Haitians in New York joined their brothers and sisters marching in anti-government demonstrations across Haiti when President Michel Martelly headlined a rally at the Brooklyn College auditorium on Sep. 26 after speaking earlier in the day at the United Nations General Assembly.
Hundreds of Haitians marched a half mile down Nostrand Avenue through the rain from Radio Panou to the school. There they jammed onto the sidewalk across from an entrance to Brooklyn College, where Martelly’s supporters waited on line for hours to get into the event.
“Down with Martelly,” the protestors chanted. “Down with corruption! Down with illegality!”
The demonstrators denounced a tax that Martelly has levied on money transfers and phone calls to Haiti. The tax is illegal because it has not been ratified by, or even presented to, Haiti’s Parliament.
“It’s been a while since Haitians have turned out in the streets like this. I’m very satisfied with the response of the community which has poured out to denounce Martelly as a thief,” said Marlène Jean-Noel, a longtime leader of the Fanmi Lavalas in New York. “One month after he came to power, Martelly put a $1.50 tax on every money transfer Haitians send back to their families in Haiti. He also put a 5 cents per minute tax on phone calls. You can’t call Haiti anymore. When you do, your calling card finishes almost immediately. And what does he do with the money? He gives it to his wife and his son to do baloney projects. Meanwhile, the Haitian masses are dying of hunger.”
On the opposite side of the street, well-dressed people pressed to get through a heavily-guarded single gate into the event. The Haitian Consulate of New York rented the Brooklyn College auditorium for a sum that neither the college nor the Consulate would disclose (see accompanying article). But an anonymous source in the Consulate told Haïti Liberté that the Consulate owes Brooklyn College about $12,000 for the affair, covering hall rental, sound, and security. The Walt Whitman Theatre, which can hold 2,350, was partially filled with about 1,500 thanks to the free tickets the Consulate distributed to Martelly’s sympathizers mostly at money transfer companies and churches.
Many of those who attended thought they were going to also get a concert from some well-known musical artists including Shoubou from Tabou Combo, Cubano from Skah Shah, a singer from Carimi, and Alan Cavé of Zin. But Martelly cancelled the concert at the last minute, perhaps nervous about how it would be denounced by the demonstrators across the street.
“It’s not the $1.50 that we object to, but it’s the way he took it: illegally and with no transparency,” said Minouche Lambert, another longtime Lavalas leader. “We don’t know where that money is going. It’s not going to education obviously. Schools are not being built. Teachers are marching and striking; they say they are not being paid. Some kids don’t get their report card because they haven’t paid school fees. And now, when the country has all these problems, we are outraged that Sweet Micky is spending money to come make another Carnival at Brooklyn College with Shoubou, Skah Shah, and the rest of them. We call on the community to boycott those bands when they play.”
Some of those going into the auditorium taunted the demonstrators and waved expensively printed signs which read, in misspelled Kreyòl, “Aba Gran Gou” (sic) (Down with Hunger) and “Viv Ti Manman Cherie” (sic) (Long Live Dear Little Mother), a reference to two Martelly programs which demonstrator Jackson Sylvain of Westbury, NY and Arcahaie, Haiti denounced as “pure bluff.”
“Martelly has taken a lot of money,” Sylvain said. “He says he’ll build houses. He says he’ll give young people laptop computers. That’s how he got many of them to vote for him. Now they see that it was a lie. The youth of Gonaïves have risen up and gone into the streets because they see he was bluffing. Now he went to the University in Port-au-Prince and says he’ll give them 18,000 gourdes [US$450]. The students said they’re not falling for that again.”
Sylvain also complained about other government price hikes and taxes. “Passports used to cost $73,” he said. “Now Martelly raised the price to $93. As for airline tickets to Haiti, they were already high. But now, when you buy a ticket, the Haitian government levies an additional $50 fee.”
People going into the auditorium had to pass through three checkpoints where security made sure they had tickets. Even the press was not permitted unless a journalist held a ticket.
The event inside began around 9:15 p.m with, appropriately, a rara band – Rara-m – circling the room, blowing horns and playing drums. Then U.S. Ambassador Pamela White and 11 Haitian government officials, including President Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, were seated at a long table, covered in a red tablecloth, that stretched the length of the stage.
In fact, Martelly came to New York for the General Assembly with a giant retinue as demonstrator Sylvain noted. “He came here with a delegation of 78 people,” he said. “According to Senator Moïse Jean-Charles, Martelly gets $20,000 a day, his wife gets $10,000 a day, his kids get $7,500, and his other acolytes get $4,000. That money goes to his family and friends. They’re wasting Haiti’s money. Everywhere he goes, he has to pay money. When he needs people to demonstrate, he gives them money. But the people demonstrating out here today don’t have that problem.”
Several people spoke before Martelly, including master of ceremonies Guy Evens Ford, Prime Minister Lamothe, Ambassador White, Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, local Catholic Bishop Guy Sansaricq, and local Protestant Pastor Philius Nicolas.
“Our government is determined to change the country,” Lamothe declared to scattered applause.
MC Guy Ford heaped effusive praise on the President, only surpassed by Pastor Nicolas who declared Martelly to be “sent by God.”
Finally Martelly took the stage, but not behind the podium. He took the microphone from its stand and strode back and forth across the stage like a performer, giving a completely unprepared rambling talk punctuated with singing, jokes, and regular turns to Lamothe for facts or figures.
This was a very different forum from those with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a decade and two ago. At those events, Haitians formed long lines at microphones to ask questions for hours on end. President Martelly’s event turned out to be more of a monologue, a performance, which ended with him singing the title to one of his songs when he was the bawdy musician Sweet Micky: “Sak pa kontan,” roughly translated, whoever is not happy, too bad!
Even New York City Councilman Mathieu Eugène, whose office intervened with the college on behalf of the Consulate to help make the event possible, was critical. “I thought the event was going to be an opportunity for the community to raise their issues and their questions for the government,” he told Haiti Liberté. “So I think this was a missed opportunity for the community to ask questions because people have a lot of legitimate questions and legitimate issues. I think a forum like that should be used for people to get answers from whoever is president. There should have been a dialogue.”
Asked if he were disappointed with the evening, Eugène laughed and said: “I don’t want to get involved in the politics of Haiti. But I have my opinion.”
Next week, we’ll offer a complete dissection of Martelly’s speech. But one particular remark gives a taste of the speech and speaks volumes. At the very end of the evening, a man cried out from the audience: “What is the role of MINUSTAH [the UN occupation force] in Haiti, President?”
Martelly’s response was very telling. “Let me tell you a little something,” he said. “I think that it was Haitians who created MINUSTAH… There was kidnapping. The country was unlivable. [Haitians] created the conditions for people watching us to come establish peace, to calm us down. It’s Haitians who created MINUSTAH.”
So according to President Martelly, it wasn’t paramilitary “rebel” leaders Guy Philippe and Jodel Chamblain, National Endowment for Democracy-agent Stanley Lucas, Group of 184 leaders Andy Apaid and Charles Baker, the U.S., France, Canada, and Martelly himself, as a musical cheerleader, who fomented the coup to overthrow the legitimate elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and provide the excuse and opportunity for foreign troops to militarily occupy Haiti for the past eight years. (The Security Council will likely renew MINUSTAH’s mandate for another year in two weeks.) No, it was the Haitian people themselves, the victims of the coup, who brought the occupation on themselves.
He then concluded that the UN troops will stay “until the police force is in shape, or until President Martelly has set up his own defense force.”
After his speech, the organizers gave about three dozen prizes to various local officials and local businessmen, who helped finance the affair, according to the Haitian Consul General to New York Charles Forbin.
Outside the hall, despite police efforts to disperse them, several dozen demonstrators remained until after 11 p.m., when those inside were leaving. “We want to embarrass those U.S. politicians who are supporting what is being done in Haiti,” said Fritzner Pierre, a leader of the Brooklyn-based Citizen’s Committee. “We are staying here until the event inside finishes, because we want them to know our anger. They thought that Martelly would come here to just strut and get away scot free? No way!”