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A Lavalas Mayor in Hiding

By: 
Jeb Sprague
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

On February 29, 2004, Haiti’s popularly elected Lavalas government was overthrown as its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted and flown aboard a US airplane to a country not of his choosing, after years of economic, political, and paramilitary destabilization. For nearly three years before the 2004 coup, paramilitary rebels ran continual raids into Haiti from their safe houses in the Dominican Republic killing civilians and elected officials. A Bush Administration sponsored aid embargo starved Haiti’s financial resources, while political opposition and anti-government NGOs were heavily funded by tens of millions of dollars in grants from Canadian, US, and French government aid agencies. Haiti descended into chaos, its currency plunging in value, its government destabilized.

While the mainstream press continually ignored the involvement of the interim government’s Haitian National Police (HNP) in massacres, numerous human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, criticized the interim government’s human rights violations. Reporters of the Haiti Information Project documented the involvement of the UN's MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) force in aiding and abetting the attacks on supporters of Lavalas. After two years of an illegal interim government, in February of 2006 René Garcia Préval with the support of the Lavalas base was elected as President of Haiti, although he was not inaugurated until May of 2006.
This is the story of Jean Charles Moise, a peasant organizer and mayor of Milot, a countryside town in northern Haiti. As one of many young Haitians who entered politics through Lavalas in the 1990's, Moise explains to interviewer Jeb Sprague how for the first time, peasants were able to take part in government.

Becoming mayor

Sprague: How did you become mayor of the town of Milot?

Moise: I worked with a Haitian student’s organization, which was persecuted under Duvalier. After Duvalier left there were always demonstrations. I left Milot and went to Cap Haïtien for school. After that I went back to the rural areas and started to do demonstrations for land for the peasants and working to direct the peasant movement. The size of Milot is seventy-nine [square] kilometers. Only three families had 84% of the land. These were families related to or supporting President Duvalier. These three families, starting from 1911, had controlled the land. [They] did not even live in Haiti. They lived in France, Canada, and the United States. They came every two years or even just every ten years. They came with arms, to hunt and shoot animals.

After the first coup against Aristide in 1991 under the Cedras junta it was a terrible time, a very difficult time. I spent eight months in hiding. They were looking to kill me. I went to Santa Domingo and came back…then I went back to Haiti and they arrested me. The people in Milot broke me out just as they were about to put me into prison.

[Then in] 1995 when democracy returned to Haiti, I ran for mayor in Milot. I was the director of the peasant radio station in Milot...I was 27 when I became mayor. Everyone asked me to run for mayor because it is the mayor who has the control over land in the area because the constitution gives the right to mayors to distribute the local land. The people knew if I became mayor I would help find land for the peasants that did not have land. Before I became mayor there was a lot of struggle over the land, people being killed while fighting to gain land. When I became mayor all of that stopped.

The schools that were constructed and the land reform with the peasants were the largest accomplishments. It completely changed the land distribution situation. All of this land was now in the hands of the poor. Before this land was redistributed, people had nothing to eat. They were dying of hunger. Since we began the struggle for land, 95% of the children who could not go to school are now able to go to school. Many schools were put together with few supplies. 70% of the people who weren’t able to have their own house are now able to have their own house on a little piece of land.

Milot is one of the richest areas, in terms of resources, in the country. In the east we have gold, in the south we have uranium, in the south-west we have the kind of earth to make bricks to build houses, and we have the Citadel which is the eighth wonder of the world, a large fortress built by Henri Christoph, the first king of Haiti. France wanted to control the Citadel. The Americans wanted the uranium. The Canadians wanted the gold. I didn’t want them to take any of those things. I told the Canadians that they couldn’t take the gold unless they would build a road, hospitals, and schools in our area. They had to bring potable water for people. I wanted the people of Milot to benefit from the gold because it was in our area.

In 1997, the Americans came in the night with weapons and with lots of machinery. They were taking the uranium during the night and putting it on a boat. I went by myself to the eastern area to stop the Americans and when I got there, there was an American guarding the gate. He treated me very disrespectfully, telling me, “Get out of here.” I told him, “I am the mayor.” He said to me, “Sorry, leave me alone man.” After that I came back with 10,000 people with drums in the night. All night we were singing in front of them. In the morning the American commander came out with all his machinery and left the area.

2004 coup

Sprague: What happened to Milot during the 2004 coup?

Moise: February 22, 2004. Each time someone asks about that, it makes me remember how terrible things were that day. It was Milot where they came in a week before the coup. The x-military, they came to Milot. There were Dominican mercenaries with them. It was a surprise attack. They came with many weapons, many cars. They shot into many of the houses. They burned houses and cars. They shot people as they ran. They killed some of the police. It was a terrible moment.

When they got to Cap Haïtien they burned the airport, they burned the police station, the courthouse, the customs office, they burned all of the houses of all the people who worked in Aristide’s government. If you said you were Lavalas, they would kill you. They put people in containers and the sun was so hot many of them died. They threw people into the ocean in containers. If you had a money problem with someone, a land conflict, or a problem with a woman, people could go to the former military and say, “Oh, this person is Lavalas.” And they would just go and kill them. Just in this area in the north, we believe that between 3,000 to 4,000 people were killed.

The elites had asked the French to arrest me. They said, “If Aristide is gone but Moise stays, we have another problem.” Like a small plant when a storm comes through we were underground, under the mud, but when the sun comes it grows back up again. Aristide was a symbol that opened the door for the poor. He symbolized hope for the poor. [When the military rebels invaded] the elites danced. Dancing, they were so happy to see the rebels enter. “Long live Guy Phillip [a rebel leader],” shouted the elites. All of Lavalas fled to either Santa Domingo or into hiding in the mountains. We passed 6 or 7 months in the mountains until August of 2004. I was forced into hiding.

Sprague: Do you think foreign aid is used to manipulate Haiti politically?

Moise: Yes, I do. USAID, they have done some really bad things to the Haitian people. We don’t count on that aid because it is aid that comes with conditions. It is aid that is made to destroy national production. It is aid that goes to finance NGOs that are against the elected government. A foreign aid embargo on the elected government was made as a strategy to destabilize the Aristide government, while all the foreign aid went to opposition NGO groups. It affected everyone because it is such a poor country. The World Bank asked Aristide to pay millions of dollars in interest before they would release the aid. They said they would give money, but would not say how much. After Aristide paid some of what they asked, they wanted more. The World Bank told the Central Government, "Pay us the interest before we will lend you the money." On the radio the opposition claimed the World Bank had lent Aristide the money for schools, food, etc. Everyday the elite radio attacked Aristide, saying, “The World Bank gave you money! The World Bank gave you money! Where is it?” But the World Bank did not give anything; it was a strategy to undercut the government. Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were withheld—(money that the Haitian government in the past had depended upon).

After the coup

Sprague: What has happened to you since the 2004 coup?
Moise: On the 14th of August 2004, we had a demonstration in which we came down from the mountains. People from California came with us to stand with us. Guy Phillip said, "If you come into Cap Haïtien we will kill you." I made it through the 22nd of February and I did not die. They said “we will be waiting for you on the 14th of August.” Guy Phillip sent me a message saying, “If you come to Cap Haïtien you will get money.” It was a bet. They were trying to get me into Cap Haïtien to kill me.

Chilean helicopters circled all day over Milot. Who were the helicopters looking for? We were under the trees in the garden. We met in the garden with all the demonstration organizers but the helicopter kept flying over us and everyone would run. (Laughs) After that, the United Nations MINUSTAH soldiers came into Milot. They wanted to make surveillance and they started taking pictures. Our friends in the California delegations went out into the streets and started taking pictures of MINUSTAH. Then MINUSTAH and the Californians were taking pictures of each other. “Bravo! Bravo!”, we shouted. People clapped. Everyone was happy.

On the 13th, we rented several cars and had a caravan of justice to show everyone in the local area where the rebels had killed the police, all of the buildings that were burned, where they had killed people in the popular neighborhoods, the families of the victims. The delegation went through all the popular neighborhoods so the poor knew we had observers from the delegation (protection from being shot at). When I was almost to Cap Haïtien I was sitting in the van with a funny hat. It was a funny little woman’s hat that disguised me. When the car stopped and we got out, we were in the middle of the delegation and walked through the police and through MINUSTAH. The people shouted in joy—thousands and thousands of people. After that, the struggle began. We came back home, down from the mountains. If the delegation had not been with us, it would have been very dangerous. They could have arrested me, they could have shot me. But it was a victory. People came back to their houses. That is why I say solidarity is a very good thing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeb Sprague is a graduate student, freelance journalist, and a correspondent for Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints. Visit his blog at http://www.freehaiti.net. This interview was translated by Sasha Kramer. She is a PhD student, works on alternative sewage systems in Haiti and lives part time in Milot.