Photos and article by Wadner Pierre
On July 15, 2011, to mark the 58th birthday of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a gathering of volunteer medical doctors and nurses provided a free medical clinic in Port-au-Prince. This year was special because of the return of Haiti’s first democratically elected and twice ousted president. Returning along with him were his two daughters and former first lady Mildred Aristide – a long time champion of the fight against AIDS in Haiti.
As thousands of locals from the capital’s poorest slums as well as activists from the Lavalas movement congregated inside the Aristide Foundation, hundreds took part in medical exams. Medicines and food were also provided.
Work such as this has been going on for years. The foundation’s Soulaje Lesprit Moun project has worked in seven camps to organize discussion and mutual aid groups. When the resources are available, the foundation has held mobile medical clinics in a number of camps.
The foundation’s university, UniFA, is re-launching its medical school in fall. The medical school, Haiti’s first low-cost medical university geared toward the poor majority, aiming to keep its graduates inside the country, was shut down with the coup of 2004.
As Harvard professor and physician Paul Farmer explains in his recently published “Haiti after the Earthquake,” UniFA’s medical school “was one among many worthy efforts shuttered by the 2004 coup.” He explains how Cuban and Haitian volunteers have been at the forefront of building a sovereign low-cost sustainable medical project for the country. The program was set up in a manner very different than most NGO or high cost educations abroad leading to brain drain, where educated people leave the country never to return.
Farmer explains how, by 2003, his organization Partners in Health “with Cuban colleagues and the Aristide Foundation” together launched “a new medical school that would focus on improving the health of the Haitian poor, especially in rural areas,” adding that “the great majority of Haiti’s health professionals worked in Port-au-Prince.”
On July 15, supporters and organizers of Lavalas spoke about the many projects they had worked on in the past and the goals they had for the future. Most of the medical doctors present had begun their education at UniFA and passionately advocated for its ongoing renewal.
Standing in a line, one local resident explained, “Hundreds of us have seen doctors and we were able to get medications for free and dry food too.” Speaking to a video camera, one happy lady said: “Happy birthday to you, President Titid [‘little priest’ is Aristide’s nickname among the masses]. We are happy that you are here in your country with us. We have not demonstrated in the streets today; instead we are together here receiving care.”
According to Toussaint Hilaire, an organizer with the foundation, members of Fanmi Lavalas were gathering at the foundation throughout the day to hold meetings. A few days prior, a number of Lavalas organizers, activists as well as some former Fanmi Lavalas politicians met at the foundation to discuss. “It was great time for many who had not seen each other for a long time … It was also a time for them to share. They’ve come together to show their solidarity and their support for President Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas party,” Hilaire said.
Hilaire explained that “President Aristide is conscious of the situation of the population after the Jan. 12 earthquake and he asked us to organize activities that have social and educative aspects, like a mobile clinic, to mark his birthday.” Aristide and other leaders of the popular movement have been holding many small gatherings, meeting with people from the earthquake camps and across the country, hearing about the difficult times over the last year.
Marclange Jean, a native of Northeastern Haiti, was one of the doctors who dedicated his time to serving the poor throughout the day. With a broad smile on his face, Marclange explained: “Today, I want first to thank Dr. President Aristide and wish him Happy birthday. Today, if we can be here to serve our population, it is thanks to President Aristide.”
One group of Fanmi Lavalas members explained how the mobile medical clinic was a clear example of the continuity of the Lavalas Livre Blanc – the White Book – titled “Inverstir dans l’Humain” – invest in the human. “What you see today is the continuity of the Livre Blanc of Fanmi Lavalas which promotes a broad investment in humanity,” observed former Lavalas Legislator Nahoume Marcellus, a native of Cap-Haitian.
Pradel Casseus, a 48-year-old and member of Fanmi Lavalas, said: “Today is great day for us. We see that doctors are all around the foundation. We are so very happy. This foundation is a place where everyone is welcome. It is for all of us.”
While it has faced many difficulties, it is one of many institutions started by Lavalas to promote a sustainable and locally run model of development. Residents also point to the Village de la Renaissance and other construction projects in the slums that were built up by social investment programs under the Lavalas governments, surviving the January 2010 earthquake.
Casseus and many others at the foundation complained about the new President Michel J. Martelly. Most were particularly upset with his choice of Bernard Gousse as his potential prime minister. Casseus stated: “As chief of state, President Martelly should not choose Bernard Gousse as the country’s next prime minister. Mr. Gousse is a criminal. He killed a lot of Lavalas militants and pro-democracy organizers when he was minister of justice after the Feb. 29 coup.”
While celebrating the 58th birthday of former President Aristide, his supporters believe his presence in the country is being felt. They say that Haiti needs all of her children and all of her good friends to come together to rebuild. But they need to rebuild in a way that will empower the poor in a way that will create long-term institutional structures promoting the health and happiness of Haiti’s majority.
Watch this video on the Aristide Foundation
Popular Haitian photojournalist Wadner Pierre is senior staff photographer for the Maroon and Wolf magazines at Loyola University New Orleans, where he is currently studying, and publishes with Inter Press Service. Visit indiegogo.com/twadhaiti to help him reach his fundraising goal for his trip to Haiti to investigate and write about social justice work in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. Also visit his website, haitianalysis.com, and his blogs, wadnerpierre.blogspot.com and dominionpaper.ca/weblogs/wadner_pierre. On The Journey of a Haitian Photojournalist, you are sure to find photos by Wadner that will print themselves indelibly on your heart and can be purchased and displayed for others to enjoy. Wadner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.