Could the gangs of Port-au-Prince form a pact to revitalise Haiti's capital?Haiti’s leaders have long made use of armed groups to impose their will in the streets of vibrant but derelict Port-Au-Prince, offering precious little in return. Now some of those communities may have had enough
Michael Deibert in Port-au-Prince
Tuesday 14 July 2015 12.01 BST
(Read the original article here)
Sitting inside the Day-Glo-coloured nightclub that he runs on a hillside speckled with squat cement houses, Christla Chery, 32, pushes his baseball cap back on his head and outlines his community’s problems.
“We don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything here. The state is completely absent from this neighbourhood,” he says, as the Caribbean winds clatter over the zinc roof. “This is a prison where we are deprived of our liberty. We would like the freedom of every person here to enter society.”
The neighbourhood of Ti Bois, where Chery has his nightclub, wraps like a necklace around the southern hills of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. From this remove, the city pulses below: a nearly silent tableau of the tumbling azure ocean, curling smoke rising from burning garbage and thousands upon thousands of cars.
Though many refer to Chery and his compatriots as gang leaders, they have a different perception of themselves and their armed followers, whom they refer to as the baz – the base of the neighbourhood. Chery and his men enact a role that falls somewhere between political pressure group, warlord and tax collector, gathering tolls from the various supply trucks that pass along the narrow lanes.
The baz within Martissant – the larger neighbourhood of which Ti Bois is part – have often been in conflict among themselves. Despite being in a strategic location in the city – it overlooks the main road to the south of the country – Martissant was offered precious little by the state, even before the country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake. The baz have functioned in that power vacuum for years as a kind of de facto community government. Now, with Haitian elections scheduled for this year, the various baz are working to maintain a tense peace between themselves.
Haiti’s leaders have made use of armed groups, some quasi-regular and some not, to impose their will in Port-au-Prince virtually since the country’s founding. The history of the capital city has in part been the history of the fighting between these groups. Now that may be changing. “For years, [the politicians] would ask us to burn tyres, to cause disorder … but there was no development,” Chery says. “And we don’t want that anymore.”
Among those trying to facilitate a peaceful coexistence between the various baz in the city is the Lakou Lapè (the name means “peaceful community” in Creole). The two-year-old group has a mission to promote a culture of non-violence and dialogue.
“It’s like three steps forward, two steps backward,” says Louis Henri-Mars, Lakou Lapè’s executive director and the grandson of Haitian author Jean Price-Mars, one of the founders of the négritude movement of black consciousness. “But we know it takes time. Change comes from positive encounters and relationships that make positive connections happen. They allow you to get a different world view to come out of the craziness you’ve been living in.”
Under Faustin Soulouque, who crowned himself emperor and ruled Haiti from 1849 to 1859, the armed groups supporting him were referred to as zinglin. Around the same time, the peasant backers of the renegade general Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau in the south of the country were referred to as l’armée souffrante (the suffering army). Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971, formed the denim-clad Tontons Macoutes, a kind of shock troop with the dual purpose of repressing dissent and insulating him from an army coup such as those that had ousted his predecessors. His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, inherited the Macoute system when he became president as a morbidly obese 19-year-old. Duvalier the younger was overthrown in 1986, returned to Haiti in 2011 and died peacefully there last year, having never answered for his crimes (of which those committed through the Macoutes were only part). Under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has the unique distinction of being overthrown not once but twice, the (often quite young) gunmen tasked with protecting the regime were called chimère, after a mythical fire-breathing demon.
As much as the better-known slum of Cité Soleil, Martissant has always been a redoubt of such paramilitaries. Roger Lafontant, a feared Macoute leader who died during the 1991 coup against Aristide, formed an armed group that operated in the area in the late 1980s. Later, the most powerful gang in Martissant was run by Felix “Don Féfé” Bien-Aimé, an Aristide loyalist who orchestrated the murder of at least 13 people in the neighbouring Fort Mercredi district, after which he was nevertheless awarded a patronage job as the director of Port-au-Prince’s main cemetery. He was himself later “disappeared” by the police.
Since 2004, an ever-shifting panoply of groups have occupied the various zones of Martissant – Ti Bois, Grand Ravine, Descayettes and 2eme Avenue. One group, the Lame Ti Manchèt (or L’armée des Petites Machettes, the Little Machete Army), was affiliated with rogue elements of the national police. Another of the largest Grand Ravine gangs was run by Dymsley “Ti Lou” Milien, who broke out of jail after being arrested for his alleged role in the 2000 murder of Haiti’s most prominent journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique. Up until recently, from a foreign mobile number, Ti Lou has regularly called his followers who listen, rapt, as a mobile phone is held aloft to transmit his words.
But relations between Ti Bois and Grand Ravine are now relatively calm, which makes many hope that Martissant can perhaps invigorate some of its long-moribund tourism industry. As hard as it may be to envision after the 2010 quake – and despite being levelled by previous earthquakes in 1751 and 1770 as well – Port-au-Prince was once thought of as one of the glorious cities of the Caribbean. Travelling to Haiti in 1929, the British author Alec Waugh wrote that Port-au-Prince was:
Martissant itself was one of the hubs for visitors to the capital. Just a few streets below Chery’s house is the beautiful Parc de Martissant, a restful space filled with dripping vegetation and bright bird of paradise flowers. The 42-acre park has now been reclaimed by the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Fokal), a civil society group working on education, human development and economic issues.One of the loveliest towns in the New World … The walls of houses and the twin spires of the cathedral gleam brightly through and above deep banks of foliage … It is through wide, clean streets, through the open park of the Champs de Mars, through a town that is half a garden, that you drive out toward the hills.
Within the park sits the Habitation Leclerc, an early 19th-century building that was allegedly once home to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, and her husband, French general Charles Leclerc, who was sent to Haiti to stamp out the slave rebellion that ultimately created the world’s first black republic. The property was eventually purchased by the American choreographer Katherine Dunham, whose 1969 autobiography, Island Possessed, remains an essential read. She turned Habitation Leclerc into a lavish hotel that attracted the jet-set, who availed themselves of nearby casinos and bars staffed by Dominican prostitutes (extraordinarily, despite fear of Aids and three decades of political upheaval, many of these bars still exist). But, by the late 1990s, the property – like some other areas of Port-au-Prince – had been overrun by gangs and squatters.
Recent restoration efforts have begun to return the gorgeous old structure to its former glory. Nor is it alone as a zone of possible rebirth. Outside of Martissant, the district of Bel-Air, which rises on the hills above a broad square that once housed Haiti’s National Palace (destroyed in the 2010 earthquake), has a rich tradition of music and art. For many years it was a centre for the production of drapo vodou, or voodoo flags, beautiful fabric-and-sequin creations bearing representations of the various Iwa (spirits). It, too, fell into disrepair and was heavily damaged in the quake, but it someday might have the potential to be a fascinating neighbourhood again.
Haiti’s current political scene, though, gives rise to concern that national politics will once again factionalise the city’s neighbourhood communities. The outgoing president, Michel Martelly – often referred to as Tèt Kale (Bald Head) – delivered a long, obscene rant against his opponents during a huge concert in the Champ de Mars plaza last month. Among those running to replace him are a senator, Moïse Jean-Charles, whose chief occupation as mayor of the northern city of Milot appeared to be bullying political opponents and journalists, and Jude Célestin, who has been accused by a now-jailed gang leader of involvement in the 2009 disappearance of another government employee. One senate candidate for Martelly’s party, Annette “Sò Anne” Auguste, is running despite being named by a judge for her own alleged role in the Jean Dominique killing.
Strange and somewhat menacing symbolism abounds in the city. Last month, supporters of excluded candidates held a suggestive mock “funeral” for Haiti’s election officials. An unseemly revisionism of the Duvalier years has also taken hold, with magazines advertising “Papa Doc Cigars” printed with the number 57 (the year of his inauguration). The election is also taking place as thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent are being expelled from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which Human Rights Watch called “ongoing violations of the human right to a nationality”.
In such a context, Mario Andrésol, the head of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH), the country’s national police force, from 2006 until 2012, collected 159,000 signatures to be accepted as an independent candidate for president. On a recent day, he was hosting a meeting of young activists from impoverished regions such as Bel Air and Cité Soleil at his Port-au-Prince home.
“We need to redefine ourselves as a nation, and the vision is to change a corrupted system,” says Andrésol. “We need to have institutional reinforcement. The executive, the legislative and the judiciary are supposed to be independent, but they’re not. The president has too many privileges, too many prerogatives. The president needs to understand that he’s the servant of the people.”
Meanwhile, for many of those in the capital who survived the 2010 earthquake – and were not relocated to the questionable sanctuary of some far-flung new camp – life goes on much as it did before, chache lavi (looking for life). The moto taxi drivers still stand in a line outside of the Djoumbala nightclub. The vendor women still haggle and laugh in the Pétionville market. The residents near the Stade Sylvio Cator still go about their lives in a swirl of dust and exhaust fumes and a cacophony of engines, horns and blaring music. In my old neighbourhood of Pacot, wreathed in bougainvillea and full of houses in Haiti’s distinctive gingerbread style of architecture, delicious cabrit en sauce is still on offer and groups playing Haiti’s plangent rara music still march through the streets.
Haiti’s national character – gentle, kind, good-humoured, quick-witted – stands in stark contrast to the take-no-prisoners blood sport of the country’s political culture. But, beyond the shrill ramblings of its politicians, at a certain hour of the day one is reminded of the words of Jacques Stephen Alexis, one of Haiti’s greatest writers, when he described Port-au-Prince in his 1955 book Compère Général Soleil (General Sun, My Brother):
Looking down on the capital from Ti Bois as the setting sun lathers a honeyed light on to the surrounding mountains, one can see what he meant.Towards three o’clock in the afternoon the wind picked up suddenly, galloping and roaring through the city. The pelicans over the port whirled endlessly. The sea put on its fancy green dress and donned shawls of lace foam.
And Ti Bois, as it happens, does not appear to be the only baz that is gradually awakening to the fact that Haiti’s politicians have long used them as little more than cannon fodder, providing precious little in return as their districts sank ever-deeper into poverty.
Across town, in the popular quarter of Saint Martin, a rabble-rousing deputy in Haiti’s lower house of parliament – known for his violent background and temper – recently showed up in his constituency to seek support for his political ambitions, as he always had. Instead of finding a receptive audience, he was relieved of his weapon, his money and sent out of the neighbourhood with a message not to return.