During his tenure as mayor Moise redistributed state landholdings to many landless peasants in the area, earning him great respect among the poor and powerful enemies among the elite who had previously controlled the land. Under the Duvalier dictatorships much of the land in near Milot was owned by the state and leased to absentee landlords. These landlords would then re-lease the land to peasants at exorbitant rates up to 10 times those of the state. There is an area just below the palace of San Souci in Milot that is named Moise in honor of the man who helped the many families that now inhabit that hillside to reclaim the land that rightfully belonged to them, as dictated by Article 74 of the Haitian Constitution.
The community of Milot has changed significantly under the Lavalas government of the past decade. Just before the coup Moise received money from the national government to fix the road in downtown Milot. After Aristide was overthrown and Moise was forced into hiding, he gave the money to a construction company to undertake the project and the road was completed several months ago. He also worked closely with the community to build schools for children unable to attend the state public schools and many people in the outlying areas were able to send their children to school for the first time. Jean Charles Moise's commitment to land redistribution, community development, and education programs has made him wildly popular among the poor in the Cap Haitien/Milot area.
Following the overthrow of the elected government, Moise and over 400 other duly elected mayors were forced out of office for their affiliation with Aristide's Lavalas party. Some were replaced by appointees of the unelected interim government and other offices were left vacant, creating massive cutbacks in the provision of vital community services. On June 17, 2004 French troops, then occupying the country, broke into Moise's house, ransacked it and temporarily detained his wife. Moise was not home at the time and has been in hiding since, staying at a different house each night.
Despite the fact that he is in hiding Jean Charles Moise remains a powerful organizer and has continued to work with the community to implement his education and development programs. He often speaks on the radio from a cell phone in the woods urging people to peacefully resist the ongoing political repression and hosts international delegations encouraging cross cultural participation in the development of Milot. In the week leading up to the demonstration, ousted elected officials from throughout the north came to Milot to meet with Moise, discuss their situation with international observers and help organize the event. International observers interviewed several dozen men who were serving as elected officials in municipal government prior to the coup who have since been forced into hiding. All of the ousted officials that met with our group of observers agreed that it was critical for them to remain a presence in their communities even if unable to return to their homes so that they could continue with the programs they had begun and fulfill their commitment to their constituencies.
In the week leading up to the demonstration in Cap Haitien on December 16, I and several other residents of the Bay Area had the honor of accompanying Moise as human rights observers. Due to continuing safety concerns, Moise had not been in public since August 14 when he made a brief appearance at the first Lavalas demonstration in the north of Haiti since the coup. The presence of international observers provided him enough security for him to go out in public; we spent many hours walking the streets and trails of Milot and witnessed hundreds of jubilant reunions.
We also accompanied Moise to a meeting with the UN and spoke with the Haitian National Police in Cap Haitien and officials within the justice department regarding his plan to attend the demonstration on December 16. The press liason for the National Police said that they did not have a warrant for Moise and did not plan to arrest him during the demonstration. He also stated that the National Police would provide what security they could for the demonstration but emphasized that they were lacking in resources and could not face the former military alone without the backing of the UN. UN officers that we spoke with also pointed out a distinction between the regular police force and the CIMO-SWAT units who often differ in their approach, with SWAT teams frequently engaging in intimidation and illegal arrests of Aristide supporters. An anonymous source within the Cap Haitien justice department urged Moise not to attend the demonstration saying that the government recognizes him as a serious threat and could pay someone to kill him. Moise responded to this warning by insisting that he attend the demonstration, saying "I believe in the population, they will protect me".
On the day of the march Jean Charles Moise was true to his word. He watched the demonstration pass from the safety of people's houses until the marchers reached the road leading to the monument of Vetiere then slipped into the crowd unannounced. As in August the crowd went wild, immediately surrounding him to protect him with their bodies and ushering him to the monument where he spoke. Although most people could not hear his words until later that night on the radio the crowd was clearly moved by his presence and cheered triumphantly throughout his speech. Moise remarked after the demonstration that he had received smiles from some of the UN troops and even seen several police officers giving him the thumbs up during his speech.
Perhaps having witnessed this peaceful demonstration and Moise's historical appearance at Vetiere on December 16 will move the Chilean UN to establish closer connections with Lavalas organizers in the north. Perhaps the knowedge of how much Moise is loved and the powerful role he can play as a peacemaker in his communities will compel the UN to lend him greater protection. Or perhaps their vision will remain clouded by misinformation. Unfortunately, just as surely as some within the UN and National Police may feel more inclined to protect Moise, others linked to the former military and unelected government are likely to feel threatened by his appearance at Vetiere making him a more high profile target for illegal arrest or assassination. It is critical that the international community continue to monitor the situation so that the authorities know that communities abroad care about our brothers and sisters in Haiti.