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“Our Dead Died for Us to Live:” A Conversation with Patrick Elie

By: 
Avi Lewis
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

Patrick Elie was Minister of Defense under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and is currently an advisor to Haiti’s President René Préval. Just over two weeks after the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people on January 12, 2010, Al Jazeera English’s Avi Lewis spoke with Elie in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince.

Avi Lewis: You’re an advisor within the government.  And the official story right now is that Haiti is a weak state that needs tremendous amounts of international assistance, but it must be led by Haiti as represented by its government, which is discredited on the streets. How do we understand this story?

Patrick Elie: That’s the official discourse, but I don’t see the people diagnosing a weak state actually helping to shore it up. This is a big part of the tragedy—that for decades everything has been done to weaken the Haitian state.  Through the thousands of so-called NGOs, through coups against elected officials, through sanctions either written or unwritten, through a campaign of destabilization. And now everybody’s screaming bloody murder: the Haitian state is too weak to handle this situation.

We’re not going to accept that as another pretext to weaken the state further in the process of recuperating from this catastrophe and rebuilding. It’s time to quit these crazy and dangerous politics. We need to rebuild our state, a strong state. We’re not about to accept a coup d’etat.

I don’t care if Mr. Préval is the best or not. For the moment, we are going to rally around him, because the alternative is way worse. One has to remember that the USA occupied Haiti for 20 years. And what did the US leave? Because they have so much hubris, so much disrespect for the culture of the people that they built and rearranged and 20 years later, everything was gone except the ersatz Marine corps, the ersatz occupation force, and the usual dictators serving the usual most repugnant elites. 

AL: What are you actually hearing on the inside that concerns you about the way the major powers see Haiti in the coming months and years?

PE: I’ve seen the US military takeover in some places, for example barring ministers from entering the area where supplies are being stocked up. I see signs that are very disturbing.

But we’re in a “neither/nor” moment: neither complacency nor paranoia. We’ve got to fight for every bit of sovereignty that we still have. But we also have to accept that when you are in a disaster, you have to relinquish part of your sovereignty. Every person knows that if your house is on fire, you let a perfect stranger in to hose it down.

Nonetheless, I want to tell our friends—all those near-sighted and slightly deaf elephants, who have come to the rescue of the mouse that we are, that we’re thankful, but we’re watchful too.

And I want to appeal to the people of the US and Canada and France, who so generously and without a political agenda have come to the rescue of the Haitian people, to keep doing it. And please if you can, pressure your government, your lobbies, your Halliburtons, your Blackwaters, not to start making money off the distress of the Haitian people. Please pull back, and let us run the show. It is our tragedy. And we’re thankful for the help, but we won’t let it be the opportunity for the ultimate assassination of this country.

AL: Let’s talk about those previous assassination attempts. Tell me how the country was made so vulnerable in the first place.

PE: It really started with an outright war on Haitian peasants. They were always kept out of decision-making, but at least they were let be. Then, starting in the 60s, that notion of small farm owners, independent, not entering in the grand design of imperialism became a problem to be solved.

What happened with the Duvaliers, and after the Duvaliers, all was put in place to totally decapitalize these Haitian peasants. And they’re the ones who came to overcrowd Port-au-Prince and build in places that were fragile to start with.  Combine that with the weak state, and you get the size of tragedy that you’ve got now.

AL: How do you look at the reconstruction as a way to address the structural issues that existed beforehand?

PE: Everybody’s screaming, “The country’s been destroyed.” No, Port-au-Prince has been destroyed; the country is alive. And now the country has to help Port-au-Prince, but not so that it can again become the cancer it was. So now we are forced to decentralize, to bring jobs and opportunity to the Plateau Central for example, which is completely outside the two tectonic plates that traverse Haiti. We have to go to the Artibonite where ports are waiting to be installed, and create new poles of development.

All of that had been said before, but maybe we needed a catastrophe to realize that the time to do it is now.

Even though I am not a believer in any religion, I know that every religion believes in a notion of sacrifice. People have to die for people to live. And our dead died for us to live. We have to feed off their spirit, understand their message, understand that they could no longer live in this environment, circumstances, conditions. And they died so that we would pick up that strong message.

AL: Give me a vision of agriculture in Haiti that is neither peasants living in the dark ages, nor agribusiness for export.

PE: What we have to do is rebuild and stimulate not only sowing and reaping and harvesting, but transforming. And make that key, so that while one son works the land, another could make the tools, and another market the produce. The daughter or brother could be a schoolteacher. And everyone could stay in the community. That’s the way we have to develop, that’s the kind of community that is most resilient to the type of catastrophe that we have just witnessed, because it is flexible, and based on networks.

That’s the way to go, not by impoverishing the peasants so that they can become the stuff of Maquiladoras. That’s very fragile. You’ll be making iPods today, and tomorrow when they’re not the fad anymore the people will be out there starving. But we will always need food. And that’s where independence and autonomy starts from—being the master of your own stomach.

AL: It will take some time to rebuild the public sphere, and the people and institutions charged with rebuilding it have a history of deconstructing the public sphere. A lot of people we have met are talking about people’s reconstruction processes that are not top down.

PE: I believe it has to come from the bottom up. And that has started as people have confronted the actual event.

We have to sweep away some of the political, economic and intellectual elite. Not physically, but remove from their hands the matches that they’re playing with around a gasoline bucket.

And we have to bring up the true leaders—the young people who might have no formal education at all, but who have shown the ability to organize, to care for the population, even though there was no elected post and no money at stake. 

AL: How do you feel about the US military presence here?

PE: I see it as an inappropriate and knee-jerk kind of response: whenever something happens, send the military.

Also, the US is hostage to its own propaganda about Haiti as a land of savages, cannibals—it’s like Somalia all over again. That’s when the 82nd Airborne gets sent in as the rescuer from those hordes of killers. And that’s why you have a rescue operation with a lot of the 82nd Airborne and very few rescue workers, social workers, and people who are good at catastrophe management.

I don’t want to demean the gesture of help. But you’ve been in the streets—there is no hostility of the Haitian people towards any of the foreign helpers. There might be some people that through hunger have some disorderly type of conduct. But there is no hostility. So why this show of military force?

AL: How do you see this moment in terms of the geopolitics of the region?

PE: I believe it is one of the key moments in the history of the region being played right here in Haiti.

In my view, President Obama is redefining the Monroe Doctrine, except that [his administration is] bringing in Brazil and Canada to shore up the wobbly giant.

Following the destabilization and kidnapping of Aristide, Haiti was finding new allies within the region and maybe falling into that new movement in the Americas—nuestra America—of José Martì. And this has become the occasion to reverse that movement, so that we can fall back into being the pupil or the puppet or the pet of the USA.

We’ve got to fight that by welcoming help wherever it comes from, and not becoming anyone’s pawn.

AL: Do you not see the risk of becoming the pawn of Venezuela?

PE: You know, Venezuela has never occupied us, or landed troops to kidnap a president, or marines to take our gold and save the interests of Citibank. It has never demonstrated any project to dominate Haiti. I’d worry about Venezuela in the next century maybe, but right now I’m worried about the usual culprits: the USA and France.

AL: Since the earthquake, there have been calls from the left for President Aristide to return, and he has expressed the desire to do so. Is this the moment?

PE: President Aristide can help but not by coming back at this moment, precisely because of the popularity he still has in the shantytowns.

He is what Préval is not and needs to be right now: a communicator, somebody who can connect with the people at an emotional as well as a spiritual and intellectual level. I think he can do that: he can be a guide. And I don’t think the government of South Africa would stand in his way if he were to send a daily briefing to the Haitian people.

Certainly he will come back. And right now he can do a lot by speaking out, because President Préval has not been good at communication, but he has been good at depolarizing Haitian society somewhat. They should complement each other rather than vying for the spotlight. But it would be very negative to have two heads of state in the country at this moment.

Avi Lewis is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and co-host of Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English Television.

Patrick Elie appears in Fault Lines—Haiti: The Politics of Rebuilding which can be viewed online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuUt12usDVs