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  • Nou Mande Jistis! (We Demand Justice!) : Reconstituting Community and Victimhood in Raboteau, Haiti
  • Christine Cynn (bio)

On November 9, 2000, sixteen of twenty-two defendants were convicted in Gonaïves, Haiti, for their participation in an April 1994 massacre at Raboteau, a poor seaside community in Gonaïves. A week later, thirty-seven more defendants were convicted in absentia, including the leaders of the 1991–94 military dictatorship, which followed a military coup, and the heads of the paramilitary group FRAPH (Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress, later renamed the Revolutionary Armed Front for the Progress of Haiti). The United Nations lauded the Raboteau trial as a “landmark,” the “longest and most complex [trial] in Haiti’s history,” and “a huge step forward” for the Haitian justice system (United Nations Commission on Human Rights 2000). Scholars have also described the Raboteau trial as the most important human rights trial in Haiti (Farmer 2005, 80) and “the single successful attempt to partially cleanse the country of the terror of the 1991 coup d’état” (Fatton 2002, 155).

During the trial, two massacre survivors, Rosiane Profil and Deborah Charles, provided some of the most spectacular testimony for the prosecution, their eyewitness descriptions of the events on the day of the massacre and the display of their dramatically visible scars compelling counterevidence against defendants’ accounts of the massacre. Their testimony also buttressed the prosecution’s contention that the junta violently attacked the entire community as part of their campaign of systematic political repression. Drawing from research for a documentary on the trial that I coproduced, in this essay I examine the women’s court testimony alongside alternative, communal testimony, especially in protest songs circulating in less authorized sites: demonstrations, sit-ins, and commemoration marches (Cynn and Hirshorn 2003). I argue that [End Page 42] failing to supplement Charles and Profil’s gendered representation as “political innocents” in the official record with this alternative testimony risks reinforcing the gendering of the women as passive and helpless individual victims, ignoring the radical dimensions of their claims, and reproducing the violent erasures that the women sought to resist.

Haitian women had participated in the revolution and occasionally had been targets of state violence, but prior to the Duvaliers’ regime (1957–86) they were regarded, like children and the elderly, as dependents—political innocents subject to special protection (Trouillot 1989, 166–67). Not permitted to vote until 1950 and classified as legal minors until 1979, women contributed to the nation as reproducers of male national subjects, as mothers and wives, with legal marriage and economic dependence on husbands operating as markers of class and social status that were closely linked with national identity (Schiller and Fouron 2001, 134–35). Violence instituted by François Duvalier during his 1957–71 dictatorship transformed social and family relations and redefined conceptions of women as “political innocents.” Women were no longer protected qua women from state repression, but subjected to indiscriminate gendered violence—rape and sexualized torture—in retribution for their own political activism, as well as that of their male relatives and acquaintances (Trouillot 1989, 166–67; Charles 1995, 139). The system of violent repression and terror implemented by Duvalier and his paramilitary force, the Tonton Makout, has become emblematic; in the context of Africa, Achille Mbembe uses the term “tonton makoutization” to index the excesses of corruption and coercion of “new institutions charged with administering violence” to found or shore up authoritarian regimes (2001, 83).

However, as Carolle Charles argues, Duvalierist violence directed against women had the paradoxical effect of politicizing women. Duvalierism effectively suppressed any independent women’s movement, but Haitian women who were exiled in the diaspora formed organizations influenced by anti-imperialist struggles and the North American women’s movement (1995, 140, 146–47). Radicalized poor women led food riots in 1985 and linked with Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Ti Kominotés Légliz (TKL, base ecclesial communities derived from Latin American liberation theology) in a growing opposition movement that eventually forced self-proclaimed “President for Life” Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile in 1986. After Duvalier’s departure, [End Page 43] women returning from exile organized with rural and urban women for participatory...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1520
Print ISSN
0732-1562
Pages
pp. 42-57
Launched on MUSE
2008-06-02
Open Access
No
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