In inviting us to come celebrate you, your work, and your unwavering commitment and contribution to the struggle for a more just, more equal, and more democratic Haiti, Tontongi asked those of us who are willing to write or present a testimony in your honor. I thought it would be easy for me to do so, since after all I have known you all my life; you are related to me by marriage to my late cousin Anne-Marie; we lived next door to each other; and I grew up with Marie-Hélène, Grégore, and Michele until you went into exile after François Duvalier came to power in 1957. We reconnected again when you lived in New York and I in Connecticut, and though you moved to Boulder after your retirement from the City College, we developed a close personal and intellectual relationship and friendship. But when I actually sat down to write my reflections, I realized that it was not such an easy task after all because there is so much I want to say to you and tell you about what our friendship has meant to me, how much I have learned from you over the years, and how much I admire and respect you that it’s difficult to know where to start.
So I’ll start by acknowledging my debt to you by saying that you have been a mentor to me and played a very important role in shaping my understanding of contemporary Haitian politics. One of the most concrete ways I knew how to express my gratitude was to dedicate my last book, The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the International Community, and Haiti, published in 2007 to you, and to ask you to write the Foreword to it. Although your knowledge and understanding of Haiti, its culture, and its politics is second to none, one of the most important values I learned from you is that you never place politics, ideology, expediency, or personal benefit above principle or personal integrity. It is from that standpoint that you have consistently spoken truth to power, analyzed the practices of those in power, and held them accountable for what they did rather than what they said. It is also what has guided you in your steadfast defense of the interests of the exploited, the marginalized, and the oppressed, and in using your knowledge and intellectual powers to educate others by exposing the workings of an unjust, unequal, exploitative, and oppressive social and economic system at the service of the few and the powerful, and thus to contribute to the struggles against such a system.
To me one of the best illustrations of your commitment to popularize knowledge in the interest of the impoverished and exploited majority is your Défi à la pauvreté, which you published in 1987. The date is important because Haiti then was still in the midst of a popular struggle against the neo-Duvalierist forces that were trying to reinstall a permanent dictatorship, and it was not at all clear how that struggle would end. I read this book of 165 pages as a manifesto for what needs to be done to change Haiti from a dependent and dominated country run by a minority in the interest of that minority and their foreign supporters to a more independent, self-determining, and democratic country for the benefit of all rather than a privileged class.
Your trenchant analysis of what you called the “myth of the magical effects of the free-market policies of the neo-classical economists” was one of the earliest and clearest critiques of what would become widely known later as neoliberalism, or since 1990 as the Washington Consensus. As you pointed out, these policies had been devised in the early 1980s by the government of Ronal Reagan and would become the new mantra of the Chicago boys, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. These policies aimed at solving the global fiscal crisis of the state by compelling indebted countries to enact structural adjustment policies by dismantling welfare or social democratic policies, cutting social spending, lowering wages, privatizing public enterprises, and opening their economies and markets to foreign capital to facilitate the accumulation of capital by the banks and multinational corporations of the advanced countries. In very clear and simple language you showed how these policies had devastating consequences not only for Haiti but for the other cases you analyzed as well, such as Zaire and Jamaica, and thus reinforced their dependency on foreign capital and their poverty. I cannot help but note that it took decades for many pundits and economists in the imperial center, such as Joseph Stiglitz or Jeffrey Sacks, who once defended these policies and pushed for their implementation in the underdeveloped countries, to realize that they had failed just about everywhere they had been tried.
But you never relented in your critique and your steadfastness against exploitation and foreign domination. In an article you published in AlterPresse and Haïti Liberté in March 2010 titled “La culture anti-misère doit être la priorité” (“Priority Must be Given to Anti-Misery Agriculture”), you went straight to the point about former President Clinton’s mea culpa for his policies toward Haiti. Referring to his admission during his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier that month that his neoliberal policies that compelled Haiti to lower its tariffs on food imports had led to the destruction of rice production in Haiti in favor of rice farmers in Arkansas, you pointed out that it was not only rice but the entirety of Haiti’s food production that was devastated. “A president as intelligent as Clinton,” you wrote, “does not send 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti [to bring Aristide back to power] by mistake but to impose the Structural Adjustment Program which destabilizes the targeted countries to the benefit of the U.S. But the Haitian government is no less to blame.” “Clinton’s admission would be sincere” you went on to say, “if he [rejected the] neoliberal regime. But such is not the case. His regrets are simply the starry tears of the crocodile devouring its prey.”
In that same article, you also offered a critique of a different sort. This time it was to engage in a critique of the concept of culture, both in its meaning of those who are educated in the arts and letters, and in its fifteenth century etymological meaning of food cultivation or agriculture. Your choice of this term was in response to a UNESCO conference on Haiti in March 2010 in Paris organized around the theme “Haiti Will be Saved by Its Culture,” and to which I was incidentally invited to participate, though reluctantly so as I learned later. In your article you took to task those Haitian participants at the conference who spoke in favor of promoting Haiti’s culture in the first sense of education in the arts and humanities as a priority. While not denying the importance of such an education, you pointed out that historically the expansion or cultivation of the arts and letters did not precede but resulted from the development of agriculture and thus of the economy in general. Thus, contrary to those at the conference who prioritized the cultivation of the arts and letters, and those others within and without Haiti who defend the neoliberal regime as a panacea for Haiti, you argued for the prioritization of agriculture to guarantee Haiti’s food sovereignty and all Haitians the rights that the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights judged to be fundamental human rights, including the right to food, lodging, work, income, health care, clothing, education, and equality.
There is one last theme I would like to comment on, and it has to do with the idea that Haiti needs a leader from the Diaspora to save it. In November 2010, Amy Wilentz, the reporter and author of the well-known book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, and translator and editor of Aristide’s book In the Parish of the Poor, wrote an editorial in The New York Times titled “In Haiti, Waiting for a Grand Bayakou,” where she called for someone from the Haitian Diaspora to return to Haiti in the role of a “bayakou” (a latrine cleaner), to clean things up. In your response to Wilentz, which you wrote in the form of a reply to a letter from your friend Hughes Saint-Fort, and which you titled “No Need for a Grand Bayakou, Wilentz: Haiti is not a Latrine,” you argued that “one can rightly be offended by the symbolic use of the term bayakou… The metaphor of the image, reinforced by a vignette showing a bayakou sunk in feces, ceases to be a mere symbol and becomes representative of a bayakou-leader, and therefore of a Haiti-latrine. The image of a latrine to symbolize our country is degrading and unacceptable, as is the concept of a Diaspora covered with the skin of a bayakou as messiah.” Contrary to Wilentz you argued that rather than waiting for a leader to come save Haiti, that task can be accomplished by “well structured peasant and urban associations headed by a team of competent and honest women and men at the service of the concept of food-sovereignty. This concept must be at the heart of any sustainable alternative development, in alliance with progressive experts of all classes, and with the support and solidarity of other countries.”
This has been your consistent message and unwavering commitment. That is why we are gathered here today to pay tribute to you. For me personally, I am grateful for having you as my friend and my kindred spirit.