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#18: Democracy in Haiti: Corbett comments
I want to make the case that the most significant move toward
any serious notion of democracy in Haiti is quite new and I believe rooted
in the coming of the "Ti Legliz" movement to Haiti in the 1970s. This
movement was rooted in Liberation Theology which came out of South and
Central America in the 1970s. It began with Gustavo Guitterez's book:
TOWARD A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION, and had a different and some what
competing thrust centered in the work of Leonardo Boff who's best example
of this theology is in ST. FRANCIS: MODEL OF HUMAN LIBERATION. The
movement was enriched by a lay theory of human interaction provided in
1970 by Paulo Freire's, THE PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED.
It came to Haiti as early as 1974, but remained a very small, an
threated, harrassed and oppresed movement until about 1985 when it really
began to blossom, but exploded on the scene after Feb. 7, 1986 when
Jean-Claude went his merry way to France compliments of the U.S. airforce.
I first ran into the movement when I was teaching in Vienna in 1983 and
ran across a story of the work of Pere Pollux Byas working in Pilot in
the near northwest, just 16 km west of Plaisance. I was just passing time
in the University of Vienna library reading a German Marxist magazine and
there is this story about Haiti. I was astonished. I arranged to meet
Byas at Christmas of 1983, we met in Cap Haitien. He had 10 Ti Legliz
groups working in the Pilot area, trying to do very simple co-opeartive
projects. I was attracted to this and began to fund them.
The next summer I visited there my first time and began to sit in on the
meetings. They were just mind-boggling to me, they seem to be Paulo
Freire's theories in living color, but with a religious twist which came
from the Liberation Theology. I sat in on hundreds of meetings in the
next 10 years, in all parts of the country, but a typical meeting was
pretty much the same all over and at any time.
A meeting begins with some prayers and religious songs, followed by
a reading from scripture. These meetings are almost
invarialbly led by a lay person, not a priest or minister (later on there
were Protestant Ti Legliz groups, but most have been Catholic based). The
reading done, the leader would ask about the reading and some general
discussion would follow. However, after a while, 15 minutes to 1/2 hour
(these meetings can be VERY long), the leader would shift the topic to:
What does this reading mean in our lives?
I suggest that is a very important shift. What the Liberation Theologians
complain of, in part, is that traditional Christian theology of the past
2000 years was mainly "me and God" a theory of how the individual should
behave in God's eyes, often in order to secure eternal reward, but at least
in order to please God. The Liberation Theolologian wanted to shift the
focus away from the vertical axis of "me and God" to the horizontal
plane of "us brothers and sisters working together in God's mode."
That's not only theologically radical, so radical and to threated the
Catholic church in it's very foundation, but extremely democratic. Gone
is the hierarchy (which is the main reason they were lay-led and not
clergy led). Gone is the authority (which is why the leader tends
overwhelmingly to ask questions and not give answers). The people would
then respond to these questions of what does this passage of scripture mean
Sitting in meeting after meeting in those early days I can attest this
was very grass roots local democracy being born. No talk of "Haiti" or
"the nation" or any of that. It was stuff like: how can we grow more
food for us (as opposed to the land owner) so we do not suffer hunger?
How can we get schools for our children and our selves, so that we aren't
so uninformed of what's going on? (Basic literacy was invariably
understood by the simole peasants as indispensable to the growth. There
was one ONE language ever mentioned or used in any meeting I ever
attended, Creole, their language.) How can we get safer water to drink
that isn't so distant from our village and home?
The emphasis was not on how do I, the individual get this, but how do WE,
the community achieve this. And the central notion was that by putting
our heads together we could achieve this. The Haitian nation had held
for nearly two centuries that union creates force and that by joining
together were make light work of the heavy. But it had never really
translated these notions into a democratic ideal of people of equal worth
working together to achieve these goals. That's what made it so
democratic in my eyes, eyes that were often moved to tears by what I was
seeing and hearing in the work of these Ti Legliz groups. Later they
even pickup up the langauge by creating "Tet Ansanm" groups which were
virtually indistinguishable from the Ti Legliz.
I can recall some critical moments in this growth in the area of Pandiassou,
just west of Hinche where I spent a lot of time. A man whom I regard as
an outstanding leader, Fre Franklyn Almand, has founded a Roman Catholic
religious order of brothers (not priests) and then co-founded with
Sister Emmanuel, an order of nuns. They worked alongside the Ti Legliz
groups, but gave the people the leadership. When I started visiting
there in 1984 (at the recommendation of list member David Callasano)
there were nearly 40 groups already formed and working.
The exciting next stage, which didn't really come until after the fall of
Jean-Claude in that short euphoric time of hope before the disastrous
elections of Nov. 29, 1987, was that these small groups began meeting
with other small groups and the ante was upped to not only the problems
of OUR village, but of our ZONE, our region. That was so dramatic and
earthshattering to the consciousness of the peasants that I was often
sitting there with skin tingling listening the drama of democracy growing
not in talk of intellectuals, but in the lives, dreams and commitments of
ordinary people, changing an entire history of their nation.
This movement has been both growing and retreating since that period in my
view. The movement is now fully open, nation wide and there are thousands of
Ti Legliz and Tet Ansamn groups, Catholic, Protestant and non-sectarian.
There are strong groups, which look like what I used to see in the
birthing days, and weaker groups which are simply platforms for
local leaders to take over the village. There are hard working and honest
groups and less honest groups which seem as much pre-occupied with
attractng foreign money as building the new society they struggled so
hard toward in both Pilat and Pandiassou (my main areas of experience, not
the only places it was happening).
It seems to me the country is in grave crisis over fundamental ideology.
The cities, and especially Port-au-Prince, are mainly business as usual,
and the classic historically normal struggle for power goes on. Aristide
and Preval represent an attempt for this spirit of democracy to go fully
national and move the country in that direction, but much altered as it
became "big time." That has to be and is to be expected. Revolutions
are not made in 10 year flashes.
But something dramatic has been unleashed in Haiti, mainly in the countryside
where thousands of these groups have been born and are struggling for
survival and growth. I don't mean growth in size, I mean growth in the
spirit and practice of democratic living, a way of life that recognizes each
person as having fundamentally equal worth, and that recognizes we are a
society in which working and sacrificing together creates a better life
In this sense then, I would argue that democracy in any meaningful and
hopeful sense was born in Haiti in the mid-1970s, waxed strongly in
the period of the overthrow of Duvalier, and was one of the key forces
in that overthow, and is now quietly surviving in the countryside and
fighting for its life and the future of Haiti.
Within this spirit, I would argue that Haiti needs less "leadership" from
the hierarchies of capital or religion, and more support in theology,
economics and politics for the growth of this form of democracy which is
there, but at a critical stage as to whether is grows or withers away.