Just twenty minutes from Haiti’s National Palace, past skeletal dogs and bullet-hole-ridden cement walls, winds a narrow path that leads to a cock-fighting ring. The tin roofed atrium serves as a community center, and at the top of crumbling pink and sea-foam painted risers perch the leaders of the local pro-Aristide Famni Lavalas cell. A disoriented looking rooster wanders around the ring, lethargic in the July heat.
Samba Boukman, a President Jean-Bertrand Aristide true-believer rarely seen without his dog-eared and much annotated copy of a paperback detailing the Haitian civil code, glances behind to see only a group of old men playing dominoes. After a brief conference he decides to begin the “press conference”—even though only a single reporter has shown up.
“We are devoted to bringing back Aristide at all cost,” says Boukman, through a translator. “Even though we cannot talk with him, our mind and spirits are still connected.” Before the February 2004 coup, Boukman says he was working as a sketch artist and musician in the Department for the Promotion of Haitian Arts and Culture. Now he’s unemployed, just like his Lavalas associates who used to work for the government-run utilities and telephone companies.
Exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now in South Africa, was part way through his second term when a coup executed by the disbanded military, facilitated by members of the country’s elite, and purportedly engineered by the U.S., France and Canada forced him from office in February 2004. But now a few party leaders seem ready to move on.
Boukman is asked if he might consider supporting another Lavalas candidate if Aristide OK’d it, and the slightly built artist/musician gets impatient.
“Even Aristide cannot break the law! He cannot just stay outside the country and appoint someone else.”
In spite of a semi-official boycott, former Lavalas parliament members Rudy Herivaux and Francky Exius recently registered their party, the largest in Haiti (37 percent support in the last Gallup poll) with the Provisional Electoral Counsel. If they get administrative approval, Lavalas could conceivably run a candidate for president in the elections scheduled for November. “We are not yet discussing who that could be,” Herivaux tells the Voice. “But Famni Lavalas—those of us in Haiti now—have taken the position that we should participate, our priority being to end the political persecution.”
This angers the Lavalas leadership in exile, who say that the persecution is only getting worse. Aristide spokeswoman Maryse Narisse says that because Aristide is still the party’s National Representative, Herivaux and Feuille “have no authority” to act on behalf of the party.
Aristide released a statement in April comparing the possibility of free and fair elections in Haiti to having free and fair elections during South Africa’s apartheid, when Mandela and other black leaders were imprisoned. His former foreign press liaison, Brooklyn-based Michelle Karshan, says that his position hasn’t changed since spring. “The party has a process—they are not speaking for the party. They want to run themselves, clearly.”
She is echoed by Mario Dupuy, a major Lavalas organizer now living in Miami. “Herivaux, Feuille (another former member of parliament)—they are out for themselves. They speak for themselves, not for Lavalas.”
Herivaux tells the Voice he will not seek office for himself, but says that he and the other senators think it most effective to work for change from the inside, particularly since Aristide has not made an explicit statement against the party’s registration. “Monsieur Dupuy—he lives now in the U.S.A. He is not as informed about the social and political situation here. I respect his position, but I have not heard Aristide say we should not participate.”
“[The Latortue government] wants people to register—to legitimize the process,” says Brian Concannon of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “What they don’t want is for Lavalas to be able to cobble together any sort of campaign. Hence the raids into poor neighborhoods, the general oppression, the imprisonment of activists.”Drive down many roads in Port-au-Prince, or even the dusty main street in Jacmel—a quiet city south of the capital currently popular with those with the means to get out of Dodge—and you see huge banners, written in Haitian Creole, urging people to vote “no matter what.”
But if Lavalas supporters don’t vote in November, or if they splinter off and vote for any of the 65 parties currently waiting final approval from the CEP to get on the ballot, insiders say that could pave the way for probable right-wing candidate Guy Philippe.
One of the primary actors in the 2004 coup, Philippe was given U.S. military training by Ecuador in the early 1990’s. The 36-year old former police commissioner is by now famous for telling a reporter that his number one hero is Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. According to Human Rights Watch, the two may have a few things in common.
When Philippe served as a Port-au-Prince police chief in the late nineties, UN investigators learned that dozens of suspects were summarily executed by officers under his command. He fled to the Dominican Republic in 1999 when Aristide accused him of fomenting a coup.
Although most poor Haitians are fearful of the former military and the police, since the coup the Haitian army has enjoyed a certain level of support—particularly among the comparatively wealthier classes. Weekly fire-fights, kidnappings, and the disintegration of municipal services has apparently made strong-arm type leaders more attractive to some Haitians.
The fact that Philippe, or someone like him, has a shot at the presidency if the Lavalas faithful stay home from the polls does not appear to be the number one concern of the exiled party leadership. Narcisse says there is a brutal and illegitimate government in control already, a fact that will not change until Aristide is returned. “We are not the opposition, because that would imply a legitimate contest. We are in resistance. We are asking people to resist peacefully until the restoration of the constitutional order.”
Back in the cock-fighting ring, the Aristide faithful seemed just as idealistic. Samba Boukman ticked off the names of international groups he says are sympathetic to their cause. “Caricom, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Organization of African States—no one is behind this next election. This election is just supported by the whites.”
Samba Makondal joined in. “We are a peaceful mobilization. They do violence against us, but Gandhi was not afraid. Martin Luther King was not afraid.”