6 July, 2009 — “The Elites Are Like a Huge Elephant Sitting on Haiti”
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jul 3 (IPS) – Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis assumed office in September 2008. Born in the southern city of Jérémie in 1947, she left Haiti with her family in 1964 following a pogrom by dictator François Duvalier against his perceived enemies in her town.
Studying in the United States and France before returning to Haiti in 1977, she has been a close confidante of Haitian President René Préval for over 40 years. After having worked in a variety of private and public sector jobs in Haiti, she and Préval opened a bakery which catered to the poor in Haiti’s capital in 1982.
Active in the first government of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pierre-Louis was among the first to denounce the 1991 military coup against Aristide during an interview with Radio France Internationale.
After Aristide’s return by a U.S.-led multinational force in 1994, Pierre-Louis opened the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Knowledge and Freedom Foundation or FOKAL) in 1995 with support from businessman and philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
An organisation conceived to support sectors in Haitian society most likely to bring about social change, FOKAL has been responsible for the creation of a network of over 50 community libraries throughout Haiti, a cultural centre and library for economically disadvantaged children and youths in Haiti’s capital, a debate programme for young people, and an initiative to supply running water to the nearly 80 percent of Haitians who don’t have regular access to it.
Since her installation as Prime Minister, Pierre-Louis has presided over a stabilising of the security situation in this often politically unstable country, weathered the fallout and relief efforts after a trio of hurricanes killed at least 600 people last year and traveled both within Haiti and internationally to plead her government’s case.
IPS contributor Michael Deibert sat down with Prime Minster Pierre-Louis in Port-au-Prince on Jun. 21 to hear her thoughts about where the country is heading.
IPS: Could you speak a little bit about your background?
MPL: I was born in Jérémie, and my parents were people extremely dedicated to the country. My father and my mother were raised during the U.S. occupation, and that whole generation was very nationalistic, it was very important to be proud of your country, to love your country, to know your country.
My involvement started very early because I was involved in youth groups against Duvalier, which at the time was very dangerous. There were lots of groups that were fighting clandestinely against the dictatorship, and I lost a lot of friends who disappeared.
One day you would hear that [the government] got them and put them in jail and you would never hear from them again. So I was marked by this situation, and even when I went to study abroad, Haiti was always in my mind
IPS: How did you find your involvement in the first Aristide government?
MPL: It was very exhilarating, at the beginning. Everybody in the world was saying finally Haiti is going to come out, finally democracy is going to be built…When the 1991 coup occurred, I was probably the first person to give an interview and say, no matter what, the coup was unjustified. Aristide was our president and he was elected democratically and we’re going to fight for him to stay in power.
Those were very long years, and something happened to the country and to the president. When he came back, I think things got really rough, we really started going down the drain. Somehow, something very deep happened in the mind of this country, and we have not really put our finger specifically on it.
IPS: What did you feel was different after the return of Aristide in 1994?
MPL: The man himself had changed. He was married, he was into money, he was into corruption. He invented the Petits Projets de la Presidence. [a corruption-riddled system of presidential largesse]. I don’t think he had escaped from the Haitian president’s syndrome, which is stay in power by all means.
There are many Haitian presidents who have fallen into that trap. Once that is your perspective and that is your project, all means are used…I don’t think we know our history very well, and we fall into the same trap over and over again. It’s unfortunate that we keep making the same mistakes
IPS: What political lessons should Haiti and the international community draw from the collapse of the second Aristide government in 2004 and the international intervention that followed?
MPL: For a long time, a lot of the elite would say that Haiti was not ready for democracy, and I was totally against that. It’s not because people are poor and they are illiterate that they are not ready for democracy. When you go to the people at the bottom, I have a deep feeling that these people really want things to change, and they are waiting for the leadership that will not bring miracles but will show them the way and not lie to them.
All the elites – the mulatto elites, the university elites, the union elites, the peasant elites – are like a huge elephant sitting on this country and you cannot move it, because there is no political class, because there are no political parties, and everyone becomes corrupted and perverted. If you can’t go into that system, the system rejects you. And so far we have not found the wrench that will move this thing.
IPS: Do you think the presence of the United Nations mission is important, and how are relations between your government and the mission?
MPL: From 1991 to 2008, there have been seven U.N. missions here, and they have all been asked for by the Haitian government. That means there is a problem.
When people say it’s a matter of sovereignty, I say that Haiti is a sovereign country and nobody change that. But in two areas, we have lost the exercise of our sovereignty: Control of the territory and food security.
We are dependent on outside forces, outside markets, for both. If we really want to do something, let’s work to recover the full capacity of our sovereignty now. That would mean really building a national public security force, and making sure we could massively invest in agriculture, which would be justice to the Haitian peasant.
When Aristide left and the interim government came in, the police were corrupt, politicized and inefficient. It takes a while before you can reverse that trend, but I think if there is one area today where we can feel the progress, it’s the police.
As Prime Minister you are also are chief of the Conseil Superieur de la Police Nationale d’Haiti, and I take that very seriously, because security is a major issue. We lack training, munitions and arms, but I think we have done a great job. It’s embarrassing to have foreign forces in your country, I am not happy about that. But if we don’t make the effort to regain our capacity to control our territory, they will stay forever.
IPS: What are your thoughts on the recent mid-term elections in Haiti?
MPL: In 2006, the population responded with dignity and order, and were proud to be part of [the elections]. And I have told those in parliament: “You are young. You want to have a career? Remember that in the past elections 95 percent of you were not returned to office. You think the people are not watching, that they are not judging? They are watching. They are not stupid.”
There are hands that didn’t want these elections to take place, because it changes the configuration of the senate, which is now very powerful. Chaos is good for a few sectors, and the most destabilising factor here today is drug trafficking, whether by plane or by ship. And it’s polluting politics
The recovery of Haiti – justice system, health, education – should be planned over 10, 15, 20 years. We now have a good relationship within the region, with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and it’s a new paradigm for regional cooperation. They have their own interests, of course, but let’s make the best of the opportunities that are offered to us.
Michael Deibert is a Senior Fellow at New York’s World Policy Institute and the author of “Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti” (Seven Stories Press).