An enthusiastic audience of Boston-area students, workers and intellectuals both Haitian and non-Haitian welcomed scholar-activist Franck Laraque to Boston, Massachusetts the weekend of April 10–11, 2004, at Northeastern University. The occasion was the launching of “Haïti: La lutte et l’espoir (Haiti: Between Struggle and Hope),” a collection of reflections and reminiscences by brothers Franck and Paul Laraque. The cultural forum was sponsored by Boston-based SEDRA (Center for Education and Research on Haiti), the journal Tanbou, and Northeastern’s African American Studies Department.
Following introductions by SEDRA’s Jacques Antoine Jean and this writer, Franck Laraque went straight to the main points of the book, notably the parts about “conscientisation économique,” “alternative models of development,” and exhortations to “build your communities with your own resources.” Panelists and audience members participated equally in the lively discussion that followed, which turned mostly on Haiti’s need for a new model of development, and new perspectives on political change.
Along with brother Paul, Franck Laraque was once an officer in the Haitian army. Franck left the army in August 1957, amid the turmoil following the collapse of the Collegial Government. Soon after, he was exiled to New York City where he went back to school and became a professor of French literature at the City College of New York (CCNY), in high demand as a speaker for his advocacy of socialism and intellectual freedom. His doctoral thesis, “Revolt in Sartre’s Theater,” was later published in book form. The key to the charismatic “uniqueness” of Franck Laraque is the zeal and scrupulously documented expertise he employs in his development of a socio-economic critique of Haiti’s underdevelopment problematic: he proposes a new way of doing things, a way which validates Haiti’s tremendous physical, human and intellectual resources—instead of the current paradigm of charity and beggary.
“Haïti: La lutte et l’espoir [Haiti: Between Struggle and Hope]” (Éditions CIDIHCA, 2004) has two parts. The first part, which covers Economy, Politics and Literature, is a compilation of essays by Franck Laraque that range from a plea for “economic consciousness” in Haiti, to the author’s memoir of the Jeremie Massacre and ethnic prejudice in Haiti. The core of Franck Laraque’s critique of the incompetence and corruption of the dominant ruling classes and his advocacy for an alternative political project lies in his view that Haiti has ample resources that only need to be identified, counted, organized and utilized in ways that benefit the development of Haiti and the well-being of the Haitian people, especially the poorest sectors of the population.
The traditional Haitian practice of Koumbit—a cooperative practice which seeks the voluntary work of everyone in the community to help achieve a successful harvest—could be a useful model in devising mutually beneficial exchanges and strategic commercial collaboration between identified economic forces within Haiti and with other countries. This would benefit not only the powerful economic forces of the wealthy countries, as has been traditionally the case, but also the masses of the “peripheral” countries who will come to equate the need for higher production with the imperative of a more just society.
In effect, this way of seeing the Haitian problematic, with a perspective toward the long term, would necessitate a paradigmatic shift on two fronts: the intellectual and the practical. On the intellectual front, Haitians must come to the realization that a certain way of doing things has failed, and will continue to cause tragedy if they don’t change it. For example, the rebels who took arms during the current Haitian crisis—they came from the Dominican Republic, invaded the Haitian Cap, joined with insurgents in other cities or towns, attacked Port-au-Prince, and almost took power—were following a typical 19th-century formula during which consecutive, bloody insurgencies and coups followed one after another, until the “international community,” usually the USA, intervened and so on… The recent events were a déjà-vu in many ways. On the practical level, as Franck Laraque emphasized: “A realistic development project is understood as capable of taking place with the available human and financial resources, without the preliminary condition of a supposed indispensability of foreign aid.”
For, despite all the clichés to the contrary, Haiti has tremendous human, natural and intellectual resources that only need to be recognized, explored, validated, developed and put to the enjoyable use of its people.
In his essays, Franck gives examples of small, local, and self-developed communities like Fondwa, or Pliché, in the southern Cavaillon section of Haiti, or peasant organizations such as the Peasant Movement of Papaye, in the northern region. Laraque does not believe that small community projects in themselves, even cumulatively, would make much of a difference in terms of the overall development of Haiti, which implies structural changes that such projects, however well-intentioned, cannot sustain. Still, small, locally initiated development projects can contribute to the political and economic consciousness process that Franck thinks is indispensable before any national project of development can take shape. It may seem surprising to see Frank Laraque expounding a politico-economic project that doesn’t include a preliminary revolutionary change at the political level. But to read Franck Laraque’s many other essays on the subject, and in private conversations with him, it’s clear that he strongly believes that the very paradigmatic shift implicit in the prioritizing of the economic imperatives of Haiti—be it by small projects or governmental edicts—will change Haiti’s “way of doing things” very profoundly.
The book’s first section also features a moving tribute to Franck Laraque’s late daughter, Marie-Hélène Laraque (1948–2000). She was an anthropologist by training who became a human right activist, joining the struggle of the Déné Indian communities in the North-West Territories of Canada. Poet in the secrecy of her private moments,, Marie-Hélène wrote the poem “To Find a New Land” in which she extols the beauty of the Haitian landscape, evoking memories of the “home of my ancestors” where she enjoyed freedom “unchallenged by the endless choices.” We should mention also the striking profiles Frank Laraque offers of the great Haitian novelist, Marie Chauvet, who died in New York in 1973; of the poet Jean Brierre; and of his brother Guy, also a poet, assassinated in December 1991 by thugs from the regime that seized power following the September-30, 1991, coup d’État against Aristide.
Paul Laraque, Franck’s brother and co-author, was not present in Boston for the event, but his spirit was represented by Lesly René, Laforèt Petit-Frère and Jacques Antoine Jean who read his poems from the bilingual, English-Creole anthology Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry (Curbstone Press, 2002) which Paul Laraque edited and other volumes (see Boston Haitian Reporter of May 2002). A revolutionary poet, he once corresponded with the celebrated French Surrealist guru André Breton, and was among the entourage of poets and intellectuals (René Depestre, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Théodore Baker, Gérald Bloncourt, Gérard Chenet, Pierre Mabile, etc.) who welcomed Breton in Port-au-Prince during the latter’s famous visit to Haiti in December 1945. This fateful visit was among the catalytic cultural events that triggered what was called the “1946 Revolution,” which brought about the overthrow of Elie Lescot, the autocratic president, favorite of the Americans, who was the first “sovereign” president after the US’ 19-year occupation.
Paul Laraque stayed in the Haitian army a few years longer than Franck, reaching the rank of colonel. Although relatively high in the army’s hierarchy, he was assigned a desk job, in command of no military unit. He later complained of his “powerlessness” during the student strikes of 1960; rumor had it that the students had sympathizers in the army, and it was well known that Paul Laraque was one of them. For his part, he said he had friends among the students, and Rossini Pierre-Louis, the parliament leader whom François Duvalier accused of treason, was the uncle of Paul’s wife. His sympathy for the strikers was not enough and he wanted to do more to help them, but he was isolated and had no military unit under his command—and those who had were either too coward to confront the tyrant, or very eager to heed his repressive order. Paul resigned, or more precisely was encouraged to resign from the army soon after, exiling to Puerto Rico in November 1960.
The second part of the Laraque brothers’ book, “Culture and Revolution,” consists of Paul Laraque’s reflection on the dialectical rapport between politics and culture in Haiti. He asserts quite forcefully the importance of the Creole language as “the language of all Haitians, without any distinctions of social class, economic status, education, religion or color.” He believes that the use and the celebration of the richness of the Creole language, due to its ostracism by the French-educated Haitian elites, has become part of Haiti’s struggle and aspiration for freedom and social justice: “The discussions about the Creole will remain academic as long as the Creole remains separated from the class struggle.” He quotes Amilcar Cabral who had said, “Only societies which preserve their culture are capable of mobilizing the masses and organizing them against foreign domination.”
In this essay, Paul Laraque also lauds the vodou religion as “the most original attribute of the Haitian culture,” defining it as “not only a popular religion, but also a way of life of the people which permeates what is integral to their work, their suffering, their hope, their struggle, their joy, and finally to the many representations of their collective sensibility as expressed in dance, song, folklores, painting, sculpture, oral and written literature.” Karl Marx once said that religion is the “opiate of the people, and also the heart of an otherwise heartless world.” Paul Laraque agrees: “…As any other religion, vodou is a form of alienation, meaning that it assigns to the gods and the loas responsibilities which belong to humans, “It is an obstacle to the political consciousness, particularly to class consciousness.” While it is true, as Laraque asserts, that Vodou could be “an escape from a cruel reality and toward an imaginary world created by misery and ignorance,” it is also true—although Paul didn’t say it—that in the Haitian historical context, Vodou has been a means of struggle, resistance and affirmative identity. And unlike Hinduism, Judaism, Christianism or Islamism which became dominating theological and cultural dogmas in their respective spheres of influence, Vodou for its part, despite the crucial role it played in Haitian national independence and identity, has never become dominant or dominating in Haitian society (notwithstanding the saying which goes that Haitians are 85% Catholic, 15% Protestant and 100% Vodouisant). Paul Laraque has, in the end, implicitly recognized the magisterial role played by Vodou as factor of “conscientisation” and resistance when he says: “The anti-superstition campaigns […] took place just before the expropriations. Separated from their gods, the peasants could easily be dispossessed of their property.”
Paul Laraque’s poetry is like a volcanic lava surrounded by fertile, vivifying lands, a morning dew in hell. He believes that oppression and horror should be fought with all human energies and might. Just like the young, powerless, desk-assigned officer who wrote clandestine, incendiary poems under the pseudonym Jacques Lenoir, Paul Laraque believes that poetry can be both a marvelous dispenser of pleasure and beauty, and a weapon for the struggle to change life, a revolutionary instrument at the hands of the people: “My poetry tends to be an explosive mixture of love and liberty, dream and revolution, the cruelty of the present and the hope of the future. I believe that culture cannot be dissociated from history. Since the Spanish conquest with the cross and the sword, our hemisphere has been marked by native resistance against colonialism and genocide, by Black heroism against slavery, by peoples’ struggles against imperialism, by masses’ revolt for economic equality and social, political and cultural freedom.” [extracted from a speech presented by Paul Laraque on Jan. 19, 2004 at a public meeting of the Haitian People’s Support Project in Woodstock, NY, and later published in Haïti-Progrès]
Like this writer and many intellectuals of the Haitian left, both Paul and Franck Laraque supported Aristide in the beginning, when he symbolized, as a fiery activist priest at Saint Jean Bosco, the liberation dream of the Haitian people. Both Laraques supported the demand for his return to power to redress the rightist coup d’Etat of September 30th, 1991. But they nevertheless opposed the US military intervention and occupation decided by Clinton and Aristide in 1994 to bring about the return. They felt that, having not been freely decided by the people themselves, the foreign imposition of the return was an aberration and perversion of the democratic ideals the Lavalas movement was supposed to represent. During the most recent events in the Haitian crisis, the Laraques’ position was critical of both Aristide’s inert and corrupt government, and the Convergence opposition’s “option zero” solution (based on an a priori resignation of Aristide, outside the constitutional regulation). Both Paul and Franck Laraque opposed the Franco-American intervention, the ensuing kidnapping of Aristide and the current de facto government of the country whose agenda is to appease the FRAPH killers, and not the national emergency mission that one would expect from a government in such a dire moment of the country’s history. Both brothers would support the emergence of a real national unity government—Franck more explicitly—to build the necessary unitary strength to dismantle the occupation regime.
Paul’s part of the book is also a tripartite homage to the three pillars of the Haitian progressive literary creed: Jacques Roumain, Anthony Lespès and Jacques Stephen Alexis. The first a novelist, poet and Marxist theoretician, the second a Marxist poet, the third a Marxist novelist turned revolutionary martyr; all three influenced Haitian literature in profound ways. Each, in his own respective way, reassigned the role of literature from the pedestal of elitist dogma and fantasies to the empirical experience of everyday life, encompassing all human emotions, from the tears of loss, horror and despair, to the joy of revolutionary change.
Today in their early eighties, and despite many personal tragedies (notably the passing of their brother Guy; of Paul’s wife of 48 years, Marcelle; Franck’s wife of 54 years Anne-Marie, and Franck’s daughter Marie-Hélène), both brothers continue to be strong voices for resistance and change. Despite many political vicissitudes that range from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, the overthrow of Aristide’s first popular government in 1991, Cuba’s Special Period of 1989–1994, the “friendly” US marines’ occupation of 1994, to the humiliation of recent months, both Paul and Franck continue to believe that the cause of justice, liberty, equality and human dignity is still worth fighting for. Paul concludes his essay on culture and politics with a reminder that both should be part of the same praxis to change life: “The defense of our popular culture and its qualitative transformation will be inseparable from the struggle for the Second Independence, for the civil and political liberties, for social equality and economic progress for all, beginning with the landless peasants and the unemployed workers who have nothing to lose but everything to gain from the revolution.” A revolution which would bring about not only the satisfaction of the material needs, but also “love, art and freedom.”
—Tontongi, Editor of the journal Tanbou www.tanbou.com
*This article was first published in the May 2004 issue of the monthly Boston Haitian Reporter.