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Sender: owner-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Wed, 17 Dec 97 21:46:44 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: NACLA: Haiti: Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Organization: PACH
Article: 24255

/** nacla.report: 354.0 **/
** Topic: Jean-Bertrand Aristide **
** Written 7:01 AM Dec 12, 1997 by nacla in cdp:nacla.report **

Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide

NACLA Report on the Americas, May-June 1997

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti in December, 1990, becoming the first democratically elected president in the nation's history. He was overthrown by a military coup in September, 1991, and was returned to power-following U.S.-supported United Nations intervention-in 1994. Long negotiations allowed him to serve only a truncated version of his presidential term and he is now a private citizen. He was interviewed in March, 1997 by Catherine Orenstein in his offices at the Aristide Foundation for Democracy in Port-au-Prince.

Over the past year, and especially in recent months, there have been a series of nationwide strikes against the Haitian government's economic plans to privatize and especially against the structural adjustment program the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are prescribing for Haiti. What's going on?

In January, dozens of groups arranged a strike against the economic reforms.

Hundreds of thousands of people all over the country did not go to work. What is going on? These strikes are an expression of the Haitian people's frustration with the current economic and political moment. The cost of living has gone up.

Inflation is high. Unemployment is very high. And the Haitian people do not see the government working to help them. They see that important decisions are being made from high-up, excluding the grass-roots groups and ignoring the will of the majority of people. Being excluded from the political and economic process, Haitians are forced to carry their battle into the streets. It is a sort of last resort; but they will not give up, because they have no other choice.

Most Haitians know that you cannot make decisions for long without involving the grassroots. The authorities become progressively weaker as they lose the legitimacy and credibility. Today in Haiti the authorities are already weak indeed.

Many people outside of Haiti would be confused to hear that. The international community has spent over a billion dollars on Haitian democracy, since the restoration of civilian rule. And the government has been in the international spotlight.

Yet the democracy that was restored to Haiti is not very democratic after all. The government is not working as it should for the majority of people. If the government was doing what it was supposed to do for the people, perhaps things in Haiti would be more calm. For example, if you have enough financial resources as a government, you just create jobs. Finding jobs may change the behavior of the grassroots. If you have financial resources to build roads, to feed the hungry, and to otherwise allieviate the burden of poverty: do it. As the people see this happening (more food, more jobs) then the people who are now frustrated will be appeased. That will make a difference. If you have the possibility of making the justice system work, without dialogue: do it. As people see the light of justice throughout the land, through the formal judicial system, they will be placated. People will no longer be frustrated. But this is not what is happening in Haiti. The judicial system is corrupt. There are no financial resources invested in social welfare. The system does not address the needs of the people. People today live on less than they did 30 years ago. And so, we need to change the system.

We need to talk about democratizing democracy. In Haiti, we have no financial resources; we have only the human being as a resource. Human beings are our capital. Therefore we must learn how to manage this capital, how to best develop it. In other words, we need to learn how to better value the human being. To do so, we must start with dialogue, a dialogue which includes not just the top tiers, but all sectors of society.

What sort of economic plan better values the human being?

The majority of the grassroots support a different economic plan from the one Haiti is currently following; it is their own plan. They know about their dignity.

They are not dumb. Their plan values human workers, by paying them a livable wage, and values human beings, by providing them what they need to live. The Haitian people discovered a few years ago, after the end of the Duvalier dictatorship [in 1986], that their rules could be respected, that their plan could be implemented. In the free elections held in 1990, the people learned they could share some power. For the first time, they felt included in a process in which people were not dictating to them what to do and how to do it. After that happened, they would not settle for less. Haitians began to see that there was a route that worked, a way in which government could work for them, rather than plague them, and that they could live securely--and even spend their lives moving ahead. They felt that they were in the process.

Years later, they realized that certain hands wanted to impose a plan in Haiti.

They called it the American Plan. By that they meant the economic plan of privatization and austerity measures that is being imposed on Haiti today. And while they did not have the power to reject the plans that were being suggested, imposed, and now implemented, plans which were not their own plan, they could at least understand what was happening.

What economic and political goals are you pursuing, now that you are no longer president?

We opened the Aristide Foundation for Democracy on March 8, 1996. The Foundation is a place where people can come to gather and talk, to organize and plan. It is a place where people can come on a daily basis to discuss anything at all informally, but we also have large meetings and conferences here. Last year, for example, 60 grassroots groups had a meeting here to discuss privatization.

In July of last year we began a poor people's bank. It is very difficult for poor Haitians to get loans, and the loan sharks can charge 20% a month interest. So we decided to initiate a poor people's cooperative that would make loans at 1% interest a month to its members. To join, people were required to deposit a small minimum amount of money to open a bank account and they were required to attend four training sessions informing them about the cooperative works.

We expected a lot of people to come, but we were not prepared for what happened. In less than two weeks 12 thousand people signed up. It was an overwhelming turnout, impossible to fathom handling. But how could we turn peasants away? We knew it would not be easy to manage such a huge group. But we decided that to avoid the social frustration of turning them away, we would accept all the members. At the same time we knew we would be learning by trial and error as we went along. So far we have made loans of 6 million gourdes, to women and men, but mostly women.

Soon after starting the bank, we found that many of those who took out loans were not able to repay them because of the dire poverty they face. In fact, most of them could not repay their loans. We had to find a way to encourage them to find a way to pay back.

Then we realized that the best way to do this was to stop giving loans to just one person, but rather to give loans to groups of people, following the model of the very successful Grameen bank, in Bangladesh. Are you familiar with the story of the Grameen Bank? After 18 years of work, 46% of the women borrowing from the Grameen Bank crossed above the poverty line, while in Bangladesh as a whole, only 4% crossed the line during that same period. Our ultimate goal is to allow people to raise themselves out of misery. We asked the 12,000 members of the cooperative to organize themselves in groups of five. Within each group, only one member can take out a loan at a time, and a second person cannot take a loan until the first has begun payment on hers. The group members decide among themselves whether a proposed project is worthy of a loan, and whether a member would be able to repay it. They must be responsible to each other.

The foundation is currently subsidizing these activities. But before, you talked about becoming self-sufficient. How can these activities ever become self-sustaining?

From our experience we can prove that these ventures can become more efficient and more and more self-sustaining; but can they become totally self-sustaining?

That is a good question; but maybe that is not the essential question. We can decide to lose money in some areas when we sell to certain sectors, or make profits in other areas; it's a matter of balance. Governments make these types of decisions all the time, for example. The foundation is not a charity organization; it is a non-profit organization and we can decide what we want to invest in. This is not a place where people beg for a few cents each day. We do have not sell our dignity. But, on the other hand, the foundation does not need to make a profit.

We are only trying to make enough to continue our activities.

We are working to find ways to be profitable, but we are balancing this against people's needs. For instance, we know that Haitian farmers cultivate food such as rice and corn; and yet we decided to provide subsidized rice and corn to the cooperative members anyway. That may not be good for the farmers, but it is good for the consumers. Nonetheless, we know that the ultimate solution to this conflict will come from supporting national production.

How can you support national production?

For example, two weeks ago we had two days of training for small church leaders from different departments of the country: north, south, the central plateau and the southeast, etc. This was one of many meetings we have had. We are trying to educate people about how they can invest and make their own small capital grow. After the end of our meeting, the foundation signed an agreement with them which allows them to borrow money at a low rate, in order to invest this money in the zones in which they live, to grow more beans, rice, and potatoes, or whatever. They will repay us in produce, which they will provide to us at a very good price. This will encourage their own local production, and it will also allow us to provide these products to the cooperative members at a good price as well. This is an example of how we can stimulate local production with an eye to encouraging national production.

This is symbolic, as well. Our vision is not a matter of buying food from other countries and selling it at a lower price but rather it is a vision of supporting our own agricultural industry. National production. It seems to you, perhaps, that it is so little that we are doing; but by doing this, we can push the government to do more.

Are the elite, and the traditional powers that control the economy, threatening to you?

Are they threatened by the foundation, the way they were by your presidency?

No, because of the fact that we do not make profit; and because our work embraces a small group of people compared to the entire market. It is not a real danger to them-to the real elite. At least, so far so good. If we reach a market of say 200,000 people, it's nothing to them. In fact, it is even good for them, because politically what we represent means a lot for economic policy. It's a fig leaf, an example of freedom; it's symbolic of a democracy which they need to be able to showcase. For this reason they have to deal with us. They need us as we need them. What I mean when I say this is, we don't need them to do what they are doing; rather, we need to be able to talk with them, as they need us in order to see what we are doing and work to make it better.

You have recently criticized the policies of current President Rene Preval. Is the Aristide Foundation doing the job that Preval's government ought to be doing? You have set up a parallel organization, rather than one which works with the government. Are you distracting Haitians from the real issue? That is, it is the government that is supposed to be working for them, answering their needs. How is creating the Aristide Foundation not the same thing as doing the government's job.

I like your question. Are we encouraging people to sit, when they should stand up against this? We are aware that there is a contradiction between what we are doing and what the people ought to be doing. The foundation is not a government. We have no intention or possibliity to replace a government. But we are doing the little we can, wishing and pushing the government to do more.

Ultimately the government has to do this, to assume it's responsibiliy.

What we do at the foundation is not meant to dissuade people from demanding that the government work in their interest. However, we are attempting to provide a base from which people can work and organize, and a base for action, as for example when the truck and taxi drivers staged strikes in February. The point is to respect the human being, because that is our number-one resource.

Before, you said that you place a special importance on women, and that you even inaugurated the foundation on International Women's Day, March 8, last year. Why?

In our society, as in many countries, sexual equality is not a reality. By working with women, we are empowering the struggle of the women; this is one way to make more men understand the necessity of working together. This has always been a top priority of mine. When I was president, we created a ministry of women, for the first time. We located it in the central square, in the headquarters of the former army, directly across from the palace: a powerful place. This is a symbolic thing; but not enough to bring equality. So we have to work to make this necessity clearer and stronger-to men. Those in the parliament who were elected because of the work of women, now some of them would like to close some of these activities.

Why the emphasis on women, in a country that has so many more immediate issues-life and death issues to grapple with?

The struggle of women is an immediate issue. At the international level, invisible or informal labor represents 16 trillion dollars for the globe annually, according to the UNDP. Women's labor represents 11 trillion dollars out of that.

In Haiti, women are even more important economically than in other places on the globe. They represent almost all of the money generated by small commerce.

They represent 90% of workers in factories. And they represent the vast majority of heads of households. At the cooperative bank, most of the loans we make are to women. This is true in other poor people's banks, like the Grameen bank in Bangladesh. Women are much more responsible in paying off their loans. The way they manage money here at the bank in their loans reflects the way they manage their households.

You are no longer a priest, but can you comment on how your faith has shaped your political views?

Today, much of the world is rooted in materialism; it is flat, without spiritual energy. Liberation Theology gives us a way to fly through illusions, shows us how to dream, but with our feet on the ground. Liberation Theology, for many Christians, crystalized a way to rise, spiritually and literally above misery. We don't talk about Liberation Theology as something to replace politics or economics; rather, we seek a complementary vision that comes from the theology of liberation, that helps us to keep ourselves ethically grounded, and this practice becomes part of our community experience, providing us with guidelines. By realistic dreaming, I think we can welcome human beings, try to put them at the center of any program. Investing in them can create a new climate, and help people see and cultivate love within their own human context-not just money, but human values, like human rights; like living wages; like justice. If we do that, and fight to implement it, yes, I think the future willl be different.