The NI Interview
Richard Swift talks to a Haitian who combines intellectual analysis with popular activism.
Camille Chalmers is one of those intellectuelles populaires that are more common in la francophonie than amongst anglo-pragmatists. Chalmers is a veteran activist of Haiti’s impressive popular movement. He combines this with a broad analysis of the country’s political and social problems. A trained economist, he was also the Director of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s staff from 1993 to 1994.
He smiles wryly as he disentangles the contradictions between the goals of the popular democratic movement that swept Aristide to power back in 1990 with the more recent ‘democratization’ that has occurred under the watchful eye of the US army and international peacekeepers.
The military coup that overthrew Aristide and ‘beheaded’ the popular movement forced Haitian democrats, says Chalmers, to ‘gamble on US military intervention opening up the political space necessary to re-establish the networks of popular organization. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened.’
Chambers believes that Haiti’s popular democracy and its egalitarian values have been ‘expropriated by US imperialism which projects itself as the defender of Haitian democracy and brought carbon-copies of US institutions into Haiti’. He points to the refusal of US authorities to release captured secret-police files to the Haitian justice system, or to extradite a prominent leader of the FRAP death squad, as examples of their lukewarm commitment to the new Haiti.
Today, Chalmers brings his considerable analytic skills to bear through PAPDA (The Haitian Platform for the Advocacy of Alternative Development) – a coalition of union and peasant organizations. He hopes to help establish a new consensus of resistance to the economic restructuring program the IMF and the World Bank are trying to impose on Haiti. He refers to this package of savage social cuts, economic deflation and privatization initiatives as a ‘second coup d’état’. ‘The purpose of this coup is to expel the majority of Haitian people from the political arena and uphold a system wherein 50 per cent of the national wealth is gobbled up by just one per cent of the population.’
With the sweeping use of his hands to aid him Chalmers picks apart the World Bank formula for Haiti. He is particularly incensed by the Bank’s characterization of the only hope for the rural peasant majority as a rural exodus to ‘some non-existent industrial sector, or else as boat people’. He details how Haitian agricultural society is being undermined by the cheap import of subsidized US grains, particularly rice. Many of the groups making up PAPDA were the political backbone of the rural resistance to first the Duvaliers and then the military.
With a quick grin and slow patience Chalmers unravels the fallacies on which he believes the World Bank model is based – the idea that the Haitian state is overdeveloped, that the country suffers from over-indebtedness, and that salvation lies in a low-wage industrial production underwritten by foreign capital. It is a familiar analysis: this set of remedies has been applied throughout Latin America with mixed results. Chalmers feels it to be particularly inappropriate for Haiti, where government has never played much of a role in fostering development or meeting popular needs. He shudders at the Bank’s proposal to cut the Haitian civil service by some 50 per cent, which will mean the death knell for even the most basic health and education services. He is incredulous about Bank predictions that spectacular growth in the export sector is likely and will solve basic problems of poverty and unemployment.
For Chalmers an alternative to Bank plans cannot be formulated by technocrats but must grow out of popular organizations. PAPDA is working with a range of such groups together with critical economists to build the resistance to structural adjustment and work out alternative development priorities. He is heartened by the hostile response that IMF boss Michel Camdessus got in a recent visit to Haiti when the Upper House of the Haitian Parliament refused to meet him and the Lower House was openly sceptical about his structural-adjustment sales pitch.
A ready grin and easy laugh does not hide Chalmers’ concern about the fate of Haiti’s fledgling democracy. For him democracy is not just about the niceties of parliamentary procedures but a living force in the sun-drenched streets of Port-au-Prince’s sprawling slum community, Cité de Soleil. He worries about the de-politicization of the people that may accompany their growing sense of betrayal as the Aristide leadership is drawn deeper into the US web of influence.
He places his hope and PAPDA’s energy in a ‘re-dynamization’ of Haiti’s popular movement.
‘It is popular mobilization that has been the source of all the gains in recent years in Haiti. Without this mobilization there is no hope of carrying out the basic tasks of development and democratic institution-building that the Haitian people both need and deserve.’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996