Originally posted on the website of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences and Politics on November 8, 2006
University of Albany, New York: November 8, 2006
The scenes shot in Haiti are quite reminiscent of Haiti’s urban population: poor and acutely aware of their situation. The movie however is not about the beauty or poverty of Haiti; it is instead about the political reality of a country which, since 1986, has been going through a shocking transformation, to the traditional elite and traditional left alike. Understanding the movie in most of its intricacies requires some basic knowledge of the country’s history, old and new.
A new political reality
Up until 1990, Haiti was the privy of an elite (old and new, established and emerging), that unethically fought over political power for economic gain. All the while, the vast majority of the population, uneducated and largely ignored, went through their daily and lifetime struggle for mere survival. With the departure of Baby Doc Duvalier in 1986, and the foreign (largely American) attempt at introducing democracy in Haiti, things had changed. It is in that context that the December 1990 elections become even more relevant.
If up until 1990, the masses were only brought into the streets by different factions of the educated Haitian elite (established or emerging) to either stay in power or replace those in control, the role of the poor was never of qualitative significance. With or perhaps, despite Aristide, the equation would change. For better, or worse, Aristide used his unique and considerable oratory skills to help establish that consciousness within the larger population. He spoke a language that all can understand (Haitian), making it clear to Haitians that they are the ultimate masters.
It is in that context that one can understand the scenes, shot on February 7, 2004 by Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Rossier, where throngs of people from the capital city of Port-au-Prince are shown, desperately trying to shake the hands of a president. This ultimate form of adulation, for a man who that same month was to go into exile, shows that indeed Aristide still had the support of at least the urban poor in the capital city. It is those same individuals who would begin, as soon as Aristide left on February 29, 2004, to organize in a way that would prove extremely challenging to the interim government that replaced him, and its international supporters.
The “Titid” obsession
Rossier’s movie has been portrayed as biased. The bias, however, is more by virtue of the subject matter than the actual characterization of either side on the screen. Granted the chosen topic alone is, if not controversial, at least emotionally taxing. The title also, charged up with terms like “Endless Revolution”, is quite suggestive. Nonetheless, there is no attempt by him to present a grotesque portrayal of either Aristide’s opponents or his sympathizers. The camera records the pro and anti Aristide talking-heads with precision as their voices are heard in the words and language they use, and written in English on the sub-screen for the audience to read, as some characters speak only French or Haitian. The obsession and subsequent controversy of the movie comes mostly from the “Aristide factor” itself, the “Titid obsession”.
It is extremely rare to find a soul, familiar with Haitian political history since 1986, who does not have a point of view of Aristide. “Titid”, as the poor called him, can always be found meddled in that entire period either as the villain, or as a controlling figure. Even after the 2006 presidential elections, his specter and shadow seem to have not dissipated. Indeed, in a very poor country where politics is quite personal, as the most convincing and populist Haitian orator of his generation, Aristide is and could only be more perception than a true caricature of his political personality. The movie however is far from being so simplistic for it presents, consciously or inadvertently, a more complex reality.
Culture, class, and political conviction
The Aristide saga, however complex it may be, is well represented in this movie from at least three different angles: culture, class, and political conviction. This nevertheless, does not seem to have been the intent of the filmmaker.
As language is properly characterized as a cultural gift, the use of one instead of another by Haitians in this movie is quite telling. Virtually all of those opposed to Aristide and favor the 2004 coup, speak either perfect English, or fluid and flawless French. To the contrary, except for a former member of Aristide’s cabinet and one of his bras droit, Mario Dupuy, most of those who favor his politic speak either Haitian or English. This is relevant from the perspective that, Aristide claimed to have been the champion of the poor, illiterate, and uneducated masses. This represents the vast majority that only speak and understand Haitian. His political discourses were mostly pronounced in Haitian.
Aristide was the most prominent and influential political figure in Haiti until 2004, because he owned the streets. Most people from urban areas and provincial towns believed in his message, as many among them listened intently to his messages in Haitian. These are the poor and voiceless. Those are the ones whose images one sees in many different scenes, singing his name or demonstrating in the streets. On the other hand, the Haitian talking-heads who are absolutely convinced that Aristide is the curse of Haiti are shown in their large home, mansion, or villa.
Although the most prominent of foreign friends on either side are white Americans, the movie shows that Aristide had appealed to the sympathy and support of influential members of the US Black Caucus, like California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Two elements are at play in this case: the issue of race which benefited Aristide, and the issue of class and institutional power which benefited the Haitian opposition to his reign. In fact, if only in regards to racial and cultural relevance, when compared to his other foreign opponents, even CARICOM representative Orlando Marville, who was opposed to Aristide, speaks in a critical yet non venomous ways about him.
The movie shows how politics, of the left and right in a poor and systemically weak country, is played on international ground. America being arguably the most influential foreign power in Haitian politics, the political left was only able to slow down the inevitable demise of Aristide. However the American right, at its height of power from 2001 and on in the United States, had all the people needed in institutional avenues to help the Haitian right (and even some moderates of the right and left) accomplish their goal of overthrowing Aristide in 2004.
Demystify the right
It is quite often said that most of Aristide’s partisans are paid foreign lobbyists. It is indeed true that Aristide had many foreign partisans, or even apologists. However, as with everything else in the last 20 years of Haitian politics, the truth is much more nuanced. The movie does show a throng of foreign partisans of Aristide, from Ira Kurzban (his US lawyer), to Paul Farmer, to Maxine Waters. But the movie also allows one to see and hear foreign political figures from the right that are much more intertwined with the American political institutions (therefore, much more influential and powerful), from Ambassador Roger Noriega to Ambassador Timothy Carney. If only in that sense both sides seem rightfully convinced that, Haitian political balance lies on the American political scale. If anything, this only exposes the weakness of the Haitian political system, not which side has more foreign partisans, since many if not most political leaders tend to seek support from abroad rather than among the electorate.
Problems with a coup
Aside from the coup itself and the controversy the movie has generated, answers need to be found in the very fabric of Haitian politics. How can and will democracy emerge if leaders, good and bad, cannot end their term and face the judicial system within country, if they were perceived or proven to have been egregious to the people they promised under oath to serve? How can Haiti develop a moderate and democratic right and left when the extreme on both sides can hijack with impunity the vote of the majority or plurality? How can the country ever fight corruption, especially at the executive level, when even democratically elected political leaders are always worried about having to leave the country and reside abroad, penniless?
Again and most importantly perhaps, how can Haiti ever groom an intelligent and viable political party from the right, when traditionalists from the right can and always do find ears in foreign capitals that are ready and willing to help them accomplish what they cannot by the ballot? How can Haiti ever groom an intelligent and viable political party from the left, when traditionalists and populists from the left who muster the streets with gangs can make life miserable for a government that is unwilling to abide by their rules?
Will Haiti ever learn from these experiences, or is Haiti’s political adrenaline uncontrollable? Was the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 the last one, or should one dread some other coup against Préval or a future moderate, or even extreme rightwing or leftwing political leader? Can Haitians devise and develop a political system that is virtually coup-proof, if only to ensure political stability?
None of those questions is answered in this movie. Nonetheless it is worth asking them, for the economic future and even existential viability of Haiti seem to depend upon answering them with viable, nonpartisan, and systemic reforms.
“Aristide and the Endless Revolution” portrays a recent Haiti that is unpleasant and tortuous. The movie shows some important actors in the recent political saga, from both the left and the right, and makes it possible for the general viewing public to hear them and even relive the 2004 events. But Haiti’s saga had not started in 2004, and may not have ended that year. 1806 was the year of the first coup d’état against the leader of the independence. It had all been downhill descent, chute ever since that time. One can only hope that perhaps, only perhaps, 2004 was the last time and year when violence and the rush to quickly resolve complex issues overtook common sense in Haitian politics.
Hyppolite Pierre is author of “Haiti, Rising Flames from Burning Ashes” (University Press of America, April 2006). He is currently working on a historical fiction about the leader of Haiti’s independence, Dessalines. The tentative title of that book, due out in 2008, is “Dialogue with Defile”.