Haiti Matters!

By McCollester, Charles | Monthly Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Haiti Matters!


McCollester, Charles, Monthly Review


Arriving at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince on the eve of the new year, 2004, the bicentennial of Haiti's independence, tension was thick in the air. Street violence was mounting but still mostly under control. Clashes took place between opposition demonstrators and police or between anti- and pro-Aristide forces. Since the hotel is near the university and its hospital, we witnessed several groups of 100 to 200 anti-Aristide student demonstrators jogging in cadence toward police with signs and banners shouting slogans--A bas Aristide! Down with Aristide! Since my previous trip in June, anti-Aristide slogans had blossomed in some areas of Port-au-Prince, while pro-Aristide graffiti retained its hold in the poorest districts, smaller towns, and rural areas. Our visit to the towns of Fondwa and Jacmel in the south was eventful in the normal Haitian way, but peaceful. Back in the capital, at the end of our five-day trip up-country, cars were being torched, boulders rolled on roads, and gas stations and banks closed in antigovernment actions.

Upon entering my hotel room the phone rang. I answered the phone and heard the voice of Michelle Karshan, the indefatigable foreign press representative for President Aristide. She said: "Charlie, get down to the palace. The president is going to have an open session with the foreign press and I'll have your pass." I hitched a ride with a taxi carrying an Italian female and two French male journalists. The palace area was full of people in a wide variety of uniforms displaying a diverse collection of rifles and side arms. Despite the tension and anxiety surrounding the guests and entertainers in the palace (the Dahomey Ballet was one group), the press was treated with respect and the security was functioning.

President Aristide was meeting with a delegation from Taiwan, a government that has always been grateful to Aristide for Haiti's diplomatic recognition. The 40 or so members of the foreign press were allowed to take pictures of Aristide and the Taiwanese and then were moved to one end of the long presidential conference room while Aristide, his Haitian-American wife, Mildred Trouillot, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and their entourage were grouped at the opposite. When Aristide made his initial statement in English, he was challenged by a reporter from Martinique to speak French. He answered in French that since this was a joint conference with the American Congresswoman, he had opened with remarks in English. That said, he completed his statement in English and repeated it in fluent French and Spanish. Occasionally he'd make a reference or quote a proverb in Kreyol, the everyday language of ordinary Haitians. About half the questions were explicitly or tacitly critical of his handling of the political crisis, especially police tactics with the opposition demonstrations. Aristide spoke eloquently about the meaning of Haiti's bicentennial celebration of freedom from slavery and asserted the importance of democracy and diverse voices. He also asserted that protestors should obey the law and work with the police. Violence had broken out between police and demonstrators over marchers staying on permitted routes.

Aristide thoughtfully answered questions for nearly an hour, in four languages. He repeatedly appealed to the opposition for negotiation and reconciliation. Toward the end of the press conference I caught the president's eye, identified myself as from Pittsburgh and posed the following question: "As an American it pains me that the present U.S. administration, itself installed by neither a plurality nor a majority of American voters, should question the legitimacy of Haitian elections. Given this intense American interest in Haitian election procedures, do you have any comments on the upcoming American presidential election?"

This question provoked audible gasps from the assembled press. Aristide answered slowly with a slight twinkle in his eye: "I would certainly not want to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. …

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