Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen

Haiti Support group, 1996

Interview, conducted in 1996, with a member of the Tèt Kole national executive—extracted from the Haiti Support Group publication—Killing Us Softly: grassroots organisations speak about democracy and the ‘Death Plan’ in Haiti.

The background of this organisation goes back to the loss of religious leadership. Before 1986 the Church helped the poorest small peasants, but after 1986 they stopped leading them in organising themselves. Many religious men and women were thrown out of the Church because they continued to throw their lot in with the people.

During the coup priests were arrested and beaten, nuns were raped, but the Church hierarchy has been completely silent on this. There are two churches in Haiti: the bishops who supported the dictatorship, and the base churches who were with the people. After 1986 the people did not know quite what to do without the church to guide them. But in the rural milieu, grassroots organisers continued their work. Groups realised that they could organise autonomously without being under Church leadership. In 1986 the regional peasant organisations decided to get together and build a unified movement, so Tèt Kole was formed.

The membership of Tèt Kole

Tèt Kole works with the smallest peasants, not even the medium-sized ones, because even within the peasant sector, enemies of the peasant use middle peasants to attack other peasants. We are organising for life, for survival, to move from absolute poverty to social change. Most of the peasants we work with are land-less. They either sell their labour or work as share-croppers. They have no decent housing, no schools for their children, poor health conditions. Both their social and their economic situations are extremely fragile. So our work is in popular education and consciousness-raising so that these small peasants can see the real root of their problems, analyse the causes, and come to demand that the state resolve these problems. The state offers them no services—no potable water, very few schools or health clinics, (and those there are in very bad shape), inadequate roads, no technical support for agricultural production, no electricity in many areas, no means of communication. Tèt Kole was born in this context.

A bottom-up structure

Tèt Kole has grassroots base-level groups in 8 of the 9 departments, scattered throughout the rural sections. They hold assemblies at the level of each habitation (a group of farms) to facilitate communication. Each assembly sends elected delegates to a communal assembly, and these elect delegates for a departmental assembly. Then each department sends representatives to the national confederation, which elects a three-member executive committee. These representatives are elected for a specific period of time, then they are expected to go back to the rural sector. Also, regional co-ordinators are expected to spend one week per month working on their habitation. Thus service in the organisation is not a way of bettering your social position. The national co-ordinators meet every two months, exchanging information from their regions, and the full national assembly meets once a year.

Within Tèt Kole, people working at the national level serve as bridges to all the regional sections. Regional co-ordinators organise people at the level of habitations into groups, and bring them information from the national meetings; then they pass information on from the regions to the national level.

We have many difficulties, but we stress we are an autonomous movement, not under the control of the Church, nor political parties, nor central or local government. We will collaborate with government only if it shows good will towards the most unfortunate.

The Jean Rabel massacre

Our struggle to get people who owe taxes to pay up has created many enemies for us at the local level. In the Northwest in 1987, for example, the big landowners and the employees of the state tax collection agency (who were at the same time section chiefs, Macoutes, and attachés) would charge people far more than they were supposed to pay for licenses, fees, etc.

Tèt Kole stood up and said no to this extortion. So those tax-collectors turned against us and said we were anti-government communists. On July 23, 1987, these people massacred over 119 small peasants in Jean Rabel. It was not only there that they killed people, but all over the country. Every time the peasants stood up to demand rights, those who ride their backs put them down via repression.

The state and elections

We want a state that is not a puppet of the ‘blancs’. By this we mean foreign powers—it is not meant in a racist sense; all people living in exploitation, whatever their colour or country, are in the same situation of struggle. So ‘blancs’ means the US government, the World Bank, the IMF, all enforcing their own economic and political plans on the world.

We want a state that really welcomes participation of the popular masses in real power. We want democratic participation in its real essence, not demagogy and intimidation. We are encouraging popular participation and educating people to take part in local elections.

The constituent assemblies could be a power structure emanating from the base, but in the present situation the people have never had a say in the structure of these assemblies or in the procedures of the electoral process. People will vote, but it will still be a structure set up by those with money; so finally, it probably will not function for the people. If the departments have no money and no budgets, it will be just more demagogy.

In the national budget, the only measure passed so far has been a vote on their own salary; there is still no national plan for agriculture. These newly elected structures are worth nothing without a national plan for development to be implemented. The mayors and rural councils now in place in each town cannot even function.

The positive advantages of the upcoming local elections are that this offers a terrain for people to participate in the power structure. If the elections are fair this could be a positive step.

Agrarian reform

Agricultural reform in Haiti is going nowhere. The National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INARA) receives advice from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), yet nowhere in the world has FAO carried out agrarian reform. We advised the government to set up a commission on agrarian reform with participation of the many national and regional peasant organisations, but the government has refused.

Many of the peasants who are land-less now actually had land 10 or 20 years ago. The economic situation has forced them to sell it off bit by bit. So just giving peasants small plots will not solve the problem, because in times of hardship it will again be sold. We believe from our experience that the land should be distributed to groups who can hold onto it and work it together. They should not have the right to sell the land and the state should provide services and inputs: credit, tools, seed, insecticide, fertilisers, and technical support. These would be the necessary conditions to give peasants real land security.

The konbit

We believe in co-operatives, in both agriculture and production. The term konbit is worth talking about now in Haiti. It has historically taken two forms: 1) Big proprietors invite peasants to work their land in exchange for a meal, but the workers have no share in the harvest. This is not just (it is a form of exploitation). 2) Peasants themselves, coming from the same level, work in each other’s gardens and fields, helping each other. This kind of konbit is good because it helps the small peasant survive. In different regions there are different terms for this, such as Escouade, Colon, Mazinga. These are all traditional organisations for resistance and subsistence. Women in Tèt Kole

Tèt Kole also has a youth section and a women’s section, in addition to the mixed structure in which women are also given priority. Women have their own assemblies going up to the departmental level (though not currently at the national level). Everyone knows there is a women’s section of Tèt Kole, but they also send delegates to participate in the mixed assembly and put forth views both on women’s issues and on general issues. We also have a requirement for women representatives at every level of the organisation. We would hear about it and have a big battle if there were not women there!

The movement is not yet satisfied with its work. What are the biggest problems? We lack money to enable the assemblies to meet, to pay for food for example. There are still Macoutes around. The former military are still there, and still armed. There are many political parties who want to be our benefactors and take credit for Tèt Kole—they think we are hard-headed for not co-operating.

All the activities we do carry out seem like a drop in the bucket of need. Economic activities include grain storage, food processing (i.e., peanuts into butter, cacao in chocolate), animal husbandry, soil conservation, plus literacy campaigns—these are all small-scale projects, but they serve as a symbol of what could be carried out in Haiti. And, they are also ways of attracting external funding. But they are never on a big enough scale to have a real impact. Not only can this create internal jealousies in the organisation, but even the people involved in the projects may find that these small interventions are not enough to turn things around for them. Autonomy and self-financing are encouraged wherever possible.