Haiti: Giant Crowds Hail Préval and Demand Aristide’s Return

5-25-06, 9:22 am

In three ceremonies where he performed a political balancing act that will likely continue for at least the next few months until he is forced to choose sides in Haiti’s on-going class war, René Garcia Préval, a 63-year-old agronomist, was sworn in as Haiti’s president on May 14, 2006.

Constitutionally, Préval should have been inaugurated 96 days earlier, on February 7. But, due to election delays, that was the day he trounced a field of 34 candidates by garnering 51% of the vote (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2/22/06).

Despite the outgoing de facto regime’s abysmal organization, ridiculously stringent but ultimately ineffective measures aimed at crowd control, and a deadly early morning riot at the National Penitentiary, the ceremonies at the Parliament, Cathedral and Presidential Palace took place amid relative calm and more on schedule than the presidential inaugurations of 1991, 1996 and 2001.

If one excludes the four illegal chiefs of state who briefly came to power via coups d’état against constitutional governments over the past 15 years – Raoul Cédras in 1991, Joseph Nerette in 1991, Emile Jonassaint in 1994, and Boniface Alexandre in 2004 – Préval is Haiti’s 56th president, having served as the 54th from 1996 to 2001. He is one of the very few Haitian presidents to have come to and left from power peacefully via elections. Unfortunately, like Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave (1915), Louis Bornó (1922), Louis Eugène Roy (1930), and Sténio Vincent (1930), Préval has for the second time been elected to preside over a country that is militarily occupied and controlled by foreign powers. Because he takes the presidency under a Constitutionally forbidden foreign occupation whose conductors – Washington, Paris and Ottawa – still forbid exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from returning to his homeland, Préval will face a difficult challenge to adhere to his swearing-in oath “to faithfully observe the Constitution and laws of the Republic, to respect and have respected the Haitian people’s rights, to work for the Nation’s grandeur, and to maintain national independence and territorial integrity.” Presently, these laws, rights, grandeur, independence and integrity are all compromised, if not entirely trampled.

But already in the ceremonies, Préval displayed a deft assertiveness that augurs what kind of tactics he may use in the tricky weeks ahead. For example, in a surprise move at the Legislative Palace, Préval refused to accept the Presidential sash from de facto president Boniface Alexandre, as tradition dictates. Instead, while Préval studiously kept his back turned on the scene, a befuddled Alexandre was directed to turn over his presidential sash to Joseph Lambert, the Senate president who conducted the swearing-in ceremony before the National Assembly (i.e. convocation of both houses) of Haiti’s 48th Parliament. Then a separate Presidential sash was produced from the wings, and Lambert, who is from Préval’s Espwa (Espoir) coalition, placed it on the new president. Again, during the VIP reception in the Parliament’s Senate lounge immediately following the swearing-in, Préval refused to have his photo taken standing between Alexandre and outgoing de facto Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, preferring to stand to their side.

In fact, it is remarkable that there were not more thinly-veiled conflicts because the de facto regime organized the transition ceremonies in practically no coordination with Préval’s organization.

A roll call before the ceremony revealed that 25 out of 30 senators and 87 out of 99 deputies were present. A number of Haitian artists such as Boulo Valcourt, Gracia Delva (Mas Konpa), Don Kato (Brothers Posse), Ti Pay (Rev), King Kino (Phantoms) and Jacques Sauveur-Jean were also on hand, along with famed North American actor Danny Glover and California progressive radio host Margaret Prescod.

Political invitees spanned the political spectrum, ranging from anti-coup popular resistance leaders like Sanba Boukman from Belair and John Joel and René Momplaisir from Cité Sole to right-wing dinosaurs like former dictator and prison fugitive Prosper Avril. Préval’s former wife Geri Benoît Préval and various former ministers from Préval’s first administration, like Fritz Longchamps (Foreign Affairs), François Severin (Agriculture), and Jacques Edouard Alexis (Prime Minister), were also in attendance.

“Mister President,” said Lambert in his address to the room, “let us salute democracy’s victory which saw the national destiny emerge through the overwhelming popular consensus of Feb. 7, 2006... This victory obliges you to construct a present and a future that will permit the people’s material and spiritual blossoming. You have just won elections marked by turbulence but they also mark an undeniable return to constitutional order.”

“Past experience must not condemn us to relive these same events,” Lambert continued “and we should turn the page and aim for other objectives which will allow us to build a climate of peace for this people.”

But the chances of simply “turning the page” seemed remote as the chants of hundreds of anti-coup demonstrators calling for justice for the massacres and violence of the coup could be heard inside the sweltering parliament before and during the swearing-in ceremony, which began with Préval’s arrival 40 minutes after the 11 a.m. scheduled start-time. “Tie up Latortue” and “Whether they like it or not, Aristide is returning,” the protestors cried. Like the thousands of demonstrators who later massed outside the Cathedral and the Palace, many wore yellow and green Espwa T-shirts emblazoned with Préval’s smiling face, but held up pictures, cards, and posters of Aristide.

U.S. Special Forces kidnaped President Aristide from his home on February 29, 2004. He today is exiled in South Africa. Since his abduction, Haiti has been militarily occupied first by U.S., French and Canadian troops, and then by U.N. troops beginning in June 2004.

“We voted for Préval on February 7, 2006, so that Aristide could return,” said Claude, a 26-year-old unemployed laborer from Martissant. “We have come here to support Préval. But we say to Préval he must get tough so that Aristide can return to the country.”

Some of the demonstrators denounced the riot at the Penitentiary that morning as a ploy by the de facto regime to sabotage Préval’s inauguration. “Michaelle Lucius [a police chief] managed to create a problem at the National Penitentiary so that prisoners would try to escape so that he could take the actions he took,” said Michel, a 30-year-old tailor from Cité Soleil. “We call for the arrest of Michael Lucius.” Prison guards reportedly opened fire on the protesting prisoners. The Haiti Information Project’s Kevin Pina said prisoners told him 10 inmates were killed. Pina and journalist Reed Lindsay report seeing the prisoners on the Penitentiary’s roof holding up two apparently dead bodies, covered in blood. The Haitian government and United Nations say that no prisoners died, but that several were injured when beaten with clubs.

Although no other head of state attended the inauguration, vice-presidents from Venezuela and Brazil led delegations, as well as Canada’s governor general, the Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean, niece of renowned Haitian poet René Dépèstre. France and the Dominican Republic sent their foreign ministers, and Chili its defense minister.

Despite the less than overwhelming diplomatic presence, the de facto’s protocol department performed disastrously. Confused diplomats were left hunting for their names on chairs in the Parliament, and more than one case of seat-swapping occurred.

At the Parliament, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the brother and emissary of U.S. President George W. Bush, was seated only two chairs away from José Vicente Rangel, Venezuela’s vice president, resulting in interesting body language. The two, both keenly aware of the other’s presence, never shook hands or addressed each other, although they did so with most of the other diplomats. The coldness increased hours later when they were seated, with one empty seat between them, next to the podium at the Palace. Rangel was seated closer to Préval.

Following the post-ceremony reception at the Parliament, Préval emerged after all the other VIPs and made an impromptu excursion across the street where he waved to the hundreds of demonstrators. They responded with impassioned cheers. As dozens of security personnel from the Special Unit of the Presidential Guard (USGPN), the Haitian National Police (PNH) and UN pushed and shoved frenzied journalists who swarmed around him, a smiling Préval walked back to his motorcade and was whisked off to the Te Deum at the Cathedral, which like the Parliament and Palace had been repainted and repaired by work crews only in the final days before the weekend.

In his address at the Cathedral, Monseigneur Louis Kébreau, the bishop of Hinche, called on Préval to make “a national effort to forge history in a new manner to benefit the sons and daughters of the country.”

“Things must change deeply in this country,” Kébreau said, echoing Pope John Paul II’s words to Jean-Claude Duvalier when he visited Haiti in 1983, “so as to bring about a cultural, economic and social renaissance and resurrection in Haiti.” Kébreau added that “at this juncture of Haiti’s history, we need to march together and to live by our motto – union makes strength – to save the country” and that “we must all together shed our fatalism and give Haiti new foundations.”

Kébreau closed by asking Préval and all Haitians to work together “to get the country out of dishonor and to save the land of our ancestors.”

Although the police and U.N. Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) had established a ban on all vehicles in the vicinity of the Parliament, Cathedral and Palace, the street leading from the Cathedral to the Palace was choked with masses of people. In front of the palace, hundreds of U.N. troops – grouped in national contingents from China, Nigeria, Senegal, Pakistan, Benin, Pakistan, Brazil, etc. – held back a boisterous sweating sea of humanity. A man on stilts dressed in red and blue walked back and forth through the throng.

The musical animation that blasted through the giant banks of speakers set up on the Palace lawn had a timidly anti-coup theme which pleased the crowd assembled outside the gates. Many sang along with the songs. An emcee at one point saluted the people of Cité Soleil for their “resistance.”

Ironically, however, most of the people in the stands were the government officials and politicians which backed 2004 coup and kidnaping of Aristide. Many in the throngs in front of the Palace, which eventually pushed their way through lines of the Haitian police and UN troops up to the Palace fence, resented that the people who voted Préval in were outside the gates while the coup-backers were inside. “Those who used to kill us, who used to try to prevent Préval from becoming president, are inside,” Marline Joinville, 20, told Reuters.

“The bourgeoisie wants to hijack the president,” another demonstrator, Lesly Cherubin, told Reuters. “They are all over him, while, we, who elected him, can't even see him.”

After his arrival at the Palace, Préval made a chaotic review of different police units which had been standing under the grueling sun on the Palace lawn most of the afternoon. The review became a free-for-all as journalists and photographers chased after the president, bolting down the ranks of policemen standing at attention while security personnel tried to block them.

Around 2 p.m., Préval finally took the podium at the Palace to carry out his first official act, a speech to the nation and the world. “Peace is the key “ to Haiti’s progress and development, he said again and again. “We must make peace, we must talk to each other.”

“Without justice in Haiti, there will be no peace,” quipped one demonstrator listening in the crowds outside the Palace gates.

Préval thanked outgoing MINUSTAH chief, Chilean diplomat Juan Gabriel Valdès, saying “your task was not easy, but you can be happy because the results are there.”

He said that the MINUSTAH would continue in Haiti, but that they needed to change their mission to economic development rather than “peace-keeping.”

“We must replace armored cars with bulldozers,” Préval said.

Finally, Préval reiterated his desire to foster reconciliation between Haiti’s polarized classes, the privileged elite and the suffering masses. “Collaboration between the different sectors of national life has already begun and must be consolidated with humility,” he said.

Almost immediately after speaking, Préval executed an elegant diplomatic snub. He personally came to Venezuelan vice-president Rangel, who had been sitting one seat away from Jeb Bush, and led him away without even acknowledging Bush. The governor, stone-faced, quickly left for the airport.

Meanwhile, Préval took Rangel to a conference room on the second-floor of the Palace and called an impromptu press conference. “Today, we are signing with Venezuela the Petrocaribe accord,” Préval announced. “At 7 a.m. this morning, already 100,000 barrels of oil arrived in Port-au-Prince. We know what kind of relations there have been between Haiti and Venezuela. In Jacmel, [Francisco de] Miranda created the Venezuelan flag and received aid from Haiti from President [Alexandre] Pétion. And the alliance was so strong that today at the foot of the stairs to [Venezuela’s] National Palace one finds two busts: one of Pétion and the other of [Simon] Bolivar.”

Préval then let Rangel speak. “Here you have the second official act of your government,” Rangel said. “With this act, Venezuela pays an historic debt to Haiti. An eternal debt, which is also the root of liberty and the root of the Venezuelan nation. It is a debt not only to President Pétion but also to the thousands and thousands of Haitians who fought alongside Miranda for the liberty of not only Venezuela but of all Latin America.”

Rangel continued by saying that in Venezuela today, “we do not cultivate rhetoric. We do what is practical and concrete. We believe that solidarity means concrete acts.”

He explained that, of the 100,000 barrels that arrived, 60,000 were diesel fuel and the other 40,000 gasoline. “The daily consumption of fuel in Haiti was 11,000 barrels a day. Venezuela will bring 7,000 barrels a day to Haiti under the PetroCaribe accord,” Rangel said. “The other 4,000 barrels needed to complete the 11,000 daily barrels of total Haitian consumption will also be furnished by Venezuela under the San Jose accord,” a separate treaty offered to Haiti by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on April 24 when Préval visited Caracas.

Rangel also announced that Venezuela would give “a donation of 120 tons of asphalt per month for 12 months for infrastructure projects which will be carried out by the UN’s Brazilian contingent, under an accord signed between President Chavez and President Lula of Brazil.”

The Venezuelan vice-president said that a team of experts would inspect and attempt to put back into service 130 electrical generators around Haiti. He alluded that there would be projects concerning agriculture, livestock, and culture.

Rangel closed by saying that “this cooperation has no political emblem. We don’t intend at all to influence the direction of your government. It is an completely transparent cooperation. We hope they don’t say tomorrow morning that we are trying to guide Haiti towards the axis of evil. We want the Haitian people to be engaged completely with the Venezuelan people and this for the good of all Haitians. President Chavez is presently in London and called me this morning. He is very interested in this event and sends his best wishes concerning this solemn act today.”

Préval and Rangel then signed both the PetroCaribe and the San Jose accords and embraced.

After all the ceremonies, a strange and surreal reception of about 400 people was held in the Palace Garden at which both putschists and their victims mingled. In addition to Lavalas leaders like Milot’s former mayor Moïse Jean-Charles, Cité Soleil’s John Joel and René Momplaisir, and Sept. 30th Foundation’s Pierre Lovinsky, one found pro-coup politicians like Fusion’s Serge Gilles, the OPL’s Paul Denis, LAAA’s Youri Latortue, the Alliance’s Evans Paul, and the Group of 184 No. 2 and third placed presidential candidate, Charles Henri Baker. Some of the other personalities noted there, in no particular order, were Prosper Avril, assembly industrialist Gregory Mevs, Aristide’s former information minister and now a women’s empowerment activist Marie-Laurence Lassegue, Aristide’s former Bahamas consul Joe Etienne, Boston Fanmi Lavalas delegate Yves Alcindor, Joe Beasley of Jesse Jackson’s PUSH, and most of the winning and losing candidates from the 2006 presidential elections.

The “party” had a strained feel as anti-coup and pro-coup groups eyed each other suspiciously as they dined on traditional chicken, griot, and rice and beans.

As the reception was closing, outgoing Prime Minister Gérard Latortue came up and warmly shook the hand World Bank economist Eriq Pierre, who many suspect to be Préval’s leading choice for Prime Minister. Latortue and Pierre chuckled briefly about their common service for the international financial institutions. The encounter symbolized the crossroads and question Haiti now faces: will the Préval regime offer a break from the past, or be a simple continuation of it?