On May 25, Haitian President René Préval nominated his long-time friend and close advisor Robert “Bob” Manuel to be Haiti’s next prime minister replacing Jacques Edouard Alexis, whom the Haitian Senate voted out of the post on April 12 following a nationwide popular uprising against the rising cost of living (see Haïti Liberté, Vol. 1, No. 39, 4/16/2008). Haiti’s Chamber of Deputies rejected Préval’s first nominee for the post, Inter-American Development Bank official Ericq Pierre, on May 12 (see Haïti Liberté, Vol. 1, No. 43, 5/14/2008).
“Intense discussions took place between the head of state and the presidents of the two [Parliamentary] houses before the designation of M. Manuel,” said Kelly Bastien, the Senate president. “The name of M. Manuel was proposed when we explained that certain senators were not favorable to the nomination of Jean-Max Bellerive nor Joanas Gué,” respectively Alexis’s Planning Minister and Agriculture Secretary of State.
Manuel, 55, has a long and contradictory history in Haiti’s movement for justice and democracy over the past three decades. He was born into the bourgeoisie, the great grandson of Haitian president Tancrede Auguste (1912-1913) and a distant cousin of famed writer and Haitian Communist Party founder, Jacques Roumain. An architect, writer, and poet, Manuel worked in anti-Duvalierist groups in the 1980s and became part of the Fred Coriolan Committee in 1986 with other pro-democracy activists like Patrick Elie and René Préval. He helped usher Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide to safety when dictatorship thugs massacred worshipers at St. Jean Bosco church on Sep. 11, 1988. In November 1990, he became the first security chief for presidential candidate Aristide, and after his Feb. 7, 1991 inauguration, an advisor on security matters to President Aristide and his Prime Minister Préval.
Following the Sep. 30, 1991 coup d’état against Aristide, Manuel took refuge in the Mexican Embassy, which soon flew him to Mexico. He was appointed first secretary of the Haitian Embassy in Mexico (Haitian diplomacy was under the direction of the president in exile), and, after Aristide’s return to power in October 1994, Manuel moved to Guatemala, the native country of his second wife, Maricelle Dieguez de Manuel. (His first wife, Clothilde Charlot, had been a secretary for Aristide during his Washington, D.C. exile; today she is a bitter opponent of her former employer.)
Manuel returned to Haiti to run René Préval’s successful presidential campaign in 1995 and became the Secretary of State for Public Security, the number two Justice ministry position, for most of Préval’s first presidential term from 1996 to 2001.
During that time, Manuel became increasingly unpopular with the Haitian masses. Armed with a Galil assault rifle and dressed in the intimidating black body armor of the CIMO anti-riot police, Manuel personally directed several vigorous crackdowns against popular organizations aligned with Aristide’s Lavalas Family party, founded in late 1996. He also took measures to counter-balance Aristide’s appointees and partisans in the Presidential Guard and fledgling police force. Among the people he imported into the National Palace security force were a group of young Haitian Army recruits who had been trained by U.S. and Ecuadorian Special Forces in Ecuador during the coup years. The “Ecuadorians” (also jokingly referred to in Haitian security circles as “Bob Manuel’s jewels”) became infamous as a group of officers that would later attempt a coup against Préval in 2000 and launch an armed insurgency from the Dominican Republic against President Aristide’s second administration in 2001. They were led by Guy Philippe, who commanded the “rebels” that briefly took over towns in Haiti’s north in early 2004 (see Haïti Liberté, Vol. 1, No. 37, 4/2/2008). Also among the “Ecuadorians” were Bernard Elie, Jackie Nau, and Gilbert Dragon, all of whom distinguished themselves, like Philippe, as repressive police chiefs once they were reassigned from the Presidential Guard.
In 1998 and 1999, Manuel also played the role of Préval’s chief political negotiator, brokering the formation of the Provisional Electoral Council that would eventually preside over the 2000 elections that brought Aristide back to the presidency and made the Lavalas Family dominant in the Parliament.
During this period, Manuel grew increasingly close politically to the Struggling People’s Organization (OPL), a bitter enemy and rival of Aristide’s emerging Lavalas Family party (FL). At the same time, a virulent political antagonism grew between Manuel (working in close coordination with his cousin Pierrot Denizé, then police chief) and former captain and Interim Police Force Chief Dany Toussaint, who was at that time an FL ally. The political and personal friction between Toussaint and Manuel reached a head in October 1999, when Préval pressured Manuel to step down. The following day, October 8, ex-Colonel Jean Lamy, who was going to replace Manuel, was mysteriously murdered. Dany Toussaint and Lamy’s family accused Manuel of the crime, but no formal indictment was ever brought. (Palace insiders mostly dismiss Toussaint’s accusation as feud-related.) Manuel returned to Guatemala.
Manuel once again strode onto the national stage in 2006, with the re-election of Préval on Feb. 7, 2006. Having worked during the interim in United Nation’s “peace-keeping” missions in places like Afghanistan, he returned to Haiti as an unsalaried, unportfolioed “advisor” to the new president, a strong-man behind the scenes, again sitting in on most important meetings and political negotiations. Once a Marxist, Manuel is now a born-again evangelical Christian, having been “converted” during his last stay in Guatemala (second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere as an evangelical missionary honeypot).
In short, Manuel’s political arc over the years has brought him from the left to the right, and maybe the extreme right. “In the 1980s, he was a militant revolutionary, but now I don’t know if that is what he still is.” said his long-time comrade in arms Patrick Elie diplomatically. “We simply do not know if the Bob Manuel who came back is the same Bob Manuel who left.”
Other sources who have worked closely with Manuel over the years report that he is now deeply distrustful and dismissive of popular demands and fiercely opposed to the return of former President Aristide from exile in South Africa.
“One thing is for sure,” said one well-placed former Haitian government security source. “If Manuel becomes Prime Minister, Aristide will not be returning to Haiti while Préval is president.”
There are already three key posts filled with anti-Lavalas officials: current Secretary of State for Public Security Luc Joseph Euscher, police chief Mario Andrésol, and state prosecutor Claudy Gassant. “Bob Manuel is the chief of all of them,” the source said. “He saw to it that they were put in those posts. If Manuel becomes Prime Minister and all four posts are in their hands, Aristide can forget about returning.”
Up until now, Lavalas Family leaders have remained mum about Manuel’s nomination. The Préval government, using Manuel as an intermediary, have been courting key sectors of the Lavalas Family’s popular base, providing them with large amounts of money. “The situation is very complex,” said Lavalas leader René Civil. In the Lavalas base, “things are split. There are some who are close to Manuel and favorable to him. But the great majority of the base is very unfavorable.”
Many parliamentarians expressed surprise and disapproval at the nomination of so controversial a figure. “Lavalas” Senator Rudy Hériveaux said that Manuel’s nomination had created a “great malaise in the Parliament” and that the majority of both houses were “unfavorable toward Manuel’s nomination.” Deputy Jean Marcel Lemeran from Grand Goave said that Manuel “does not fit the profile of a prime minister” as defined by parliamentary consultations with Préval. Deputy Enel Appolon from Thomonde said that “if a vote was held today, the choice of M. Manuel would be rejected” by the Parliament.
Manuel has the support, apparently, of Fusion and OPL, the parliament’s two principal social-democratic parties. But the position of the Coalition of Progressive Parliamentarians (CPP), a 53-member cross-party voting bloc in the House of Deputies, will be the key to any nomination. The CPP nixed Ericq Pierre because of his neoliberal credentials, although a citizenship technicality was the excuse.
If no other disqualifying “technicalities” emerge (such as his not having lived in Haiti continuously over the past five years), many expect that Manuel’s real battle will be fought when he presents his cabinet and “general policy,” which the Parliament can also refuse.
“The Senators and Deputies should force him into a debate, because that is what interests us,” said Patrick Elie. “We want to know what policy he will have. Let’s have a debate in this country about what policy to pursue. What are we going to do to produce food in this country? What are we going to do when confronted with subsidized rice from the U.S.? That is what we need to hear.”
(Haïti Liberté, Vol. 1, No. 45, May 28, 2008)