Doctor Maryse Narcisse, recent presidential candidate of the Famni Lavalas(1) party, visited California for her first time in late April. After appearing in Oakland, other venues included Scripps College in Claremont and UCLA.
At Scripps, a very enthusiastic and diverse crowd filled the Balch Auditorium. The event began with a blessing by the original inhabitants of the area, courtesy of Cahuilla Elder Kim Marcus. (He said he and his son are the last two people who know how to perform it. When they're gone, the blessing will be gone, too.) Narcisse later acknowledged Marcus and the Cahuilla.
Narcisse was introduced by Margaret Prescod of KPFK's Sojourner Truth (http://www.sotrueradio.org/
) and Women of Color in Global Women's Strike (later, Prescod also moderated a discussion between Narcisse and the audience). Narcisse's involvement in Famni Lavalas goes back many years. Under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's second term, she was General Director for the Ministry of Health. She also helped found the Aristide Foundation's medical and nursing school, UNIFA (University of the Aristide Foundation, website: http://www.aristidefoundationfordemocracy.org/2012/01/18/unifa-medical-school-reopens/
After the U.S.-backed coup against Aristide and Famni Lavalas of '04, Narcisse represented Aristide during his time in exile (and visited him in South Africa multiple times). She herself was also in exile for a time following the coup. Upon her return to Haiti in 2007, she was kidnapped at gunpoint but survived. (As Prescod noted, another Fanmi Lavalas member was also kidnapped at that time, Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, but he was never heard from again. Pierre-Antoine was a community organizer who disappeared after announcing his intention to run for parliament (see: http://la.indymedia.org/news/2007/11/210199.php
She coordinated medical responses to the cholera outbreak introduced by U.N. troops, and the devastating earthquake of 2010, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. As presidential candidate representing Fanmi Lavalas circa 2016, she enjoyed great popularity.
Narcisse took the floor. (Her talk can be heard in full here: https://soundcloud.com/sojournertruthradio/sojourner-truth-radio-dr-maryse-narcisse-of-haitis-fanmi-lavalas
.) She struck me as unassuming (as did Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine when I met him in 2004), considering the numerous life-and-death situations she's faced. Yet occasionally there was an intensity about her as she recounted life-threatening situations, such as a failed assassination attempt against her and Aristide. She began by discussing Haiti's history. The island's Indigenous people were decimated within 50 years of contact with Europe's “brutal labor practices.” European powers also imported enslaved people from different parts of Africa. However, the people never accepted the inhumane conditions, and in 1804 Haiti “became the first Black independent country in the world [audience applause].”
Yet the superpowers of the day did all they could to destabilize Haiti. “Haiti's autonomy and finances remained precarious. The new republic—a Black republic, the first in the world—was diplomatically and economically isolated and faced a continuing threat of foreign intervention. France did not recognize the independence of Haiti, the U.S. did not recognize the independence of Haiti. [A]fter all these years of battle, Haiti remained with disparities in wealth. . . .”
Narcisse described the present situation. Fifty-four percent of the 11 million population is below the poverty line (under $1.97 a day). For the “overwhelming majority” of impoverished Haitians, it's become increasingly difficult to have a single daily meal, to use public transportation, to have decent housing, to fund health care (the life expectancy in Haiti is 63; malnutrition is common), and afford education. Due to lack of infrastructure, there is a high rate of “open defecation” in streets, and only 42% of the population has access to drinking water.
Only 61% of Haitians are able to attend school, and of them, “50% of children who finish second grade [can]not read a single word. Of every 100 students who start first grade, only 16 will get to ninth grade, only eight will finish 12th grade.” She cited a high number of unqualified teachers and no government oversight or funding. About 90% of schools are run privately by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), churches, community and for-profit operators. For higher education, options are limited, with only five or six private universities plus the State University of Haiti, most of them located in the capital (which makes it even more difficult for would-be students from other parts of the country). Many students study abroad taking financial resources with them (a total of $345 million in 2016) and never return to Haiti. One of Lavalas's goals has been to provide free k-12 education.
“I have to talk now about UNIFA, the Aristide Foundation university that President Aristide founded in 2001,” she said. “Since its reopening in 2011 I have sat on the UNIFA board and watched it expand to 1200 students across seven different disciplines. [Applause].“
The justice system is very dysfunctional. Eight out of 10 people in the system spend three or more years incarcerated in “extended pre-trial detention” before even seeing a judge; corruption among judges is rampant; drinkable water and food in jails is rare; inmates usually have to relieve themselves in plastic bags. Conditions in Haiti's jails are the worst in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Haiti is among the countries most exposed to natural disasters in the world (e.g., floods and earthquakes). This is partly due to the lack of trees, a consequence of deforestation, which results in more mudslides. There have been 137 natural disasters in Haiti between 1971 and 2014.
Yet she does not want to depict Haiti as a failure but rather a country under the thumb of oligarchy and the international community, including the U.S. She spoke of Haiti's current president, Jovenal Moise, her opponent in last year's very contentious election, who has ties to the Duvalier family. “I don't want to say the elections were stolen, but that person was put in there. There are charges of drug dealing and money laundering against him, and yet they are supporting him to be the current president of Haiti.”
Helping to maintain Haiti's status quo is the continued U.N. occupation force known as MINUSTUH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti), recently renamed Minujust. Soldiers have raped women, and in 2010 Nepalese troops introduced cholera to the country. “They know very well that the Haitian people will never accept inhuman presence under the present conditions under which they are living,” Narcisse said (translated from French and Kreyole by Pierre Laboussiere of Haiti Action). “They are going to rise,” she continued in English, “if not tomorrow, it will be next week or next month, but they are ready for that [prolonged loud and excited reaction from audience].
“(Laboussiere again translates from French and Kreyol) And many times Haitian people are very sarcastic. This new mission of the U.N., MINUSTUH, they are calling Mini-skirt. It's a play on the French word. [Haitians are] already participating in discussions to look at strategies of fighting and how best to move the struggle forward. They are very determined. Many have come very long distances from remote areas, walking more than three hours so that they can get to places to find public transportation to get them to our place of meeting.
“Despite their overwhelming responsibilities, the women are always there. [Applause.] We are a very patriarchal society, but very matrifocal. [Laughter.] They call the women of Haiti 'the central pillar.' The women don't let themselves get discouraged by crisis situations, and despite the very difficult two years of electoral struggle they never got discouraged. They always maintained the torch of struggle for liberation. [Applause.] They are examples by their actions. (Narcisse resumes speaking in English sans translation.) That's why I'm always saying to the men, 'Put some women in your men.' [Laughter and applause.]
“It is clear that the Haitian people are bent on the struggle. More than ever they are fighting for dignity, democracy, freedom, and the respect of their rights. They are resisting. The vision is clear. We know the basic needs: health care, education, food, jobs, decent housing--[these] have been denied to Haitians for too long. We need to stop the vicious cycle of poverty and build a country where the human person is at the center of our approach. We need to have a country with an economic vision as part of a public-private partnership. We need to revive growth, that means jobs for all and reducing social inequalities. We need to have a country with a vision of human development--true local development--we need to have a strategic and regulatory state with democracy, human development, and economic growth, and a state that ensures public freedom, a democratic Haiti that will want to have a better future for our children.
“Thank you everybody on behalf of the community, on behalf of Famni Lavalas, on behalf of the grassroots movement, thank you.”
She then expressed gratitude and enthusiasm for the Chiapas Support Committee, which played a major role in organizing the event, and stressed the importance of grassroots groups and their “capacity to forge dynamic relationships with other grassroots movements and liberation movements. You have brought the struggle for global justice at the higher level, making advocacy possible with one unified voice. Thank you for your support, thank you for everything. [While] looking at the larger audience tonight, I think we're not alone in our fight in Haiti. Your presence tonight goes straight in my heart, thank you.”
During the question and answer session she commented: “One person asked me what it is to be a woman in Haiti. To be in Haiti politics you have to be strong, very strong. . . . I think Haiti was ready for a woman president. That's why I said 'matrifocal in patriarchy.' During my campaign everybody called me 'Ma-ma' because this is the way they see a woman, you know? . . . Some men were attacking me but I think the majority are ready for a woman president of Haiti. [Applause.]"
Near the end of the discussion, she mentioned an attempted assassination against her in where bullets were shot at her car. “I get out of the car and I say: 'I'm not afraid. We will never be afraid to defend our rights.' [Applause.]”
(1)Lavalas is Haitian Creole for “flash flood.” The movement under Aristide swept Haiti like a flash flood. Source: the Porto Alegre Declaration on Haiti, January 2005. Fanme means “family,” according to Haiti Action/HaitiSolidarity.net. http://haitisolidarity.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/haiti-solidarity-august-2016.pdf
Part of a display in the Balch Auditorium at Scripps College.