Camille Chalmers is one of the most renowned intellectuals in the Caribbean, and his work as a teacher and researcher has a global presence. Economist, specialist in the analysis of integration processes and in the formulation of alternative public policies. He coordinates the PAPDA platform and is one of the most renowned political leaders in the country, as leader of the Patriotic Forum and the ALBA Movements organization. In this interview he offers an analysis of the cycle of mass protests in his country and the reasons for the crisis. He also assesses the 15 years of international occupation in Haiti and the challenges of regional integration in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Lautaro Rivara: Over the past year, we have seen demonstrations of unprecedented massive numbers. Do you have an estimate of how many people have mobilized in the last two years? Briefly, what are the causes that push the Haitian population onto the streets again and a gain?
Camille Chalmers: Since July of last year we’ve been going through a very interesting process of mobilization. These are levels of mobilization that we hadn’t known for a long time. Around the juncture of 1986 when the dictatorship of [François] Duvalier fell, we saw broad demonstrations of this size. But after the popular movement suffered a very aggressive attack by imperialism through paramilitary groups, insecurity, corruption, “development” projects, coups d’état and military occupation, we entered a long period of retreat where we saw that the population had lost much of their capacity for mobilization. Another cause of this ebb was the division caused around [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide. His image was used to divide the popular movement.
But since January 2016 we have been going through a process where the people are recovering their capacity to mobilize, where they went out into the streets to denounce the electoral process. We then moved on to a very strong mobilization against the budget in 2017 that the population called a “criminal budget,” because after the fall of the Petrocaribe program the Haitian state was hit by a very serious liquidity crisis and they tried to impose fiscal repression against the popular strata and the people rose up against it. Beginning in 2018, as a result of a significant rise in fuel prices of between 35 and 51 percent, the people rose in an incredible way, managing to join massive street mobilizations with blockades of highways and of the economic activity of the country.
It is clear that there is a learning process at two levels: first at the level of political consciousness, because now people are going towards an anti-imperialist consciousness. The last big demonstration testified very clearly, because the target was the Core Group, which is the visible arm of imperialism here. The demonstration was to denounce the interference of the Core Group and the decision of the United States to retain [the current president] Jovenel Moïse. The second level of learning is at the level of mobilization capabilities: it is impressive not only how the city can be blocked, but also that there is a whole system of non-visible communication that allows the same thing to happen simultaneously in the whole country. Considering July 2018, October 17, November 18, February 7, June 9, we can report millions of Haitian citizens who took to the streets to protest against Jovenel Moïse and to demand that the president as well as the PHTK step down from power, demanding a change of system. It is very interesting that two central demands are at stake: the resignation of Jovenel Moïse and the transformation of the system. We can say that they are very important mobilizations in terms of the breadth, the participation, the diversity of social strata that are present, the great presence of the youth, who play a central role in the mobilizations with a lot of creativity. It is a very interesting process, very hopeful, that establishes the basis for actually achieving all these initiatives and building a powerful grassroots anti-systemic movement.
L.R.: At present, what is the opposition to the government of Jovenel Moïse? Can we speak of a single opposition, or do we find different sectors and interests converging but contradictory? Why don’t you propose from your political space a call for new elections and a broad transitional government?
C.C.: The opposition sectors are multiple and have been expanding. Every day there are new sectors that bend to mobilization. We can say that this is part of a long-term dynamic, because when the great popular movement against Duvalier’s dictatorship took place in ’85 and ’86 it was to break the political system, which is a system built on the exclusion of the masses. So what is at stake even today is fundamentally the presence of the masses in the political arena. Not only to achieve the resignation of Jovenel Moïse but also to break the institutional framework that imperialism built in response to the crisis of ’86. At the vanguard we had popular groups, especially from the poor neighborhoods, and the student youth who played a determining role in unleashing the fight against corruption, but very quickly it has expanded to other sectors. It can be said that at present practically all the social and political forces of the country are against Jovenel Moïse, including former allies such as the chambers of commerce, such as Bernard Craan’s group, the Private Economic Forum. This week the chambers of commerce were consulted, and out of a total of six, four support the resignation of Jovenel Moïse. The Catholic Church, which has always maintained an alliance with the Martelly government, has clearly pronounced itself against the current president. And even families from the traditional oligarchy, such as [Reginald] Boulos, who has demonstrated against Jovenel Moïse and tries to present you as an opposition political personality.
Within this process the left was already building a unitary process with five political structures for several months. This process of unification has benefited from the Charlemagne Peralta Political School, a space where militants of social organizations of different political leanings meet. The School launched a unitary process in which five left-wing political organizations meet regularly, working on the double perspective of building a unitary force of the revolutionary left, and influencing the current political situation, the alliances and proposals that are being formulated. It is in this sense that we present a transitional program. First we say that Jovenel Moïse must go together with the parliamentarians, and that the whole system of the PHTK, which monopolizes all the structures of the State, must end. But we also say that we must install a transitional process, because if we were to go to an electoral process now, we would once again have undemocratic elections, controlled by imperialism, structured to prevent popular participation.
We need a more or less long transition period of 3 or 3.5 years. In that transition period there will be fundamental tasks such as rebuilding the electoral system, convening a national conference where a long-term national project can be built and also advancing towards constitutional change. As well, to initiate a process against those responsible for the theft of Petrocaribe’s public funds. The population has the right to have access to the results of investigations into who was responsible for the embezzlement. There must be a recovery of funds to the public treasury, and we need to put in place institutional structures and procedures to prevent such scandals from recurring. The process will uncover all the lines of power through which the oligarchy controls the state and benefits illegally from it. At the institutional level, we have proposed a Governing Council of three members instead of a President, with two persons appointed by the political sector and one appointed by civil society. There should be a reduced government structure and a control body built through departmental representations. This will open up the prospect of a transition controlled by national political actors and a transition of rupture, clearing the way for a structural rupture with the neocolonial system we have today.
It is in this sense that we have convened the Patriotic Forum that took place in Papaye from 27 to 30 August, which was a very important event organized by the peasant forces, in which practically all sectors were present. We had a very broad participation that gave rise to a profound, interesting and also contradictory debate, but which ended with consensus. Now, based on a Follow-up Committee, we are building many other departmental forums that will provide the organizational bases for the struggle against Jovenel Moïse that will be successful, but that will also open deeper perspectives of structural changes.
L.R.: Haiti has had a sinuous trajectory in regional geopolitics in recent years. After joining Petrocaribe and maintaining a position respectful of the sovereignty of nations like Venezuela and Cuba in regional organizations, the current government decided to withdraw its recognition of the government of Nicolas Maduro and began to vote on motions against him in spaces like the OAS and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). How do you explain this shift? What is Haiti’s place in the geopolitics of the Caribbean?
C.C.: This is a fundamental issue because Petrocaribe’s project, very important within the construction of ALBA, has been an essential target of imperialism. It is clear that the United States believes that maintaining control over the Caribbean states is essential, and the Caribbean is a very important space for global accumulation. As a place of transit, because of its proximity to the United States, and because of the natural resources that exist there. In that sense, most CARICOM countries have been beneficiaries of the Petrocaribe programme and many of them did not want to get involved in the adventure of aggression against Venezuela. Now U.S. imperialism is using Haiti to sabotage regional unity. For example, in the vote in the OAS to authorize the activation of TIAR [Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance] against Venezuela, Haiti was the only CARICOM country to stand in favor. This was a betrayal, a disgrace to the image of Haiti, historically close to the people who seek their freedom. This betrayal tarnishes our historical position, but it is also preposterous considering the relations between the two countries. Hugo Chavez always said that Latin America has a debt to Haiti for the contribution we made to the libertarian struggles of the 19th century. And Jovenel Moïse and his government benefited from direct support, including during Maduro’s government. When the Haitian state had difficulty paying its debt service in 2016 and 2017, Maduro said it was not necessary to pay the debt and that the amount owed could be used for internal social projects.
The Haitian is a state that has benefited from Petrocaribe, and betrayed a historical ally. For more than two centuries, all relations between Venezuela and Haiti have been based on friendship and solidarity. I think Jovenel Moïse is doing this to ensure the protection and support of imperialism and the government of Trump. It is a bargaining chip that he offers to the United States to say that despite everything, his alignment with them is absolute. Of course, this weakens us very much, given that one of the strategies of imperialism is to destroy regional integration structures such as UNASUR, CELAC, ALBA. Haiti’s adventurist position within CARICOM could also break this regional bloc. To ensure economic and political control, it is much better for the powers to negotiate country by country than to negotiate with an organized bloc.
L.R.: I know that in December you are organizing an international seminar on the cholera epidemic that hit the country in 2010, which will also offer an assessment of the fifteen years since MINUSTAH, the infamous United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti, began operating in the country. In this sense, what has been the role of the so-called “international community” in the country, and how has it been acting, particularly the United States, in the last phase of the crisis?
C.C.: Starting in 2004, they took advantage of an internal political crisis to impose a foreign military presence that they called MINUSTAH, which was theoretically a peacekeeping mission. But the situation in Haiti had nothing to do with those that usually justify this type of initiative, as has been the case at times in Africa. There were no opposing armies here, no civil war, no crimes against humanity. The United Nations Magna Carta was violated in order to impose this mission, which involved outsourcing the occupation, so that Latin American armies could do the dirty work of imperialism at a lower cost. Maintaining MINUSTAH here in this way meant reducing the direct costs that its deployment would have entailed for the United States by a quarter. There was also propaganda, an ideological manipulation to present it as a South-South cooperation initiative, as a humanitarian aid operation.
We lived those years with much pain because MINUSTAH had nothing to do with this, because the agenda was dictated directly by the United States, and what was happening was decided in Washington and in Europe. It was not a humanitarian mission either, because during this period Haiti experienced profound situations of gravity: we were hit by four hurricanes, then the devastating earthquake of 2010 occurred, and on all these occasions MINUSTAH did not respond significantly to assist the people of Haiti. The mockery was that after the earthquake that caused 300,000 fatalities, MINUSTAH rented a luxurious and excessively expensive boat in the bay of Port-au-Prince, so that its members would go to sleep every night, far from the hardships of the Haitian people. This is the clearest image of the meaning of this supposed humanitarian presence. They have not made any significant contribution, despite having a very large budget compared to Haiti’s GDP. We are talking about billions of dollars spent to maintain troops that were useless to face the humanitarian crisis.
As if that weren’t enough, they exacerbated the problems of Haitian society. For example, the threat of insecurity is much more serious now, given that there is now an impressive flow of weapons. We have much more sophisticated gangs, we have serious citizen insecurity that even hinders the process of popular organization, and we had a multiplicity of violations against women and children that went totally unpunished. And the most serious thing, without a doubt, was the introduction of cholera, which, according to different specialists, caused 30,000 deaths, 800,000 infected, and had dramatic economic consequences for the country. A mission built on rhetoric of human rights violated the fundamental human rights of the population. In addition, it always maintained an alliance with the most conservative and retrograde sectors, helped to install an extreme right-wing president like Martelly, who during his five-year term tried to dismantle the democratic conquests that the Haitian people had won after ’86.
Grassroots actors cannot accept that these crimes go unpunished. We are demanding their reparation and we want to create a great international coalition to fight to obtain reparation for the crime of the spread of cholera, a disease that the country did not know until then. The United Nations is an organization that has the financial, human, technical and scientific capacity not only to fight against cholera and its aftermath, but also to help create infrastructures that do not allow the epidemic to repeat itself, both at the sanitary level and in relation to the availability of drinking water. For example, we are thinking of universal access to drinking water, which is the best way to eradicate cholera, which requires less costly investments than MINUSTAH spent in a single year of operation.
L.R.: In these months we have sponsored calls and demonstrations in support of the struggles of the Haitian people in countries as distant and different as Canada, Argentina, the United States, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. What role do you think this other international community can play? What are the most concrete and useful ways to express this solidarity today?
C.C.: This solidarity is very important for us, because Haiti was born with an internationalist vision of solidarity. [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines was convinced that the future of the Haitian Revolution lay in the possibility of becoming international, of fighting slavery all over the world, and he made many efforts to combat it in Brazil, the United States, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. For us, the construction of a socialist project in Haiti is founded on the possibility of also reconstructing that internationalist vision and of denying all the pernicious myths built around the country. Imperialism has created a kind of media siege, a quarantine that prevents the peoples of Latin America who fight for the same causes as we do, from knowing what is happening in Haiti.
It is very important to intensify exchanges and processes of common struggle. In this sense, we believe that the last few years have been interesting to recreate these internationalist ties. We have the magnificent example of the Desallines Brigade, an initiative that began with the peasant movement in Brazil, to express another form of international presence in Haiti in opposition to MINUSTAH, and to demonstrate that neither tanks nor weapons are what Latin America can and should offer. Also central was the fact that during MINUSTAH’s nefarious presence we have worked with Solidarity Committees for unemployment in Haiti, in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and other nations, which have created greater closeness and new working structures. We are in a moment where we know better what Haiti is doing, and at the same time we support more closely the struggles of the peoples of Latin America. At the Patriotic Forum in Papaye we had important leaders from Brazil, the United States, South Africa, Venezuela and Argentina, who also spoke of their experiences and expressed their willingness to be present in the struggles of the Haitian people.
L.R.: You are a very well-known intellectual not only in Haiti, but also in the Caribbean region and throughout the continent, and you have a very precise idea about the notions and prejudices that our countries have about your country, as you recently commented. In general, Haiti is only in the news in the event of a humanitarian catastrophe or the violence of major social upheavals. For what other issues, perhaps more positive, do you think the country should be known?
C.C.: I think there is a battle to deconstruct the image created around Haiti and the almost total ignorance about its history, its nature and its culture. This will be achieved by creating spaces of fraternization, common work, joint struggle. First, of course, it is interesting to study the Haitian Revolution, which is a unique process, like all revolutions. It arose in a highly adverse context in which an enslaved people managed to build a victorious strategy against the three most powerful armies of the time: English, Spanish and French. This process provides fundamental clues for reflecting on the construction of a post-capitalist alternative. It must be remembered that the Haitian Revolution was made possible in part thanks to the mobilization of the Maroons, who were groups of slaves who fled from the plantations to the mountains creating a totally new society, different from the known ones, and who from that new society attacked the slavery regime and the plantations. This process inspires us to think about how to combat capitalism, how to create a new society and new forms of life and partnership. And the history of Haiti is a history of many initiatives of solidarity with people of African descent. Dessalines, for example, invited people from the United States to come to Haiti as a land of freedom. Also, the historical process of anti-colonial resistance forced us to invent cultural elements such as a language, Haitian Creole, a new form of spirituality such as voodoo, new ways of cultivating the land through lakou, which is a space for community and collective work. So there are very interesting elements to build from here a totally new vision that breaks with the capitalist mandates of individualism, selfishness, the instrumentalization of nature. For example, the relationship with nature in voodoo is very interesting.There is a vision of balance between economic, cultural and biological cycles. Also, the process of resistance that has always been maintained throughout Haiti’s history has multiplied cultural creations in music, dance, sculpture, painting, engraving, theater, etc. There is an exceptionally rich cultural experience that has always had its roots in the process of resistance to colonial and neocolonial domination.
L.R.: So, you are optimistic about the future of your country?
C.C.: Why shouldn’t I be?
Translation by Internationalist 360º