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Date: Wed, 9 Dec 1998 13:02:40 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: This Week in Haiti 16:38 12/9/98 (fwd)
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9812091326.A1799-0100000@netcom6>

Strong Words

From Haiti Progres,
Vol. 16, no. 38, 9-15 December 1998

President Rene Preval called attention to himself last week with a militant speech which surprised the nation and sent politicians and pundits diving for microphones.

"The real problem is the distribution of wealth in this country where 1% of the people control 50% of the country's wealth," Preval declared Dec. 6 before a crowd of peasants in Kenscoff, referring to Haiti's tiny super-rich elite. It was the first time he spoke in such terms since his ascension to the presidency in 1996.

He accused foreign powers of plundering Haiti's wealth since colonial times. "Haiti may be the poorest, but there are a lot of other countries which are just like us," Preval said. "Big countries have sucked out our wealth for centuries and centuries." He condemned France for making Haiti pay a $150 million francs ~ a colossal sum in the nineteenth century ~ in reparations after the colony won its independence in 1804. "We have spent much more of our history working as slaves for foreigners and sending our wealth overseas than working to build up Haiti," he said.

Preval also chastised foreign aid as a ruse. "Each time they come with a little $1 million, $2 million or $3 million, they say they are helping us," Preval said. "But they are just giving back what they already stole from us."

He also charged that colonists and neo-colonists had caused most of Haiti's ecological damage. Referring to two of Haiti's off- shore islands, he said that "before the [1915-1934] U.S. occupation, La Gonve and La Tortue were once beautiful lands, as was the Forest of Pines," a wooded area around Kenscoff. "But they gave the whole forest to an American company which cut down the trees without planting new ones," Preval said. "We must be very careful not to blame the peasants for deforestation. No, it was the colonists, the occupiers and the dictators who cut down the trees."

The speech comes shortly after Preval made a visit to neighboring Cuba from Nov. 9-14. During the trip, he accepted Cuban President Fidel Castro's offer of 500 Cuban doctors to help with the giant health problems left in the wake of Hurricane Georges. "Haiti does not need invasions of soldiers," said Castro in making the offer. "It needs an invasion of doctors and Cuba is ready to give this aid."

But the imminent arrival of Cuban doctors has prompted reactionary politicians and a handful of rich Haitian doctors to make a ruckus. On Haitian radio shows, they claim that the Cubans will "steal the jobs" of Haitian doctors, 80% of whom leave the country anyway for better paying practices overseas. Other right- wingers say that the Cuban doctors are a "Trojan horse," aimed at spreading "Communist influence."

"The Cubans are going to make experiments on Haitians," charged Duvalierist radio commentator and convicted coup-conspirator Serge Beaulieu, in a remark typical of the anti-Cuban attacks.

In fact, Preval claims that the example of Cuba is influencing him. "We were just in Cuba, where they told us the biggest problem they are facing is the [U.S. imposed] embargo," Preval told the Kenscoff crowd. But when an advance delegation of five Cuban doctors returned with Preval to Haiti, they told him after a few days of investigation that "your biggest problem is not an embargo but order," the president said. "There is too much chaos, and for the chaos to end, the wealth of the country has to be better distributed so there can be development."

Perhaps due to this advice or the attacks on him after his Cuba trip, Preval reserved some of his strongest words for the local elite, whom he accused of hoarding land, of not paying taxes, and of not investing in Haiti. "The country has resources and there are a lot of people with money," Preval said. "There are people who eat in Port-au-Prince, and then drink water in Miami. Today, they have to answer to the people." He said that there had to be "a social dialogue and a reshuffling of the cards."

"The people who have the wealth of the country in their hands must open their hands," Preval said, and then he made a remark which the mainstream press will surely seize upon. "If they don't open their hands, the State will force them to open their hands. That is how to have reconciliation. You can't hold everything in your hands and ask someone to reconcile with you."

The speech is reminiscent of the policies articulated and pursued in 1991 by then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for whom Preval was Prime Minister. However, as President, Preval has followed a course diametrically opposed to the Lavalas movement's democratic nationalist program of "participation, justice, and transparency." He has championed the neoliberal restructuring of Haiti's economy, continuation of foreign military occupation, unpopular and illegal executive measures, a clique-like power structure, and the tolerance of impunity, corruption, and nepotism. His words from last Sunday have alarmed some of his allies and left popular organization militants scratching their heads.

Some politicians tried to capitalize on the disparity between the speech and what Preval has done during his administration. "He has to reconcile his policies with his words," remarked Marc Bazin, the perennial US-aligned neoliberal candidate. "This speech appears much more like a politician's speech than an announcement of a new economic policy."

But most of the "classe politique," which is desperate to recover even a shred of long-lost credibility, homed in on the "grands mangeurs" (big eaters), the name for enriched bureaucrats who have come to symbolize Preval's regime. Serge Gilles, whose PANPRA party participated as a civilian facade for the putschist military regime, said that half of the rich 1% cited by Preval were "people who had accumulated their fortunes over generations" while the rest were "newly rich grands mangeurs, of whom the president did not speak." Victor Benoit of CONACOM said that Preval's speech was "not at all coherent given the climate of corruption in 'Lavalas' circles." The same argumentation was set forth, with greater vitriol, by Evans Paul of the KID, who called the speech "irresponsible" and asked if it was "a way to ignite civil war in the country, which is already anarchic and violent."

Whatever the motivation behind Preval's speech, it is sure to shake up the political chessboard even further. The US government is surely dismayed and the Haitian elite flustered. Most importantly, Preval's words, however sincere or demagogic, could release from its bottle the genie that is the Haitian people's desire for social change. Eight years of coups, invasions, confusion, and structural adjustment have temporarily corked the impetus of the 1990 Lavalas movement. But the people's aspirations are still bubbling and ready to blow.