JOY IN THE MIDST OF HAITI’S ELECTION

JOY IN THE MIDST OF HAITI’S ELECTION
October, 2015
By Barbara Rhine

 “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.
André Gide

It is 7 AM on Monday October 19th, and I am in Port au Prince on a hastily-planned quick trip. Jet-lagged, I loll in the back seat of our rented van and try to wake up. Traffic here in the capitol of Haiti is a wrangle. Every variety of motor vehicle operates on the city’s streets and roads that alternate between pavement, dirt, stones and ruts. There are few traffic signals, and often no lines for lanes, left-turn or otherwise.

Pedestrians crowd along the edges of the traffic and head across the streets at every angle. Many women and the occasional man manage all this with loads balanced on their heads. Whole enterprises sprawl by the roadsides in the open air.

Women sit close to the dirt to hawk their fruit.

 IMG_4135[3] Fruit Stand in Port au Prince

 Boys are at the ready to charge, fix or sell cell phones. Men find a way to set up to shine and repair shoes.

IMG_4125[1] Street Enterprise in Port au Prince

 School kids in uniforms bound about.

IMG_4171[2] Schoolgirls Gather

The year is 2015, the first time in eleven years that the governing forces have permitted Fanmi Lavalas, the party of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, to run a candidate for President. Our group of four is here for a brief visit less than a week before the presidential election, scheduled for October 25th.   The other three are Pierre, a Haitian activist who lives and works in California; Dave, a retired union official and labor organizer; and Margaret, a radio talk-show host in Los Angeles who also works on international women’s issues. Our hostess at the guest house, where I have a huge room with three bunk beds all to myself, is stuffed in the van’s way back with Margeret. A Lavalas activist, who hosted me on my only previous visit to Haiti, is in the front with the driver.

We have a huge task to accomplish in our short time here. We are to take reports of what happened during the legislative elections held on August 9th, to examine the set-up for the presidential round on October 25th, and to report all this to the press, both in Haiti and back home. There are fifty-four presidential candidates on the ballot. Everywhere there are election signs and billboards, for a bewildering array of parties, candidates and offices.

IMG_4124[1]Jean Bertrand Aristide and Maryse Narcisse for Lavalas

The Lavalas guy and I talk and joke about that previous trip. The 2010 earthquake occurred during our stay, and because this man’s house held up I, my husband and my daughter emerged unhurt and alive.  I remember what it was like that first night, right after the temblor. Afraid of aftershocks, we all slept outside in the courtyard. There were no sirens, no earth-moving equipment, no official rescue operations at all that we saw. But there were women’s voices, singing into the early morning hours. Hymns? African chants? I have no idea, but the simple peaceful melody was a great comfort.

My article on the earthquake in Counterpunch:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/02/04/keep-what-you-have-but-leave-the-rest/

Five years later I am here because Pierre, one of the nicest people I know, has talked me into it. He is concerned that current President Michel Martelly is ushering in a new era of dictatorship that resembles the time of the Tonton Macoute, a special operations unit within the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The name comes from a Haitian bogeyman known to snare unruly children in a gunny sack and carry them off to be eaten for breakfast. If you want to be appalled and entertained simultaneously, pick up a used copy of Graham Greene’s The Comedians, set in Papa Doc’s era. Suffice it to say that it was a time of state-sponsored violence, of the worst order.

Martelly, a known Duvalierist, has stated publicly that he would like to “kill (former President) Aristide and stick a dick up his ass.” (See Jon Lee Anderson’s “Aftershocks” in the New Yorker, February 1, 2016.) The Organization of American States (OAS) and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported him to replace Jude Célestin in the 2011 presidential runoff, which Martelly later “won.”

Really? The Clintons support a guy who talks like this as head of state for a country they claim to respect? So often there is a subtext, an undertone that conveys disparagement of the Haitians, as if they are so “backward,” “undeveloped,” “primitive” that they don’t deserve any better than they get.

As for the situation that has brought us here now, in the recent legislative electoral round held on August 9th apparently there were problems. Lots of them.

My head spins. I lose track of whatever is being said and fall into the daze of watching the ever-shifting panorama outside my window.   A tap-tap, gorgeous with its intricate design of orange, yellow and red, stops right in front of us, in the midst of the traffic.   So many people emerge that it’s like one of those jokes about how many clowns can fit into a telephone booth. At last a tall and slender older women unbends from the side door.

First comes her cane, feeling out the ground.   Next her long limbs unfold. She has on one garment, a plain brown dress that covers her from mid-shin to shoulders. No jewelry or other adornment. She reaches back into the vehicle and pulls out a tall bundle encased in plastic, perhaps a foot in width, improbably curved in the middle, perhaps lessening to about nine inches at the top, perhaps two feet high. This she balances on her head with an unhurried gesture.

At last she walks, using her cane to mediate. No pedestrian lanes, no cuts in a curb in case you need a wheelchair, no curb at all. No driver of course, because no car. Despite her prominent limp she glides to the side of the road in a fluid rhythm. When she arrives at the hodgepodge of dirt and stone, quiet, graceful and serene, very much at ease, she joins the others flowing by. My eyes follow her as she disappears into the crowd.  She seems immersed in a quiet joy.

The city thins out and we are on our way to Les Cayes, a town southeast of Port au Prince on the long arm of the country bordered by the Caribbean Sea.  The driver is trying to catch up with the caravan of Lavalas’s presidential candidate, Dr. Maryse Narcisse. “Lavalas” means “tide” or “wave” or “flood” in Kréyol.

“Fanmi” means “family.” The symbol on the ballot is one of man, woman and child seated at a table. This symbol is key, both because of the plethora of parties and because many in the impoverished electorate cannot read or write.

th-1A Place at the Table for Everyone

We see all this from our van: Garbage—organic, plastic, construction materials, everything—strewn by the side of the road; the sudden appearance of burning garbage right next to the passing vehicles; half-built construction projects now abandoned; others with workers right among everyone else, no hard-hat in sight; streams littered with plastic and who knows what else where women wash the family’s clothes; vehicles spewing black emissions into the air. Little or no infrastructure, no zoning, no safety standards, no way of handling refuse in a healthy manner—there seems to me to be no effective government at all right now in Haiti.

Yet we also experience a beauty during the long drive. Ocean and mountains swing in and out of sight, often both in view at once. The air is warm and soft; the morning contains that fresh human energy that serves as testament to the coming day. Trucks with open backs fill the front window with views of sacks and boxes of goods, women and children inserted in whatever spaces exist on top of and in between.   Once I get over the precariousness of it all, I am enchanted with these interior scenes retreating in front of me. So much life tucked into the small moving spaces.

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View into the Back of a Truck

We chat and joke as we trundle along, alternating between near standstill and a reasonable rate of speed on the open road.  Dave sings us a song he has composed on a previous trip. The refrain is “Hayi-ti, Hayi-ti, time to get rid of the bourgeoisie…” done in a lovely lilting rhythm. We laugh; we make him do it again and again throughout our short stay.

Hayi-ti. Its Swahili origins mean “do not obey.”

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Shirts Proclaim “Do Not Obey” in Kréyol

Pierre, raised in Les Cayes, tells us stories and shows us sites from his youth as we finally arrive in his home town. Over there a church of massive stone. The priest who wouldn’t let his mother take communion when the space between her babies got to be too long.   Up that street Pierre’s elementary school, now gone. Closed down for one particular election day decades ago, as promised by the Tontons Macoutes. Pierre at eight, delighted to play hooky, so he followed instructions and voted for Papa Doc. Eight times.

Hmmm. Not exactly my idea of happy childhood memories.   Yet Pierre’s eyes sparkle and he laughs out loud as he relates them to us.   Happy and relaxed, he seems glad to be home. I tell myself to beware of conclusions that life in Haiti is simply grim.

There is lots of action beside us on the road.

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The People Keep Us Company

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The Kids are Curious About Us

All at once we have caught up with the Lavalas procession.   Traffic slows to a standstill; people mill about outside the vehicles. A handsome smiling face appears in our side window and the guy turns out to be a Lavalas organizer Margaret knows from a past trip. Delighted, she exits our van to join him.

In the next instant we are all out on the street, mixing with the crowd. I try to find the candidate, to gauge the size of the crowd, to see if I can tell whether the cries and exclamations all come from Lavalas supporters, to ascertain whether this is a big enough throng to win an election amidst a zillion other choices, but mostly I just want to be sure I don’t get separated from my posse. I spy one other white face besides mine and Dave’s, a young woman who sashays past in an angled line going down the street in the opposite direction. She looks like I feel, which is a bit disconcerted at being the tiny minority for once. Yet each time I glance about I see someone I know.  I relax, and begin to enjoy myself.

Suddenly a woman in a plain turquoise blouse stands out from the crowd.  Dr. Maryse Narcisse. Lavalas’s candidate. If elected, the first freely-elected woman President in Haitian history.

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Smiling and at ease, she presses the hands of those around her, including mine, and hugs people, including me. Her gaze is direct; her touch is gentle. She is amazingly accessible despite the men around her for security.  The women seem especially enthusiastic as they reach for her, and she for them.  Many times throughout this day I spy her in the midst of crowds like this. Intuitively, I trust her.

Eventually we are back in our van, trailing along at the end of the convoy. Margaret’s friend is now with us, and we are four in the middle seat. After a half-hearted offer to be squashed in the way back, instead I am squished toward a central console.  Our Lavalas companion hands out business cards with the Fanmi Lavalas logo from the front seat, to people at the side of the road.  Often we hear questions called out about “Pe Titid,” or “the little priest,” as Aristide is affectionately named in Kréyol.

Business cards? Could there be a more useless item in an economy where money and food are so scarce that there is a slogan to match vote-buying efforts? “Take the banana, eat the banana, then do what you want,” it is said. In other words, accept their bribes if you are in need, and you will be in need, that’s for sure. Then vote for your true choice.

(The only trouble is that the next day we are told that this time around, the vote buyers are insistent. They escort their marks up to the polling place and watch them cast their votes. So much for the secret ballot.)

So. In and out of the car for the rest of the afternoon. Once in a whole neighborhood dedicated to automobile repair and body work, everything out in the open. Once in a place with a raised stage, which Maryse mounts and descends without giving a speech. Once in a place where a huge truck with a rival candidate and a loud band rolls down the center of the crowded road, with us off to the side. Once to use a much-needed restroom inside a police station where the cops were friendly. Ah, the joy in finding myself in that clean-enough latrine!

Oh yes, the police. The convoys of soldiers in camouflage gear, jeeps bristling with guns, signs on the side that identify the United Nations occupying force known as MINUSTAH.

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MINUSTAH in Haiti–do they look like the Haitians?

The uniformed officers who stop us at road blocks twice, once during daylight and once at night, for no obvious reason but to check the driver’s identification and wave us on.

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Roadblock!

Indeed, the police in all their manifestations appear well-equipped, efficient, functional, unlike the rest of government, which is invisible.

The first of two election workers from the slum outside Port au Prince called Cité Soleil comes into the vehicle to perch on our console and give his report. This tough and wiry guy takes us back to 1804 in his preamble, which, as so often in Haiti, begins with an account of the only successful slave rebellion in history. Per Pierre, this is typical of the knowledge transmitted from parent to child at the evening meal in ordinary homes. This Lavalas worker probably cannot read or write, but he understands more about his country’s history than many of our college graduates. These folks know what they are about. They may be illiterate but they are not dumb. They want a seat at the larger table. Fanmi Lavalas.

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Lavalas Supporter

The next thing our guest wants to relay is not about August 9th, but about what had happened when Dr. Narcisse toured Cité Soleil a few days before now. He tells us that officers armed with machetes from the Brigade of Operational and Departmental Intervention (BOID), a state-sponsored official elite police force, killed twenty people in one part of Cité de Soleil after Dr. Narcisse left, including two pregnant women.  Fourteen more died in a similar fashion in another section (named by others the following day as Wharf Jerémie).

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BOID Troops in Haiti

Eventually we do talk about the August 9th election.  That was a Sunday, and by the time the elderly people got out of church it was impossible to vote. Some polls were destroyed, or simply closed down.  At other locations they told the people who came to vote that they had registered elsewhere.  Sometimes the ballot boxes were just stolen outright.   So our witness informs us that now there is a new plan for October 25th, also a Sunday. On Saturday night no one will go to bed at all. Instead the people will troop out to the polling places and be there, ready to vote, the minute the polls open.

As Haitians seem wont to do, he invokes a saying: “Saturday will let you know if your Sunday will be beautiful.” Everyone laughs. Haitian or American, poor or middle class, black or white—from our own experience we can all dredge up examples of what that means.

One of us asks how our friend from Cité Soleil feels about a woman being elected to the Presidency. His reply?

“It is time for our President to be a woman. A woman can use 100 gourdes to feed her family one night, and still have some left over the following morning to start a small business.”

Just before this he had been telling us that in Cité Soleil people have been hungry during this time of a terrible economy. “Starvation” was the word translated, as in “there has been much starvation.” 100 gourdes is the equivalent of about $1.70. So a lot of folks don’t even have the $1.70 it takes to feed a family its dinner.

Yet what he has said is funny. To everyone, even to him. We are at the stage of cackles, chortles, guffaws.

Joy infused with sorrow? Sorrow laced with joy? Whatever. Exuberance reigns.

Late afternoon has turned toward evening. Young people dance to a boom box on the side to our right. Behind them are posters that advertise the tourist sector, with Haitian females decked out in tight skimpy clothes that emphasize wide hips and big behinds. Yet I have seen no women in the street actually dressed this way; these women, for example, are enjoying themselves in outfits that are plain, and practical. There it is—that undertone of disrespect for the people.

I have no idea where we are, but Dr. Narcisse is said to be on her way to Jacmel, a city way further up the road, where she means to spend the night. Our plan is to return to our guest house, which already will take us quite a few hours. With the heavy traffic it’s unclear whether or not we are still in the convoy, but we haven’t turned around yet.

Margaret says later that she saw it coming—that a man on a red motorcycle was right beside our vehicle for too long, staring into the van with too much intensity. In any event, suddenly our driver takes a sharp turn and speeds off through side streets. As we careen along, the face of a man clinging to our SUV’s roof appears upside down in the window across from me. Other men run along on both sides, yelling and banging on the van whenever traffic forces us to slow down, or when it seems that we don’t seem to know where to go.

I am afraid.  Shouldn’t we offer them money, I ask? Pierre explains quietly. The demand would be endless; everyone out there is hungry; if you give in to one person, it only gets worse. The other two Haitian men in the van, stoic, nod in agreement. I hide my purse under the seat and hold on tight.

We stop at one point, and Margaret’s Haitian friend gets out from the front passenger side, steps back toward the crowd and yells directly in the faces of those accosting us. Whatever he says in Kréyol has an effect, because the group backs off for a second. Enough time for him to hop back in, the driver to take off, and the chase to begin again.

Now it seems that the guy clinging to our roof—the same one from the beginning—is on our side, and guiding us to safety out of the maze of streets. Maybe we have even given him money for this, but if so, I have no idea of when or how that happened.

Finally, after what seems like an hour, but is probably no more than ten minutes, we pull into a gas station. Shell, I believe. There a man stands with an enormous gun, and all at once, everyone else is gone, including our friend on the top.

Joy? Are you kidding me? But there is an immediate flood of it, contained in the supreme relief of feeling safe. I claim to hate guns, to despise male-enforced violence, and trust me, I am not going to change my mind on this. Thus my joy here violates my own principles, to the point where it makes me laugh out loud as I imagine how I will describe this if and when I ever get back home.

In the meantime, down the darkened walkway in the back it is said that there is a bathroom. I use my cell phone flashlight to find it. Relief. No toilet paper but lo, the experienced traveler is supremely prepared. Back up the path there is a dimly lit patio, a bar that appears to offer beer and wine at least. And food, as it turns out, from a kitchen within.  We decide to settle in, to eat and drink. The nervous system calms a bit.

The beer refreshes. The food is truly delicious. The whole thing for the eight of us, including the driver, costs about thirty-five bucks, so it is easy to be generous and pay. Ah yes, that lovely exchange rate, so beneficial for foreigners. Satisfaction. Another form of joy.

After all that, the long long drive home is almost relaxing. To my relief my final offer to squeeze into the back is turned down yet again, and once more I am in the middle, pushed to the very edge of the seat. I stretch a stiff knee onto the console and settle in to watch the road. Late at night the trucks are larger, their backs still open, the space inside a couple of stories high. Again there are human beings nestled in among the stacks of goods—this time exclusively men and boys.

Margaret asks if we want music.  What a notion!  Pierre requests “The House With The Rising Sun,” by some group I never heard of. She punches it into her phone, buys it on the spot and miraculously we are listening to the song he has asked for.

I am the type who cannot stop talking about the chase. The Haitian men chuckle, and one comments that in Haiti it’s best not even to show excitement, let alone fear. Again the explanation of the level of extreme need out there. They act as if this kind of occurrence is common, normal, just part of how things are.

Whole areas go by with no electric lights, just faint kerosene glows from inside some of the homes.  We are happy.

When we finally get back to Port au Prince, as we drop each companion off he rings or knocks at a closed gate in a high wall, and we wait to see that he gets in all right. It is 3 AM when at last we pull into our own guest house’s courtyard. The hostess’s husband answers the front door at once. Happy and relieved, he takes his wife’s hand and leads us all inside. “Home” and in bed at last, I surprise myself, and sleep.

The next day by noon we are at Lavalas headquarters in Port au Prince, listening to more stories. The coordinator in Archaie, a department of the country that includes the mountains north of Port au Prince and the historic city of Fond Baptiste, describes in detail how during the prelude to August 9th BOID members, dressed in blue and sometimes masked, chased people, burned twenty of their motor bikes, broke into their stands, stole their cash, “disappeared” individuals, wounded two in a popular demonstration the day before the election (who later died and were buried in the woods) gassed a little kid who happened to be on the way to school (who also died later).  On and on. Out of fourteen voting centers Archaie, only four actually functioned through election day.

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BOID–the new Tonton Macoute

A Port au Prince mayoral candidate says of the neighborhood of Bellaire on August 9th—“call it anything, but not an election. “ He repeats what has become a familiar refrain: Armed members of BOID, with the complicity of local police, destroyed ballots to make sure votes weren’t counted in Lavalas strongholds. The mayor of Bellaire himself tells us that people with guns destroyed whole voting centers there.

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Various Formations of BOID

The tales proliferate. People with guns tore down Lavalas posters. Lavalas workers were physically attacked as they tried to educate people about the mechanism of casting a vote. Accounts of open vote-buying; sending registered voters from place to place to search for their names on an ephemeral list, with no provision for casting a provisional ballot; confusion re who among the multitude of parties was allowed to have observers at a particular polling place and time.

And destruction of ballot-boxes in a planned and determined fashion that takes a while to explain. Apparently the polling places often had several spots for casting votes at each location. A particular spot was to tally 450 votes, and then to close down. But after one party (hmm, I wonder which one that might be…) got 200, all those votes were sometimes thrown out, and no more allowed to be cast.

A spokesman for a grassroots organization points out that at the last Presidential election, when Lavalas was not allowed to participate, 300,000 chose the President out of 4,700,000 eligible to vote. These tactics all seem designed to cause “low voter turnout,” so beware when the phrase is used to describe a Haitian election, I instruct myself. Yet another example of that disrespect for the Haitian people.

Another guy describes BOID as worse than the Tonton Macoute. Difficult to imagine, but maybe true?

No joy in these stories. None.

But the folks who have gathered around a huge table to tell us all this are working on an election after all, and they have been talking with us for a couple of hours by now, so they have to get back to it.

As for us, we schedule a press conference for the next morning. And despite computer glitches, cell phones that don’t work and last-minute requests for money to help with transportation and equipment, the word does get out, and quite a few press people actually show up.   Reporters drift in throughout the allotted two hours. Some are young women; some take photos; some record videos; all listen intently as we begin again, over and over, to accommodate the new arrivals. We are exhausted. We have a plane to catch.

Given that everything takes longer than expected, I am dismayed to find that an unexpected final meeting is being inserted into our schedule. This time with port workers. They are right on the way to the airport, Pierre assures me. A crowd gathers around us when we arrive. Young and old, the work has taken its toll on everyone’s bodies. There is no shelter from the brutal sun while they wait for their assignments, the people tell us. And in fact I am, sweating. And we have no water to drink during the work day, they add.

Our group has no answer for this. And except for the fact that if Lavalas came to power it would be with the goal of changing the system that works to keep people this poor, the meeting has no direct connection to the election. I dream of us raising money when we get home, just for this one thing. I say it to Pierre, who humors me.

We are told that it matters to people to have an account of their suffering heard by the outside world. Will this relieve a bit of the pain of the port workers’ hard lives? And if so, can that relief be called joy?

Eventually we arrive at the place to turn in the rental van, which takes forever, to wait through three separate security lines at the airport, which takes forever, to purchase duty-free Haitian Barbencourt rum, which takes forever, and to find ourselves on the bubble of privilege called an airplane.

Joy in the cessation of things to do, joy in the peace high up in the air, joy in the snack provided for the short flight. Joy even in missing a connection in Fort Lauderdale, since the airline has to pay for a hotel and food. Joy in a gin and tonic, in a seafood plate so large I waste most of it. Joy in finally getting home. Joy in drinking the Barbancourt later with family and friends. Joy in the resumption of my so-much-easier life.

And the election?

Predictably, October 25th is a giant mess. For days there is no news at all of the results, and when it does come, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) publishes figures that conclude that Dr. Narcisse from Lavalas got 7.05% of the vote.

7.05%?? Why ban a party for ten years if its level of support is that pathetic? I might have wondered if the report was 43.2%, or even 36.5%. But 7.05%? No. I don’t believe that.

Martelly’s choice, Jovenal Moïse, is declared the winner. No surprise there. Jude Célestin is announced as second in a runoff scheduled for December 29th. He has been through this before, remember? He declares that the whole process is fraudulent and refuses to participate in any runoff.

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The People Protest The Election Results

Mass demonstrations in the streets force the cancellation of the December 29th runoff, and then of two more runoffs scheduled in January, 2016.

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People in the Streets!

On February 7th, 2016, Michel Martelly, his term up, leaves his office under pressure. An agreement has been reached which provides for an interim “President,” chosen by the legislature that was “elected” on August 9th. In a meeting that lasts all night, the legislature chooses a guy named Jocelerme Privert for the interim period. Privert, needless to say a controversial pick, is the first Haitian President in history to be selected by a legislative body. The plan is for him to serve for up to 120 days, during which an election of some sort will be held on April 24th, with the final head of state to be installed on May 14th.

Six of the CEP’s nine members have resigned.

Lavalas is formally contesting the October 25th election, and will settle for nothing less than starting over, with a process that is fair from the beginning, to elect a President for Haiti.

Maryse Narcisse

 

Maryse Narcisse Among Her Lavalas Supporters

I find it difficult to end this piece. When I think of Haiti I wince. The sadness there makes people turn away. I want to turn away. And I don’t want to squeeze the material for a phony optimism.

But then I remember the Cité Soleil organizer’s determined narrative that begin in 1804, with the victory of the world’s one and only successful slave rebellion. If this guy can laugh about how a woman has to squeeze the worthless Haitian gourde to feed her family, then I can laugh too.

If Pierre can be so happy to return to the city of his youth, then I can look at the scenes passing by our van’s window with curiosity instead of disapproval.

If our calm Haitian friends can attribute the attempted shakedown to the people’s desperate need instead of depravity, then I can be courageous and compassionate as well.

If the Haitian people can find meaning in all this hardship through their resilience and determination, their refusal to endure the terms of modern economic slavery, then from my luxurious first world perch, well, so can I.

If the elderly woman who got out of the fabulous gaudy tap-tap can move with grace and dignity among her fellow citizens, then surely I can take her as my model. I can make my way through remembering this experience on the page not with despair, not plagued by fear, but with joy.

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This entry was posted on February 25, 2016. 8 Comments

SEE THE MOVIE CESAR CHAVEZ . . .

Author as UFW Attorney, 1973-75

… and catch it on the big screen if you can.  Or Netflix.  Wherever.  This film is worth your effort.

There are clips of old newsreels that are fascinating in themselves, but it’s the made-up scenes that linger.

The stunning visuals evoke California’s San Joaquin Valley from decades ago.  Claptrap cars negotiate the perimeters of the fields on narrow semi-deserted pavements , where the viewer sees, between the rows, farm workers caked with dirt, scabbed and scratched, working.  Their children at their sides, working.  Everyone  almost hidden by the vines, working and scared to stop or talk with Cesar Chavez and his henchwoman Dolores Huerta, yet compelled to do so by the truth of what they are saying.

Cesar is quiet and compelling; his brother Richard a constant companion; his wife Helen a no-nonsense woman, whether on the home front or getting arrested; and Dolores a combination of effectiveness and arresting beauty.  John Malkovich as Bogdanivich provides a complex portrait of a Delano grower, an immigrant himself, but opposed to the UFW.

In one scene Bogdanovich brings cold water to the fields as a favor for the workers when he wants to turn them against Cesar.  Water during hard long hours under the scorching sun as a favor, not a right.

A mimeograph machine churns out leaflets, after a typewriter is used for the text.  UFW volunteers use pen and paper to help barely-literate workers apply through the credit union for loans. The growers’ wives, in their only substantive scene–like the segregationist white women of the Jim Crow South–manage to feel affronted when those with a different skin color simply gather.

Without the F(eminist) word being uttered, director Diego Luna demonstrates the seepage of cultural changes being wrought by the Sixties.  In Cesar’s life, his co-organizer Dolores, and at times his own wife Helen, call about as many shots as he does.

But the growers?  Even when, angry and frustrated, they slam doors in their wives’ faces, the women do their bidding.  Most compelling is the Mexican maid in Bogdanivich’s household, treated alternatively as invisible and a confidante.

In other words, women in the movement for social change were getting uppity, but the transformation had not yet spread to conventional white culture.  (And has it yet?)

Eventually the struggle moves away from the fields, to the grape boycott in the cities and overseas, where labor unity means the longshoremen won’t unload the boxes and leave the fruit to rot, forcing the growers–despite Reagan’s and Nixon’s support– finally to bargain and sign union contracts that benefit farm workers for the first time in American history.  All true.  All well done.

Yet the movie does have its inaccuracies and omissions.

Jack Holmes, who  plays Bobby Kennedy,  is a dead look-alike.  But Mark Moses, who plays Cesar’s mentor Fred Ross, actually looks more like Jerry Cohen than the guy who plays him.  That would be Wes Bentley, who does a hippy-dippy version that does not correspond to the UFW’s lead attorney in his youth.  (Full disclosure–Cohen was my boss when I was a UFW staff attorney from 1973-75)

Okay.  So verisimilitude in detail is most important to those like myself, with visceral memories of the UFW scene.

But Fred Ross should have been portrayed as the lifelong mentor he was for Cesar, instead of a petulant complainer in his one main scene.  And Jerry Cohen would have been more accurate as a colleague who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Cesar to match legal strategy to what was happening in the fields.

Other examples:

Dolores Huerta coined the Si Se Puede battle cry, not Cesar Chavez.

The first grape grower to sign with the UFW was Lionel Steinberg, a Jew from Coachella, who did it early on.

As for Chavez himself, yes he was dedicated, yes he was serious, yes he fasted for nonviolence.  But what his portrayal lacked was that sly sense of mischievous humor that Cesar had during his rise and at the height of his influence.

After all, here was a man whom everyone in the UFW movement–even those who hadn’t yet met him–called by his first name.  You wanted to hug him when you finally saw him face-to-face.  He made you feel as if he was your best friend.

Until, that is, he took a stand.  One that made you work your ass off.  One  that demonstrated nerves made of steel.

Finallly, the movie could have done so much more to convey the breadth and diversity of the UFW movement, which went far beyond the community of Mexican farm workers.

A careful viewer could glean the fact that the Filipinos initiated the 1965 strike, but nothing in the film indicated that their leader, Larry Itliong, had spent years organizing against brutal conditions that included a legal prohibition against Filipino workers either bringing their families to America or marrying non-Filipinos once here.  Consequently, the guys roomed together, and ultimately retired at Agbayani Village in what used to be UFW headquarters at Forty Acres near Delano, ,CA.

(The hordes of volunteers that came out from urban areas to work for the UFW movement knew these older men best for the delicious food they set out for whoever showed up.)

And where was Mack Lyons, organizer par extraordinaire of Florida citrus workers and a member of Cesar’s inner circle who happened to be black?

Ben Maddock, the Okie white guy organizer?

Marshall Ganz, the Jewish city guy organizer?

Philip Vera Cruz, the Filipino member of the Executive Board?

Of course you can’t include everyone.  But none of the film’s scenes, including the aerial survey of a crowd said to be 10,000 strong, captured the diversity of the Movement that sprang up in response to the UFW cry for justice for farm workers.  Anti-war activists, civil rights veterans, city religious congregations, union locals, counter-culture rebels, city Chicano groups, Brown Berets, Black Panthers, Gray Panthers–the list goes on.

Just one song could have made the point:

Trabajadores campesinos,

A luchar con valór y con tessón,

Sin dar pasos por detrás todos unidos,

¡A luchar en contra del patrón!

Trabajadores campesinos,

Americanos de colór,

Portugués, Arabés y Filipinos,

Todos son de igual valór.

Chorus: 

Viva la causa por cual luchamos,

¡Viva la huelga in el fil!

Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe

¡Viva nuestra Union!

The movie’s ending with the historic collective bargaining agreement of 1967 is totally legit as far as I’m concerned, even if eventually, as Nathan Heller’s April 14, 2014, New Yorker article tells us, Cesar Chavez eventually turned inward to destructive effect.

But a lot more happened after the movie and before the implosion.

By 1970 the UFW got grape growers to accept union contracts and effectively organized most of that industry, claiming 50,000 dues- paying members.

In 1972 the UFW was finally accepted as a full member of the AFL-CIO.

In 1973 sweetheart deals between the growers and the Teamsters Union triggered a series of strikes that started in Coachella and rolled up California’s San Joaquin Valley . The AFL-CIO pledged full support and sent millions of dollars in aid. The Teamsters responded with crews of bikers and toughs hired to intimidate and attack strikers. Thousands of farm workers and supporters were jailed, and finally, two UFW strikers were killed on the picket line. This was the largest agricultural strike in California history.

1973-75 saw the international boycott against Gallo, at the time the biggest winery in the world.

And at long last, in 1975, due to the UFW’s sway in labor circles and in Sacramento, the California legislature enacted a framework for the farm workers’ right to organize into unions with basic protections like hiring halls and seniority rights.

Here is a list of the gains for those who work today in California’s fields, due to the effort of Cesar Chavez and his dedicated followers:

Unemployment benefits

Work breaks

Toilets in the fields

Fresh water in the fields

Social security benefits

The Agricultural Labor Relations Act

So, yes, to paraphrase the song:

The workers struggled, with valor and with strength, against the boss.

The people who joined the Mexicans included the Portuguese,  the Arabs, the Filipinos, and Americans of color.

Many put their faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe, to protect the poor.

Long live the cause for which we fight!

Long live the strike in the fields!

Long live our Union!

AND ¡Que viva Cesar Chavez!

Without him none of this would have happened.

Author Discusses Legal Rights with Farm Worker Audience

Author Discusses Legal Rights with Farm Worker Audience

 

 

Havana Racism …

 

Flag of Cuba

La Bandera Cubana de mi Yerno Cubano

 

…contained in Havana Red, by Leonardo Padura.  Padura is a contemporary Cuban author whose writing has not been censored, and who has never been punished by the government.  His work includes a quartet of mysteries that features a cop named Mario Conde.  Each book is set in one of the four seasons.  Havana Red, written in 1994 and translated in 2008, is the one set  in summer.

The story takes on the difficult subject matter of transvestites and homosexuality, clearly viewed as daring by the author, but it was so abstruse and poorly written that I literally stopped reading pages before the end because I was bored.  Okay, okay.  To each their own.  One reader’s boredom is another reader’s depth.

But Padura’s worst sin, by far, is the casual racism thrown into his prose.

To wit, on Page Ten:

“The men agreed to give up their seats: one was huge, fair-haired, a good six feet tall with long, dangling arms, a face as cratered as the moon’s surface; the other was smaller, his skin so black it was blue, and he just had to be a direct grandson and universal heir to Cro-Magnon man himself: Darwin’s theory of evolution was reflected in the exaggerated jutting of his jaw and the narrow forehead where the eyes of a wild beast of the jungle glinted yellow.”
(
emphasis added)

Another example (I didn’t get the page, and already took the book back to the library, but it doesn’t matter where this is in the text):

“The black woman looked back at the staircase and the Count felt that anonymous sensation for which a girlfriend of his, for want of a better word, had invented the term liporis: embarrassment at somebody making a spectacle of themselves. That(black) woman, in the year 1989, still harboured the atavistic instinct of deference: she was a servant and, what was worse, thought like a servant, wrapped perhaps in the invisible but tightly clinging veils of genetics moulded by numerous enslaved, repressed generations. ” (emphasis added)

This is the kind of bullshit American white people used to express outright, without shame, during my youth.  But in 1994??  Fidel called racism officially dead shortly after he took power in 1959.  As if he could simply eliminate it by declaring it so.  As if anyone has that kind of power over longstanding internal habits of thought and conduct.   As if the ranks of Cuba’s Communist Party aren’t disproportionately light-skinned, as if the hard work of eliminating internal racism were complete, as if as if…but still!!

Fidel (and now Raul)–you will censor articles that criticize the Party; you will deny your youth full access to the Internet.  But Padura is okay with you??

Now Padura has written The Man Who Loved Dogs (2009, translated by Anna Kushner in 2014), said to be an epic novel that deconstructs Trotsky’s murder by Stalin.  It includes the voice of a frustrated Cuban writer who discovers the truth about this historical event during the time of “programmed ignorance,” for Cuban citizens, including the intelligentsia–which, now that I think of it, means there is no real intelligentsia.

So this sounds intriguing.  But as a white American who grew up in the fifties, who agonized daily about how to respond to overtly racist comments (see prior blog post), who decided long ago to do her best never to let other white people get away with this crap unnoticed?  Eh–I think I’ll skip it.

Good luck to you, Padura.  I admire your persistence.  But look around you.  Consider the nature of this (still) white-dominated world.  Next look inside.  And don’t write this way again about black people.  Period.

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted on June 22, 2014. 2 Comments

A reading odyssey–How words can take you down, then bring you up again…

Interracial (Married) Couple in America

Interracial (Married) Couple in America

Ever been behind on your New Yorkers?  I race through to catch up.  First I find “By Fire,” by Tahar Ben Jelloun.  This brief tale brings a transparent clarity to the Arab Spring.

Fiction can be a short cut–often more meaningful than a compilation of facts– to grok (understand profoundly through intuition or empathy, per the urban dictionary) the political subtleties of our world.

But I can’t quite abandon “reality,” so next I peruse “The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture,” by Sarah Stillman.  No  neophyte when it comes to police abuse in America, yet I was shocked!    The police can and do stop cars driven by the poor, the black, the brown, to check for drugs, laundered money, paraphernalia, whatever.  Next, EVEN WITHOUT ENOUGH EVIDENCE TO CHARGE A CRIME, the cops seize any money they find.  With no set procedure for the owner to get it back, the booty ends up financing–guess what?–the police department that stole it!  What a cozy little arrangement…

Yes, there are lawyers fighting this, and yes, some of the victims overcome their fear of the police and become plaintiffs, and yes, maybe one day, with enough publicity, this will stop.  But right now the only state in America that does not permit this is?  North Carolina, of all places.

Hmmm.  Isn’t this the American equivalent of the cruel police corruption described in “By Fire,” which I had confined in my mind to the terrible oppressed backward hopeless mean divided crazy religious fundamentalist Arab world?

I turn back to my beloved fiction and pick up Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.  The first third seems to be a straightforward sorta boring hero story about Hurricane Katrina.  And it doesn’t even mention the African-American poor people who waited for food and water on rooftops for days  while Bush and Brownie dithered.   But suddenly Zeitoun becomes a tale wherein our Syrian guy-who-can-get-anything-done is wrestled to the ground, taken captive, and held incommunicado for days in a makeshift jail built with prison labor.

The only good thing about this place is that it that has water and port-o-potties.  Of course the Super Dome, just down the road where all the people who had to flee the storm are holed up, lacks both.   A well-told tale that  makes me  PISSED at these stupid cops, so lost in their own racist fear that they can’t act on behalf of the whole community at risk

Since I’m addicted to the print newspaper, I am also reading about men, women, and children tortured and gassed in Syria, not to mention weirdo crimes all around me in my very own urban area.  And I am getting seriously depressed.

So what brings me out of all this?  Another novel, of course:  My Son’s Story, by Nadine Gordimer.

I thought I had already taken in Gordimer’s best work, yet here was a book I had missed, published in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.

Gordimer is an acquired taste.  Her sentences can be clunky, and the woman uses dashes instead of quotation marks, for chrissakes.  But I have long acquired that taste, due to her knowing depictions of the anti-apartheid struggle as it ripples  through her characters’ lives.

The book is about the consequences of a a (married black) patriarch’s  (interracial) adultery for a family increasingly caught up in the Movement.  The son catches the illicit pair out in public on the first page, and becomes complicit because his father needs someone to know how to find him in an emergency.  Though never discussed, the love affair–a bond between political comrades, intellectual equals who understand each other very well–works its way into every part of the family’s fabric.  It has the greatest effect on the very proper wife, who emerges from the constraints of her marriage into the dangers of politics.

Tears well up as I subject my husband to long quotes about the Movement.  Why my emotional reaction?  I could have been that white woman if I had been from South Africa.  My husband–African American and a community leader–could have been the man.  And the Movement would have demanded every available sacrifice,  carved us down, then left us behind as the country emerged into the not-every-problem-solved-by-any-means place it is today.

Gordimer shows the Movement up close.  Its demonstrations, its engagement of ordinary people the powers-that-be never suspected, its sheer determination, its ultimate victory by force of numbers.

The world is such a painful place.  Good fiction about politics can explicate that pain, open it up, lance it, and begin the healing.  Nothing easy or simple, of course, or the fiction would not be good.   But when it works, it helps me to understand, and then?  Move forward.

What other antidote is there to authoritarian violence, except the people rising together with the courage to sacrifice, to say no?   When I finished My Son’s Story I felt renewed, ready to wrestle with the powers-that-be, all over again.

This entry was posted on January 20, 2014. 6 Comments

The Immigrant Experience, inside and out…

Recent Immigrant With His Family

Recent Immigrant With His Family

To experience the fabric of a particular immigrant’s life,  try The Walking, by Laleh Khadivi.  You can read it in an afternoon.  A Kurdish man chooses  to leave Iran after he is forced to participate in a massacre of his own people.  He saw a couple of movies with his mom, so he wants to go to Los Angeles.

Next, if the zany American politics on the immigration issue intrigue you, pick up Kind of Kin, by Rilla Askew.  This book takes longer, and it will entertain you more. A coiffed, clever and amoral Michelle Bachman figure has introduced anti-immigrant legislation in Oklahoma.

First, the Kurdish man walks out of Iran, and into Turkey.

In an Oklahoma small town a white grandfather gets arrested on his ranch for harboring illegals.  One old Mexican guy hides, though, and evades the bust.

Then he walks across Turkey, to the coast of the Aegean sea.

Recently widowed, the Mexican “illegal” wants to reach the only family he has left–his sons who are working in another town, and have promised to take care of him.

The Kurdish man manages to get on a cargo airplane, and when it lands, he runs, then walks, through the desolate warehouse districts that surround LAX.

A grandson–just a kid–returns to the ranch to look for his mother’s grave.

The Kurdish man walks all the way to the ocean.  He sleeps there.  He hasn’t bathed or eaten in days.

Since the mom died, this little guy has been placed with an aunt and her mean little kid who’s a carbon copy of his mean old dad, who in turn mimics the truly mean bully of a local sheriff.

The Kurd trudges through endless LA suburbs.  A Spanish-speaking guy gives him a meal or two.  He even gets to see a movie.

The Oklahoma kid’s older sister has herself married an illegal, who’s been deported, but sneaks back across the border.  Many plot twists and turns, which disclosure would ruin.

Walking, walking, walking, eventually the immigrant finds the Iranian community where a rug merchant speaks his language and gives him a job.  He even meets a girl.

In Oklahoma, the kid and the old Mexican guy take off walking, but the child gets sick.  The book culminates with an American standoff between the sheriff and a meek clergyman, who surprises everyone, especially himself.

Yet there are no simple endings.  In California the walking does not stop.  In Oklahoma justice is not fully served.

Dislocation is the operative word.  Read these books and you will understand quite a bit more of what that actually feels like.

Haiti in Fiction and Fact

This from Che, of course:

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

Haitian Embroidery

Haitian Embroidery

Ben Fountain does not even mention the famous quote in his wonderful short-story collection, Brief Encounters with Che GuevaraYet each well-wrought tale–and many are about Haiti–explores the love that guides the personal revolutionary act.  And whenever someone acts, whether Haitian or foreign,  in a country so on the edge, there is risk.  So the stories have tension.

First comes “Reve Haitien,” with its haunting inner-city dokte fey, “a kind of roving leaf doctor and cut-rate houngan who happened to have a grounding in Western medical science.”  This guy imposes a dangerous task on our do-gooder American narrator, who so loves him and his country that he willingly takes it on.  By the end, the reader has explored what is at the heart of Haitian art.

Next there ‘s  “Bouki and the Cocaine,” which, believe it or not, manages a loving tribute to the Haitian voodoo tradition in the context of the drug trade and its many temptations.  By the end, the reader has learned about family life, economics and religion in a small Haitian town.

After this, we have  “The Good Ones Are Already Taken,” about a white American couple dealing with the fact that the soldier husband, recently returned from Haiti, is possessed by a voodoo goddess.  By the end, the reader understands a whole lot about  both the marriage in question and how Erzulie kicks ass.

And finally the title story.  Che Guevara haunts the life of a spectral guy in Port au Prince, one of Che’s comrades-in-arms back in the day.  After Che the Haitian was almost elected Senator in the midst of Duvalier’s brutality because he called on Haitians to dance.  Dance instead of fight.  Dance.  By the end, the reader has met many who are forever haunted by Che.

Fountain’s beautifully-wrought stories about Haiti humanize people often depicted only as pitiful victims.  Each narrative insists –without slogans–that respect for the poor, their needs and their religion, are the primary imperatives.  Exquisite fiction focused on social justice.  For this lover of both social activism and literature?  Died and gone to heaven!

Detail from a Haitian Painting

Detail from a Haitian Painting

Quiet as is kept, though, some prefer non-fiction.  For those interested in Haiti today, try  Paul Farmer‘s Haiti After the Earthquake.   Farmer–founder of Partners in Health with a lifelong commitment to FREE health care for all–lost friends and family (he is married to a Haitian woman) in the quake.  He  has toiled mightily in its wake to “build back better.”

His book is easy reading and offers a wealth of detail about the tragedy three years ago overlaid on the ongoing catastrophe that is the domination of the Haitian people by foreigners of all stripes.  His underlying thesis, though, is thrilling in its simplicity:

The NGO’s (10,000 and counting, just on  Haiti’s half of the island) need to be put to work for an effective central government or asked to leave the country.  Every project in Haiti must employ Haitian people in jobs with a living wage.  The functions of central government–clean water, effective sewage, sufficient food, adequate shelter, medical care–are essential and can be done by no other entity.

Who could argue?  And yet, people do, of course, when it comes to Haiti.

In both Fountain and Farmer, Jean Bertrand Aristide peeks out at the reader.  The former President has returned to his country at last, years after the 2004 American-aided coup, and lives with his family in Port Au Prince, funding and running UNIFA, a medical school for Haitian doctors and nurses.

Farmer understands the ordinary Haitians’ love for Aristide.  He has described how the people prepared for the President’s first inauguration in The Uses of Haiti, p. 162:

…Haiti bustled with people sweeping, shoveling, scraping, painting.  Neighborhood associations entered into friendly contests to see which area would be the most  well-decorated.  In Port-au-Prince, every square inch of road front was festooned in ribbons, flags, flowers, and palm branches.  Plastic soft-drink bottles, which had previously littered the entire republic, were painted red and blue and hung across the streets like Chinese lanterns.  Narrative murals, all of them political, covered the walls of the city.  The ditches lining the major roads leading to the capital had become veritable works of art:  cleaned of all debris, flattened and raked, they were then used as tableaux on which to write, with pastel-colored or white pebbles, a host of messages.  Most were for Aristide—“Titid, We Love You,” “Aristide, the Country is Behind You,” “Titid, Liberate Haiti”—but others were directed at the macoutes.  “The Rooster Pecks at the Guinea Flow,” was one popular phrase, usually accompanied by an image of Aristide’s mascot triumphing over that of Papa Doc.

Furthermore, Farmer knows that the coups that deposed Aristide not once, but twice, are part of the nefarious history of American/French/Canadian outside interference in what should be Haitian internal affairs, including outright Yankee occupation from 1915 to 1934.

BUT even Farmer tiptoes around an essential current issue:

Fanmi Lavalas, the “once-revered name of President Aristide’s party,”  (“Bouki and the Cocaine,”  p. 128)  is BARRED/FORBIDDEN/VERBOTEN  from participating in Haitian elections!  This would be like saying that the Democrats, or the Republicans, or both together, can’t participate in a U.S. election!!  And an election has just been postponed indefinitely, in fact,  after scads of people accompanied Aristide’s entourage through the streets when he was called into court.  That outpouring, that flooding of the masses into the streets, is Lavalas, which means “Wave” in Haitian Kreyol.

So yes, read about Haiti.  But also, when a chance comes along to add your name to something that says allow Lavalas to participate in the political life of the country, do it.

May the Haitian people–the ones on the ground– forge their own fate one day soon.  The ones who have to sleep on the ground.  The ones buried in the ground all too early.  The ones who are ground under the heels of the Haitian elite and the neocolonialists.  Those ones.  The ones on the ground.

This entry was posted on July 21, 2013. 2 Comments

You left-wing pinko rebels who question the established order…

Arrests at Facebook Shareholders' Meeting to Protest against Keystone Pipeline

Arrests at Facebook Shareholders’ Meeting to Protest against Keystone Pipeline

HERE IS A MOVIE, STILL IN THE THEATERS, FOR YOU!

The East, which refers to the name of an anarchist collective whose members work to insure that various corporate wrongdoers experience the effects of their damage in the most direct ways possible.  As in having THEIR OWN MANSIONS DAMAGED by the oil they don’t mind spilling into humanity’s waterways; THEIR OWN STOMACHS INGEST their own toxic substances;  having THEIR OWN BODIES EXPOSED to their own super-fund sites before clean-up.

Now you may or may not be the type drawn to this type of schadenfreude, but there’s more.  Life inside the collective, for example, is neither idealized nor dishonored by stupid stereotype.  Instead, the oddities of the members’ rituals attract and disturb in just about equal measure.

Throughout all this  there’s one hella  strong woman (Brit Marling, the star, writer AND producer of this movie), sent in as a spy, who gets caught in the midst of it all.  She’s terrific as she juggles boyfriends, ethics and bare survival between both worlds.

Go see this movie.  It is both entertaining and thought-provoking–a rare combination.  You will emerge in a contemplative mood about extreme measures believed by some to be necessary to stop the run-away unsustainable exploitation of the earth and its inhabitants.

Silence the Violence in Downtown Oakland

Silence the Violence in Downtown Oakland

 

This entry was posted on July 9, 2013. 6 Comments