Tide Rises Against Haiti’s Elite Class
Carol Williams, seattletimes.com, Mar. 7
PETIONVILLE, Haiti — From the palm-shaded swimming pools and marble terraces of this wealthy suburb’s hillside villas, the distant squalor of Port-au-Prince resembles a tranquil, opalescent coastal vista.
The lavish comforts enjoyed here by Haiti’s small class of industrial kingpins inspired former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to label them “rocks washed by cooling waters,” while his people, the impoverished masses in the slums below, were “the rocks in the sun, taking the heat.”
In a populist drive to show the rich what poverty feels like, Aristide long urged his followers to drag the rocks from the river into the inferno, an allegorical appeal that lives on after his departure as armed supporters continue to loot and burn the businesses of the upper class in a frenzy of revenge and comeuppance.
“Aristide sold people that image, that we were the rocks in the water,” said Michael Madsen, an industrialist of Danish descent who is the embodiment of the light-skinned elite that Aristide demonized as Haiti’s economic vampires.
“He told his people to take us out, to show us what it was like on the outside. Why didn’t he encourage them to come themselves into the water? Because he was incapable of building anything. He only knew how to destroy.”
Shipping containers ransacked
Two days before Aristide left the country last Sunday, gunmen armed by his Lavalas party broke into Madsen’s port-freight yard, he said, ransacking the offices in an orchestrated effort to punish him for supporting the political opposition. It wasn’t long before desperate slum dwellers began looting the shipping containers in the yard, which were filled with food, clothing and electronics.
In the torrent of reprisals unleashed against his perceived enemies in ideology, class and color as his power vanished, Aristide succeeded in sharing the pain of the poor with some of the elite that had never felt it.
But the strategy of sacking enterprises owned by Aristide’s political opponents promises only to widen the social gap between the industrial dynasties that have controlled the economy for generations and the impoverished masses that will have even fewer jobs.
How much longer the attacks on the rich will continue is uncertain, but the damage already has dealt a staggering blow to an economy that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and spiraling downward.
At least $160 million in property has been destroyed, estimates Maurice Lafortune, head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce.
The loss, said importer Sandro Masucchi, whose Honda auto dealership was looted and burned on the morning of Aristide’s departure, could represent half this devastated nation’s private investment.
Haves and have-nots
The roots of the mob rampage run deep in Haitian history.
The minuscule population of whites and mulattos, thought to be no more than 1 percent of the populace of 8.5 million, has long occupied a disproportionate position in the equally tiny echelon of the wealthy.
That is a consequence of land ownership dating to Haiti’s 1804 independence, when some mulatto offspring of French colonial masters and African slaves acquired property amid the panicked exodus of the Europeans after the slave revolt triumphed.
The haves and have-nots formed along racial lines. Color was so obsessively tied to status then that Haitians put names to 64 racial mixtures and assigned each a place on the social hierarchy.
Those now heading family empires insist that the color issue faded at the start of the last century, when the same waves of immigration that brought Irish, Italians and Germans to work in U.S. factories also infused fresh blood into Haiti.
During the 30-year dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, the mulatto industrialists prospered and paid little heed to either the poverty that afflicted the masses or the repression of the Duvaliers’ political opponents. The elite’s protectors and political delegates were the generals of the Haitian National Army.
Socialist ideology embraced
When Aristide rose to national prominence from his Catholic pulpit in the late 1980s, he embraced a socialist ideology equating ownership with exploitation and encouraged the homeless to build shantytowns on industrialists’ land. He cast factory owners as modern-day enslavers for the paltry wages they paid, sowing discord in the workplace. Business owners were so angered that some backed the 1991 military coup that deposed Aristide the first time.
That purported collusion with the army by a few of the most powerful families allowed Aristide to taint the entire industrial class as dictatorship’s paymasters. He also dissolved the army and used jobs in the police force to reward political patronage, essentially destroying the security institutions and replacing them with armed bands of hungry street kids.
“The bourgeoisie are the reason Aristide couldn’t do anything,” said Katho Laguerre, 21, a Cite Soleil slum dweller, gesturing toward the hills of Petionville above the capital. “The bourgeoisie have everything, and we have nothing. That’s why Aristide said we could build houses here, that this was the living room of the people.”
Charles Baker, whose apparel empire has been closed and his sister’s factory torched, said the former president, unlike his predecessors, used color to polarize the nation.
“When someone says ‘bourgeoisie’ in Haiti, they don’t mean a rich man who is black but a rich man who is white or mulatto and belongs to the opposition,” said Baker, a descendant of Europeans and American blacks who came here in the 1930s. “The opposition is 99 percent black and of lesser means than we are, but the image he tried to create was of a light-skinned elite.”