A Clandestine Interview from Haiti: Resistance in the Slums of Port-au-Prince

October 14, 2004

Backed by United Nations so-called peacekeepers, the U.S.-installed Haitian regime continues its siege of poor neighborhoods in the capital, Port au Prince, in an attempt to crush ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide´s Lavalas party. The following is the result of a clandestine interview with a woman called Nancy, conducted last Sunday in the slum of Bel Air.

Nancy is a member of the Cell of Reflection of Family Lavalas. The interview took place under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions. Nancy´s remarks were then edited to safeguard her and the journalist´s anonymity. BC stands behind their credibility.
First you should realize that they have been trying to starve the poor in Haiti since President Aristide was kidnapped on February 29th. Do you know how much rice and beans cost now in the market? Families are starving while a few families that import goods are getting rich off the pennies we have to spend on food. They have killed us since then and driven us into hiding. Have you ever tried to feed your family while you are running from the police and you have no job? They have arrested our leaders or driven them into exile. They have cornered us and taken our dignity away so that now we realize we have no where left to go.

We see that the situation in the streets, our situation, we who are part of the Cell of Reflection of Family Lavalas, we see that in all the poor neighborhoods there is not a day that goes by that the government does not squeeze us. The repression is much worse. And now the de facto Prime Minister [Gerard Latortue] has said he is going to sign a contract with the former military to kill us one by one. In a secret meeting he had with the Minister of justice, a friend inside heard Latortue estimate that it would be necessary to kill 25,000 people in the capital, in the capital alone to stop the calls for the return of President Aristide. September 30th was the beginning of this initiative where Latortue unleashed his forces that are comprised of new units of SWAT, USP, CIMO and the police where the killers of the former military had already been integrated. It was they who began firing on unarmed demonstrators while the Brazilians and the United Nations stood by to let them kill us.

This was only one part of their strategy that day. On September 30th they had extra squads of former military work hand-in-hand with these militarized forces of the police to enter Bel Air, Cite Soleil, La Saline, Grand Ravine, Delmas 2, Martissant and many other poor neighborhoods to kill a lot of people. On September 30th many people were killed, especially in Bel Air. The former military had already set up operations in Bel Air and Cite Soleil without our knowledge before the demonstration had started. We did not know that they had quietly entered certain houses very early in the morning and held the occupants at gunpoint waiting for the right moment to strike. After the killing started they broke into many more houses shooting and beating people who had stayed at home. They also broke everything they could and stole anything of value while we were running from the bullets of the police. Later in the afternoon the police entered the poor neighborhoods and arrested everyone they could get their hands on. This is how the violence of September 30th began and it became a question of defending our neighborhoods and our community from the violence of Latortue´s police and the former military. What do we have to lose by defending ourselves since they are determined to kill us anyway?

In the days that followed we would not allow them to enter our communities and continue the killing. They tried several times on their own and we would not let them enter. So they set up on the outskirts of our neighborhoods and began to arrest everybody in sight. Outside of Bel Air we have seen them force three year-olds and four year-olds to the ground. There are many people here who do not know where they have taken their family members after they arrest them. All of this because Latortue and Bush were afraid of the numbers of people they knew we would mobilize to demand Aristide´s return on September 30th. There is no other explanation.

Since then, Latortue has made it clear we do not have the right to live and we are no better than animals that deserve to be slaughtered. We are not counted as human beings in Haitian society because we are poor and uneducated even though we are the majority of the population. With President Aristide this was not the case and for this reason we are determined there will never be peace in Haiti until he returns. Our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our sons and our cousins are all willing to die before we will accept this misery caused by a government that was put into power by foreigners and that does not accept us as human beings. We will never stop and there can be no peace until President Aristide returns. They can call us bandits and thieves all they want but they know the truth and this is why they are in a process of exterminating us today.

Bush and the United Nations know the truth as well. They know that without the Brazilians they could not have entered Bel Air. They know that without the Jordanians they could never keep us from the National Palace. Without the UN forces this phony government would not last a week. That is why we call them occupation forces and it is criminal for them to prop up this killing machine that is trying to destroy us. It is an insult to see them occupying the streets in front of our National Palace to keep in place a government that was not chosen by the people. They should be ashamed of themselves and wonder how they would feel if the same thing were done to them in their country. We believe that if the people in their countries knew the truth they would ask them to come home. We pray we will not have to fight them but they are part of the killing machine right now and it is a question of survival for us. We have no choice but to defend ourselves and our communities against their tanks and their guns.

It is clear they will kill many more of us in the weeks to come. The streets of Bel Air and Cite Soleil will turn red from all the blood Latortue intends to spill but we will no longer just stand like zombies and let them kill us. We will continue to demand the return of our elected president and we will defend ourselves against them when they come to kill us. We are not animals, we are not bandits and we did not start this killing. They did.

Take this to the American people and let them know we think that what Bush is doing in Haiti is criminal. He had a choice of supporting our democracy and our votes but he chose to throw them away. He sided with criminals and the rich against us instead of choosing dialogue and reconciliation. We do not blame the American people and it is a lie that we intend to harm them in Haiti. We love our children and we love life as much as they do but we must defend our right to exist in the face of these criminals who are determined to exterminate us.

The Black Commentator - BC
Issue 109

Group, Jean Align to Help Poor in Haiti
By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, Nov. 24, 2005
Associated Press Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — U.N. peacekeepers venture into Cite Soleil with automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers. Haitian police, fearful of well-armed gangs, avoid the dusty streets of the seaside slum altogether.

But a new aid organization has managed to use the immense popularity of hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean to provide badly needed help to a desperate corner of his native country, the poorest nation in the Americas.

Yele Haiti, which Jean formed this year, has so far focused mostly on giving out scholarships. But after a few exploratory forays, it ventured into Cite Soleil this month to give out food – backed by the pulsating beat of hip-hop blasting from speakers on a makeshift stage.

The music wasn’t just entertainment. It was the way the aid group secured permission to enter the territory of gangs who dominate a slum that is home to more than 200,000 people.

“The gangs are really into my music, so we use that to connect with the population,” Jean said by telephone from New York. “It helps us get in to help people that others may not reach.”

The name “Yele Haiti” comes from a popular Jean song that has become a sort of anthem of hope following the violent rebellion that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

Jean, who left Haiti when he was 10 and gained fame as a member of the Fugees, said he was inspired to create his aid group by his own bitter memories of poverty.

“I grew up with no shoes and no pants,” the 35-year-old musician said. “So, in the position I’m in today, I couldn’t sleep if I wasn’t giving back.”

Most of Haiti’s 8 million people live on less than $1 a day.

Unemployment is estimated at 80 percent. Locals struggle to survive coups, street-level justice, corrupt leaders and pervasive crime.

Kidnappings are common.

Human rights groups and international organizations say at least 1,500 people have died in the violence in the capital in the past year, much of it blamed on the street gangs that allegedly support Aristide, now in exile in South Africa, and his Lavalas party.

Yele Haiti so far has distributed about $1 million in grants and aid, mostly in the Gonaives region, which was devastated last year by Hurricane Jeanne. The organization has also taught sports to slum children and helped clear litter from the streets of Port-au-Prince.
“What you need is for people to participate in the aid programs, feel like human beings – not just receive food like animals,” Jean said.

Dozens of aid groups operate in Haiti. What makes Jean’s unusual is its reliance on his celebrity to gain permission from the gangs to operate amid the violence of Cite Soleil.

“There’s always an element of risk, but the community has a lot of respect for the musicians,” said Hugh Locke, the manager of Yele Haiti.

A gang leader who calls himself General Toutou said he and others “have completely lost trust in the U.N.,” whose blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops often engage in firefights with slum residents.

Mamadou Mbaye, head of the U.N. World Food Program in Haiti, said the agency doesn’t allow its staff to enter Cite Soleil because of the danger – so it provided food to Yele Haiti to distribute.

Mbaye praised Yele Haiti for its ability to “take the first step and pave the way,” for other aid groups.

“People in dangerous zones have the same right to aid and food as the rest of the Haitian population,” he said.

But even with the gang’s permission and Jean’s popularity, the first major food handout did not go off as smoothly as organizers hoped.

Yele Haiti volunteers and workers in bright orange and blue T-shirts arrived with hundreds of bags of rice, beans, salt and cooking oil. But the crowd had grown unruly under the hot sun, and people began to scramble for the food, fearful they might miss out.

Some gangsters could be seen striking people with belts and sticks while others ran off with food. In the distance, U.N. troops and gang members could be heard exchanging gunfire.

Ernia Saint Louis, who lives in Cite Soleil, said gang members stole her rice.

“It’s great to bring food to the poor, but we never get any of it. The big guys take it all,” the 26-year-old woman said as she picked beans from the dust and collected them in a fold of her dress.

Despite the problems, the World Food Program said it hopes to keep channeling aid through Jean’s group.

“Yes, it was chaotic, but it was a learning process for us and Yele Haiti,” said Anne Poulsen, spokeswoman for the U.N. agency in Haiti.
Jean said his group would learn from the incident, which he views as a reminder of why Haiti needs so much help.

“We can’t just wait for things to improve before we get involved,” he said. “It’s because we are trying that things will get better.”

Wyclef Jean brings hip-hop hope to Haiti

By Letta Tayler | Newsday Staff Correspondent
Posted March 9, 2006, 8:51 AM EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — “Yo! Back up!” Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born hip-hop star, was shouting to a mob of Carnival revelers. “We can’t be responsible for somebody being eaten by a lion!”

It was supposed to be the realization of Jean’s childhood dream. Decked out as Haiti’s revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines, complete with a tri-cornered hat, swashbuckler’s boots, glittering sword and ruffled shirt, the former Fugees front man would ride a float in Haiti’s biggest festival, a real lion at his side, capping a heroic return to his ravaged birthplace from his adopted homes of Brooklyn and New Jersey.

But the king of beasts wasn’t having it.

Seven times a trainer tried and failed to coax Major, the 450-pound feline, from a truck into a display cage on the Carnival float. One foray was aborted after Major leapt into some bushes, dragging the trainer by the leash. Eventually, the float left without him.

Seemingly impossible dreams are nothing new to Jean. With the same vision - some would argue naiveté - that prompted him to try bringing a contrary lion onto a Carnival float, he is vowing to rebuild his broken country largely through the power of music, aided by Yéle Haiti, the nonprofit group he founded last year.

“Just when you think it’s over, that’s when the lightning and the thunder is going to come,” vowed Jean, a Nazarene preacher’s son. “You know what I’m saying? Maybe Haiti won’t change in a dramatic way, but it will change. It already has.”
“The wind is turning!”

Jean jumped on the float, grabbed a microphone and began to belt his pumping Carnival chant: “Van vire! Van vire!” (Haitian Creole for “The wind is turning! The wind is turning!”) Then he rolled into the reveling throngs of Port-au-Prince.

For five days last week, Jean moved through Haiti at breakneck speed, rallying support from grassroots leaders, gang members and socialites in a country convulsed by lawlessness and divided by class and race.

But in the hours before Carnival, he was enjoying a rare quiet moment on the sweeping terrace of a luxury hotel perched high above the stifling capital. He wore camouflage pants and a Yéle Haiti T-shirt. His hair was braided in immaculate corn rows. A diamond-studded medallion of Christ’s face dangled from his neck.

Far below him stretched the capital’s squalid slums, including the notorious, gang-ruled shantytown of Cité Soleil. “Just to think that I went from there to here,” he said, his voice incredulous, as a waiter in a white uniform served him pasta with julienne vegetables.

As a young boy, Jean lived in the rural counterpart to Cité Soleil, sharing a mud hut with five relatives in the dirt-poor town of Laserre in central Haiti. The hut had no running water or electricity.

“I rode a donkey to school. I never had more than two pairs of pants and one pair of shoes,” Jean said. Sometimes, he added, he had no pants or shoes at all.

The tough Marlboro housing projects in East Bensonhurst, where he arrived from Haiti when he was 9 and spoke only Creole, seemed luxurious in contrast. “We got yellow cheese, government cheese. I thought I was rich - the white man be giving us cheese,” Jean remembered. “And he was wearing a uniform!”

Worried that Jean was getting into trouble, his mother got him a guitar to keep him busy. The family moved when Jean was a teenager to East Orange, N.J. It was there that Jean helped form the Fugees - short for refugees - a band that sold more than 20 million records with its innovative, reggae-and-R&B-inflected hip-hop.

Now 36, Jean has millions of dollars, a lavish home in suburban New Jersey - he won’t say where, wanting to protect his privacy - and is trying to give something back.

“Yéle Haiti is about making kids feel that no matter what, their dreams can come true,” he said. “I stand up for them. The story of me is them.”

“Yéle,” the title of one of Jean’s songs, is a cry for freedom in Creole. With a budget of $1 million last year, mostly from a Haitian telecommunications company, Yéle Haiti rebuilds schools and provides scholarships and soccer programs to slum children. It also helps run a program to clear the mounds of garbage that pile up everywhere by paying legions of street cleaners.

Some skeptics say Yéle Haiti’s programs are a drop in the bucket for this former French-ruled slave colony, where half the population is illiterate, more than two-thirds of the people live on less than $2 a day, and more than 70 percent of the workforce is unemployed.

“These rich people come, they make big plans, and they go,” said Jean Roland, 22, an unemployed construction worker, as he loitered on a filthy street corner in the capital. “We’re left here with the same old mess.”

Jean, Roland said, may be more interested in returning to Haiti to boost his own fame than to change Haiti.

But supporters say Jean is onto something far more intangible and powerful than cleaning a road or building a school: restoring hope and pride in a country that has lost much of both.

“He sends an important message to Haitians of similar humble origins, that he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth and if he can make it, they can,” said Mamadou Mbaye, the Haiti director of the United Nations World Food Program.

And one of the best ways to make it, Jean tells this country, is through music.

For months, the World Food Program couldn’t deliver food in Cité Soleil because shootouts between gang members and UN peacekeepers made it too dangerous to enter. But using his contacts in the Haitian hip-hop community, Jean last summer enlisted Cité Soleil rappers to persuade gang members to let local musicians truck in the food.

The shipments still are far too infrequent and some food still is being looted as it leaves the trucks. Still, said Mbaye, “Wyclef has opened doors for us. He can communicate with people in Cité Soleil to gain their trust. He walks the walk. He talks the talk.”

Indeed, Jean has so much street cred that he has convinced aspiring young slum rappers to compete for the best jingle about such socially conscious topics as cleaning streets or protecting the environment. He plans to record the winning jingle for broadcast on Haitian radio and transport buses.

“Clean! Clean! If you want to build a better future, keep the country clean!” rapped a tough young performer named Mad Ass during an outdoor show for Jean in the impoverished neighborhood of Bel-Air.

“Pwop! Pwop!” (”Clean! Clean!”) hundreds of spectators sang along, pumping their fists.
By returning to help his homeland after making it big - even skipping this year’s Grammys and flying here on the red-eye to vote in last month’s presidential elections - Jean also sends a powerful message to Haiti’s tiny ruling class.

“He’s a thorn in the backside of the elite, a pressure on them to help change their country,” said Robert Duval, an influential industrialist-turned-philanthropist who runs a soccer program for slum youths with Yéle Haiti.

Jean draws a weary world’s attention to Haiti the way that U2’s Bono raised consciousness about developing nations’ debt. It was Jean who wrapped himself in the Haitian flag when he went onstage in 1997 to accept the Fugees’ two Grammys for their breakthrough album, “The Score.” It was Jean who brought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt here in January to urge the world to help this country. And it’s Jean who constantly plugs his homeland’s vibrant culture and gorgeous Caribbean beaches, exclaiming, “Haiti is the eighth wonder of the world.”

Their life’s work

Jean says his inspiration comes from his mother and father, who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s to escape the Duvalier dictatorship. (They took Jean up several years later. ) The Jeans re-established their Nazarene church in their adopted country and made it their life’s work to help Haitian refugees and orphans.

“My parents taught me that one of the reasons in making it was coming back to help,” Jean said.

Sedeck Jean, a music producer and one of Wyclef’s three siblings, said the Fugee also inherited their preacher-father’s ability to connect. “Our dad was incredibly charismatic, and ‘Clef is like that,” he said. “When he gets into his work it’s 159 percent.”

So skillful is Jean at building social bridges, some Haitians wonder if he’s angling to run for president. Jean roundly denies it. “What I want to do for Haiti is what Sammy Sosa did for the Dominican Republic or what Bob Marley did for Jamaica,” he said.

Perhaps Jean realizes his dreams are too flamboyant for public office. One minute, he’s talking about buying an island off Haiti’s coast to build his version of the Atlantis Resort, a massive, manmade complex of waterfalls, lagoons and a casino in the Bahamas. The next minute, he says he’ll donate two of his 36 antique cars to Port-au-Prince slums to remind kids that they can make it out of the ghetto - undeterred by the risk that people who must scrounge food and shelter might strip the vintage sheet metal for roofing material.

And no matter that the lion he flew in from Los Angeles didn’t get on the Carnival float. Jean is already looking into bringing an entire circus to the tour the country next year.

“Ninety-seven percent of kids in Haiti have never seen a lion,” Jean said. “We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to open kids’ eyes, make them say, ‘Wow.’”
Jean is equally unorthodox about his security.

When he cruised with a bunch of Haitian and Haitian-American musicians into Cité Soleil, a neighborhood where most Haitians fear to tread, his only protector was Beast, his bearded, 6-foot-8-inch bodyguard. But there were no guns in sight on this day, only throngs of fans chanting, “Van vire! Van vire!”

Indeed, the event became one big love fest as the ebony Jean appeared on an outdoor stage with Roberto Martino, the light-skinned, affluent leader of the Haitian pop group T-Vice.

“The color divisions must end!” Wyclef shouted through a bullhorn.

Onstage with them were Cité Soleil gang members who’d helped let in the food aid. “Wyclef’s visit will change things in Cité Soleil,” said a reputed gang leader named Ti Blanc. “The tension between the bourgeoisie and the poor will soon clear up.”

Maybe, but not on this trip. At Jean’s next stop in Cité Soleil, a soccer program funded by Yéle Haiti, Martino suddenly found some of the cheering spectators stripping him of his wallet, his sunglasses and his bandanna.

“They were even trying to steal my hair,” Martino said after he fled into the bus.
A powerful performance

And when Jean left his float at the end of Carnival, hordes of people stormed it, carting off instruments and a laptop. The crowds also tried to let the lion loose. “I thought they were going to kill me,” said the lion tamer. The looting followed one of the most powerful performances of Jean’s career.

“Everyone who wants kidnapping to stop, raise your hands!” he hollered in Creole as he dove on and off the carnival float. Hands shot up among an estimated half-million revelers who’d packed streets and climbed trees, tombstones and rooftops to catch a glimpse of the superstar.

Crooning to the melody of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” Jean sang an imaginary conversation with Haiti’s President-elect René Préval, a darling of the poor.
I called Préval before the show and I said,

Dear President, the Haitian people need food.

Dear President, the Haitian people need jobs.

Dear President, the Haitian people need security.

Jean’s band cranked up the tempo to a boisterous rah-rah, the rhythm of Carnival.
“And the president said,” Jean bellowed, “Van vire! Van vire!’”


"Transformation is only valid if it is carried out with the people, not for them. Liberation is like a childbirth, and a painful one. The person who emerges is a new person: no longer either oppressor or oppressed, but a person in the process of achieving freedom. It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors."
- Paulo Freire, from Pedagogy of the Oppressed (learn more)


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