Interview with Veteran Political Activist Patrick Elie
Patrick Elie, myself and several glasses of Scotch:
Isabeau: Do you think the elections will mobilize logistical forces that could and or should be used to coordinate cholera relief and save people’s lives?
Patrick Elie: Yes, after the earthquake I proposed that we revisit the electoral calendar, not because of cholera, but people needed time to digest and recover, as well as question the different political candidates and parties on their programs. We never really had a chance to do this. So for me these elections are for nothing. We’re just going through the motions. We will find ourselves in a very difficult situation after the elections and this will not be defined by who is President, or Senator, but by the reality here, a reality that was already very difficult before the earthquake, than was made worse by the earthquake, and now obviously by the cholera epidemic. When I listen to the different candidates, I see nothing that takes this reality into account. All candidates have the same language, “I will solve all the problems.” Who would say the contrary: “I will solve nothing and make the problems worse.” But you can’t solve anything without the participation of the people living the problems. Unfortunately I see no candidates or parties that are truly able to address this reality. There are none.
Isabeau: It seems that the international community wants this election more than the Haitian people; they want to know where their reconstruction funds will go.
Elie: This is the new definition of democracy. But true democracy has a concrete content that translates to social justice, health for all, education etc. When all members of society participate, will everyone be equal? No, but all citizens should have the same regard for the state. The state shouldn’t serve certain citizens and not others. Perhaps it can accept that some have more than other, but until now the political discourse is not ready to face up to the face that there is a minority of citizens who pick up everything, and a majority that are sub-human. No one has the guts to talk about land tenure issues. Haitian democracy will build from the base to the summit and not from the summit to the base.
Isabeau: I haven’t been paying any attention the candidates, and I have no idea what they claim to be saying…
Elie: but no one knows. The only position of the candidates is that “I want to be president, or senator.” What we’re facing are personal ambitions.
Isabeau: I remember in August you were calling for the four former Lavalas candidates to unite into one party, why didn’t they do it?
Elie: They didn’t do it because their personal ambitions were irreconcilable. If you have a collective vision you can put together a program, but when all there is are 19 people with ambitions, and only one place for president, you can’t come to an agreement; it’s either you or me.
Isabeau : so you think this, in itself, shows that these candidates don’t have the ability to come together and make decisions for the greater good of the country?
Elie: No. I can tell you I know many of the candidates, many are friends, but I have never told friends or anyone to vote for x or y because I refuse to be at the service of personal ambitions. I can serve collective ambitions. But how could I tell the population to vote for him or her.
Isabeau: does this question our definition of democracy? Greek democracy was very different. Do you think there is a way of practicing democracy without one leader, but rather having a dialogue between different leaders who speak on behalf of those they serve?
Elie: This is the way we practice democracy today, and this is not a problem just in Haiti.
Isabeau: Yes, the same problems arise in every so-called western democracy; Haiti is just an exaggerated version.
Elie: Neither the US, Canada, France are real democracies. We have never been able to pass from Athenian democracy, which excluded women, slaves and foreigners, but for those who were citizens, had the right to participate in and dicte the political decisions that affected the cities. Now we have too great a population to reunite on the city plaza, but all citizens there is something of Athenian democracy we should have preserved, and that to get to say what the politics of the city. Regardless of whether the population is of 100 thousand or a millions inhabitants, the same principle and mechanisms should be found.
Isabeau: Especially with all the communication technology we have today.
Elie: When citizens have something to say, even if it’s just on the road, in the neighborhood, we need to find a way for citizens to have a word to say in their destiny, for their word to reach up to the National level. It can’t just be a little clique deciding everything.
Isabeau: That’s just the label of democracy. Plastering the town with poster portraits of yourself, paying people to wear your t-shirt and making a big ceremony at the polls is not what will help the majority of people come to understand what they want and need. Haitian’s seem to have a rich history of quickly mobilizing their collective will, but this will seems a bit broken or confused at the moment.
Elie: It is true that this democratic swing has been broken. I wouldn’t say it’s definitive. I believe we’re passing through a bad phase in our struggle for a true democracy. These elections are the most empty of meaning I’ve ever seen. Before, you know, there were two options, even when these options were not written down. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide was Presidential candidate he signified one thing; the others signified other things. Even when Preval took office after the 2004 coup d’etat, he symbolized something. Now no one symbolizes anything. I predict that after these elections we will find ourselves in a confused situation. In truth, I know very well who will win these elections; it is the international that will win these elections.
Isabeau: They are the ones who seem to want the election most and they are the ones paying for it.
Elie: Exactly, and when I say the international I don’t mean a specific government, I mean huge reconstruction companies who will find themselves dealing with a weak state. So regardless of Celestin, Manigat etc, they will get their way. As we say in Haiti, and we say this without racism: It’s the blan [foreigner] who will win this election, because he will face a weak Haitian partner lacking any popular legitimacy, and will have to accept the international vision, the reconstruction companies, the private security companies etc. and they won’t be able to negotiate in a position of equality, where they could say “I represent such and such a millions of Haitians and you must listen.” No the international will say “wait there was 10% participation and you represent half of that, so who are you?”
It seems we are headed for a second round. No one will win the first round…or I would be very surprised if they did. But we are not used to a second round here in Haiti, so even if there is a 10 to 20% participation rate, in the second round people will say “no my candidate was not included I’m not going to vote.” So whoever wins the second round will win with, I don’t know 50% of 5%, which means a government will take office with something like 2.5 % of the votes. How do you go into an international negotiation when you have 2.5% of the vote behind you?
Isabeau: My sense is that after the election results come in, people will have something more concrete than Preval to protest against. Do you think there will be more political instability after the election?
Elie: No, regardless of who is elected president, they will not have a concrete legislature. We’ll enter into a period of exhausting negotiation where people will say “pick me pick me.” This is why I think the imbeciles that say, “as soon as I’m elected president I will take this and that measure…” First you have to be able to form a government, to form a government you have to retain the support of the legislature and this is not obvious. How will you form a government in the midst of complex negotiations?
Isabeau: So what’s the alternative? If no one goes to vote or they cancel the vote, the government will go to a judge? Or will they face a reform of the CEP?
Elie: That will not happen, we have already tried that after the second coup against Aristide, it will not work.
Isabeau: why, because the judicial system is inept?
Elie: No it has nothing to do with the judicial system, you can’t propose to a people to be ruled by an unelected leader. If Preval is gone you will have an option where politicians will get to decide who is minister, and it will not work; they’ll have no popular legitimacy whatsoever. Not even 2.5, but zero. The people who propose this solution, of no election, big disaster, the departure of MINUSTAH will see…MINUSTAH will leave and the Marine Corps will replace them.
Isabeau: Surely that’s worse than the MINUSTAH, which isn’t what these people have in mind.
Elie: I don’t know what they want, am not saying anything about what they want; I’m saying this is what will happen. MINUSTAH leaves, they will be replaced by the Marine Corps.
Isabeau: This is an impossible situation. The elections are magouilles [corrupt/scandalous], no elections will be a magouille… the troops stay, it’s more of the same, which people are totally fed up with, of they leave it will be the real deal [American occupation].
Elie: There was an earthquake and there were no riots in this country, and yet, 20 000 American troops were here. If now a couple of imbeciles decide to set fire for the MINUSTAH to leave, the Marine Corps will arrive.
Isabeau: But why is the world so scared of Haitian popular will. The MINUSTAH seems more scared of popular civil unrest than of anything else.
Elie: The Marine Corps will not be preoccupied by popular will. The MINUSTAH is composed of several contingents, agendas, and interests. The MINUSTAH cannot act as a single entity, the Marine Corps can. When the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was organized in 2004, it was not the MINUSTAH that arrived here first, it was American French and Canadian troops.
Isabeau: Do you think the MINUSTAH is multi-national hand camouflaging the interests who backed the coup? It seems questionable to invite troops from countries other poor countries with low human rights standards to come here and patrol the Haitian state.
Elie: I think so, if the UN were really reflected the will of the people of the world, I don’t believe Palestinians would be in the situation they’re in.
Isabeau: Do you think the protests against the MINUSTAH are really as politically motivated as the UN claim? Are people really just being manipulated?
Isabeau: Even in Cap Haitien where there is less of a history of paying people off to protest?
Elie: There are real frustrations in Cap, as you saw with me recently when we went up [Patrick brought me to Cap Haitien in August to visit rural communities and grass roots groups. See: http://dizzyshambles.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/patrick-elie-visite-les-groupes-de-base-du-cap-haitien-et-de-ranquitte/]. Both arteries entering the city are in lamentable state. The work being done in the city was blocked, there are real frustrations, but there are always people ready to use these frustrations, not to propose something better, but just to create disorder.
Isabeau: what are the political goals? Do you really think people are being manipulated and instrumentalized for obscure political ends, considering there is already so much legitimate and long-standing frustration and resentment towards the MINUSTAH, even when we were in Cap in August people were up in arms about the death of the 17 year old boy.
Elie: there are people who say “No elections,” “Preval must resign.” Others say “there will be elections, we’ll never win, wouldn’t it be better if there is a disaster.” Some say, “lets buy time to make negotiations.” There are those blocking the streets are trying to gain a bit of power, they put a barricade and it’s always the case that when there are political problems people mount a barricade and charge people to cross.
Isabeau: This is a way for people who have no power to gain a bit of political, economic power, even if it’s just over a barricade.
Elie: This is a very localized form of taking control. It doesn’t solve the collective problems but this happens all over the world.
Isabeau: Why is the international community so interested in Haiti: funding elections, sending international troops and NGOs who give people one glass of water at a time, who fix tires rather than fixing the road?
Elie: This is a question people ask me all the time, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, but somehow, Haiti is a very bad example in history of humanity. When I was Marxist I remember Marx said that when the proletariat rose up they would liberate the world, but what happened in Haiti is something that even Marx failed to understand: it was not the proletariat that rose up, it was the cattle. The slaves were nothing than cattle, so what happens when, not the underclass, but the cattle wakes up? It is the worst nightmare of Capitalism, or whatever you want to call it. You cannot go lower than that, you have the proletariat, then the lumpen-proletariat and the cattle, and the cattle work up and threw everything into chaos. I believe that the powers that be have a very, very long memory. I don’t have any other explanation for why Haiti is weighing so much on international memory.
Isabeau: was it also the fact that Haitian’s foiled the American attempt to import democracy by voting for Aristide?
Patrick Elie: that was not democracy, that was their own vision, not democracy as it was imported. To be honest I don’t understand how Haitians do it. I do know Haitian’s are a different breed. We’re not African and we’re not totally American. We’re in a way a fluke in the history of mankind. We don’t know what we want but the world doesn’t know what we want. We are totally bizarre. We’ve been isolated through our own fault maybe, but we are not normal. We’re crazy in our own way.
Isabeau: so do think there’s a possibility of something incredible, brilliant, revolutionary coming out of this bizarre catastrophe psychosis? If anything you’re certainly makers of emancipatory history, and international powers are more afraid of that than of anything else.
Elie: On some days I believe we might be the future of humanity. The way we have handled precariousness, how we’ve managed to survive…I don’t know…I’m still trying to learn…
Isabeau: I really think this is the dustbin of capitalism and the avant-garde of apocalypse, and other countries are going to be facing a very similar crises very soon, like the US and UK and all the powerful country are going to have very similar crises brought right back to their doorstep, that’s the way capitalism works. Haiti might very well be able to set an incredible example for the world.
Elie: like cockroaches, we will survive…
Isabeau: Things can’t get any worse here and people are still dancing, laughing and protesting in the streets.
Elie: We deal with whatever cards we’re given. Haitian’s have a very small foot print on what the world has to offer…
Isabeau: in the sense that they don’t get any of what the world has to offer?
Elie: yes, and it don’t depend that much… our footprint is small, but our historical potential is huge and is always being referred back to the 18th century when we made a big splash. I think as we speak, the way Haitian’s live might show a way for the world to survive. It’s not possible for the world to live the way the US does.
Isabeau: it’s not possible for the US even.
Elie: So, couldn’t it be that, living the way we do, with very little, be the way ahead. I wonder. I’m not sure.
Isabeau: it’s no way to live, but it seems to be the way the world system is intent on making people live, until most of the world will be like Haiti.
Elie: but we will still be ahead. Every night I cry for the Haitian people, not for their misery and deprivation, but for their strength, and resourcefulness, and optimism. I walk along the street and something goes wrong, and a woman selling three rotten avocadoes kindly offers to help. I get into a car crash and my bumper falls off, and everyone around offers to help, even though they could never in three lifetimes buy themselves a car. I cry everyday for the strength and sanity for the Haitian people.