Topical folksinger, hero, revolutionary, teacher, social worker, ex-political prisoner, Annette Auguste—best known as So An—is celebrated among Haiti’s poor majority for her commitment to the tiny nation’s struggle for sovereignty and democracy, according to members of the Berkeley-based Haiti Action Committee, which is bringing So An to the Bay Area this week.
So An, 65, grew up in Porte-au-Prince. She had a happy childhood and, as her parents were factory workers, she was able to attend school.
The presidency of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, beginning in 1956, cast a shadow over the country. “In Duvalier’s time nobody could say what they wanted to say or talk normally because we were so afraid of Duvalier and the Tonton Macoutes,” So An told the Daily Planet, speaking in French—her second language after Haitian Creole—in a phone interview Saturday from Port-au-Prince.
“That’s why I left to go to New York City [as a young adult]. There I found people who had the same outlook as I. We fought against Duvalier from New York.”
There, So An participated in radio broadcasts, which helped cohere the U.S. anti-Duvalierist movement, according to Pierre Labossiere of the Haiti Action Committee, who told the Daily Planet he was inspired as a young Haitian refugee by the broadcasts’ anti-Duvalierist and feminist messages.
Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier succeeded his father and was forced out in 1986; a succession of rulers followed him. In 1990, Jean Bertrand Aristide, an outspoken priest who preached liberation theology, was elected president, but overthrown by a military coup seven months into his rule.
Three years later, with the help of the U.S. Marines, Aristide was returned to power. That’s when So An decided it was time to go home.
In Haiti she did social work, “helping people go to school and to get something to eat, taking sick people to the hospital,” she said, all the while, working to strengthen the movement for democracy.
“The fight for democracy is something everyone must do. The democracy is us. It brings honor to everyone. With Aristide, there was real democracy because everybody could talk to each other and demonstrate if they wanted to,” So An said.
Aristide served the remainder of his five years in office after which René Préval was elected and served five years. A president cannot succeed himself in Haiti, and so Aristide did not run for office again until 2000, when he was re-elected president by 92 percent of the vote.
But on Feb. 29, 2004, according to Aristide, the U.S. Marines “kidnapped” him and forced him into exile. (Some insist that Aristide asked the U.S. to help him leave, as some 200 former Haitian soldiers were threatening to march on Port-au-Prince.) Aristide remains in South Africa today.
With Aristide gone and with the backing of the U.S., France and Haiti, Gérard Latortue, a Haitian living in Florida, was named interim prime minister, and the unelected Haitian government, with the help of the Multinational Interim Force (MIF)—made up mostly of American, French and Canadian military—started rounding up Aristide allies. (The MIF was replaced by mostly South American military under U.N. command in June 2004.)
So An was among those packed into Haiti’s prisons.
In a call for her release in January 2006, Amnesty International describes So An’s arrest: “Annette Auguste… a prominent folk singer, community leader and supporter of the Fanmi Lavalas party [Aristide’s party] was arrested at her home around midnight on 9 May 2004, by a contingent of U.S. Marines [belonging to the MIF] on suspicion of possessing information that could pose a threat to the U.S.-military force deployed in Haiti….
“During the arrest they reportedly used explosives to open the front gate; shots were fired and the door to the house was forced open, even though the Marines reportedly met no resistance. According to Lt. Col Dave Lapan, a spokesman of the MIF, U.S. soldiers searched Annette Auguste’s house but no weapons or evidence on the allegations was found.”
Nevertheless, along with some ten members of her family, including a five-year-old grandchild, So An was handcuffed and arrested. The others were freed, but So An was imprisoned for two years and three months, without a trial.
“Imagine that I could threaten America, the most powerful country in the world!” So An said. “They wanted to attack me because I’m a friend of Aristide’s.”
So An survived her time in the sweltering overcrowded women’s prison by doing just what she did on the outside: “I taught people to read and to do crochet. There are a lot of people in prison who don’t know how to read or write.”
So An did more than merely survive in prison: “I went to prison with my pride and came out with my pride as well,” she said, pointing out that while she is out of prison, the jails are still crowded with Aristide supporters.
The U.S.-backed interim prime minister is back home in Florida; Préval took office as president last year. “I said to myself that now there is a president who was elected democratically, he has to do what is necessary. He needs to do something for the political prisoners,” So An said.
But she said she found that “this democracy wears a mask.” In fact, she said, Haiti is now run by a “disguised occupation”: the U.N. military forces. The superpowers “do not want to show openly they are an occupation,” she said.
Today there are 8,550 uniformed U.N. personnel in Haiti, including 6,782 troops and 1,768 police, supported by 432 international civilian personnel, 642 local civilian staff and 166 United Nations volunteers, according to the U.N. website.
Of the U.N. military incursions into Cité Soleil, the large impoverished shantytown where many innocents have been reported killed by the U.N. military, So An said: “We have [the U.N. military] in Haiti. If you take a look in Cité Soleil, they are the masters.” (The U.N. contends its forces go into Cité Soleil to apprehend criminals.)
U.S. supporters can help grassroots Haitians, So An said.“You have to help denounce those things and write it in your newspapers.”
So An will speak at 7 p.m., March 10, at The Uptown, 401 26th St, Oakland. Music will be by Vukani Mawethu and So An, accompanied by her husband, master drummer “Tido” Wilfrid Lavaud. At 7 p.m., March 14, at the Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave., Oakland, So An will introduce a new film by Oakland/Port-au-Prince filmmaker Kevin Pina, Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits.