Ce que je croyais, ce que je crois encore
Liberté, citoyenneté, solidarité
(What I believed, what I still believe. Liberty, Citizenship, Solidarity)
ISBN paper: 978-2-89454-568-3
© 2023 Éditions du Cidihca, Montréal
I have been born a thousand times, from small and big moments in my life. I often owe them delighted amazement and, despite the setbacks, the will to move forward and often the quest for new emotions. I start from my life experience and I say: what we have experienced and enriched us is not lost. We need to meditate on it to avoid pitfalls and to draw from it the courage, if not the joy, to continue on our way. And then, it’s comforting to linger on what we remember like a dream that lingers on.
How else, in the words of the poet Hölderlin, can we “overcome the narrow limits of the time of our lives” than by building on a past that endures, that offers food for thought, and from which we can draw to build the future? If we want a better world that’s full of experiences, if we want to change life, we need to be able to take a good look at the road we’ve traveled and understand the trials of the present.
The test of life has taught me that commitments come in two forms: individual and collective, and of all kinds: political, militant, intellectual, civic, emotional or otherwise. Whichever way you look at it, they are the result of a personal will. Ethics too. From there, little by little, I learned to choose to live, to understand that life is nestled in stones and trees, in beasts and humans, on earth and in the sky.
Like others, I’ve learned along the way to say yes to life, which means taking everything from it: the loves, the passions, the moments of happiness; the hates, the disappointments, the defeats, the bereavements; the solidarity, the great and small victories; the doubts, the rage to know and to share.
Saying yes to life also means saying no to mediocrity, injustice, misery, humiliation and contempt. Like Anténor Firmin, we believe that “Dans tous les pays, le progrès ne devient tangible que lorsque les couches sociales inférieures qui forment toujours la majorité tendent à monter en intelligence, en dignité et en bien-être” (In all countries, progress becomes tangible only when the lower social strata that always form the majority tend to rise in intelligence, dignity and well-being).
Saying yes to life also means admitting that no one is inoculated against error, but at the same time it means refusing simplemindedness and grappling with the complexity of human affairs; it means accepting to grapple with details, to take account of limitations without renouncing principles, because if life is, at the outset, a gift or an imposition, it becomes a choice with time.
I live intensely with my memories. First, those of my hometown, Gonaïves, where I lived for less than a quarter of my life: the time of my childhood and adolescence, which I still cherish. In 1994, I was invited by ALGOMO (Alliance Gonaïvienne de Montréal) to speak about Gonaïves to the Gonaïviens and other invited compatriots. What could be more inspiring than to deliver this lecture in the year that preceded by ten years the 200th anniversary of the national independence proclaimed in this city on January 1st, 1804? It’s easy to imagine the feverishness of those involved in this beautiful bicentenary commemoration, without being able to anticipate the city’s setbacks and the socio-political crises that would wreak havoc on the country.
I expressed my emotions and pride in contributing to the ALGOMO initiative in a spirit of solidarity and affectionate dedication.
I said to them: “It is first and foremost as a Gonaïvien rather than as a historian that I have agreed to speak to you this evening. In other words, my speech will be primarily sentimental in nature. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Gonaïves to the people of Gonaïves. I’m very proud of it.
“All of us here tonight know the context in which this event is taking place. That of the movement to raise awareness of the commemoration of the bicentenary of independence. This is not an academic gathering, and I have no pretension of being a scientist. For me, talking about Gonaïves, whatever the subject, is a pretext for sharing moving memories of our common experiences, whether individual or collective. Each of us carries within us our own history, the story of our neighborhood, childhood, adolescence, loves and friendships, all of which condition our start in life, and constitute the primary combination for the formation of our personality and the fulfillment of our destiny. It’s enough to be here tonight, among us, all generations from the salty land — as we call our hometown— to feel the breath of the impetuous north that alerts our memory of an unfinished past. But let’s not get carried away by nostalgia. After all, we’ve been summoned to conjugate our Gonaivesque dreams into the future, if there are any left. Let’s get down to the subject of this talk, which, although it looks back on a certain past, aims no less, according to the wish of ALGOMO’s management, to propose an attentive and ongoing reflection on the future of our little homeland, necessarily linked to that of the Haitian nation.
“Gonaïves in the history of Haiti is not only the honor of being the cradle of independence. The town had a life before and after January 1, 1804. It is first and foremost a geographical reality with economic, demographic, social and political dimensions… Its history is a totality in which these factors are closely interwoven. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the means to do this work, which will have to be done one day, preferably before 2004. It is an invitation to young researchers… For tonight, I will confine myself to evoking some of the major events that, from the colonial period to the present day, have punctuated our national history, and in which the city’s mark can be found.”
The memory of my childhood in Gonaïves clings to the elementary school of the Brothers of Christian Instruction, to a few fellow students, of course, but above all to places of dreams. Excursions, school outings, walks in the surrounding countryside: Bigot, Passe-Reine, Mapou, Poteau; later trips to Marchand as far as Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, stays in Pont-de-L ‘Ester where my mother ran a stall at the big street market. I have left a lasting impression, indelible traces of my vacations in Bassin dans le Kalmadè, Labrande, Bayonnais, Marmelade and other places brimming with smells and colors that threw me into a playful hand-to-hand encounter with nature. And that’s how I came to join the Scouts in my younger years.
I nibble away at my past, taking a tour of the places that cradled my childhood: the morning scent moistened by the dew of the Kalmadè, my fearful footsteps on the path marked out by frightened twigs, my flamboyant blaze dazzling in the sun, my spring in the hollow of the ravaged galettes, the mysterious shadow of the Bassin mango tree, over a hundred years old, a mute and fearsome witness to so many scattered, unfinished stories. It was a joy to invite my youthful friends, my workmates, Michel Hector and Yves Montas in turn, then Lucien Pardo, Max Chancy and Yves Montas again, to make and unmake Haiti under the mango tree.
Later, much later, it’s the whole northern massif, from Puilboreau to the confines of Bonnet-à-l’Évêque, that gets under my skin. This gray, damp morning, vaporous and serene, this low angle in the Vallée-aux-loup in 1983, isn’t it Marmelade and its foothills, its twists and turns. The singing rustle through the chestnut trees gently caresses my memory. Drunk with so many memories, my body melts in the warm drizzle.
From exile, I promised myself that I would revisit the places of my childhood and youth in Haiti, and set out again to discover the physical country as soon as possible. It was in my fondest dreams of the post-Duvalier era. What remains of all this today, in this time of damnation by accelerated environmental degradation, insecurity and profound misery? I’m convinced that there’s still a lot to see, to understand, to feel, to vibrate in the landscapes and in the trade of men and women.
I would so much like to be able to accompany my children, my friends discovered in exile in these places full of promise despite social distress; to accompany them with my eyes that have already seen so much, with my wonder that misfortunes have not dried up! It’s still a dream. But, as we know, it takes a lot to precede the rudeness of the awakening and soften the harshness of reality.
Time, lots of time, has passed. Duvalier left and I didn’t go back to Haiti. My devotion to the country of my birth is not unconditional. Nevertheless, I continue to wear it as an essential part of my identity. Admittedly, I no longer live in exile, but I’ve spent most of the time I have left believing, like Edmonde Charles-Roux, that “you can live for a long time poisoned by a remnant of hope.”
As a schoolboy, I discovered books by unravelling the mystery of the alphabet. I was already intoxicated by the scent of a new book for the traditional back-to-school season. There was a library in my town, poor and unkempt, but we had access to those few books to which I owe my first training apart from schoolbooks. I immersed myself in social life in the company of authors from diverse backgrounds. Books have opened my eyes to the world of all times and places, and brought me so much joy. Over time, they have not abandoned me. The books I read and the books I write form a convenient universe: for me, the book is a friend, a guide, a field of exploration, a recourse, a consolation, a faithful companion, an accomplice I can take everywhere.
And I did.
The one I am proposing here is a montage of texts (stories, essays, notes, meetings, exchanges, conferences, interviews, commitments), all of which form a testimony to my life as a citizen and an intellectual. I prefer to say an intellectual-citizen, because neither one nor the other is sufficient to give an account of my itinerary, especially as both are interwoven in this itinerary. What historian Pierre Rosanvallon calls “the concern not to separate scholarly work from citizen concerns, to open up the horizon of possibilities by clarifying and ordering the field … of the thinkable.”
No overriding chronological preoccupation, but interest, deciphering of key moments and research into fundamentals presented in three slices:
– The first moments of awakening and commitment (1946-1965)
– Exile: the continuation of intellectual work and citizen mobilization (1965-1986)
– The post-Duvalier return or reunion in the main field of civic engagement. (1986…)
As a final conclusion to the series of processes detailed in this montage of moments from What I Believed and What I Still Believe … , I’d like to reproduce some notes recorded here and there along the way.
Even more than in 1956-57, the succession crisis of 1986 became a general crisis in Haitian society. Demands for justice and democracy have intensely permeated society. The country has awoken not only from a long dictatorship, but also from a history that has revealed the inability of its ruling classes to meet the demands of national development and democracy. What characterizes this situation and aggravates the successive political crises are the consequences of the bankruptcy of the ruling classes and the fragility of the social movement, coupled with a demographic explosion whose effects on public policy are devastating and further reinforce Haiti’s dependence. The old is dying, but doesn’t want to die, and the new (civil society, democratic organizations) has yet to assert itself. No single force has yet managed to make a lasting impact with its vision of the future, its economic and social projects, its organization, its ability to serve as a point of reference for a society that has lost its bearings and its traditional means of resolving conflicts. The army has disintegrated and the State, now considerably weakened, has clearly failed. The continuing crisis of authority leaves the field wide open to all kinds of mafias. The impotent state responds to multifaceted social subversion with expediency; anti-democratic forces and groups with unspeakable interests with banditry and terror; the democratic movement with a lack of cohesion and strategic vision.
The rest is history. Challenging in more ways than one, it can be summed up in a series of conjunctures that reveal the weakness of the new ruling classes. Main stages: 1986-1988; 1988-1990; 1991-1994; 1995-2000: 2001-2004; 2004-2006; 2006-2010; 2011-2016; 2017-2021. Between 2018 and 2020, Haitians in all categories had never demonstrated so much.
* Has a new central regulatory player been identified at the end of the great societal crisis to facilitate its exit?
* Is there a command unit, a staff?
* Has a winning strategy been identified and defined, based on a careful assessment of the balance of power?
Here we are, in search of stability and the reshaping of a new society. The scale and duration of the Haitian crisis, the weakness of organizations, the unpreparedness of leaders, the destructive confrontations, the growing mistrust of politicians, the practices of denigration and political anthropophagy are softening wills and tempering commitments. Hence these loose questions:
* How can we make the democratic ideal attractive in this context of immediate rescue and survival of the population (security emergency, famine, unbearable economic distress, health crisis, etc.)? The state has long since lost its monopoly on violence, and now even more so with the metastasis of gangs spreading indiscriminate and cruel violence, claiming many victims among small-scale merchants, inner-city dwellers and the middle classes.
* Can we mobilize the masses continuously through strikes, various protests (mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, blockades of regions, etc.) as happened from July 2018 until the peyi lòk of 2019? And after 2020?
* How can we rally the nation’s vital sectors, especially the devastated middle classes, in a radical movement to defeat those in power and project effective, strong, convincing measures to deal with emergencies, including the national refoundation plan?
Let’s repeat: what’s happening today is not part of any known pattern, even if we could have feared the effects of what’s been happening since 2004.
The worst has happened in the last two years, and now in 2022, it is a total disaster from a security, social, economic and political point of view. The country is facing a situation of large-scale criminal destabilization, unprepared and without adequate resources. Will he make it? How long will it take? And how? Transformed, strengthened? It is possible, and sooner than we think, if we, as citizens, know how to emerge from the ordeal with all the lucidity our survival requires. Let’s not delude ourselves: we would not be done with all the forms of criminality that have come to light in recent years. Nor will we be finished with the ingredients that are corroding Haitian society and politics. We have to learn the lessons. Politicians and citizens in general need to make this a subject of constant reflection.
If there’s a chance of pulling the country out of chaos, we need to know that it starts with an uncompromising analysis of the state of political and social forces. Are there common values shared by the main political parties? So let’s put them forward and build on them, while we wait for a common vision to be defined, a solid political agreement capable of resurrecting hope. It is in this sense that the next exit from chaos – whenever that may be – is crucial. Although the regions are not suffering the horrors of terror as in P-au-P, it is clear that they are waiting for the situation to be pacified so that they can begin their march towards development based on their own resources and the solidarity they can count on. This is an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental problems of our society, on the solutions within our reach, and on the state we can build.
In practical terms, this means eschewing philosophical and legal glosses, incantatory speeches and flat generalities. Now is the time to effectively involve the mass of citizens, since the conditions are ripe for a sensitive understanding of how an effective State functions, and of the effective capacity of citizens to promote the rebuilding of the Haitian homeland.
1 Anténor Firmin : M. Roosevelt, Président des États-Unis et la République d’Haïti, Paris, F. Pichon et Durand Auzias, 1905, p. 416-417.
2 In May 2004, just three months after the fall of President Aristide, flooding caused by Hurricane Jeanne devastated Gonaïves, leaving thousands dead and causing extensive material damage.
3 The text of the lecture was fully published in Le Matin on September 3, 2008).
4 Oublier Palerme, Grasset, 1966.
5 Pierre Rosanvallon : La société des égaux, Points, Seuil, 2011, p. 22.
If you have any comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to write to us. In advance, thank you very much.