An Open Letter to the Directors of Alternatives from a Former Alternatives Intern

An Open Letter to the Directors of Alternatives from a Former Alternatives Intern
(October 2005)

As a former intern who has participated in two internships with Alternatives in Senegal I am writing to express my outrage at the current position being propagated by Alternatives regarding events in Haiti. While I have always been aware that Alternatives is not without its faults, I have supported the organization nonetheless for its solid work providing Quebecers with what I consider to be badly-needed information and analysis about issues of political and economic injustices around the world. However, recent events have caused me to question this assessment to the extent to which I feel obliged to speak out. This is not simply to ‘sling the mud’, but rather is being done in the hopes that Alternatives will consider changing its dubious and incomprehensible position on Haiti.

Several weeks ago I received an email containing an article by Haiti Action Montreal activist Nikolas Barry-Shaw (copied below) entitled “Why is Alternatives in the same boat as Noriega on Haiti? Mr. Contra and Montreal-based NGO share same analysis.” The article was a critique of an article by François L'Ecuyer entitled “The Militarization of Peace in Haiti” which Alternatives ran on the front page of their insert in le Devoir. Barry-Shaw criticized L’Ecuyer and Alternatives for characterizing the violence currently taking place in Haiti as being the sole product of deposed elected leader Jean-Bertand Aristide and his supporters in the Fanmi Lavalas party. In so doing, wrote Barry-Shaw, Alternatives was repeating the same false characterization of events in Haiti being offered by those involved in supporting the coup d’état against Aristide and the post-coup regime: the Bush administration; the Canadian and French governments; the Haitian elite.

Having followed events in Haiti during and after the coup in a number of respected independent media sources such as Democracy Now and ZNet, I was immediately perplexed that Alternatives would be taking such a position. I forwarded Barry-Shaw’s article to the other Alternatives interns I was in Senegal with to see if any of them knew something about this problematic and uncharacteristic position being taken by Alternatives. One of the friends who received this email wrote to Francois L’Ecuyer directly to ask him what was up. Rather than addressing any of the points raised by Barry-Shaw’s article L’Ecuyer responded rather paternalistically that my friend “should not believe everything he reads” and that for clarification he should attend a panel discussion on Haiti being held as part of Alternatives’ Jounées d’Etudes. I therefore decided to withhold any judgment until I had heard what the panel had to say.

Having witnessed this panel discussion I am more convinced than ever that Alternatives’ analysis of the situation in Haiti is extremely problematic and in direct contradiction with its ostensible mission “to promote justice and equality amongst individuals and communities located in the North and the South.”

The first problem was that the panel spent a good part of the evening demonizing Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide was characterized as a recognized enemy of Haiti’s social movements with no legitimate base of popular support. At one point a panelist compared his government to the former Duvalier dictatorship suggesting that both Aristide and Duvalier represented exactly the same interests: namely Haiti’s corrupt elite. Despite the fact that Montreal’s Haitian community is extremely divided on the question of Aristide, not a single pro-Aristide perspective was present on the panel. This in itself is somewhat alarming given that Aristide was the country’s first and only democratically elected leader and that polls have consistently shown him to have the support of the majority of Haitians, notably in Haiti’s poorest districts. As an organization ostensibly committed to “international solidarity” it seems somewhat contradictory to be advocating solidarity with the Haitian people in an abstract sense while simultaneously opposing their most basic democratic demands.

Part of this demonization of Aristide was to cast him as a neoliberal ideologue, without any reference to the pressures and conditions that had been imposed on his government by the United States and the IMF. While it is undeniable that Aristide’s government enacted a number of neoliberal policies, it is also a fact that he was constantly criticized by both the US and the IMF for not implementing them with enough vigour. It is also a fact that prior to the 2004 coup Haiti was under an IMF-imposed aid embargo largely because Aristide’s government had decided to devote resources to training badly-needed doctors rather than paying off Haiti’s illegitimate foreign debt. These are hardly the actions of a neoliberal ideologue. It is particularly ironic hearing such an analysis at an Alternatives event. Over the years Alternatives has been such an outspoken critic of the IMF that when discussing neoliberalism in Africa, for example, heads of state are rarely even mentioned. All of the responsibility for these policies is directed towards the IMF. Yet at this panel discussion the IMF wasn’t even mentioned. Aristide was presented as the sole perpetrator of neoliberalism in Haiti.

But for me the worst aspect of this panel discussion was the near total silence with respect to the violence and injustice being perpetrated by Haiti’s current US-installed regime. There was no mention of the well documented massacres which have been committed by Haitian police, nor was there any mention of the growing number of political prisoners that have been documented by Amnesty International amongst others. When Haiti Action Montreal activist Yves Engler rose during the question period and began reciting a long list of such documented atrocities and injustices, he was hastily interrupted by the moderator, Monique Simard, and encouraged to keep his comments brief. When the panelists eventually responded they essentially ignored the issues raised by both Engler and Nikolas Barry-Shaw, instead attempting to smear them both as partisan apologists for Aristide. Considering the one-sided nature of the panel’s composition, the characterizations of Aristide which lacked any sense of balance or nuance, and most importantly the complete silence regarding the well documented violence that has been unleashed by the current regime, I was left wondering who the real partisan apologists were.

But more importantly I was left wondering why Alternatives was taking such a position. As one of Canada’s most active proponents of the World Social Forum (WSF), why would Alternatives take a position that is in direct contradiction to the WSF 2005 declaration on Haiti? This declaration warrants some discussion here as it illustrates just how far Alternatives has strayed from its usual progressive stance. The first demand of this declaration is to “Return President Aristide and the democratic process to Haiti...” It seems hard for me to imagine the WSF making such a plea on behalf of the violent neoliberal ideologue which the Alternatives panel characterized Aristide to be. The third demand is that “UN ‘stabilization forces’ must cease all illegal arrests, indiscriminate raids on poor neighborhoods and support for illegal activities by the puppet regime's police force and members of the former army.”

After listing the various atrocities that were utterly ignored by the panel, Yves Engler asked if Alternatives’ position was due to the fact that Canada is playing a key role in the very “stabilization forces” mentioned in the WSF declaration, and that Alternatives receives a large portion of its funding from the Canadian government via the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Without addressing the issue of CIDA money at all, moderator Monique Simard responded by stating that “Alternatives is a completely independent organization.” While this may be true, it by no means precludes the possibility of Alternatives ‘independently’ choosing to bow to the pressure of one of its primary sponsors. By providing no public response to the serious issues raised by Barry-Shaw and Engler, Alternatives is leaving people such as myself with no other plausible explanation for their position.

If CIDA funding is creating such pressures within the organization, this is an extremely disappointing development indeed, and one which I hope will provoke other previous and present supporters of Alternatives to speak out. Perhaps what is needed here is some grassroots pressure to counterbalance whatever pressure CIDA dollars might be placing on the organization. If this is not the case then Alternatives needs to make a clear and public response to the concerns that have been raised by Barry-Shaw, Engler, and myself in this letter. Thus far these concerns have not been addressed, leaving CIDA funding as the only plausible explanation for Alternatives’ bizarre and uncharacteristic position on Haiti. If Alternatives wants its supporters to take seriously its assertion to be an independent organization it must either attempt to justify, or preferably retract its current indefensible position on

In Solidarity,

Rob Green
Alternatives intern 2002 and 2003

Former Alternatives interns who support this letter:
Christopher Scott – 2003 (Senegal) et 2004 (Armenia)
Alexandre St.Germain-Lapointe - 2003 (Senegal) et 2004 (Chile)
Vicky Potvin – 2003 (Senegal)
Dawn Paley – 2003/2004 (South Africa)