Opening Space for Popular Movements: A Conversation with Samba Boukman and Samba Mackandal

      In light of today’s assassination of grassroots haitian activist Samba Boukman we have published an interview that was conducted with Boukman by a Canadian solidarity delegation in March of 2006. Thus far coverage by outlets such as Radio Kiskeya and DefendHaiti of Boukman’s death, has reflected the allegations aimed at him by elites and pro-coup forces inside Haiti. This interview sheds light on a man that was heavily demonized, like many other political activists and militants from Haiti’s poorest communities.

Interviewed by Stuart Neatby, John Dimond-Gibson, and Christian Heyne on Thursday, March 2, 2006

      The desperately poor neighbourhoods surrounding Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince have been hardest hit by the political violence and social cleansing directed against Haiti’s poor by the US, Canadian, and French-imposed government of Gerard Latortue. The neighbourhood of Bel Air has been one of the hardest hit of these neighbourhoods, facing daily shootings and arrests from both the Haitian National Police as well as the UN/MINUSTAH forces.
     We had a chance to speak with Samba Boukman and Samba Mackandal, two grassroots organizers in Bel Air, on March 2nd about their reactions to the February 7th elections, the political and social repression they’ve suffered, and their hopes for a process of national reconciliation following the election of Rene Preval as Haiti’s President. The following is a rush transcript of that interview.

SJC: We wanted to ask a few questions about the elections that just happened. A number of officials and the top electoral monitors from the Canadian government have described this election as being the best that Haiti has ever had. What is your response to that?

SB: As the popular movement of poor disenfranchised people known as Lavalas, we have always had only one weapon: the Democratic Weapon, which is one man, one vote.

After 200 years of independence, on Dec 16th,1990, Haiti held the first democratic election in its entire history. That is when we, the people from poor neighbourhoods, got to elect Jean Bertrand Aristide, the poor priest, as a president who could represent us. So in 1991 there was a clear threat to democracy when some countries like France, United States and Canada joined to a minority of people – who now have organized themselves as the Group 184 who organized a coup against Aristide and all of the people of Haiti. But because of the support and help of real friends of Haiti, what we call “Bon Blans”, the people had a chance to get through it when Aristide was returned to power in 1994. So with the solidarity from the Black Caucus, the Clinton administration, and the mobilization of people here in Haiti, the people finally got the return of the president they had elected.

So the return of democracy helped relieve a lot of problems in poor neighbourhoods because it gave us access to food, health care, potable water, and different other basic needs. But that didn’t stop the international community and also a minority of the wealthy people in Haiti, from again organizing a coup in 2004 against the needs of Haiti, causing suffering in the poor neighbourhoods, and bloodshed all over again.

As a people descended from African slaves, we believe in the democratic way. We believe that there is one way to take power, and this is by voting someone that we trust in. So after the coup of Feb 29 we have been mobilizing for a very long time, protesting in the streets peacefully, in order to call for the respect of our vote.

But we have been mobilizing also against exclusion, the social exclusion that people in poor neighbourhoods are victims of. Because when we talk about social exclusion, it’s because the wealthy people in Haiti joined with some of the wealthy countries they wanted to have elections but without the people of the poor neighbourhoods.

So when we say that the wealthy countries and the wealthy people in Haiti tried to stop the people in poor neighbourhoods from voting, that’s clear because we have a lot of evidence of it. They committed killings very often in the poor neighbourhoods, so that the people would move away. They didn’t have polling centers in the poor neighbourhoods so people would be discouraged from voting. They called our neighbourhoods no-man’s-lands so that people would not visit and find out about our suffering and our struggles. Many people here do not have food to eat and potable water to drink but they do have the idea that their votes should be respected. They remember September 16th 1990 and they wanted this to occur again through the new elections that just happened.

For us, the vote of February 7th 2006 has a real meaning: it is a clear answer to the coup of 2004. We wanted to show to the wealthy people, who organized themselves as the Group 184, that we will not let them exclude us from the political decision making process and that they cannot take everything for themselves. We wanted to show that we are still part of the country. It was a slap in the face of the defacto Gerard Latortue/Boniface Alexander government to have so many poor people vote.

But compare this slap in the face to the repression that we have been subjected to. We have been imprisoned just because of our political affiliation. We have been victims of different massacres, but we still decided to organize against all of this oppression.

Some people seem to think that the people who live here are all illiterate and that we don’t deserve to have the same vote as everyone else. So that is why we gave them this response to show that we know what we need and we know how to get it. So while people may say that we are illiterate and that we don’t know anything about democracy, our vote was a clear response to tell them that we know politics better then they do. It was quite a lesson for them because it was above their understanding, what the people accomplished on Feb 7th. Even part of the international community shares the opinion of the elite here thinking that people in poor neighbourhoods are just dumb and crazy and don’t know what to do.

So our vote on February 7th was a clear response to them too. Our vote was a vote for the release of all political prisoners. We voted for a real national reconciliation through a dialogue of the people which will allow us to move towards peace in Haiti. The vote was not the only step. We will be voting again for the senate so that Preval will be in a strong position to help the people. We will also be mobilizing for a general amnesty which will help the country get the reconciliation that it needs so that we can move against the social exclusion that is going on right now in Haiti.

But our country’s reconciliation process should not proceed in a hypocritical way. The rebels who took weapons against the government, killed people, and destroyed public administration and public buildings are walking free on the streets and are going wherever they want to. Some of them were even candidates in the last election. If they are free, then there is no way that they should keep in jail young people from the popular neighbourhoods who used weapons to defend their rights, the rights of the voters, and the constitution. It does not make sense that there can be two sets of rules; one for the wealthy people and one for the poor people. The wealthy people are walking the streets and going free everywhere, even if they were involved in a lot of crime and infractions. So that should be the same for the people from the poor neighbourhoods who were involved in crime and infractions. They should be back in their homes and the police should pull their names off of the Research Lists of wanted persons that the police have put everywhere in the radio and in the media.

SJC: We would like to ask about educational programs which were set up in the years before the coup from 2000 onwards- and what has happened to them since. Specifically we are interested in the alpha-resto lunch programs which combined free food with adult literacy training.

SB: Well, the main objective of the wealthy people is to stop the 85% majority of the people from having access to the wealth of the country, and they consider education to be part of the wealth of the country. Stopping us from having access to education is one way to prevent us from sharing the wealth of the country.

During Aristide’s term, education was more accessible to the people than it is now. During Aristide a lot of new schools where built, and a lot of projects were going in those schools. They were providing food to the people, they were providing uniforms for the people, and they even had subsidies for the price of the books. The parents only had to pay half or a quarter of the price of books, and that really contributed to education in Haiti.

Since the coup of February 29th, we can say that education is functioning at only 10% of its capacity in the poor neighbourhoods of Haiti.

Little children could go to school, but once above the age of 9, it was not easy. Even if they were in elementary or high school, many had to leave Bel Air because they were threatened with illegal arrests or killings. Some of the families decided to move out of Bel Air and go to some other place so that their children could go to school. It still was difficult because a lot of the parents had worked in public administration and since they had lost their jobsii it was not easy to afford school in Haiti. So this is why in poor neighbourhoods education is a big issue and concern for the families.

Even the schools which are near Bel Air, many of them were not functional because a lot of them have been used as a camp or barracks for the black uniformed Haitian Police or UN.

This is why for the last two years, a lot of young folks from Bel Air were not going to school and it is clear that the transitional government has not really helped in any way to relieve the situation in the poor neighbourhoods. No subsidies on school fees. No rehabilitation of public schools. No subsidies on the price of gas, which affects the price of transportation to get the children to school and at the same time the price of everything. So people have a problem getting access to basic needs and they give priority to food and not education. Even projects like the feeding programs that used to be run under the Aristide government have stopped, so even the children who go to school do not have access to one hot meal a day.

In the poor neighbourhoods, what we consider the biggest threat or violence against us is when we wake up in the morning and we don’t know what we are going to eat during the day. This is considered one of the biggest forms of violence against the people in the poor neighbourhoods.

SJC: So speaking of that kind of violence, we understand that you worked in the capacity of the alpha feeding program for adults an adult literacy program. We wanted to get a sense of what difference that program made in your neighbourhood.

SB: This was like a knife blow to the [?] when the government stopped the alpha program. Because we remember that when this program was running, it was so great to see those adults, who didn’t have the chance to know how to read when they were children, learn to read. They were so proud when they could do something in the public administration, even if they could just sign their name.

This pride was something that gave us hope for what Haiti should be. With adults having access to literacy it helped in so many other things. When they go to vote, they will know where to make their cross. Before, anyone could just say put it here and they wouldn’t know if it was the right place. While this program was running, it was clear to us that there was a change, a good sign of hope for these people. But now that they have stopped it is like a koud kouto nan vantiii to everyone that the people stopped having access to education when they feel so close to it.

SJC: Has the UN or the Latortue government tried to fill the gap that was left by the feeding programs in Haiti?

SB: The only program that the government was involved in was to come and kill the people in the poor neighbourhoods. Prime Minister Latortue even said in a speech that There was an operation in September 30th 2004. We shot them, some of them fell, others were injured, others ran away.

[This was the date of a police attack on a large peaceful demonstration commemorating the date of the first coup against Aristide and calling for his return  ed.]

During the Latortue government there were a lot of violations against children of the street. They were victims of illegal arrests by the black uniformed police and they took them to a garbage dump called Titanyen and killed them. And that is why a lot of street children who were aware of the situation came to hide in Bel Air and Cite Soleil so that they could have a chance to not be killed by the national police.

When all of those children from the streets came to hide in Bel Air, we had to feed them. So that is why we had to start a little social organization where all of the people can find support so that we can decrease the level of misery in Bel Air. We started a feeding program so that people could come and get at least one hot meal per day.

SJC: Who helped you with that?

SB: We had friends who were committed to helping us with this and they would come with one sack or three sacks of rice so we could share with the people and cook something and allow everyone to be a part of it. Also Yele Haiti, which is hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean’s foundation, contributed and gave us some food to distribute.

SJC: And most of these friends were from Haiti?

SB: Most were but also there are some international friends who have sent things to share with the children like clothes and food.

The name of the social organization is Zakat Zanfan. Zakat is an Arabic word referring to a charitable tithe required of muslims, and Zanfan is children in Creole. We would like to make use of your microphone to call all of the international social organizations who would like to help Zakat Zanfan to contact us so that we can help the children who are in the streets in Bel Air with no families, with no parents, and who are trying to make it on their own.

SJC: What are your expectations for the Preval government in terms of help to organizations your work with

SM: As we always like to say the river is wide but with god’s help we will cross it and we consider President Preval to be a big rock in the middle of the river that we can stand on.

The main objective is to have a real dialogue with all of the children of Haiti. We don’t believe that President Preval, just by himself will accomplish something big for the country. That is why we are calling all of the children of Haiti to gather together so we can work together and fight to have a new page of history.

As our ancestors had seen the deportation of Toussaint Louverture, one of Haiti’s independence heros, so our generation has experienced the deportation of President Aristide. Our main fight right now is for this dialogue process, and one of the things that will help this dialogue process is to have Aristide be a part of it close to the table where everyone will gather to discuss what the country needs. As President Aristide’s term was finished in 2006 and President Preval was elected fairly, and we are waiting for him to facilitate and create the conditions for the dialogue process between all of the children of the country, because as you can see now every thing is destroyed.

The only way to have this reconstruction process is to have an understanding between the people above the hill and people below the hill wealthy people and poor people.

SJC: There have been voices in Canada calling on Preval to share power with the parties that lost the election and form what is called a government of national reconciliation. Is that advisable or a good idea in your opinion?

SM: That is why we mentioned the dialogue process. It should involve different sectors and different affiliations. All sectors should be welcome to be part of the dialogue process and of the union government. Like Leslie Manigat who finished second in the Presidential election with 11% of the vote. He is still someone who has a role to play in improving the situation in Haiti.

This is not something new nor has it only been suggested in Canada. In the Preval campaign there where speeches welcoming all sectors who wanted to be part of improving the situation by reconstructing the country. He always welcomed all fractions who really wanted to do it. I can remember the words from one of Preval’s speeches from his campaign: Even if I am elected I am open to dealing with people not necessarily involved in Lespwa, he said. All people who are good patriots, who have a good will of improvement and change, I am open to working with them so that we can have a better country. This is something that really counts for me and I think that this is something that he should work on.

SJC: Is there a concern that elements of the interim government will continue on into the Preval government?

SM: The people don’t trust the members of the defacto government because we have already gone through another defacto government during the military dictatorship of 1991-1994. Both of those experiences have finished with bloodshed. So we don’t really trust the interim government representatives and it could be a big concern to have them continue in the new government that Preval is about to start. They haven’t done anything to show that they have a good will for improvement. A good example of that is that they haven’t had the courage to release even one political prisoner. They should have the courage to say that we want to release even some of the people who have been arrested illegally. And that would show that they are open to doing something positive. But since they are not doing that, it is showing people why they cannot trust them. Many of the people who have kept the interim government representatives in power, even they don’t trust them or work with them anymore.

So there’s no way that people like us, who never believed in them, would ever work with them. It is because of the dialogue process that we want to start that we do not call for the arrest of most representatives of the interim government, because that step would stop the dialogue and reconciliation process. But in reality they have accomplished so many bad things that they should be under arrest.

SJC: So you want an investigation of those people?

SM: It would be good to have an investigation so that the truth can come out about the many killings and the many massacres that have happened in popular neighbourhoods.

In Bel Air we have so many friends and so many people who have been living nearby who have died, killed in the streets. It would be good for people to know about the massacres, who was in charge of them and who was behind them. We know that the people from this interim government will have official amnesty, just like always. The former director of the police Leon Charles now has an international position at the Haitian embassy in Washington. We know that after this, Latortue will be moving to the United States, Canada, or France. They will welcome him because all of these countries keep saying that he is doing a very nice job. So we know they won’t arrest him.

SJC: I want to clarify. You’ve spoken of a general amnesty before. In other words, this would be concerning only the leadership, the investigation of major responsibility.

SB: A general amnesty should not be only for the officials, like giving a new international position to the former director of the police. it should be an open general amnesty, not only for the wealthy people from the Group 184 who have been involved in distributing weapons to some people in the poor neighbourhoods so they can infiltrate into political movements and cause disturbances in poor neighbourhoods. It should not be just an amnesty for the wealthy people, or for only people like former minister Justice Bernard Gousse, who is behind a lot of killings. We are recommending a general amnesty so that all sectors, whether they are in (public) life, or in the disenfranchised class, can benefit from an amnesty. Because we know that in the poor neighbourhoods, there are young police officers who were dismissed with weapons in hand. There are demobilized soldiers who are demanding the return of the army, who have weapons in their hands. But we should not excuse some people and still have Research Lists police wanted lists on the people in the poor neighbourhoods.

SJC: What do people in Bel Air think of Canada, considering that Canada was a supporter of the return of Aristide after the first coup, and a supporter of the interim government after the second coup?

SM: All over the country here, people know that Canada is an example of democracy to the world, and that Canada contributed a lot in planting democracy after the first coup. That’s why the people here were really surprised to see that the government of Canada was behind the coup of February 29th and also supporting the interim government that was supporting so much violence. It surprises the people to see such a transformation from the Canadian government about its policy in Haiti.

But we always like to establish the big difference between bon blans and mauvais blans good white people and bad white people. We know that the people in Canada have been in solidarity with us, contrary to the Foreign Affairs ministry of Canada who said that people in poor neighbourhoods have made it a no-man’s land, and are perpetrating different kinds of crime in Haiti.

There is one last example of clear evidence that the people of Canada are in solidarity with the people of Haiti, because the way that the people of Canada voted is like a response to the last government who supported the interim government in Haiti. When we talk, we are talking about the people of Canada who are in solidarity with Haiti. We will not say that the last government of Canada was bad and that the new one will be better because we don’t know if the policy will change. We don’t want to decide who is the worst and who is the best, we just hope that the people of Canada will open their eyes so that they know what the Canadian policy is in Haiti and so they know what is going on, so they can stop it when it is something bad.

SJC: We want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

SM & SB: Thank you.

1. The original text, published in 2006, linked to websites that are no longer accessible.
2. In 2005 Samba Boukman had been arrested by United Nations troops in Haiti (MINUSTAH), see: Action Alert: Call for the Immediate Release of Samba Boukman