Youth Group Network Had Key Role in Duvalier's Fall

Times Staff Writer

Richardson Narcisse, 18, and about 100 other youths at the Immaculate Conception School here banded together last October in a secret organization they called Young Students of Gonaives Assembled.

According to Narcisse, the group's leader, it had only one goal: "We wanted to get rid of Duvalier."

The objective was boldly ambitious. President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, 34, was a dictator with durability written into his exalted title. He had ruled since 1971, longer than any other Haitian president this century.

Nevertheless, after a turbulent series of protest demonstrations and disturbances around the country, Duvalier fled Haiti on Feb. 7.

At the core of the successful protest movement was a loose, nationwide network of rebellious youth groups such as the Young Students of Gonaives Assembled.

"The youth really did it," said Narcisse. "Youth played the most important role in the revolution."

The victory has given young Haitians a heady feeling of power. They packed large rallies last week in Gonaives and Port-au-Prince to celebrate their "victory." They circulated lists of demands addressed to the new National Government Council.

Narcisse and others warn that if the provisional government that replaced Duvalier does not satisfy popular aspirations, the youths will take to the streets again. Few regard that as an idle threat.

Like no other sector of the society, Haitian students have proved their capacity for united political action.

Although the youth protest movement against Duvalier was not centrally organized on a national scale, many of the activist groups had clandestine links with one another and coordinated their actions.

Some of the groups, like Narcisse's, were formed independently by students at Catholic high schools. Others existed previously as Catholic lay organizations under church auspices.

Guided by Priests, Teachers

In many cases, the youths were encouraged and even guided in their efforts by priests and teachers.

Narcisse, the tall and soft-spoken editor of a student newspaper at Immaculate Conception, said that he and his friends were moved to organize mainly by their awareness of poverty and repression under the Duvalier government.

"We were simply conscious of reality," he said the other day in the sparsely furnished living room of his father's rented home. "We decided that if we did not take action, it would be too late for our country."

In October, they began publishing and distributing mimeographed, unsigned tracts against Duvalier.

'Take to the Streets'

"In some meetings at the beginning, we decided to take to the streets to show our discontent with Duvalierism," Narcisse said.

Their first demonstration was scheduled for Nov. 27, the same day that a group of residents from Gonaives' poorest slum were planning a mass protest.

Thousands of protesters turned out to march. Popular discontent, long smothered by fear of brutal repression, surged through the streets.

Previously, in May 1984, food riots had erupted in Gonaives and spread to other cities. But this time, it was a planned event with a political goal.

"Down with Duvalier!" chanted the Nov. 27 demonstrators.

The next day, a student group from Gonaives' Geffrard School organized a protest march that ended up at the Immaculate Concepcion school.

3 Killed, 3 Wounded

"That was when the military arrived and started shooting," Narcisse said. Three youths were killed and three were wounded.

The deaths were "electrifying" to young Haitians, said Father Maurice Schroeder, a Canadian priest. "They knew they couldn't stop until Duvalier was out."

In contrast, many older Haitians remained wary of defying the dictator. "The old people couldn't get themselves to say 'Down with Duvalier,' " Schroeder said.

Radio Soleil, a network operated by the Catholic Church, broadcast the news from Gonaives around the country. In the following days, new protest demonstrations broke out in other provincial cities.

The government suspended Radio Soleil and the wave of unrest subsided, but the Young Students of Gonaives Assembled was already planning for more.

Found Similar Groups

"We sent people out of town to find out if other similar organizations existed in other cities," Narcisse recalled. There were other groups, they found, and links were established. Emissaries and messages went back and forth.

"We all decided to have demonstrations, to take to the streets, on Jan. 6," Narcisse said. That was the day before school was scheduled to reopen after the Christmas holidays.

"We decided not to set foot in school as long as the government stayed in power," he said.

On the appointed day, a new wave of demonstrations began, resulting in more deaths and injuries. The government suspended classes and braced for more trouble. It came Sunday, Jan. 26, again in Gonaives.

The unrest quickly spread as Radio Soleil, again on the air, broadcast news of the resumed activity.

Bloody Clashes Erupt

During the week, youth-led protests broke out in city after city. On Jan. 31, the day Duvalier imposed an official state of siege, bloody clashes between bands of youths and security forces erupted for the first time in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

A week later, Duvalier was gone. He left behind a taped message saying he was giving up power to spare the country from a bloodbath.

Narcisse said he drew his inspiration for the protests from reading about the French Revolution and about so-called liberation theology, a leftist Catholic movement that encourages the clergy to lead grassroots campaigns for economic and political reforms.

Such teaching has spread through the Haitian Catholic Church and its schools in recent years. Luciano Pharaon, a teacher at Immaculate Conception School, said he helped Narcisse with strategy for the protest activities.

"He is a very intelligent youth," said Pharaon, 32. "But he doesn't have the ability yet to shape all his projects into a strategy."

'No Perfect Strategy'

Pharaon said the strategy that emerged "was to carry out the struggle on several fronts to destabilize the government with the goal of throwing it out." He added, "There was no perfect strategy, but just an idea to contact other people and get them to do the same thing."

The movement was not ideological, Pharaon said. "There were no Communists, no capitalists behind it--just the people with a desire for change."

Father Norman Sliger, a Canadian priest who heads a Catholic parish in Port-au-Prince, said that many members of church-sponsored youth groups participated in the protest movement.

"Inside these groups they were praying, they were thinking," Sliger said. "After they thought about the situation that had been imposed on the shoulders of the Haitian people for so many years, they thought something must be done."

Church youth groups in Haiti were especially active in 1985 because it was the U.N.-sponsored International Youth Year. Last April, thousands of youths from church groups around the country met in the southern city of Jeremie.

Spirit of Solidarity

That meeting, Sliger said, produced a new spirit of national solidarity among young Catholics who later participated in the anti-Duvalier protest movement.

"In my opinion, that is where the movement started," he said.

Nestor Fils-Aime, a student from Gonaives, attended the Jeremie meeting. He said he was especially impressed with a speech given to the gathering by Msgr. Willy Romelus, the bishop of Jeremie.

"He said all sectors should gather together to guide the destiny of the country and that all people should be engaged in the fight for liberation of their Haitian brothers," said Fils-Aime, 18. The meeting he said, "helped raise the awareness of youth."

Key Opposition Figure

Other youth groups, outside the church, were organized by followers of Hubert de Ronceray, an opposition figure during the last years of Duvalier's regime.

De Ronceray, 53, was arrested in 1974 for urging youth to political activism.

"We had to go into clandestineness," De Ronceray said last week. He said his youth organization had secret groups throughout the country that participated actively in the protest movement.

The groups were coordinated by regional leaders, who maintained "constant contact" with him, De Ronceray said.

Richardson Narcisse said he knew of youth groups in southern Haiti that had coordinated protest action with De Ronceray followers.

A Man to Be Trusted

"He is a man who can be trusted," Narcisse said. "I admire what he has written."

De Ronceray said that his youth organization will support him as a candidate for the presidency of Haiti. The military-led provisional government has said elections will be held but has not set a date.

Young activists are critical of the composition of the provisional government, which includes former high officials of the Duvalier government.

"That is why we say that the revolution is here, but it is not finished," Narcisse said. "We don't want the departure of Duvalier to settle everything. We don't want things to go back to the way they were before.

"We want radical social change for developing the country."

He said that the government should purge itself of Duvalier associates and set a date for elections "this year." If that does not happen, he warned, the youth protest movement will take to the streets again.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World