Montreal's Haitians United in Disappointment over Aristide

Further chaos and bloodshed reigned in Haiti after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the once-popular president, fled the country on Feb. 29.

Montreal's Haitians United in Disappointment over Aristide

Further chaos and bloodshed reigned in Haiti after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the once-popular president, fled the country on Feb. 29. In Port-au-Prince, armed rebels who had finally reached the capital after gaining control of most of the country fought pitched battles in the streets with Aristide loyalists known as chimères. By mid-week, the presence of foreign troops, including 1,100 U.S. marines, 800 French soldiers, 130 Chileans and 100 Canadians, had helped restore some semblance of calm, if not order, to the city's downtown, with the rebels promising to withdraw from the city. But fighting continued in the outskirts - even as the interim government acknowledged that it was having difficulty performing even its most basic functions. In Montreal, Maclean's Bureau Chief Benoit Aubin spoke with members of the Haitian community about the troubles. His report:

THERE'S A JOKE making the rounds in Montreal: take four Haitians, lock them up in a room, and in no time they will have created six political parties, an unstable coalition government, an underground opposition and three radio stations airing conflicting political views.

Haitians are genial, buoyant, extravagant, voluble - and extremely politicized people. I know this after meeting last week with three Haitian-born Canadians and a visitor stranded in Montreal by the trouble back home. Two hours later, the four - a political science professor, a scientist turned novelist, an actor, and a teacher from Port-au-Prince - were no closer to a manageable answer to a simple question: what's the problem in Haiti? Instead, there were dozens of loose threads blowing in the breeze of a heated political discussion about good and bad dictatorship, freedom and chaos, arms and democracy, race and power, poverty and violence. That, and speculation over all of the possible permutations of the possible strategic double-dealings by the dozen or so political parties, the murderous armed militias, and private local interest groups now vying to fill the void left by Aristide's ousting.

One thing seemed to unite the four, though: disappointment. They were all one-time supporters of Aristide - the populist Catholic missionary who became megalomaniacal, not unlike his predecessor, dictator Jean-Claude (Bébé Doc) Duvalier. Along with Aristide's disheartening betrayal went what many Haitians had called their last hope of seeing democracy and stability ever take root in their volatile, impoverished homeland. "Many people had stopped believing in Aristide, but still support the idea of a grassroots party running the country," said Mireille Métellus, an actor and teacher. His ousting, she added, represents "a betrayal of hope."

Jean-Marie Bourjolly, a novel-writing science teacher, said that Aristide once represented hope for many. "He claimed to represent the poor black people, traditionally excluded from power and influence," Bourjolly said. "Now, these people are very frustrated and angry."

Patrick Tardieu, who studied in Quebec before returning to Haiti as a teacher in 1976, said Aristide was no different from Duvalier. "Only, things have gotten worse," added Tardieu, who was in Montreal on business. "There is no state infrastructure left working. Like Duvalier, Aristide was bent on destroying all existing institutions. Chimères who can't write or read have jobs in the bureaucracy, while students with diplomas push wheelbarrows in the streets." The country is threatened by anarchy, Tardieu said, because people have lost their sense of morality. "The distinction between, say, foreign aid and cocaine money has become blurred. To live and survive in Haiti, you often have to look the other way."

Political scientist Frantz Voltaire noted: "The fifties have seen the failure of the grande bourgeoisie, the seventies have seen the failure of the middle class with Duvalier, and now with Aristide, we see the failure of the popular classes, so we have been around the garden."

MANY of the 100,000-plus Haitians living in Montreal - the third-largest concentration in North America after New York City and Miami - have been glued to TV sets and cellphones to keep abreast of the devastating news back home. And, like the four debaters, they are divided over the meaning of the crisis and the solutions to the woes of their homeland.

Haitian exiles are said to pump US$1 billion a year into the national economy, compared to the US$273-million annual revenue of the government. But Montreal's Haitians exert little influence over the affairs of their homeland. "We are purveyors, that is our only role," says Jean Ernest Pierre, a lawyer and owner of a radio station. "There is no dual citizenship; foreign nationals are barred from playing an active role."

Haitians have lived in Quebec for so long they are family now, writes Carole Beaulieu, editor of l'Actualité magazine. "Petit-Goâve, Les Salines, Cap-Haïtien, Cité Soleil are household names just like Brossard or Baie Comeau." In fact, Aristide once studied in Montreal, part of an endless stream of middle-class Haitians pursuing a diploma. The most visible Haitians are cab drivers zipping around town, and nurses and teachers. A huge Haitian working class gathered here in the seventies thanks, in good part, to Luckner Cambronne, a corrupt minister in the Duvalier regime who had a sideline in tidying up emigration papers. But Haitians have also emerged as university professors, news anchors, novelists and members of Quebec's National Assembly.

A steady stream of journalists, intellectuals and politicians fleeing political persecution have added vibrancy to the Haitian community of Montreal. Danny Laferrière, 51, a journalist, novelist and filmmaker, came in 1976. "There is chaos and anarchy back home now, and it is tragic, but, in a way, this is a good thing, too. It means that people are free to speak and act."

Laferrière said the nation's poverty paves the way for dictators to emerge. "People are so poor and hopeless that they are always seeking a messiah," he explained. "And there is little that politicians can actually do, so they all promise that better days are coming. When the populace becomes impatient, the messiah must turn to militias for order and protection, and there you have it." Still, Haitians are a resilient bunch. "They don't look at the horrific problems of their country as a curse," Laferrière said, "but rather as the reflection that theirs is a full-fledged, complex country where problems are addressed collectively."

But for kids of Haitian background born and raised in Quebec, the peculiar idiosyncrasies of Haiti's political class seem increasingly odd. "I think many of them are grandstanding, and are complicating issues to make themselves interesting," said Judith Dorvil, a recruiting agent for the Montreal police force. "Here, people are generally more to the point." Dorvil, 30, said she came back "shattered and devastated" from a recent visit to her parents' homeland. "I was shocked by how harsh life is in Haiti - people live in constant fear, permanent danger, and life is cheap over there."

Maclean's March 15, 2004