… plus ce n’est plus la même chose

May 26, 2010

 by Paul and Joegodson

(see part one, Plus ça change …)

Père Legault, otherwise confined to bed in a hospital room, spent much of the last day in 1962, dwelling upon the evolution of the cooperative that he and Père Lamy helped to organize with the peasants of Petit-Bourg de Borgne in the north of Haiti. Last night, he wrote out some notes that he passed along this morning (again, in translation):

A speculator = merchant = businesman who resold at the highest price the coffee and cocoa he bought from the peasants to the wholesalers from Cap Haitien who arrived weekly with money and trucks. (In Petit-Bourg, they were Nouvella, Shutt, and Chianchall, for example)

The peasant lived with material insecurity. His coffee and cocoa were his only possible revenue, the only guarantee against misfortune, other than his deed to his land. He therefore had to pretend to be devoted to his speculator who could cheat him without any risk of being discovered.

The kinds of things that the speculator would give the peasant to keep him happy: white sheets on which to sleep, two or three small loaves of bread, two or three glasses of clairin (Haitian spirits made from sugar cane), an advance on his next harvest, or a loan for burial.

Ten years after its foundation, the cooperative was in poor shape, lacking inspiration and money to buy the peasants’ coffee or maintain the aging infrastructure. The peasants preferred that the speculator loan them cash, something that the cooperative didn’t have the means to do even to cover expenses following upon sickness or death.

Meanwhile, the cocoa, planted by the cooperative, flourished. Ernest Bennett got the monopoly for the whole region of Borgne – Pilate – Plaissance, the breadbasket of the North. His success was such that his daughter Michelle married Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Ernest Bennett had his own runway next to the sea and his son trained to be a pilot in the USA. Bennett had taken control of Borgne to the point of being detested by the peasants. When the Duvaliers fell in 1986, Bennett was taken by the peasants (dechoukaj) and imprisoned for two years. He died in exile.

The two priests established the cooperative in order to address a situation that they had come to understand in Petit-Bourg. As outsiders, they saw the relationship between the peasants and the speculators in a different light than either of those local social, political, and economic groups. Père Legault wants us to understand the relationship that formed between the peasants and him.

Peasants lived rich lives in extreme poverty. They were vulnerable and they knew it. In the Haiti that Père Legault entered, peasants were deferential because their lives and their deaths depended on the largesse of the speculators. They spoke Creole and lived in isolated mountain communities where they managed to produce a small surplus that, in aggregate, made rich men of the speculators all over Haiti. But, isolated by geography, culture, and language, they could be paid only by the intermediaries – the speculators – who had been educated by white foreign priests, enabling them to establish connections with the world beyond their mountains and beyond the sea. Their connections with the outside world made the speculators enormously powerful inside the local communities they exploited. It was not an arrangement that they wanted to change.

After several years as the curé, Père Lamy devised a plan to change the status quo on behalf of the peasants. As a blan (a Creole term meaning white, but also foreigner), Père Lamy was accorded special status in Petit-Bourg. He was connected even more intimately than the speculators to the world beyond Haiti. His connections through the Church allowed him access to American development funds in the Kennedy years. He demonstrated his value by bringing into Petit-Bourg infrastructure – cocoa, coffee, and equipment – that changed the lives of the peasants. Knowing that he was attempting to change the balance of power between the classes of Petit-Bourg, Lamy brought the speculators into the cooperative. If everyone were to profit from the new regime, then perhaps everyone would accept the changes.

At first, the scheme worked. It worked too well. The speculators were losing control to the peasants who had found new intermediaries in Père Lamy and Père Legault.  Their only hope to reestablish their exclusive role as intermediaries with the outside world was to rid themselves of the meddlesome priests. In common with dictators throughout history, Papa Doc was paranoid that people were plotting to overthrow him. At the time, there were indeed plots to remove him from power, but likely never so many as existed in his mind. (In 1964, Papa Doc expulsed the French-Canadian Jesuits, who had built Villa Manrese in Port-au-Prince and begun the first radio broadcasts to the peasants, for fear that they were plotting to overthrow him.) So, Bennett’s plan was rational and almost effective. In the way of its success were the friendships that the blan had built with the peasants with whom and for whom they were working.

How quickly the peasants understood what the speculators were doing and why they were doing it! However, with Père Lamy transferred to another parish and the break with the American sponsors, it took years before another cooperative, this time under Père Legault, took hold. Bennett, meanwhile, managed to gain control of all the infrastructure that the cooperative had established and nurtured. It is a dynamic that plays out all over the world as public infrastructure is privatized to concentrate wealth and power. Ultimately the peasants of Petit-Bourg exacted their revenge on Bennett.

One of the questions raised by this history – for us, now, today –  relates to the powers wielded by the forces outside of Haiti and their relationship to the new speculators. The corporate control of all relevant sources of power in North America is such that it is hard to imagine how to support ordinary Haitians in rebuilding their country. Clinton and the World Bank are imposing their Plan of Death. Inside the Haitian government, agronomists, economists, and environmentalists complain that they had no input into the plan tabled in their name. The plan was written elsewhere and ignored their decades of study and expertise. It ignored their concern for their country, something that does not hamper Clinton.

In the time of Père Legault and Père Lamy, there were several axes of power: the speculators, the foreign companies, Duvalier and his local henchmen (the macoutes), and the peasants. Into that mix came the blan priests to disrupt the balance that has not found an equilibrium since.  Who can help the Haitian poor to build a solid foundation out of the rubble? Even before the earthquake, the world’s speculators were starting to feel that they had finally killed the lavalasian spirit. (They say things like, ‘Haiti is beginning to stabilize.’) That’s good for them, not good for Haiti.

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