Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ghosts, Bandits and Cité Soleil

Recently, while perusing some new Haiti-related news items, I came upon a piece titled, with typical sober understatement, "Leni Riefenstahl goes to Haiti' on the Haiti Action Committee website. The Haiti Action Committee, for those who have been mercifully spared taking any notice of them, is the largely lily-white collection of Northern California "activists" that coalesced in 2004 following the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after months of massive street protests against his rule and an armed rebellion in February of that year. Since then, the organization's mission has seemed chiefly to excuse all of the excesses of Mr. Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas political party, prevent the voting that brought Haitian President Rene Preval back to office last year, and attack the democratic left in Haiti at every turn.

Written by one Charlie Hinton, whose previous contributions to Haiti Action Committee website included a piece accusing the progressive publication In These Times of being part of "an international media campaign designed to tarnish and discredit the Aristide government," the article is mostly a fairly routine denunciation of the Danish director Asger Leth's upcoming documentary Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which in part focuses on two young brothers I used to know from the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité Soleil, James Petit-Frere and Winston Jean-Bart, aka "Billy" and "Tupac," both since slain in Haiti's political wars. The Hinton article (also reprinted on the mirror Haiti Solidarity website) is standard for this sort of stuff - it accepts Aristide's claims that he was "kidnapped" by U.S. forces at fact value despite substantial evidence to the contrary - but what really caught my eye was a statement from the American filmmaker Kevin Pina stating that "Billy (James) and I had a falling out over the question of his accepting money from foreign journalists to hype this question of Aristide and gangsters. The more they paid the more outlandish became his claims "

Having seen neither Ghosts of Cité Soleil nor Kevin Pina's new film, We Must Kill Bandits, I make no judgment on the value or lack thereof of either of them, but Kevin Pina's statement about someone I considered a friend, now no longer around to defend himself, is something I can comment on, all the more so because, though he would probably be horrified should anyone on the pro-Aristide fanatic fringe he associates with find out, Kevin Pina and I actually used to be pretty good friends.

But first a little about James Petit-Frere. I myself was introduced to James on the steps of the Hotel Oloffson in November 2001 by a French photographer with over 20 years experience living and working in Haiti, who spoke Kreyol fluently and had been visiting Cité Soleil since it was known as Cité Simone (in honor of the dictator Francois Duvalier's wife) in 1979. The photographer had known James, as had the award-winning photographer Carol Guzy, since he was a young boy, carrying photography equipment around for reporters covering the Aristide-requested U.S.-lead invasion of Haiti in 1994. Trenton Daniel, at the time a Reuters reporter in Haiti and now ably reporting for the Miami Herald in South Florida was also present at that first meeting.

James hailed from Cité Soleil, and he was nothing if not a child of Aristide. His mother, a community activist, had been killed in Cité Soleil shortly after the coup against Aristide in 1991, and his father during the FRAPH paramilitary raid on the bidonville in December 1993. Afterwards, for a time, he had become a habitué of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi organization and a favorite guide for English-speaking journalists who wanted to visit his home district. Following Tupac’s incarceration on kidnapping charges he was never convicted of (after Tupac dared to question his bosses among the Fanmi Lavalas grandees), he had also become the leader of his older brother’s group of armed pro-Aristide militants in the Soleil 19 section of the slum. Like all of the Cité Soleil "militants," as they called themselves (save for the truly psychotic among them), James was a complicated human being, capable of great insight, warmth and friendship, but also capable of real violence as a result of both the situation they found themselves in and personal proclivity (the majority of people in poor neighborhoods like Cité Soleil never touched a firearm in their lives but were merely innocent bystanders - and victims - of the various armed group vying for power in Haiti).

Over the years, I got to know Cité Soleil through the eyes of James and his friends. I met his wife, Helena, and their children, and accompanied people from the slum to the public beaches north of Port-au-Prince when they would rent a tap-tap to take their families to frolic in the polluted water there for the day. Though he had difficulty reading, James did his best to work his way through John Lee Anderson's massive and brilliant biography of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and really did believe, as Aristide frequently told the young gunmen at meetings which took place at Haiti's National Palace and at Aristide's private resident in the suburb of Tabarre, that he was at the vanguard of a much-needed and long-awaited change to empower the poor majority in Haiti. As the situation in Haiti deteriorated, though, and as the gunmen in the slums continued to be alternately courted and killed by political and police officials of the Fanmi Lavalas political party, the dance between the Cité Soleil boys and their patrons in the government became one of extreme mutual circumspection. Following Aristide's flight into exile, the boys followed their former leader's lead by heading abroad for a time, but both found themselves back in Haiti in late 2004. Winston "Tupac" Jean-Bart was slain by police working in collusion with the gang leader Robinson "Labanye" Thomas in September 2004. James himself, wounded in a gun battle with police, dragged from his hospital bed and arrested, escaped in an early 2005 jailbreak only, by all reports, to be recognized by police and killed a short time later, a terrible waste of human potential that still bothers me to this day. The circumstances of James' alleged murder were re-confirmed to me by the Martissant gang leader Wilkens "Chien Chaud" Pierre, when I visited that neighborhood in July 2006. Wilkens himself was killed later that year.

As for Kevin Pina. I was first introduced to Kevin at the beginning of 2001 by the American anthropologist Nina Clara Schnall, who knew of my interest in making sure that all voices in Haiti's political drama be heard. Knowing that Kevin lived in a very working-class (if they only had work) neighborhood in the upper Delmas Road region, Nina and I visited to attend a meeting of the Organisation de la Providence Unie pour le Développement Socio-Economique de Pétionville (SOPUDEP). When I returned to Haiti to take over the job as Reuters correspondent in Port-au-Prince in the fall of 2001, Kevin and I saw one another fairly regularly. Though he never mentions it (and though he frequently assails any appearance of conflict of interest in others), Kevin at the time was a frequent employee of the Aristide government-run Television Nationale d'Haiti (TNH), and received regular payments from the Aristide government for his work there. I visited him at the station several times and he often complained about how late the Aristide government was in paying him (a concern, as an often freelance journalist, that I could relate to). We attended quite a few meetings of Fanmi Lavalas political organizations together an often discussed the political goings-on over beer and griot either at my home in Pacot or Kevin's house in Delmas, back when foreigners in Haiti could still seem to discuss politics on a civilized, non-dogmatic level.

Interestingly enough, Cité Soleil was one of the engines for our growing apart. When I started going down there with James and many of his friends, seeing the firepower they had, seeing them meet (visibly armed) with the police, seeing them sitting around a table with Aristide at the National Palace, I felt that I could no longer ignore the Aristide government's obvious reliance on paramilitary and extra-judicial actors to enforce its will. In fact, as I allude to in my book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), it got to the point where the militants would call me when the National Palace instructed them to attack this or that demonstration to A) tell me I would have a good story the following day or B) be careful. At that point, having never taken me up on my offer to meet with them, Kevin told me that the militants were "lying" to me. Again I told him to come see for himself. Again he refused. To my knowledge, despite Kevin's claim in the Hinton article that he introduced James and Tupac "to several foreign journalists," up until mid-2003, contact between the two was virtually non-existent, though that situation may have changed over the last few months of Aristide's reign. Tupac only exited jail in the famous January 1, 2004 "escape," and to the best of my knowledge he and Kevin never had any sort of substantial contact at all. With plenty of contacts in (and respect from) various international journalists who worked in Haiti, James didn't really need anyone's largess in terms of making introductions for him.

After some among these self-same militants were sent out to beat up the university students over the summer of 2002 (who were protesting against Aristide's attempt to stuff the university administration with Lavalas die-hards), the students, people who had lost their money in a government-endorsed pyramid investment scheme, and the political actors who had always hated Aristide began to link up. The weekend of a huge demonstration in Cap Haitien in November 2002, I invited Kevin to drive up with me as I knew he was working on a film about the Haitian political scene. Again, he refused. It turned out to be the largest demonstration against Aristide (with many peasants) that had taken place in the country up to that point. After that, we didn't have much to say to one another. To me, when someone closes their eyes and their mind to what's going on in front of them, that with every violent action against his opposition that Aristide was provoking an ever-bigger and more uncontrollable reaction, and that the arming of the gangs was bound to blow up in his face (as it did in the city of Gonaives following the September 2003 murder of Amiot "Cubaine" Metayer), it is simply counterproductive to the struggles of the poor people that government claimed to represent and a betrayal of one's journalistic mission to tell the unvarnished, unpleasant truth. Out of the respect I hold for friendships, be they defunct or not, I've never criticized Kevin publicly, but this recent slur against James, someone I considered a friend, someone no longer around to defend themselves, compels me to speak. In the years that I knew him, I never once saw James exaggerate the Aristide government's collusion with the armed gangs in the slums and to say that he did so, and what's more did so for money, is a grievous misrepresentation, pure and simple

James Petit-Frere and those like him where never feted in the grand salons of the Lavalas barons like former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Aristide government spokesman Mario Dupuy, they were never pampered and received like the regime's spokesman such Annette “So Anne” Auguste when they traveled abroad. Indeed, for these guys, going across the border to the Dominican Republic represented that height of exotic international travel. James, his brother and hundreds of other young men like them were disposable; to Haiti's economic elite, to Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas government and to its foreign supporters, and to the interim government that came after. Once they outlived their usefulness to any particular political patron, they had a very short life-expectancy, and they knew it. I have often been criticized for, in my articles, trying to give some insight into the lives of these young boys, with both Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters and opponents seeking to discredit their views and experiences at every turn for the bitter mirror they turn on the irresponsibility of Haiti's economic and political classes.

Though I still bear Kevin Pina no ill will, it is unfortunate that he could not restrain himself from libeling the dead, who gave the ultimate measure of devotion, misguided or not, in trying to change their country. It is also unfortunate that, after all his time in Haiti, Kevin Pina could not come up with a more accurate and truthful depiction of the political battles that have claimed the lives of so many young men and women such as my dear, dead friend James. They deserved much better than to be used as political footballs by the cynical, the deluded and the naive.


Anonymous said...

What?? You mean Kevin Pina is a liar??? No way!!!

Great blog entry. I enjoyed the insight.

Anonymous said...

In Haiti, things are rarely as they seem and trying to understand what is happening is always a complex affair, even for Haitians. However, the world is in a mighty class struggle , very much like the one Haiti has been embroiled in for its history. And since the power is in the hands of the few and the masses are mere cogs in the machine (slaves if you want to be dramatic), how would you effect social and economic change in Haiti? Do you think the wealthy will just give up and let everyone share resources? Do you think they may go to extraordinary lengths to maintain the status quo? The players are neither all good nor all bad but maybe it would be useful to examine motives instead of behavior.

Long have I seen that far from the US (govt.) wanting Haiti to be more like us, rather they would like the US to be more like Haiti. And in truth, the rich in this country are becoming more rich and powerful and the middle class is dwindling. Workers should be damned lucky to have a job, nevermind the conditions or lack of benefits.

The people of Haiti are a great inspiration to me. If they can risk their lives to have a democracy, then so can I.

Just a thought, Michael.



Anonymous said...

Kevin Pina has discredited himself a long time ago. Why waste energy on him. Thank you for straightening things on Billy though.

Michael Deibert said...

To Lakat: While I agree that much of the traditional economic power is concentrated where it has usually been, I would call your attention to the growth of the nouveau riche political class that came to the fore after Aristide’s return to power in 1994 who also have privileges, status and interests that have a vested interest in maintaining, and have proven, like the economic elites, that they are willing to use almost any means to do so. These interests often have very little in common with those that they claim to represent, and usually center on enriching a small circle of family and business (legitimate and illicit) associates. The irresponsible economic elite and these rapacious political demagogues in many ways deserve one another, but unfortunately the poor majority of Haiti’s people are caught amidst their struggle.

To Anonymous: I’m not trying to discredit Kevin Pina. I think that people should see Pina’s film if they want to, as they should see Ghosts of Cite Soleil, and make up their own minds, once they have all the facts. What particularly irked me, though, was the gross misrepresentation of James Petit-Frere, someone who, unlike Kevin Pina or myself, could not get on a plane if they really, truly needed to and leave Haiti, and could not appeal to the U.S. embassy when they got arrested, as Kevin immediately did. Let it never be said that I was someone who stood silently by while decent people were slandered and didn’t raise my voice to defend them.

Babette said...

What is most astonishing about it all is the way the "progressive" left just repeats the comments put out by the IJDH, whose board includes Aristide's lawyer, Kurzban, himself $4million richer from the purse of the Haitian people. Now JBA is making his move to return by taking back the Tabarre University - and all the unsuspecting leftist in the States will think that they are helping Haiti by cheering. How SAD!

Anonymous said...

Well I was born in Haiti under the Duvalier's regime. In my opinion, many will not agree with me, Haiti needs a strong leader. Someone who will rule with an iron fist, but has good intention. For example let's take a look at Iraq's state right now, two kind of muslim that clearly hates each other. Democracy will not work. The problem with haiti has been going on since 1804, now it has gotten at the point of no return. James(billy)and Winson(2pac)are products of years of killings and mistreatment by the haitian government. In a twisted way those area needs them for protection from other gangs and/or themselves. Heroes im my book.