bastien, the Senate's president, two parliamentarians from the pro-coup social-democratic parties Struggling People Organization (OPL) and Fusion, Youth, Sports and Civic Action Minister Evans Lescouflair, and two mayors from the Center Department.
On the Congress's last day, there were also addresses by Haitian Prime Minister Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis and Special United Nations Envoy to Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Like other Haitian conferences of this sort, most of the workshops were focused on development and investment with short shrift given to the political struggles, coups, and military occupations that have made both hard to achieve. There were also sessions on dual nationality, the role of the press, the participation of Haitian youth abroad and in Haiti, and on justice and human rights in Haiti.
In one workshop, Pierre Leger from the southern city of Les Cayes addressed Haiti's lack of infrastructure. He claimed to be Haiti's largest vetiver exporter, with operations based in the southern department. He castigated Haitian President René Préval's "lack of entrepreneurial vision" and the Haitian government's perennial begging. The current government and those of the past have contented themselves with pursuing international aid without really trying to promote national production, he said. Leger recounted the troubles he had in getting fuel to his operations over Haiti's sole artery to the south which was damaged after the 2008 storms. Building shipping ports and airports could resolve such problems, he argued. "You need to have infrastructure before inviting people to invest in your country, even if it is entrepreneurs from the Haitian diaspora," Leger said.
In a workshop on the press, only conservative bourgeois media were represented. Agence France Presse reporter Clarens Renois spoke on the press' role in development, saying the media sometimes misused its power to defend political causes. Of course, he did not point to Radio Métropole, his former employer, which played a key role in the 2001-2004 destabilization campaign against Aristide.
"We should not give only negative news about Haiti," Renois said. "We should also give positive news that can help develop the country."
One of the most interesting workshops was that on human rights, held on August 7. In this meeting, Secretary of State Eucher defended harsh, often-criticized government measures to establish a climate of security in the country. He was also proud of his government's close cooperation with the United Nations Mission for Stability in Haiti (MINUSTAH), as the UN's military occupation force is called. He made no mention of the massacres or abuses committed by UN troops or the police. "Now we have no red zones or areas where people cannot go in Haiti," Eucher said. "The people have regained confidence in the Police. The working conditions of our officers has changed, and we will continue to work on the professionalization of the Police and to purchase equipment."
Daniel Jean, Deputy Justice Minister for Judicial Reforms, said that the government was working to build and improve courts, to better train judges, and to improve prison conditions around the country. But, he complained, there is a lack of funds to carry out such projects.
Prison conditions in Haiti are inhuman and have been condemned by several international human rights groups.
Among the panelists was Evel Fanfan, an activist lawyer, human rights defender and President of AUMOHD (Association University Students Working for Law in Haiti). He denounced the government officials' account, brandishing reports on several police and UN massacres against the poor, in particular the 2005 Grand Ravine massacre in Martissant, the 2003 Beladeres massacre by the "rebels," and 2005 and 2006 massacres in Cité Soleil. The victims of these massacres are still denied justice while killers like former death-squad leader Louis Jodel Chamblain and former coup-plotter Guy Philippe still circulate freely. The police who carried out the Grand Ravine massacre are still in their posts or living freely. "Here are the letters sent to and received from the President of the Republic, René Préval and members of his former and current government," Fanfan explained. "How can we speak of Haitian law when the majority of people behind bars in our prisons are unconstitutionally imprisoned and their prison conditions are inhumane? For example, the National Penitentiary in Port-Au-Prince was built for hundreds of prisoners, but now it has thousands" He also underlined the case of Ronald Dauphin, a political prisoner and supporter of former President Aristide, the injustice of whose case Amnesty International recently publicized.
Bernard Gousse was also supposed to address the human rights workshop and a number of people from the Miami community came to ask him hard questions. But he never showed up that day, although he did appear the next day in a session on dual citizenship.
The Haitian Constitution's prohibition of dual nationality remains a burning issue for most expatriates living in Haiti's diaspora. Many have become citizens of the U.S., Canada, or France and want the Constitution amended to allow them participation in Haiti's political life. Haitian Senate president Kelly Bastien said dual citizenship reform is possible. "It's an easy battle, since your participation in the nation's social, political and economic life will change many things," Bastien told the Diaspora Congress. "You need to talk to other political leaders in both Parliamentary houses, because they come here to ask for money during the electoral period. Now it's your turn to ask something in return."
There were also moments of entertainment. On Saturday night, there was a long awards dinner ceremony followed by a dance party with Sweet Mickey.
The last day of the Congress - Sunday, August 9 - was a day of protest. Across the street from the Trump International Beach Resort where the conference took place, Veye Yo rallied about 50 people starting at 7 a.m. to denounce the participation of "injustice minister" Bernard Gousse at the event. "Bernard Gousse is a criminal! Bernard Gousse is a murderer! He must be arrested if the USA is against terrorism. Why is a terrorist like Bernard Gousse here?" These were some of the demonstrators' slogans and cries.
"We are here today to demand the release of political prisoners arrested by Bernard Gousse, and justice for all those who have been victims of the injustice machine of the government of Gérard Latortue," said Lavarice Gaudin, a Veye Yo leader. "We hope that President Bill Clinton, who claims to be a friend of the Haitian people, as Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, will work with the government in place to secure the release of these people."
In the background, demonstrators chanted: "Occupation, No! Democracy, Yes! Titid shall return!"
Meanwhile, inside the hotel, amid extremely tight security, conference members and a restricted handful of about 20 mostly non-Haitian journalists gathered to hear presentations by Prime Minister Pierre-Louis and Clinton.
Pierre-Louis' plea, as was to be expected, was for unity. "There is not enough debate between the different sectors for them to exchange, to discuss, for them to arrive at what they call compromise," Pierre-Louis said, speaking in Kreyol. " We must discover the interests of each person and, in the end, accept to lose a little so that everyone wins... That's what compromise means. It is an essential process and it is that alone which can create the true unity we are seeking." How ironic, after these words, that President Préval's still refuses to compromise and grant Haitian factory workers a meager increase in their daily minimum wage to 200 gourdes ($5.05), insisting instead that it be raised to only 125 gourdes ($3.11).
She also decried the "colonial legacy which we drag behind us" but did not denounce the UN's military occupation of Haiti, the most perfect expression of this "colonial legacy."
Pierre-Louis also invoked some ill-defined unity as a way to resolve growing conflicts with the Dominican Republic and as a means to develop the country. "Unity means believing enough in the country to come invest," she said. "There are lots of opportunities for investment. Creating jobs is a priority."
Her speech had one particularly pious and politically naive remark which will be most remembered: "We have to stop identifying ourselves as Lavalas or as Macoutes and just identify ourselves as Haitians."
She was followed by Bill Clinton, who repeated the same themes and platitudes he has been saying in recent weeks since his UN appointment: he is optimistic, he sees hope for Haiti, this is a time of opportunity for Haiti, and the nation must not fail.
He had the air of being slightly on the defensive, perhaps because of the demonstration going on outside the hotel. He said a series of things that are demonstrably false.
"There is no UN agenda in Haiti other than to help advance the plans and the aspirations of the government and the people of Haiti," he said. "I'll be working with the President and Prime Minister, with multinational donors, non-governmental groups, philanthropists, business people, and I hope with many of you to transform those plans into specific actions. My work is and will continue to be in complete alignment and coordination with the Haitian government in so far as I can do that. I will not manage the UN peace-keepers. Nor will I be involved in domestic Haitian politics." As the front man for the UN's military occupation, how can he not be involved in "domestic Haitian politics"?
The Congress's organizers felt their event was a success. But for most of the poor and working-class Haitian community in the United States and Canada, it was a meeting of some businessmen, politicians and mostly conservative activists, all of whom had the ability to pay the $250 participation fee (not to mention travel and a hotel). The issues addressed were entirely traditional and technocratic, avoiding the key political problems such as the foreign military occupation, the struggle for the 200 gourdes minimum daily wage, the crying injustice for political prisoners and hundreds of inmates who have never seen a judge, the continued exile of former President Aristide, and the neoliberal plan that continues to privatize Haiti's patrimony.
"It's basically a glorified business networking conference,"said one participant who wished to remain anonymous.
And others weren't satisfied. For example, well-known Haitian compas artist, King Kino of the group Phantoms did not attend the conference because he felt that the central role of Haitian culture was not on the agenda. "For the past 20 years, Haiti has produced and exported practically nothing," he said in a telephone interview. "It's music that keeps the country afloat. How can we have a conference without the participation of people involved in Haitian music? Jamaica is where it is today because of its music."
Finally, one must wonder if the Haitian government, or perhaps Washington and the United Nations, helped to fund this meeting, especially given the participation of Pierre-Louis and Clinton. Although Congress organizers say it was carried out on a "shoe-string," the budget was big enough to pay for airline tickets for dozens of guest speakers and for their accommodations at the sumptuous Trump Hotel. Whatever the case, the 2009 Haitian Diaspora Unity Congress did nothing to fundamentally challenge the Haitian government's neoliberal direction and may have actually helped to reinforce it.
(Some reporting for this article contributed by Francesca Azzura and Kim Ives.)