“Around midnight, I heard someone say, 'The rowboat's here.’ They entered my cell in the prison of the barracks of the Tonton Macoute in Les Cayes. They put a bag over my head. Then they put me in a second bag that reaches to my feet in which they put stones. Astrel Benjamin, the chief of the Macoute of Les Cayes, was there, I recognized his voice.
“During the night I was to be thrown into the ocean, I learned afterwards.
“That's when the musicians of the orchestra I was conducting arrived. They demanded my release. The bishop of Les Cayes also demanded my release.
“I didn't know that they were there, I found out afterwards.
“I was blindfolded while Astrel Benjamin directed a torture session in which I was heavily beaten for more than 15 minutes with high-tension cables. After that, he freed me.”
Account of the first arrest of Max Bourjolly in 1960 under the presidency of François Duvalier
Max Bourjolly does not shout, unlike Haitian political leaders these days. He does not command attention with the volume of his voice nor with confrontation or even provocation. His manner is calm, reasoned, almost clinical. Bourjolly has a master's degree in political sociology and training in political struggle from the elite Institute of Social Sciences in Moscow. He studied there for three years as a top-level leader of a political party, the one he helped to found: the United Party of Haitian Communists (PUCH). Rarely has a politician known more than Max Bourjolly about party life – underground work, prison, exile, return to grace, glory and downfall. In the arena of struggle, he nearly died during three decades of his bitter battle against the dictatorship, guided by his quest for freedom and social justice to end the inequality and exploitation that poisoned the lives of Haitians. He recounts with unfailing memory the underground struggle and his many arrests, especially those that led him to Fort-Dimanche, the Haitian gulag that he likened to a Nazi concentration camp. His memories are within him, intact, and he is writing a book of them that will soon be published. He remembers places, names, and dates.
Our meeting takes place at the Centquatre, a former morgue converted into a cultural center located in the heart of the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a working-class area boiling with activity. Observing his hesitant steps, it’s hard to imagine the political party leader and resolute activist that he had been, except when you hear the mastery of his narrative, the rigorous way in which he specifies the facts and his sharp analysis of people. Medium-sized, slim, and wearing a jacket against the incessant rains and fierce winds of a grey Paris, Max Bourjolly systematically weaves thread into a tapestry of the bloodthirsty terror of the Duvalier regime, François and his son Jean-Claude. Wearing thin glass frames, with his brown eyes shining through above a salt and pepper beard, Bourjolly’s voice grows deeper, more resonant, more urgent when he details his imprisonments under inhuman conditions and the weighty losses of his comrades.
During his adolescence in Les Cayes, where he grew up, Max Bourjolly witnessed an unusual scene that marked his entire struggle against injustice. One day, TiKichoy, the hunchbacked peasant who looked after the family land in Dori near Maniche, was beaten on his hump when he arrived in town without the income generated by the cultivated fields. Even in itself, the event was brutal. What made it worse was that Luc Bourjolly, his own father, whom he calls a generous man, was responsible for the beating. No matter, Max Bourjolly describes this moment as the epiphany of his life. “I am someone who doesn't like injustice. I hate to see people in misery. Otherwise, I could have led a quiet life, like all those who have decided not to see the ocean of misery in which people are wading.”
Max Bourjolly was still at the Philippe-Guerrier high school when he took part in the strike against the plan to extend President Paul Magloire’s time in power. He then organized protest movements to denounce the Duvalier elections, which were considered fraudulent. “I was already a supporter of Déjoie, like any self-respecting Cayen. I had already read the Manifesto of Marx and Engels, the Life of Lenin, Wage Labour and Capital of Karl Marx. My political thought was already in place, but had no label yet. And I was not in a political party.”
He came to sociology by chance. He might also have become an engineer or a lawyer. After his baccalaureate, he went to Port-au-Prince to study engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique (precursor of the Faculty of Sciences), but was rejected because he refused membership in Duvalier’s party. “I didn’t imagine that could happen. For me, only the academic record should count.” No matter, the following year he tried again. The answer is the same: no membership card, no place in the school.
He then tried studying law. In the first year, during a debate on surplus value, he came up with an answer consistent with Marx's thought. His economics teacher, Maître Lebert Jean-Pierre, also Duvalier's Minister of Economy and Finance, said to him: “So you are a communist? Well that can’t happen here. I don’t want you in my class any longer. It ends here.” There was no way, then, for Bourjolly to continue his studies, because by kicking him out of his class, Me. Jean-Pierre was de facto expelling him from the Faculty of Law in Port-au-Prince, because the course is mandatory.
Jacques Stephen Alexis (1922-1961)
The young Cayen returned home. It was through the journalist-poet Auguste Ténor, working in Les Cayes as part of the Malaria Eradication Program (SNEM), that he joined a political party in 1962. “He put the manifesto of the Parti d'Entente Populaire (PEP) founded by Jacques Stephen Alexis in my hands. That's how I decided to get involved in the struggle aimed at putting to put an end to this social injustice.”
Bourjolly explains his political choice: “It wasn't Marxism that made me aware of things, it was the situation that led me to Marxism. When I embraced it as a philosophy, I was already in revolt against this misery, against what I saw around me.” He adopted Marx's theory because it was not “an absolute truth” and he was fascinated by the need to “understand the contradictions that were emerging and submerging, and then analyse them in order to draw conclusions. Today's truth may be tomorrow's error. There is nothing absolute except movement. I have remained a Marxist.”
Those who took the initiative to form this party were communists, said Max Bourjolly, but the goal was not to establish communist power in Haiti. Rather, they were convinced of the thesis of social transformation: “The level of development of the country did not allow for a revolution, the country was not yet ‘mature.’ We needed to have educated workers, capable one day of being spearheads of change. We needed to have a working class with class consciousness that could be the nucleus of the struggle. In the 1960s, the working-class sector was stunted.”
And the bourgeoisie? "It's not your bank account or the color of your skin that makes you a bourgeois. Besides, the common people use the word TiRouge [Little Red] to describe poor mulattoes.” There were two types of bourgeois and the party wanted to work primarily with the type linked to national development, the one who created local industry, which gave resources to the local people. “Déjoie was a national bourgeois. Everything he did was invested in Haiti,” he says.
Max Bourjolly states bluntly that Duvalier had only one ambition: absolute power, for himself and his children. To achieve his goals, he didn’t spare his own supporters, those who had campaigned for him in 1957. He encouraged and praised rape, assassinations and all forms of abuses, he said. As an example, Bourjolly recounts that, based on a public statement by Duvalier, “Astrel se yon boulèt” (Astrel is a cannonball), Astrel Benjamin said that Duvalier encouraged him to repress the bourgeoisie and urged him to “inoculate the Duvalierist revolution from below.” Thus, the local chief of the Macoutes authorized himself to rape women of the Cayenne bourgeoisie. The number two had confiscated the vehicle of Roger Villedroin, the former president of the Bank of Les Cayes, after the assassination of his son, one of the 13 of Young Haiti, and drove around with impunity. Bourjolly recalls that families such as the Sicard and Remarais left, and their property was sequestered and looted by the Macoutes: “You can imagine the massive flight of all the bourgeois of Les Cayes to foreign countries.”
He too had to leave his hometown because of Astrel Benjamin, “otherwise I was a dead man.”
This leftist continued the struggle in Port-au-Prince where he worked with the Union Intersyndicale d'Haiti, which united all the unions of the port, EDH (Electricity of Haiti), hotels, the flour mill and the cement factory of Haiti. Attached to the hotel union, he was active in organizing members to adhere to the ideas of the party. “The objective is and has always been to achieve a transformation of the living conditions of Haitians. That's what activism was all about,” explains Bourjolly, who describes a process that was as slow as it was long.
Then, the Cayen went underground in his native region. He metamorphosed into Doktè Grenn and blended in with the population of the Platon Mountains in the South, the best way to create relationships of trust with the inhabitants of the area. The goal was, in the long run, to reap the rewards in the political arena. The experience lasted almost a year until the day an old friend recognized him, forcing him to flee to Port-au-Prince.
The activist was well aware of the risks: “It is a work requiring self-sacrifice. There was a terrorist power in place, so if we were caught, we faced the death penalty. We were walking around with our coffins under our arms. The outcome was fatal.” Max Bourjolly estimates that nearly 3,000 communist militants, workers, peasants and students died in the struggle against the Duvalier dictatorship, father and son. “We don't know what became of them. We've had a terrible bloodletting in our ranks. When they tell you that you can no longer go to a friend who is arrested or you are forced to go into total underground, you know that your turn can come at any moment. And one day it was my turn.”
Madame Max Adolphe
It was July 26, 1967. Some Macoutes kidnapped him near Saint-Anne's Church, right near his mother's house. The car was driving up the Bourdon road towards the residence of Mrs. Max Adolphe, leader of the Tontons Macoutes, when one of the Macoutes asks him: “Do you know Adrien Pierre?” Max Bourjolly discovered his betrayer. Adrien Pierre was a friend from high school. After receiving their orders, they took him to Fort Dimanche where, after his interrogation, he heard: " Fè yo mete l nan poulaye a " (Let's put him in the henhouse!), translation: the space holding common law prisoners.
Just opposite the henhouse is the space reserved for the “privileged” of the regime. One of them recognized him from Les Cayes. His savior’s name was Lubin, a former neighbor, a hougan [Voodoo priest] from the time of Magloire, who had become a commander of the Tontons Macoutes in Mariani. From then on, every day, Bourjolly would form a small bowl with his hands and Lubin emptied a spoonful of corn into it, which he hastened to catch. He ate it burning hot, what did it matter, it was his only food. Lubin offered him a glass of water that he nursed through a day, drop by drop. It's huge, if you look at Lubin's gesture. “Even in hell, gen moun pa (there are friends),” smiles the Cayen, quoting the Haitian proverb.
Bourjolly was stunned by what he saw, even if he knew theoretically that when you enter Fort Dimanche, “ou pa soti” (you don't get out). People are in a deplorable state. “Figi yo zo” (they're just skin and bones), explains the old activist, who speaks of images of corpse-like men and women similar to those seen after the famine in the Sahel.
Fort Dimanche, aka ‘Fort Death’
Max Bourjolly takes up the thread of the story of the Dantesque conditions of the Duvalier prison: “Every week, there was at least one death. I could hear it when they scraped the ground behind the prison. It was not a real hole like in the cemetery and the dogs came as they smelled the decomposing corpses. I could hear their barking when they fought over the dead bodies. These are things that are hard to imagine for people who have never experienced the period or the concentration camps.”
The man remains sober and totally lucid when he says he asked himself: “How long can I hold out like this? If there's one thing I struggled with in prison, it was that question.” After nearly three months in Fort Dimanche, “I had holes all over my body, pus was coming out of them. I thought about it and asked myself if my brain was going to deteriorate? “M ap mouri sou pye” (I was slowly dying). So I made a decision to go for broke. I took a chance.”
He asked to see his jailers. Three days later, he was questioned by Captain Delva, commander of the prison, and then by Madame Adolphe, who decided to release him because he succeeded in making people believe that he was a victim of a private revenge. Like a walking corpse, he was reunited with his mother and his comrades.
A few months later, in 1968, Max Bourjolly left for the Soviet Union. At the age of 27, he took the pseudonym Jean Benjamin during his three years of studies at the Institute of Social Sciences in Moscow. It is here in this campus where everyone is, in fact, someone else -- his identity was never revealed -- that he rubbed shoulders with young communist leaders from around the world, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa. Afterwards, he made short stays in Chad and the Congo to conceal the traces of his stay in the Soviet Union.
It was in 1969 during his stay in Moscow that the two left-wing parties -- the Popular Party of National Liberation (PPLN) and the PEP -- merged into the Party of the Union of Haitian Democrats (PUDA) to become, after four years, the United Party of Haitian Communists (PUCH).
René Theodore (1941-2003)
Max Bourjolly's eyes light up when he recounts his meeting in June 1969 in Moscow with René Theodore, which had all the characteristics of a movie scene. The two men realized that their fates had crossed six years earlier in Port-au-Prince during the underground PEP struggle -- Bourjolly was Kafka and Theodore was Lambert. A few days later, both participated in the World Conference of Communist Parties of the World. Theodore, to whom he paid a heartfelt tribute, became his lifelong comrade.
"The truth on the 1969 anticommunist repression": Boukan, PUCH's organ in the underground, March 1970
The activist continued in sadder tones, evoking the massacre in Nazon Alley that decimated the party leadership. “René and I were in the same room mourning the event.” This defeat, since it was indeed one, opened a breach within the movement and revealed their tactical and security weaknesses. To this day, he still questions their assumptions. One thing he does not doubt is the name of the traitor: Frank Eyssalem.
At 79 years old, Max Bourjolly does not seem broken or frail as one imagines old bodies, especially those who have served time in prison in Haiti. With the precision of a Swiss watchmaker, he spells out the different stages of his life. In the 1970s, it was impossible to return to his country because of the repression. Thus he became an activist in France. Finally, in 1976, he was 35 years old when he was sent to the Dominican Republic to return to Haiti clandestinely. His mission: to establish a route to enter Haiti, like the underground railroad where slaves from the U.S. South passed through to freedom in the North of the United States. He worked there for more than two years. He evokes the heavy rain in a neighboring country that pushed him to take shelter longer than usual, the day he is captured with a comrade. He was imprisoned in Pédernales, transferred to Baharona, then to Cap-Haitien, and finally to the Dessalines Barracks to be sent for the second time to Fort Dimanche.
The story of this survivor of the gulag that was Fort Dimanche rivals in horror with those of others who have testified, such as Patrick Lemoine, Bobby Duval, Boulon Fils-Aimé and Marc Romulus. Max Bourjolly describes in great detail the treatment of prisoners and questions the responsibility of the Haitian Army and the Tontons Macoutes corps, led for nearly 20 years by Madame Adolphe. The political prisoners spoke to each other in the obligatory prison language because “you had to read lips.” It takes a strong imagination to evoke the regimen put in place to dehumanize the prisoners: “Ou pa gen non, ou pa gen nimewo. Yo voye w la pou w pouri avan w mouri (You had no name, you had no number. You were sent there to rot before you die). There was also hunger and thirst and the heat.” The dogs were there, omnipresent, because Fort Dimanche was the scene of many killings. There was also friendship and solidarity among the prisoners.
Max Bourjolly is outraged that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide erased Fort Dimanche. He made a mistake when he invited people to enter “the people's living room.” The residents occupied the space, adapted it to their needs and made structural changes. “I live in pain that Aristide kraze (destroyed) Fort Dimanche. It is a pity. It's a place of memory, it could not be a solution for poor housing. It should be required to take schoolchildren, people who don't know what this gulag was, to see where they put their compatriots,” he says. “I see that there is nothing left for me to show how bloodthirsty the regime was. It was taken out of my hands. I don't look at it intellectually like those who experienced it from a distance. I lived through the horror. We should be able to tell what happened. Aristide deprived me of this possibility. It diminishes fos mesaj mwen (the strength of my message).”
A space of contemplation is needed in Fort Dimanche, which is now being handed over to squatters, according to Max Bourjolly. “We don't have a memorial, so even if the building is no longer there, we need to put up a monument with the names of the people who died there. The problem is that we need the official element: that the State recognizes that at some point it contributed to this crime.”
In 1977 with the election of President Jimmy Carter in the United States and the worldwide resonance of his human rights agenda, Duvalier amnestied 104 political prisoners -- eleven of them, including Bourjolly, he expelled to Jamaica. The activist returned to France where he led the life of a political party leader in exile: organizing meetings, working with his network to advance the cause of Haiti, and raising awareness of the barbarity of the Duvalier regime.
As a good political leader, Max Bourjolly has the art of putting words together to explain a doctrine that leaves little room for doubt. “Duvalierism is a system of thought and a way of acting that Duvalier brought about. It is the seizure of power for him and in the name of the black middle classes to make the apparatus of the state work against the mulattoes, so it is a mulatto-eating power. Duvalier was a noiriste (Black supremacist). It was necessary to create a new bourgeoisie that corresponded to his rise to power. This could not be done without arousing resistance, so it was necessary to subdue any desire for resistance. It was the annihilation of all that was contrary to his will. It was a terrorist and racist power.”
And he continues to weave the terrifying and very coherent story and its consequences. “The Duvalier regime was barbaric. This barbarity represented for me a kind of fascism of underdevelopment. Duvalier even said one day on the palace steps during a ceremony: 'I love savagery. I love the savagery of my Tontons Macoutes.’”
Tontons Macoutes in Cap-Haïtien in 1968. Photo archives Cidihca
Max Bourjolly has a hard and sad look and a clear and solemn voice when he adds: “Imagine a city like Les Cayes or Gonaïves, and it disappears like a black hole, and its inhabitants disappear from the map. The Duvaliers’ repression is of this order of magnitude. Can you imagine? It is the quantitative magnitude of barbarity. Qualitatively, it is the destruction of moral values: of the young respecting the old, of respect for the given word. Before, a handshake was enough, but today, even with a piece of paper, it's not enough.”
In February 1986, the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier went into exile. One month later, the native of Les Cayes returned to Haiti. As the number 2 of the PUCH, Bourjolly rubbed shoulders with politicians of all tendencies. He constantly evokes the demand for social measures to reduce inequalities and the opening of a trial of Duvalierism. “We didn't say to hire judges, but rather that we needed specialists in human and social sciences to try to analyse and understand why, from 1804 [when Haiti won independence from France] to Duvalier, we reached a place where this was possible. A trial was needed to exorcise the evil. Afterwards, responsibilities must be established, even when it is said that the chief - Duvalier - takes responsibility for the subordinates, sometimes subordinates are worse than the chief. Then you have to figure out what to do so that it never happens again.” He deplores the fact that this trial did not take place, perhaps because of the involvement of certain actors on the spot: “That's why today Nicolas Duvalier can come back and talk.”
Toward the end of his stay in Haiti, he saw the formation of the Movement for National Reconstruction (MRN) by René Theodore. Bourjolly was sceptical, maintained his independence and stayed with the PUCH, under whose banner he presented his candidacy for the Port-au-Prince mayor's office in 1990.
One day in January 1992, he learned from a reliable source that Colonel Michel François was planning an ambush where he would be assassinated. It was urgent to act. The next day, in the early morning, he took a deserted mountain road to the airport, stopping to greet comrade René Theodore. At the age of 51, he fled certain death.
Exile from one’s country is always a sad event, even more so for a political activist. He returned to Paris, where he became a cab driver, a mathematics teacher and a business manager until his retirement in 2004. “I had intended to return. But once I left, I analysed the situation and understood that going back and serving were no longer worth it. It took me a long time to accept that. In reality, it wasn't easy to change. The breakup was painful.”
Max Bourjolly recognizes his contribution to the fight against tyranny and injustice: “I gave my share from adolescence until 1992. We did what we could do, what our abilities allowed us to do. If we didn't succeed, it was because we didn't have the keys. It's very easy to blame someone else. It's convenient. Simply, there is an observation that in 1986, we were very popular and we were one of the elements capable of providing a solution.”He remains lucid: “From the moment you miss your turn, you know that history doesn’t give you a second chance.”
His greatest failure? “The way it all ended. We were unable to translate this real enthusiasm for us into real political change for the country. We missed the boat. We didn't get the ball rolling. We have not been able to transform those expectations into reality.” The grey-haired septuagenarian is above all gifted with an ethic of truth and an incredible sense of critical analysis: “There was no longer any homogeneity in our thinking. There were too many divergences linked to the long exile, each one on his own side. Too much time spent in hiding, too many ideological differences, too many tactical divergences. It has left its mark.”
Max Bourjolly with Gérald Bloncourt (1926-2018)
Max Bourjolly savours his greatest success: the distribution of nearly half a million books. When a journalist told him about the thirst for reading of young Haitians, he organized, with Gerald Bloncourt and others from PUCH, the collection of books, against all odds. People in the country's big cities were like “ants in a queue.”
In Max Bourjolly's vocabulary, there are words that often come up such as comrade, Marxist, militant, social injustice and he recognizes that: “The word is more than a means of communication when politics is at stake, the word is a weapon.”
Bourjolly has the elegance to say that he will never speak ill of his comrades, even if he grants himself the right to criticize the actions of some clinically, as he has been the strategic political leader for more than four decades. His gaze is cruel, even pointed regarding some other leaders, except for Marc Bazin and Sylvio Claude. “Their words were worth something and they had a line, even if it was theocracy for Claude. The others had no vision for the country. It was fog and rather how it will affect your ability to get ahead - bourik travay pou chwal galonen (The donkey works so that the horse gets the braids). The Benoit, the Déjoie, the K-Plim reason in a simple way: ‘how can I eliminate him so that it is me left on top.’ All their actions will obey this postulate. He will tell you everything you want to hear, but his objective is him. Yes, we want it to work, but only if I'm the leader. Also, while the partner says yes, he knows he doesn't want to say yes. I've come to understand that Haitian marronnage was stronger than reason.”
His anger is cold and determined against General President Prosper Avril who, after approving the possession of weapons by PUCH to defend themselves, used this information to have him arrested. When April's men smeared the seats of political parties with fecal matter, Max Bourjolly's statement went down in history: “There are those who make politics with gray matter, others with fecal matter.”
Why write his memoirs? “Every revolutionary looks to the past, it is always through the past that we can see the future” he says, hoping that his testimony will help continue the chain of transmission of what barbarism has been.
At the dawn of his 80th birthday, the man with impeccable diction takes stock. He is silent about his private life except to say that he has five daughters, a divorce and remarriage, a brother, a sister and that his mother, who died at 99, was a Haitian born in Cuba. If the Cayen has to watch his health, it is partly because of the after-effects of his imprisonment in Fort Dimanche. His look is clear, his voice is sure, his armor falls off when he sums up: “My problem was how to get people out of this misery. My heart wouldn’t allow me to look at that and ignore it. This is the common thread of my commitment, of my struggles and my refusal to participate in all the proposals that could have allowed me a comfortable material life. I put myself in a precarious situation, but I have never been in misery.”
At the dawn of 2021, the population of Haiti has completely changed as well as the geography of the country, according to Max Bourjolly. So, he gives advice only on request, but says, “Haiti is like a house infested with termites. You have to burn it down, clean it up and rebuild it. Or set out poison to radically disinfest and regain control.”
Today, Max Bourjolly declares with eloquence: “My dream for Haiti was to marry the Marseillaise, which is a universal song that speaks of freedom, and the International, another universal song that speaks of justice. I wanted to marry these two ideals. It is this image that I would have liked to leave to posterity: someone who wanted to link the struggle for freedom with that for social justice.”
An interview with Madame Max Adolphe, head of Tontons Macoutes. Excerpt from Alan Whicker's film, Papa Doc: The Black Sheep (1969)