April 13, 2006

Interview with Former Haitian Cabinet Minister Patrick Elie

Former Haitian cabinet minister Patrick Elie has been on a cross-Canada tour speaking on the struggle for democracy in his homeland. People's Voice correspondent Johan Boyden conducted the following interview with Elie on April 8.<>People's Voice: It is a great pleasure to do this interview. What has been the response of the Canadian people as you travel across the country?
Patrick Elie: Yes, I think I went to seven provinces and I don't know how many cities. The response has been quite positive. Before, when I used to live in Canada where I spent 15 years, solidarity with Haiti was confined to Quebec. I never heard of any kind of Canadian solidarity with Haiti. This time the tour was initiated by the Canadian‑Haiti Action Network. They asked me to tell the Canadian people the truth about what was really happening in Haiti, and the Canadian government's role in the tragedy of the last two years.
People were attentive to what was being said and I think understand better. I hope they will be able to spread the truth about Haiti and I hope they will change Canada's policy towards Haiti, which has been frankly egregious and disastrous.
PV: In the recent Canadian election campaign, Haiti became an issue and it was one reason for the defeat of Pierre Pettigrew, Liberal foreign affairs minister. Now with the new Conservative government, we've seen Steven Harper visit Afghanistan. Have you seen any indication of the government's approach towards Haiti?
Elie: No, unfortunately, I have not. When I started the tour, I had great hopes that, the Canadian government having changed and the disastrous nature of Canada's involvement in Haiti being so evident, that Steven Harper would take the opportunity to change the policies since he didn't initiate it.
But while I was here, Mr. Harper invited and met with the de facto prime minister who has been a scourge on Haiti, and who has been rejected by the Haitian people. He could, and should, have invited the President-elect, Mr. Preval, and his political team. So I think this is a very bad sign, and has to be linked to Mr. Harper's very gung‑ho attitude on Afghanistan. I think it is part of a whole where it is aligning itself more with the US. Canadians had better take a hard look at that, because it will impact on them.
First, the image of Canada, which has been very good in Haiti, has been completely marred and the same in the whole region. But second, this alignment with the US is going to impact on Canadians themselves directly. You will find yourselves involved in some military adventure that is going to be more costly than Haiti. Internally you will see the same things happening in Canada that are happening the US, including a more police state and including a state where your hard‑won healthcare system, your childcare system, your social security system is being chipped away, and before you know it nothing will be left...
PV: You've commented that the recent elections were a double victory for the Haitian people. Could you expand upon that?
Elie: First, we have to remember that the whole "regime change" - this whole Canada-France-US meddling in Haitian affairs - has been precisely to get rid of the Lavalas political movement, and for that they needed to take the Haitian people out of the equation. You know, they want a people‑less democracy. But, even though they had waged a very hard repression campaign on the popular movement, even though they had won control of the electoral process, in fact rigging it, the Haitian people successfully avoided that trap and forced the election to be a reflection of their own political will. That was the first victory. By electing President Preval, who belongs to the same movement as President Aristide, they have not only voted for who they wanted, but they have also condemned what Canada has been doing in Haiti for the last two years.
PV: You've commented that you prefer to work from the outside, although you're friends and you've known Mr. Preval for some time. Do you have any indication on his policy priorities at this point?
Elie: He has indicated that his policy priorities are, first of all, stability and security. We've got to bring back some security in Haiti, it has deteriorated terribly as a direct result of the foreign countries meddling in our affairs.
Education has been a top priority for him, and I think that this is exactly what the Haitian people want. The Haitian people place high values on education, yet the state does not provide them with this opportunity. Health care is also crucial, and Mr. Preval during his first term had started a cooperation with Cuba in that field, both having Cuban doctors helping Haitians, but also having many young Haitians studying in medicine and veterinary medicine in Cuba. So health care is a priority.
I've known Mr. Preval for something like 30-plus years, and we've been very close. So the reason we've not taken up any post in the government is not because I disagree with his political agenda, but because I think we should use his time in power to build upon the grassroots movements, to strengthen it, to organize it so that it becomes the major political force in the country, whether it is inside the government or outside.
The only way we are going to have a real democracy and not the mock democracy as you have in the US and Canada, is to have the people permanently engaged in writing up their own agenda and pushing for its realization. It is not enough to elect people you trust. You have to be, all the time, vigilant and active. Otherwise you don't have democracy.
PV: You said there was a deterioration of security as a direct result of the UN presence. In your interview with Seven Oaks magazine (reprinted in the March 16-31PV), you mentioned the Jordanian troops. Some of our readers wondered what exactly you were referring to.
Elie: In Haiti, a lot of the resistance to the coup is coming from the shanty towns, especially Cité Soleil. They are the ones disenfranchised by the coup d'etat, and who paid the highest price in the preceding coup in 1991. Well, of course, they were ready to resist this oppression. There has been a lot of pressure, from the US, France, Canada and the local elites, to have the UN conduct "search and destroy" military-type operations in Cité Soleil.
The Brazilian commanders and troops have been reluctant to do this because they see the potential for massacre in such operations, that are not called for at all.
However, the more numerous troops consist of a special Jordanian battalion put in charge of Cité Soleil. I think they have a very bad background, considering that the Jordanian army is very repressive. I think they are scared. They don't speak half a word of creole. So their first answer to any kind of challenge is to blast away with heavy calibre machine gun. They stay in their armoured person carrier and fire at anything that moves, and even things that don't move. Some of these rapid fire cannon can go through five or six houses and kill a lot of people. Sometimes if the cannon ball doesn't kill you then the shrapnel does. This Jordanian battalion has no place in Haiti. It should be the first to leave, as rapidly as possible.
Cité Soleil should be addressed as an urgent problem with social measures, including re‑insertion for the youth who have had to defend their hard‑won rights. They have indicated that they are willing to lay down their weapons if they can be re-inserted to society, through jobs, training programmes. For that, we hope that Canada, which wasted at least $33 million of the Canadian taxpayers money on an election that was to be rigged, will now come forward financially to help, so that the government of Haiti can tackle very rapidly the problems in Cité Soleil and other poor neighbourhoods.
PV: What is the extent of schooling, and university, in Haiti right now?
Elie: It is one of the worst situations you could describe, because ‑ and this is so crazy - they've been pushing for less state in Haiti. The same trio that have been so much involved in the regime change have been pushing for less state and more privatization.
Not only do we have insufficient schools for the population but 80% of the schools are private. It costs the poor Haitian parent sometimes 50% of their budget to send their kids to school. Very often they just cannot, especially after that regime change, when the first thing the de facto government did was to fire four to five thousand people who had found jobs under President Aristide. Of course, these people could no longer send their kids to school. They could no longer feed them.
On top of that the whole school year, after the coup, was completely disturbed by the spiralling violence caused by the coup d'etat. For all purposes this generation of school children has been sacrificed. They might create some programmes where they have to pick up the slack during those two years.
PV: Is there any indication about the release of prisoners?
Elie: Mr. Preval has indicated that this is an urgent issue. But I, personally, and many of the political prisoners themselves, think that they should be released before Mr. Preval's inauguration. It is not a problem for Mr. Preval to solve. This de facto government has already land‑mined the landscape for Mr. Preval to step on. This issue must be resolved before his inauguration, and those who have illegally arrested and detained these prisoners must be forced to release them. That is one thing the Canadian people will take up with their own government, because unfortunately, even our friends in Canada think that with Mr. Preval's election we are in smooth sailing mode. It is far from that. As a matter of fact, Mr. Preval has not yet been sworn in.
PV: When does that take place?
Elie: This supposedly takes place on May 14th. But nothing is sure. The run‑offs to the parliamentary election were supposed to be on April 21. There was the distinct possibility that these run offs will be rigged, to put Mr. Preval in front of a hostile parliament, as happened during his first term, and that would be a real tragedy.
The first elections were both presidential and parliamentary. The president was elected in the first round because he got more than fifty percent of the vote. For parliament, you also need an absolute majority. If you don't get it, then the two highest candidates face off. Almost all of both the deputies and senators have to go to the run off, and that is where new possibilities exist for treachery, for tricks to be played. A lot of vigilance is called for.
PV: What about Aristide's return? That is a question a lot of people are asking.
Elie: It is a question that has a very easy answer. President Aristide, as an elected president, was illegally overthrown. But on top of that, as a Haitian citizen, he has every right to be in his country. The Haitian constitution is very clear on that, exile is a crime.
That said, President Aristide's return has to be prepared. He is a historic figure, one who has tremendous following in Haiti but who is, as you know, detested both by the powerful in Haiti and by the powerful in the world. So this has to be prepared. But as for the fact that President Aristide will return to Haiti, I have absolutely no doubt about it.
PV: Could you speak about the Citizen's Monitoring Centre? Are there labour and trade union organizations in Haiti and are they a player in this group?
Elie: They have suffered a lot of setbacks during the last twenty years because they were directly involved in the political struggle. They are in the process of re‑building in very difficult conditions. Trying to set up labour unions when you have 70% unemployment, it is quite a task really.
But coming back to the citizen's watchdog group; What we want is not only to help develop the grassroots movement, but tie it into a national citizens' network precisely because of some of the issues we have been alluding to, because Mr. Preval might find himself facing a hostile parliament. So, what do you do then? Do you wait for the elections, or do you organize as an extra-parliamentary political force that might influence the course of events? That is what I think we need to do. We should not count only on our representatives. We should have a truly participatory democracy. And for that, you need a truly grass roots movement.
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