Grass-Roots Groups Reorganize in Haiti

HAITIAN reform groups are resurfacing after having spent the better part of three years underground.

Leaders from peasant, labor, neighborhood, and student groups are reorganizing their members. Since Haiti's military seized control in 1991, reformers have faced often brutal repression, which caused many of their organizations to dismantle or go into hiding.

``It's a reorganization job,'' says Fred Pierre, an activist with a group here called Coordination of Operation Lavalas. Mr. Pierre is one of thousands of organizers who fled when the Haitian military forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to leave the country in September 1991.

This Oct. 8, Pierre returned to his home in Cap-Haitien for the first time in three years.

Amid looks of disbelief, followed by hugs and whoops of joy, Pierre encountered friends and family. His wife had traveled to see him only three times during his years of hiding from authorities in Port-au-Prince. His five-year-old son, Sankara, broke into a wide smile at the sight of his father.

Pierre is the first leader to return to this large port city since the arrival of US troops on Sept. 19, says a young priest familiar with the pro-Aristide movement here. ``All the leaders of the coup have left,'' the priest says. ``It's difficult to find people on the ground.''

Grass-roots groups, trying to organize Haiti's poorest people into an effective coalition, have withered under the repressive military regime. These include national groups, such as the National Alliance of Popular Organizations, as well as regional organizations.

``At the moment, we are only organizing demonstrations,'' says Eustache, a pro-Aristide activist here who won't give his full name for security concerns. Most of the leaders have disappeared; in some cases, their fate is unknown. ``We are waiting for them to reorient the people.''

The military regime of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, who resigned his post on Oct. 10, cracked down on almost any organizing group, whether it was politically motivated or not. Simply organizing peasants so they could buy goods collectively was, ``for us, ... the threat of death,'' says Alokin, an activist in Port-au-Prince. Many organizations stopped holding meetings. Instead, they passed along messages and information informally.

Although Haiti's many reform groups seem united now, deep divisions exist. As early as 1986, after the fall of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, reformers have been split between moderates and militants. Their differences concern tactics and policy. Moderates detest the sometimes violent street justice, known as dechoukaj, while militants have supported a forceful overthrow of the current political and economic structure.

In a meeting between Pierre and one of his fellow activists, Francklin Mllus, the latter says he wants a ``systematic change.'' Pierre interrupts him. ``We have to go step-by-step,'' he says.``We have a need for the bourgeoisie - a nationalist bourgeoisie that can invest in the country.... It isn't our will to have the bourgeoisie disappear. That isn't democratic.''

Pierre is the co-owner of a local pharmacy. He was jailed overnight in 1989 for his pro-Aristide activity. Right after the 1991 military coup, he issued a press release urging people to resist the military. Three days later, when he learned Aristide had been forced to leave the country, Pierre went into hiding, first moving from house-to-house in Cap-Haitien and, after several months, fleeing to Port-au-Prince.

On Oct. 9, at a local cultural center in Cap-Haitien, Pierre attended a meeting of Coordination of Operation Lavalas. Like just about everyone else in Haiti, the group eagerly awaits Aristide's return. Its focus: putting up banners and posters and starting a volunteer street-cleaning campaign in order that their returning president can see a clean country.``The people who have been afraid to meet will have to start meeting again,'' Pierre says.

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