Still Afloat, Treading Water
June 12, 2010
Lavalas means ‘the flood.’ Since the fall of Duvalier, there has been a lot of water under the bridge. Paul has been swept away several times. But he is afloat. Water is scarce in Haiti. It is life. Lavalas cleanses the soul for people like Paul Leogène.Development has always been Paul’s main concern. Development is politics. He has not foregone political engagement as a result of the government’s prohibition of Parti Lavalas. But he is unequivocally lavalassien, notwithstanding his participation in the political party founded by the head of the Haitian oligarchy, Andy Apaid. He says without hesitation that Apaid and the private sector that he represents have destroyed Haiti. Paul’s life gives him the right to pronounce on the subject. We should listen.
Why enter Apaid’s party? Paul says that he needs to see what it represents, how it is operating, and if it is open to change. (It is not only the CIA and CSIS that infiltrate and identify threats to the powerful. The weak need to keep abreast as well.) Membership is not necessarily a sign of support; it can be a sign of engagement and openness. But some parties are committed to continuing the destruction of Paul’s Haiti. Others are working towards a more noble goal. Others still are adaptable. He knows what’s what. He says that lavalassiens are now birds that land on all branches, but they know where their nest is.
During the uprisings that led to the fall of Duvalier, Paul was living in Thomonde in the Central Plateau of Haiti. He was born a peasant in Marecail. Throughout the 1980s, he worked with various non-governmental organizations that supported the peasants. He was participating with the other peasants of Thomonde in the context of a nation-wide rejuvenation of Haitian society. He coordinated five local peasant groups. With the support of CARITAS, he purchased land, 200 pigs, tools, and other necessities for one of the regional peasant cooperatives. Everything was going well as lavalas swept away the macoutes that had been the bane of peasant life. They had kept Duvalier in power. Haiti was changing. The poor were taking control of their own country, their own economy, and their own lives. Sympathetic foreign organizations were supporting the new Haiti. The culmination of this exciting moment in Haitian history was the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency. Aristide was definitely not the choice of the Haitian oligarchy and their allies, the American political and corporate class. But, by the end of 1990, there he was: president of the people of Haiti. The symbolism was especially compelling: Aristide, a priest who had chosen to live in poverty was chosen by a poor people who sought, above all, dignity. A people who accept exploitation cannot claim dignity. Neither can a people whose economy is based on the exploitation of others.
It didn’t last. By September 1991, the CIA had already sponsored the return of the old order. General Cédras took power in a coup d’état and installed a reign of terror that lasted for three years. It seems that Cédras was given enough time to destroy the civil society that Paul and his poor compatriots had been building during the previous decade. Paul would pay the price for daring to imagine – and then work towards – a just society. Known for his work with lavalas, (not yet the political party Lavalas), Paul Leogène was a prime target of the resurgent macoutes in Thomonde. His home was destroyed. His wife was assassinated. His three children fled for their lives, becoming marrons. Marronage is the Haitian term to describe the flight of slaves from the plantations during the period of slavery. Marrons lived free but in constant threat of capture by those hired by the French colonists to protect their property, investments, and the system. Over two hundred years later, the term retains its significance as those who fight for their liberty and their dignity must first be willing to forfeit their everyday freedoms. They put in the balance their lives and the lives of their loved ones, as did Paul Legène. Haiti has not recovered from the Cédras coup. It was a hard lesson for Paul Leogène. He says that he has been a marron since the fall of Aristide. When the earthquake struck, he was renting a room in Simon, looking for ways to rebuild Haiti in the spirit of lavalas. His room is no longer inhabitable. He lives on the street like everyone in Simon. His history doesn’t seem to weigh him down. He is wiser.
Back in 1991, on the heals of the coup, Paul was arrested by the forces of General Cédras. He spent thirteen days in a prison in Thomonde. He was tortured pitilessly and bears the scars on his body. Together with other prisoners, all targetted for assassination, he escaped and began his life as a marron in the mountains of Haiti. Along with a number of others, he was accepted into the home of a friend, an heretofore apolitical Frenchman named George Embry. Embry turned his home into a refugee centre for the marrons waiting out the Cédras terror.
His work in Thomonde and the real differences that lavalas was making in the lives of the poor remain with him. He was a prosperous peasant for a moment. He was prosperous with other peasants, not in exploitation of them. They were working in konbit (co-operation) knowing that dignity is shared within a community. Aristide and his language of ”poverty with dignity” is more relevant than ever since the earthquake. Paul Leogène is looking for the resurgence of development organizations that incarnate the spirit of lavalas that he knows so well.
He is actively organizing for the return of Aristide. The president who was rejected by the international corporate powers and their political and military backers is wanted back in Haiti by the poor precisely because he was rejected by the international corporate powers and their political and military backers. Those people have destroyed the Haiti of Paul Legène.