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An Insurrectional Situation in Haiti?

February 2004

That’s how the National Coalition for Haitian Rights described Haiti in their press release on this past weekend’s vicious gunfight between the “Cannibal Army” and the police in Gonaives, Haiti. The death toll is increasing daily and the situation is clearly out of control. NCHR is calling on all armed groups to respect the human rights of citizens living in the areas under their control. (Click here to read NCHR’s statement, in French.) Clearly, the situation is going from bad to worse…quickly.

The Cannibal Army came to prominence as a pro-Aristide gang operating in the massive slum areas of Gonaives. Some insist that arming and cultivating the support of such gangs has been an important element of Lavalas political strategy over the past five years. After maintaining close contacts with such gangs for a long period, the government apparently decided that they could no longer control them. Gunmen associated in the public mind with the government executed the leader of the Cannibal Army and all hell broke loose. No one can say where this will end.

This eruption comes at the end of a long period of simmering violence and discontent. Grassroots International’s partner organizations have been simmering, too, and have even boiled over on a couple of occasions.

How is an organization like Grassroots to repond when its partner organizations shift politically as has been the case in Haiti?

1. First of all, we reject the silly idea that there is no place for political consideration in development work. We chose our partners because they were doing viable work that was making concrete improvements in the lives of their constituents AND because they do that work from a political perspective that sees the connection between “development” and structural social change. We would never move away from a partner because they are “too political.”

2. Without apology, we feel much more accountable to our partners than we do to any political figure, donor or U.S. solidarity ally. That’s part of the meaning of partnership for us.

3. Accountability is one thing, but abdicating responsibility is another. The content of what our partners do matters to us. We just don’t blindly follow them wherever they might go. For example, one of the best things Aristide did when he returned to power in Haiti was eliminate the Haitian army that had overthrown him. When it seemed that some of our partners might be flirting with those members of the traditional Haitian elites who wanted to bring back the army, that gave us serious cause for pause.

With these three principles in mind, we have tread with care in Haiti over the past few years. We came close to ending one partnership, but have not done so. We all but stopped promoting some projects for a time. We have alienated some allies in the U.S. by continuing to provide support to those opposing Aristide. Most of all, we have looked, listened and learned.

Even today, while we are very critical of Aristide, we have taken no public position that he should resign. On the one hand, we see no need to take such a position. On the other, there sits the question of “What is the alternative?” Momentum is building behind the idea of a transitional post-Aristide government led by civil society opponents of the government, but one must fear the potential for a terrible chaos in Haiti if Aristide leaves.

Many organizations have thrown up their hands and left Haiti over the past few years. We could easily do the same, but that, too, would be against our idea of partnership. As long as we believe that Haitian organizations are making a difference at the grassroots AND building support for real alternatives, we will do what we can to support them. We will make good decisions and plenty of mistakes, but we will not be remembered as another organization that left Haiti when things got out of hand.

Next time…how could this have happened?

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