Imagine in U.S. politics if Cesar Chavez had suddenly endorsed and collaborated with George Wallace in his Presidential campaign, and the
United Farm Workers had joined racist white plantation owners in their last-ditch effort to maintain total apartheid in the U.S. South. This is not an inappropriate comparison to the recent bizarre alliance in Haiti between Chavannes Jean-Baptiste’s powerful and genuinely grassroots peasant organization, MPP (Papaye Peasant’s Movement) and Charles Henri Baker, the elite owner of a Haitian garment industry sweatshop. Despite years of fighting U.S. economic polices toward Haiti, from the Creole Pig fiasco under the Duvaliers to the disastrous neoliberalism of the past decade, Chavannes and the MPP now uncritically support openly neo-liberalist and Duvalierist members of the tiny, mostly “blanc” (light-skinned, Francophone), Haitian elite, who are in turn supported by U.S. right-wing groups like the IRI (International Republican Institute), funded by USAID.
Perhaps just as bizarre has been the continuing uncritical support (at least until now) by MPP’s U.S. funder, Grassroots International. GI consistently takes a strong stand against what it calls the U.S. “death plan,” structural adjustment and the whole World Bank neo-liberal program, yet remained silent for years after Chavannes and MPP became closely linked to precisely the U.S. “death plan” agenda, in their growing support for the successful overthrow of the Aristide government, and their close alliance with opposition groups with a neoliberal agenda and worse.
Like Chavez, Chavannes was a truly charismatic leader with an indisputably progressive agenda. He helped poor peasants establish a degree of security and autonomy and resist the dominance of the U.S. “free market.” Founded in 1973, The MPP developed and united more than 2500 local peasant collaboratives in the isolated and impoverished Haitian central plateau, representing about 35,000 peasants. MPP became by the early 1990s, the strongest and largest such peasant group in the country. During the 1990s, it’s national wing, the MPNKP began to construct a truly national federation of such grassroots agricultural efforts, joining together more than 100,000 peasants. MPP has done excellent work in promoting sustainable agriculture in the ecologically devastated plateau, as well as reforestation. They have fostered a range of cooperatives from agricultural products and credit for small farmers to sewing and ceramics. One of their most dramatic projects was the creole pig program – to provide low-cost pigs to peasants, who lost them when the U.S. eradicated almost all the native Haitian pigs during a swine flu epidemic in the Duvalier era. The creole pig became to Haiti what “keep your eye on the grape” was for farm workers and for all unions and poor people struggling for dignity in the U.S. in the 1960s.
At the time of the first coup d’etat against Aristide in 1991, Chavannes and others were forced to flee, setting up headquarters in Boston, where their U.S. patron, Grassroots International, was based. I first met him, his brother Bazelais and other family members during that time. With support also from Aristide’s consul-general in Boston, Gene Geneus, MPP became an organizer of the Boston Haiti-solidarity movement – supporting the formation of the New England Observer Delegation to Haiti, of which I was co-founder. We took eight delegations to Haiti during and after the coup period, in support of the elected government-in-exile. Chavannes, Bazelais and others from MPP helped us organize and raise funds for the delegations, and provided us with logistical support and contacts in Haiti during a very dangerous period.
During the exile, Chavannes was always close to Aristide during his speaking tours in the U.S. When Aristide returned to Haiti in October 1994, under Clinton-U.S. protection, NEOD went to Haiti with Chavannes and others from his family and MPP. At the palace, Chavannes (who was then Aristide’s official spokesman) made sure that we sat with Préval and other leaders at a banquet, and that we were on the palace steps when Aristide landed in a military helicopter. A few days later, I accompanied Chavannes, Bazelais and their mother in an SUV on the long drive over virtually non-existent roads to return to Papaye, MPP headquarters, for the first time since the coup. As we climbed to the top of the plateau, we were met at every village by rejoicing throngs who mobbed Chavannes joyously. In Hinche, capital of the region, a crowd of many thousands wildly applauded him. A U.S.AID operative watching the rally – who had funded dummy peasant groups to undermine MPP – confided to some of us (according to my journal notes) , “He has no real following and no future. You’ll see.” In Papaye we walked with Chavannes and his family as they surveyed the ruined MPP headquarters, burned and vandalized, the walls smeared with feces and vicious anti-Aristide and anti-MPP graffiti.
It was clear to us then that Chavannes, was mentored by Aristide since his youth. In many ways, Chavannes imitated “Titid,” both in his speaking style and his somewhat mystical pronouncements. Chavannes clearly expected to become Aristide’s successor. When that did not happen – and René Préval was nominated by Lavalas instead – Chavanne became bitter. Chavannes was ambiguous enough about the future, and his role in it, that he nevertheless served for a time as the head of Préval’s transition team.
Even though it was not clear whether Aristide himself had named Préval, or the OPL faction within Lavalas had pushed him forward (Préval later clearly did not support the OPL’s switch to neoliberalsim), Chavannes began to direct his anger openly toward Aristide. When an OPL dominated government endorsed a neoliberal program, Aristide denounced it and formed a new party, Family Lavalas, but Chavannes aligned with OPL. In 1997, a confrontation between Family Lavalas and MPP in Mirebalais (a former Plateau stronghold of MPP) led to what Chavannes characterized as his having been held against his will for several hours. Chavannes insisted that former Macoute (Duvalierst henchmen) had infiltrated FL. Aristide refused to order the local FL to release Chavannes, or to apologize, telling an NEOD delegation in Haiti at the time that he could not control his local followers, nor could he guarantee that Macoutes did not sometimes join FL, though he himself did not approve of such tactics. Chavannes was, however, released unharmed along with his MPP followers.
During the contentious elections of 2000, Chavannes joined the Democratic Convergence, a hodgepodge of anti-Aristide forces, ranging from former Communists to outright Duvaliersts. The Convergence contested the April elections for parliament, in which FL claimed outright victory, but the OAS insisted the election was marred by dubious election practices in 8 Senatorial districts. Aristide accepted a compromise in which all 8 Senators were to face run-offs, but the Convergence would not accept this. The Convergence also boycotted the November Presidential elections, in which Aristide received 92% of the vote – with more than 60% of those registered voting. In 2001, the Convergence named it’s own shadow government, to which Chavannes pledged his allegiance.
Throughout 2002 and 2003, the US-AID funded groups like the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) helped organize and train anti-Aristide leaders. One wing of this opposition was a coalition of Haitian elite business leaders, originally called the Civic Initiative, later the Group of 184 civic institutions, created at a conference sponsored by the US-based Haiti Democracy Project (HDP) and funded by them and later by IRI directly, as well as the European Union. Chavannes joined 184 and eventually became one of its spokesmen, along with Charles Henri Baker and Andy Arpad – both notorious sweat-shop owners and union-breakers. MPP delivered many of its constituent organizations which made up a big chunk of the 184, otherwise characterized by chambers of commerce and other pro-business groups, as well as a few tiny unions known as house unions of companies. By so doing, the 184 received credibility in some progressive international solidarity circles which it could not have otherwise had. MPP endorsed the “social contract” of the 184 which assumes a neo-liberal agenda, and of course accepts the “de facto” government installed officially by the United Nations, but actually by the U.S. after it’s invasion. (Oddly, Grassroots International with its diametrically opposite position, remained silent.)
The other wing of the anti-Aristide campaign consisted of elements of the former Army and FRAPH (a paramilitary outfit that has been linked to massacres during the first coup period). These two were trained by the IRI and other U.S. NGOs, during conferences in the Dominican Republic, also attended by leaders of the 184. When Jodel Chamblain -a former FRAPH member and convicted murderer – brought a band of armed “rebels” into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, in early February, 2004, he chose the Plateau as a staging area for the rebellion which the U.S. later used as justification for forcing President Aristide into exile. According to former MPP members from Mirebalais and Thomond in the Plateau, whom I interviewed in March 2004, Chavannes welcomed Chamblain and even held a dinner for his band at Papaye. Assumedly, this group included some of the very Macoutes who had destroyed the MPP headquarters and terrorized Chavannes’ family during the first coup. When evidence of this betrayal was presented to GI in 2004, GI staff insisted that Chavannes had denied the charge, and GI remained uncritically supportive. (Chavannes told people privately, that he met with Chamblain but refused to help him. He has not commented publicly on this. The ex-MPP members commented, “The “rebels” simply could not have passed through the Plateau and received local support without MPP permission.”) At least one GI board member withdrew from the board at that time, privately indicating her disgust at GI complicity with the uncritically anti-Aristide and pro-US invasion positions of its Haitian partner, MPP.
After the U.S. invasion, the coup-installed government was led by the ‘Boca Raton’ neoliberals. The de-facto Prime Minister and many of his advisors had lived for years in Florida, many working for the internatonal agencies that imposed structural adjustment. During the march through the Plateau, the ‘rebels’ had murdered many local people including the Hinche chief of police. These ‘rebels’ were called ‘freedom fighters’ by Latortue, the coup prime minister. During the two years after the coup, thousands of Lavalas members and others were imprisoned, forced into exile or killed. Chavannes’ former colleagues, with whom he’d long worked, like Father Gerard Jean Juste and Prime Minister Yvon Neptune were held without charges under dreadful conditions – some, like Neptune, remain in prison. Yet Chavannes made no protest. On the contrary, he accepted the position of ‘liaison to the peasantry’ from the coup government.
MPP and Chavannes Jean-Baptiste had long insisted that the peasant movement should not be directly involved in electoral politics. Yet in the recent (2006) Haitian elections, Chavannes founded his own political party, KONBA, allying itself directly with Charles Henri Baker, the 184 founder and sweatshop owner. MPP and MKNP, acting separately, also endorsed Baker. Other peasant organizations in the country registered shock and outrage. In the summer of 2005, the major peasant groupings of Haiti had overcome years of differences to form a united peasant coalition, PLANOPA. Tet Kolé, the second largest peasant group in Haiti, and also a critic of Aristide, announced in January, 2006, its withdrawal from PLANOPA and its denunciation of MPP/MNKP and Chavannes for their support for “the most reactionary bourgeois sector” in Haiti. Yet GI remained silent still.
During the election campaigns, armed conflicts between Préval supporters and supporters of the OPL candidate as well as supporters of Baker, including KONBA, broke out in Ounaminthe, Préval’s home-base. During the election itself, Baker (who came in third to Préval, with about 7% of the vote) gained his largest pluralities (about 30%) in the Plateau, where polling stations were often controlled by MPP personnel. The largest number of blank ballots was also cast in these polling stations – ballots used temporarily to deprive Préval of the 50% plus one majority needed to avoid a runoff.
The CEP (electoral commission) announced what it called “massive fraud” in the elections in its own decision to declare Préval the outright winner. Préval and others are demanding a full investigation of the blanc vote scandal as well as the infamous destruction of ballots in Cité Soleil. They insist this is essential before the parliamentary results can be validated. Unfortunately the CEP is in extreme disarray. It’s president has fled to the U.S. and is being hosted by the Haiti Democracy Project – the same Washington-based group that helped form the opposition to Aristide.
Throughout all this, Grassroots International’s website continued to report only favorable comments about MPP and Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, and made only bland comments about the election. Sources say that GI nominated Chavannes for the prestigious Goldman environmental prize (nominating groups are not publicly identified), which he received in April 2005, landing him $125,000 dollars. Possibly using some of this money, Chavannes launched his new political party in May 2005.
Perhaps the stance of GI is about to change. GI’s Director of Global Programs, Maria Aguiar, told me (February 2005 – after the election of Préval became clear): “We’ve been having ongoing conversations with MPP and our other Haitian partners, to gather information about all this, and to determine what our ongoing relationships should be.” She said GI had felt it important to respect the autonomy of its Haitian partners, and in any case, “Voicing criticism of the human rights violations, corruption and economic policies of the Haitian government, or any government, is quite legitimate in our view. It has always been clear that, under no circumstances, should GI be supporting U.S. intervention in Haiti. That would be quite a different thing.”
It is a very difficult thing for those who have known Chavannes Jean-Baptiste and seen his extraordinary work as a peasant leader, to understand his complete shift away from grassroots justice and toward reactionary politics. His personal feeling of betrayal at not being nominated for President in 1995 explains his bitter anti-Aristide actions. But that scarcely explains his endorsement of the worst elements of the Haitian elite. Perhaps it is as simple as a feeling of losing his family’s rightful political and social inheritance of power, their place in a new elite. Perhaps it is a very human trait, shared with Aristide, of believing himself so essential to the Haitian struggle that he views any measures justified which could assure his own success. If so, it is a tragedy for him and his family. It is still more tragic for the future of a strong peasant movement in Haiti and the building of a participatory society – hopes that were kindled by the genuine depth and breadth of the movement built by Chavannes and others in MPP.
Equally difficult to explain and sad to report is the long silence of Grassroots International, a genuinely progressive and staunchly independent force for sustainable development and economic justice. Perhaps understandable in the beginning, as a way of opposing what it saw as betrayals and corruption of Aristide himself, the GI silence about MPP’s stance in the wake of the U.S. invasion, and in light of MPP’s complete shift in ideology becomes harder and harder to defend as the time passed after Aristide’s removal. What could have happened? Perhaps GI staff was stretched too thin for it to be on top of events in Haiti where it sponsors several programs. Surely, though, with information so available on the internet about the goings-on in Haiti, especially leading up to the election, GI might have simply stepped in and critiqued Chavannes and the MPP sooner rather than later. Were it to do so now, it would be a welcome step, but far too late for those who have had confidence in its long-standing support of programs known for their integrity and consistent opposition to U.S. policies.
TOM REEVES was a long-time Caribbean studies director at Roxbury Community College in Boston, and was a leader of many delegations to Haiti during and after the first coup d’etat. He has travelled to Haiti many times between 1987 and 2005. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.