Nous publions en intégralité le discours de Mme Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis à l’ouverture du symposium de « Haitian Ladies Network », le samedi 8 octobre 2022, à Washington D. C.
We publish the full speech of Mrs. Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis at the opening of the symposium of « Haitian Ladies Network », Saturday, October 8, 2022, in Washington D. C.
Haitian Ladies Network
Washington D. C.
October 8th, 2022
I am honored to be here today and want to express my heartfelt thanks to the Haitian Ladies Network for having invited me to their 2022 annual symposium. A special event indeed!
As I was pondering on what I was going to say today, I asked myself: why do hundreds of women from such diverse horizons convene here annually in Washington D. C. for three days? What brings them together? To me there is only one answer: Haiti. Yes, Ayiti. Whether you were born in Haiti, like me – and in my case in Jérémie, the most beautiful part of the country! – whether you were born in the United States, in the Caribbean, or any other place in the world, one symbolic power unites us here, Ayiti. The first country in the world to affirm that Black Lives Matter!
Eighty thousand women who have this in common can bring change if not to the world (and that remains to be seen) but indeed to Haiti!
And yet, it is so difficult today to talk about Haiti, the complexity of its current situation and what the population is constantly going through. I live in Haiti, I work there, I teach there, I have family there and so many people I care deeply about. Every day, I dread to hear that people I know have been kidnapped, raped, wounded, or even murdered. Every day. And I will not list here for you the long list of friends, relatives and companions who have fallen victims of this violence. You have all heard of the dismantling of the State and of all public institution, of massive corruption and of the criminalization of political personnel, of high unemployment, and inflation, “lavi chè”, of what has become a generalized humanitarian crisis. The gangsterization of the whole country is a new devastating phenomenon. And one that can only have developed with the support of traffickers that supply weapons and ammunitions from a place where such weapons are manufactured, a place all profits return to.
In the meantime, we are distracted by gang leaders giving press conferences, interviews to local and foreign medias. Who post videos on social media, giving to their vociferations and violent threats the pretense of political discourse, while the most vulnerable they claim to incarnate are their first and most numerous victims, those most cruelly treated under the impervious gaze of our officials and of their international allies.
This is the unbearable situation we confront every day. Not a fiction. Our reality.
Nonetheless, Haitians have throughout history taught the world lessons in Resistance. Yes, we resist. It is from that mindset and praxis of Resistance that we share, communicate, learn, exchange, build, express solidarity, create and hope.
Today, despite the catastrophic situation of Haiti, I chose to convey to you the spirit of resistance that guides three major sectors of Haitian society: the women, the peasants (also designated as smallholder farmers), and the artists. These are sectors that need to be connected, encouraged, and supported by the diaspora and particularly by a large network like yours. As are no doubt other sectors not described here, but I chose those as I work with them. I have chosen a somewhat historical angle to take us away from the tragic chaos of today, an invitation to turn our gaze on possibilities for the future and on solidarities to be built today in lucid urgency.
In Haiti’s demographics, women count for 52% of the population. Haitian scholar Mireille Neptune Anglade appropriately referred to women as “the other half of development”, the title of her 1997 book. Her important analysis is based on her historical research on the role of Haitian women in the productive sectors (mostly agriculture), and on why Haiti has the highest rate of women single-parent families in the region. As she noted, for over two centuries, men were absent: slavery, marronnage, war of Independence, defense of territorial integrity, migration to sugar plantations in Cuba & the Dominican Republic, civil wars, resistance to US occupation, exile, transitioning in hardship to the diaspora… Such absence created a total imbalance of roles, putting women in a situation of unfair over-responsibility. Any social or political reflection on change should start by examining the place and role of Haitian women in society.
The Haitian women’s right movement is one of the oldest and most exemplary in the Latin America and Caribbean region. In Haiti, it is one of the rare sectors of civil society that has historically advocated for structural and systemic change in favor of women but also in favor of the most vulnerable sectors of society.
In Haiti, the struggle for women’s rights started in the 1930’s when a group of educated women, the Women’s League, took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to claim the rights of all women to be full-fledged citizens capable of participating in the country’s political and social life. Another important focus for them was the public denunciation of brutal sexual violence committed by US marines of the then occupying forces against girls and women.
Their advocacy campaign, while public opinion did not particularly favor the emancipation of women, obtained in 1944 a presidential constitutional amendment allowing women to be candidates for election at the municipal level and for the lower house of Parliament, not for the Senate or the Presidency. That major step was marred with contradiction as women could be elected but still did not have the right to vote.
On the international and regional level, the League gave active support to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of December 10, 1948, and to Haiti’s adhesion to the newly created United Nations. They mobilized for the ratification of the InterAmerican Convention of May 2, 1948, giving political rights to women; and the UN Convention of June 20th 1951 on equal pay for equal work.
In 1957 Haitian women obtained the right to vote and participated massively in the election. However, when Duvalier proclaimed himself president for life in 1963, he affirmed his suspicion and hostility to all civil society organizations that were not subordinated to the dictatorship. Until the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986, the women’s movement remained dormant except in the diaspora.
On April 3rd, 1986, two months after Duvalier’s departure, women from all social sectors organized a massive demonstration asking for a new constitution that guaranteed women’s rights to vote, and to participate in the democratic process the country was engaged in. April 3rd became National Women’s Day in Haiti and is celebrated every year by women’s organizations throughout the country.
The post dictatorship women’s and feminists’ organizations recognized the pioneers’ work and took it to the next level with more specific advocacy regarding women’s rights: respect and support to different types of families; legal status of children born out of wedlock; recognition of rape as a crime, status of domestic workers; reproductive rights; equity vis-à-vis peasant women in the rural areas whose work remains invisible.
Their mobilization for the creation of a Ministry of Women’s Rights was successful and the Ministry was created in 1994. For the past 25 years, the women and feminists’ organizations imposed two major items on the national agenda: the struggle against gender-based violence and women’s political participation.
In 1997, Haitian feminists’ organizations held a symbolic international tribunal on gender-based violence and the recommendations served to negotiate with Parliament the necessary changes in laws discriminating against women. In 2005 the government of Haiti published a decree recognizing the different forms of sexual aggressions and the appropriate sanctions. Rape was finally treated as a crime. Medical doctors received administrative circulars from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of women’s rights asking them to deliver the medical certificate that is an essential document in trials against perpetrators.
The January 12, 2010, devastating earthquake hit the movement hard. Among the victims, several well-known feminist leaders among the most prominent. Relaunching the movement became arduous even more so because of two additional factors: the massive invasion of international NGOs coming with big money that chose to create circumstantial short-lived groups of women while bypassing the local organizations; and the equally massive invasion of fundamentalist religious sects targeting primarily women’s rights and Vodou culture.
Today a new generation of young feminists is emerging with their own vision and actions, but they owe their actual conditions to the engagement, courage, and teachings of the previous generations of feminists. As the struggle for women’s rights and against gender-based violence continues, they need to be supported and encouraged. I want to acknowledge the presence here of Danièle Magloire,
feminist and human rights activist, and a pillar of FOKAL’s Board of directors. Her exemplary commitment and courage in the fight for women’s rights and gender justice make us proud. Her name is associated with all the gains in this ongoing fight. Thank you Danièle.
As I turn to deep rural Haiti and to the Haitian peasants, the smallholder farmers, I will read a quote that I frequently use because it clearly describes their historical drive to create a new way of living based on mutual respect and solidarity.
In her book Taking Haiti, Military Occupation & the Culture of Imperialism, 1915-1940, American scholar Mary Renda writes: “Haitian peasants had struggled to establish a peasant economy and to resist forces urging them toward plantation wage labor. Picking coffee and growing food for themselves and for the market in their own garden plots afforded greater levels of control over their lives than plantation agriculture would allow… They worked body and soul for economic independence.”
In the wake of our independence, the rural communities imagined a new political and social order capable of offering them the space needed to reconstruct their lives as communities who had suffered, and vowed to never again suffer, the racism, the terror, and the constant violence of the plantation system. They wanted to build their own identity in their struggle for equality. Land ownership was the basis of economic freedom but also a matter of dignity and power.
The notion of honor was (and remains) a priority in their struggle: those who introduce themselves with honor should be greeted with respect! This remained true throughout the 19th century and a good part of the 20th century. This is the cultural source of the spiritual strength, resistance, imagination, and creativity for all of us. This is Ayiti.
Today we are contemplating the devastating effects of two concomitant factors:
- First, the gradual dismantling of the peasant economy begun in 1986, begun when the Haitian Ministry of Economy and Finance embraced the deregulation of our imports prescribed by the IMF,
and followed more decisively in 1994 when President Aristide returned from exile with US military support and deregulation was consecrated. How can a Haitian peasant, still working with the 18th century hoe, and with practically no support, compete with the highly subsided US farmer from Biloxi, Mississippi or Ouachita, Arkansas? Our rice production that used to feed 80% of the population is now reduced to barely 20%. The local production of rice used to provide for close to half a million families and now to only 130 000 families, mobilizing 30 000 temporary workers, 90% in the Artibonite valley. In 1986 the tax on imported rice was at 50%, in 1987 at 35% and in 1995 it went down to 3%. Today Haiti is the second largest importer of US rice after Mexico, before Japan and Canada. These policies destroyed both the urban and the rural areas and inexorably reduced public revenues.
- The second factor is the fast-growing demographic in the country. The population has doubled in 30 years, from 6 million when Duvalier was ousted in 1986 to an estimate of 12 million today.
Our already overcrowded cities, including the Capital, with no real productive economy, no appropriate urban infrastructures, no adequate housing, schools, health facilities, have become a breeding ground for gang violence.
While migrations seemed to be an escape for many whether for economic or political reasons, those who stayed had to suffer the outcome of measures adopted without questioning their medium and long-term effects.
It is a matter of JUSTICE to invest in the rural areas with the smallholder farmers, with women heads of families that also cultivate land and carried for centuries the burden of going to the markets to sell their produce and to keep alive what remains of the rural economy. Justice for the population whose back breaking coffee production paid the indemnity, the debt and the double debt contracted by force in 1825 to compensate the colonial slave owners, while maintaining those vital populations in the margins.
Our own experience at FOKAL, though limited, is a continuous transformative process of learning, listening, and sharing that works both ways. Our relations of proximity on the ground are now sadly limited by the gangs’ control of the main roads, but we keep in touch by all other means, and we support their resistance. The fight against food insecurity, the promotion of local production, the preservation of our biodiversity and the protection of the environment can gain momentum only through long term investments, and respect for the leadership of smallholder farmers organizations, not through humanitarian aid.
Finally, let me touch on the artistic world. Creating incredible works of art in adverse conditions, in precariousness, in “peyi lòk”, in defiance of dictatorship and of more covert forms of repression, that is what the artists and artisans of Haiti, women and men, constantly demonstrate in all fields: visual arts, dance, music, literature, iron works, cinema, theatre, photojournalism, traditional crafts…
As an example, every year since 2003, the Festival de Théâtre 4 Chemins takes place toward the end of the year. I remember in 2004, I was a member of the selection committee and the city of Gonaïves was totally flooded by hurricane Jane.
Most inhabitants had lost everything, and we were heartbroken by the distress. A question was raised: should we cancel the festival? After debate and arguments, we decided to go ahead. And I was asked to explain why at the launching event. The space was packed. I don’t know what inspired me, I just said: “the committee has decided to go along with the festival. This festival will be dedicated to the people of Gonaïves as a testimony of our solidarity.” There was a moment of silence, then a standing ovation. I was relieved but I also understood what that meant. Creating in times of disaster demands respect and a continuing engagement from the artists as well as from the public.
Since then, every year the festival takes place, often in the midst of social unrest or natural disasters. Most of the events happen in the streets, in improvised spaces, markets and public squares, there is no standard performance space in Haiti.
FOKAL ran the festival for 10 years before rightfully transferring the leadership to an association of artists highly conscious of the role theater plays in raising awareness on vital civic issues. We are extremely proud of this demonstration of the sector’s capacity to take charge of the festival.
Artistic and artisan communities are numerous, particularly in the wider Port au Prince area, but also in many other areas of the country. They are rooted throughout the country in the struggles for survival that are the fabric of Haitian life. In l’Artibonite, in the South, in Port au Prince, traditional and modern creation, crafts and arts cohabit and collaborate. Of note among many is the community of iron artisans and artists established in the village of Noailles, in Croix-des-Bouquets. Established since the 1940’s, they are an extraordinary example of transgenerational transmission rooted in popular culture. They have been attacked by gangs on several occasions with deadly casualties but continue to create inspirational artistic works with the support, among others, of FOKAL and of Fondation Afrikamerika. Their creations could be seen in a magnificent exhibit last June and they still work miracles to remain connected to regional markets in the Caribbean and in the US.
A lot could also be said about dance and music, and about our writers whose literary works are often awarded internationally, but that would be the subject of an entire conference. They are messengers of the spirit of Ayiti, the troublemaker and disrupter of oppressive orders, the artists themselves incarnating the ultimate individual defiance of all controlling forces.
At last, I want to honor Le Centre d’art, another beacon of resistance and creativity. As the chair of the Board, I thank HLN for giving us the opportunity to make our work known and to raise desperately needed funds to preserve the oldest institution dedicated to Haitian artists with an incredible track record going back to 1944, and today vibrant, audacious and younger than ever. Most of our prominent artists recognize the role Le Centre d’art played, and still plays, in their artistic journey.
When we resumed our activities after the peak of Covid-19, in January 2021, Le Centre d’art held a major exhibit, titled RÈL, of prominent artists from Bel Air, and from Grand Rue who were totally decapitalized by the pandemic but also by the senseless violence inflicted on their communities by gangs and police alike.
This year, in January, in collaboration with Le Musée d’art haïtien, the work of 3 generations of women artists were exposed. This past June, the exhibit Archipelago showed the work of 9 women Caribbean artists (Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Barbados) in an exchange program sponsored by UNESCO. In July, 8 winners of a call for proposals launched in collaboration with the Swiss Embassy in Haiti and supporting creative artists exhibited their works. All of these powerful celebratory moments occurred in Port au Prince under siege by incomprehensible violence. Indeed, we resist.
All these events receive hundreds of visitors and take place at Maison Dufort, a gingerbread house restored by FOKAL after the 2010 quake. The fundraising campaign launched by the Centre d’art aims at restoring its own historical landmark house recently acquired thanks to the generosity of one of its main sponsors Fondation Daniel et Nina Carasso of France.
Please visit the stand, learn about Le Centre d’art, and donate.
I started my speech by saying that what bring us together today and is at the heart of this symposium is Ayiti. Not a phantasmatic Haiti made of illusory dreams, not a faraway third of an island crippled with the avatars of geopolitics, globalization and collapsed governance. What I invoke with you is the real spirit of Ayiti, that of freedom, of solidarity among and with those who suffer, of mutual understanding, of honest commitment. The spirit of resistance igniting the soul of our women, smallholder farmers and artists. The spirit that can enlighten our path and, as said by the great poet Aimé Césaire, give us “the strength to look at tomorrow”. La force de regarder demain. Fòs pou nou gade demen !
Thank you! Mèsi anpil !
Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis,
October 8, 2022