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Haiti's Political Personality Cults

by Jane Regan
 Haiti Article Index

Haiti Uneasy As Elections Near

(IPS) PETION-VILLE -- Senator Gerald Gilles does not hide his political allegiance.

Gilles is proud of to be a member of the Lavalas Family party and he still believes it can play a leading role in moving Haiti forward.

Trained as a surgeon, the 38-year-old from Jeremie, a port town located on Haiti's southern arm, has been involved with ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever since his student activist days.

In 1990, Gilles accompanied Aristide to the polling station as the ex-priest cast his vote in the presidential elections he later won in a landslide, and Gilles remained a Lavalassien throughout the nineties, struggling for Aristide's return during the 1991-1994 coup that left 3,000 to 5,000 dead.

When Aristide broke from his former allies in the Lavalas Political Organization (OPL) party in 1996 and formed the Lavalas Family, with himself as president, Gilles joined up, ran for senator in 2000 and won.

"Lavalas is still Haiti's strongest party," Gilles told IPS during an interview at his home in the hills above Haiti's capital. "But it is split between two tendencies right now. If we can come together, we can win."

Gilles was talking about his group and its supporters, which include Lavalas parliamentarians and others he calls the "moderates," and a second group he calls "radical."

The "radicals" include the groups that have recently led protests demanding Aristide's return. They say elections are unconstitutional since Aristide is still president.

At least some of their members, those nicknamed "chime," or "angry monster," are heavily armed. A number of guns even have Aristide stickers on them. They say they will do whatever it takes to bring their president back.

Other members include Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a priest well known in Haiti and also Florida, where for years he defended the rights of Haitian immigrants. Earlier this year, Jean-Juste was arrested and held for seven weeks in connection with organizing armed pro-Aristide resistance. He was released without being charged.

During a three-day meeting where political parties were invited to sign a kind of "non-aggression" pact laying down ground rules for the upcoming elections, Jean-Juste read off a nine-point list of demands he said had to be met for Lavalas to participate in the elections. At the top of the list was Aristide's return. No Lavalas representative signed the pact.

(To foreign reporters, however, Jean-Juste dangles the possibility that he might run for president.)

The pro-return/non-elections Lavalassiens also include a number of former officials who are now in the U.S. and other countries, and also, of course, Aristide himself, in exile in South Africa and who continues to campaign for his return.

"I will return. I don't know when, but I will return," the South African Press Association quoted him as saying after a lecture he gave at a university there last month.

But Gilles thinks that is exactly what the Lavalas Family party does not need.

Instead, he wants members of the party to come together, assess the errors of the past and move forward. Under Aristide's firm rule, Lavalas made errors, Gilles said.

Among them was Aristide's encouragement of a "cult of personality," he said.

"But the biggest error we made was in instrumentalizing the poor, in turning them into pressure groups," Gilles said, referring to the grassroots groups that were co-opted by the Lavalas power structure and encouraged to harass opposition demonstrators or even Lavalas members deemed not sufficiently loyal.

Mostly young men -- many of whom were on the payrolls of state institutions like Teleco, the telephone company -- they can be seen leading pro-Aristide demonstrations today, even if they are joined by hundreds or thousands who never got a paycheck.

"We need to do a 'mea culpa' from our point of view, but the other parties need to do the same thing," Gilles continued. He is working on a book tentatively entitled "Lavalas: Les causes de notre echec, les raisons d'esperer" ("Lavalas: The causes for our failure, the reasons for hope").

Haiti's political culture has relied too much on violence and is too "Manichean" Gilles continued, with intolerance and polarization ruling the day. Instead of dealing with Haiti's problems, political parties and their seemingly eternal leaders take shots at one another.

According to the Lavalas Family statutes, Aristide is head of the party unless he "dies or resigns." The non-democratic nature of the parties and their violent power struggles hurt the nation, Gilles argues.

A glance at history attests: In 200 years, Haiti has had some 45 heads of state, most of them dictators. Only five have served out their terms. The rest have been poisoned, blown up, hacked to death, overthrown and/or driven into exile, sometimes with encouragement or assistance from foreign powers like the U.S. or France, the former colonial occupier.

The playing field today does not look much better. There are 91 registered political parties. A half-dozen of them were founded by defectors from Lavalas.

Gilles wants to prevent more splits. He would like to reconcile the two "tendencies" and he wants Aristide to help.

"I think Aristide has a historic role to play," he said.

But with Aristide's lieutenants in Haiti, Miami and New York organizing marches and teach-ins, hosting radio programs, running websites, circulating petitions and writing articles, that does not appear too likely.

In an open letter on Mar. 29, the 18th anniversary of the constitution's ratification, Aristide's spokesperson accused the interim government of "genocide" and the deaths of "over 10,000 people," a number no rights group or journalist has ever come close to matching. The letter also encouraged continued "mobilization" for Aristide's return.

As the title of his book implies, Gilles has not yet given up hope. But he recognizes what is at stake if Lavalas does not come together and if Haiti does not somehow move forward, with or without Aristide.

"The failure of Lavalas would be my failure, too," he admitted.

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Albion Monitor April 7, 2005 (

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