Plus ça change …

May 25, 2010

by Paul and Joegodson

The worlds that we inhabit, Joegodson in Haiti and Paul in Canada, understand and encourage divisions. Everywhere, we see people correctly exposing hypocrisy and exploitation. Others accept the same hypocrisy and exploitation without, of course, naming it such. They live with the contradictions and carry on with daily life. Neither position is satisfying to us: simply exposing hypocrisy or living with it. We are finding others on the same path as us. It is a road where people lead and follow, in turn. It requires courage and humility, in turn. Leaders are not distinct from followers. Aristide is on that path when he rejects the notion that Haitians need him to return as president. Chosen by the people, he is one with them. But he sees that they are, in turn, one with him. The Haitian people don’t need one leader any more than they can all be followers. L’union fait la force:  in unity, there is strength. Everyone is a leader; everyone is a follower. That is Aristide’s great insight. He was not the first to see it. He will not be the last.

Today, with his permission, we introduce a friend who has come to confide in us. A month ago, when we were no longer able to communicate with each other – a circumstance that we will explore in detail in our analysis of who jumped to profit from the earthquake – Père Jean-Claude Legault kindly became our go-between. Having spent the twenty-five most momentous years of his life as a parish priest in the mountains of Haiti, he is as comfortable in Creole as he is in French. He is now over eighty years of age. His body fails. He soul is lively. Since Joegodson and Paul have re-established contact, Père Legault has been confined to a bed in the corner room of a hospital on top of the mountain in Montreal. Now, he is deprived of his Internet connection that had given him a window onto the Reconstruction and his many confreres and friends in Haiti. He has come to follow Joegodson, Johnny, Antonia, Manushka, and others and their relationship with the foreigners who have come to help, to control, to profit, and to encourage.

Now, Père Legault has taken to remembering his experiences in Petit-Bourg de Borgne from 1954 to 1977. Paul had already interviewed Père Legault years ago, but the circumstances have changed. The elderly priest now identifies with both Paul and Joegodson. He probes his past to find something useful for the present. This, for us, is how to enter history.

And so, we respectfully listen to what he has to tell us. Why this memory? Why now? Yesterday, when Paul visited, Père Legault wanted to relate an experience from 1962. Père Legault had arrived in 1954 in Cap Haitien to teach mathematics at the Collège Notre-Dame, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Haiti that had long educated an elite in French that distinguished itself from the Creole-speaking, vodouist, black peasants. Priests from Brittany in France had administered the school but were forced to hand it over to their French-Canadian confreres during the war. They were snobs who looked down upon the peasants as ‘African’ lesser-humans and considered their French-Canadian confreres – with their strange French dialect – only a few rungs higher on the evolutionary ladder. Moreover, Père Legault came from a working-class family in east end Montreal. During the Depression, the Pères de Sainte Croix had educated and ordained him. He became one of the very first priests to leave the Collège Notre-Dame and enter the peasant world outside of the urban areas. No longer was he to educate a French-speaking elite, but he was supposed to convert the peasants. Over the decades, the peasants equally converted him. In 1962, Père Legault was the vicar in the parish of Petit-Bourg de Borgne in the north of Haiti, west of Cap Haitien. Here are his words (in translation):

The fertility and natural irrigation of the Borgne region in northern Haiti had been well-known to the Standard Fruit Company in the postwar era. Their ships easily loaded up with provisions by docking alongside the natural Lagrange Deep Wharf: no man-made infrastructure was necessary. By selling their fig bananas, the peasants of Borgne became more prosperous and began to replace their thatched roofs with slate and their clay homes with cement.

After a misunderstanding with the government, Standard Fruit left for other countries where profits were greater: an instance of foreign exploitation of the riches of Haiti. Haitians have wanted to control Haiti since 1804.

The government looked to exploit the fertility of the Borgne region again by planting coffee and cocoa. Bayeuse erected nurseries under the direction of the agronomist M. DeVertueil. The intention was to make the existing plantations more productive.

The Agricultural Credit Bank enumerated the land to be brought under production and issued credit ad hoc. They also planned a factory for the fermentation and drying of Bourbon coffee, an aromatic species as is produced in Colombia.

Père Lamy, an American, dedicated himself to organizing a cooperative among all of the people of Petit-Bourg. Everyone played a part, both the peasants and the more wealthy speculators. The price of coffee increased so that the project became more and more attractive. They needed to build the most modern facilities, based on the Colombia models.

The local speculators never thought that exploiting the peasants could be this easy. They paid the peasants in units of pounds while they measured in kilograms. The peasants were paid less than half the value of their produce. Even so, the peasants were benefiting from the cooperative – so poor had they been previously.

The local speculators led by Bennett (the father of Michele Bennett, who would become the wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier) decided to put an end to the cooperative so as to profit more fully from the work of the peasants. But Père Lamy was in the way. They wrote a letter to Papa Doc Duvalier, declaring that Lamy was preparing a landing with the financial backing of the Inter-American Foundation (who funded the cooperative – although Père Legault’s memory may be faulty here: it may have been a precursor to the IAF) to overthrow the Haitian government. Lamy was arrested and awaited deportation to the USA. This of course discredited the cooperative and the Inter-American Foundation.

Délice Jadotte, the accountant for the cooperative and intimate friend of Père Lamy, handed me the list of the local speculators who had denounced Lamy. I took a megaphone and denounced publicly all of the hypocrites – the speculators – who had signed the petition to Papa Doc. The peasants were enraged and there was practically a revolution in the town. The speculators immediately signed a letter asking for the return of Lamy, claiming that there had been no plan to overthrow the government. The peasants celebrated, singing ‘Pè Lamè ap retounnen.’ (‘Father Lamy is coming back.’) Mgr Cousineau of Cap Haitien assigned him to another parish, Zigué. The incident was closed and the speculators were kicked out of the cooperative. But the peasants became disillusioned and lost interest in it, especially since Père Lamy was now assigned to another parish. The Inter-American Foundation withdrew its funding for the cooperative that would have made Haiti a centre of coffee production and Petit-Bourg de Borgne the prototype. I took over as parish priest and Père Lamy went to Rome to study. He returned in 1965 as the vicar in Petit-Bourg where he established the first NGO in Haiti financed by the Canadian International Development Agency.

 This is a quick sketch of a moment in Père Legault’s Haiti years; given time, he can colour and shade these broad strokes. However, you need much patience. The breaths that are left to Père Legault are not deep and are carefully spaced. The world moves quickly around him – more quickly than it did in 1962. What is in his history for us? What has changed and what is familiar?

On both sides of the race/national divide, there are potential allies and adversaries. Haitians and foreigners do not form two distinct and coherent alliances. Both priests from North America were able to renew and transform the historical work of their congregation – Pères de Sainte Croix – in Haiti in the postwar era by moving out of their privileged position to work with and for the peasants. While they were charged with converting peasants and establishing the Catholic Church in the rural areas, both transcended that limited and institutional goal to identify with the poor who bonded with them. They were not the victims of the institution that preceded them and that, sadly, would betray the trust of the Haitian poor decades later under a cowardly Vatican led by Pope John Paul II.

Most importantly for the peasants, the priests were able to help them understand and challenge the class interests that were allied against them. Like today, the peasants were unaware of the machinations that were conspiring against them: Bennett’s letter to Duvalier; the difference between metric and imperial measurements; the true value of their produce on the international market. It was in the interests of the well-connected speculators to misinform the peasants and generally keep them as ignorant as possible. At the same time, we can see how the local speculators were frightened of the power of the peasants once they had been aroused by the truth. They did not accept the betrayal of their trust passively. Everywhere in the present, the same principle holds. Enormous sums of money are spent globally on misinformation and propaganda today precisely because of the power of the masses.

The dangers of relying on exportation as a base of economic development is also clear. Just as Standard Fruit left the Haitian peasants the moment that it found cheaper bananas in Central America, so sweatshops will leave Haiti the moment they find workers in worse straights than the Haitians. Founding the Reconstruction on the basis of having the poorest paid workers in the Hemisphere is short-sighted and insulting. Yet, the argument is made in precisely those terms by Haitians and foreigners positioned to profit from the results. The same principle holds for all food exportation from Haiti. Food exports make sense once Haitians are properly nourished.

This history is more significant than it may seem in isolation. Although Père Lamy was emotionally and psychologically marked by the incident, he eventually learned an important lesson. He managed to assure millions of dollars in aid from CARITAS in the late 1960s that was used to promote literacy and education among the Haitian peasants. It was that money that funded Yvon Joseph’s important literacy program, IDEA, L’Institut diocésain d’éducation des adultes, that became a model for others and led to the peasant revolts that brought down the Duvalier regime. So, this one deception and the pain that it caused in Petit-Bourg de Borgne led to a more important movement in turn.

There are lots of obstacles to clear. There is much history to live.

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One Response to “Plus ça change …”

  1. ansel said

    Thanks for this post – very interesting history…

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