Honorine Pouponneau: A sister’s vantage point on a historic Haitian presidency

It was March 1990. Honorine Pouponneau was fast asleep in her south side Chicago home, when she was awakened by her excited young daughter.

AUDIO: It was Aunt Ertha, Pouponneau’s younger sister[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/big-news.mp3]

Back in her home country of Haiti, Poupenneau’s baby sister, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, had become the first female president of Haiti. A chief justice on the Haitian Supreme Court, Pascal-Trouillot had been appointed interim president of the Caribbean nation, immediately following a military coup in which General Herard Abraham had overthrown the government of President Prosper Avril, and then given up power. So although Pascal-Trouillot had made history, she had also inherited the problems of a politically tumultuous nation. As interim president she was faced with a massive task: holding the country’s first democratic elections.

Former Haitian president Ertha Pascal-Trouillot
Former Haitian president Ertha Pascal-Trouillot

Pouponneau’s first reaction was to get down on her knees and pray. Her daughter asked her why she’s praying. “Because people can be bad, honey,” she remembers telling her daughter.

By 1990, Pouponneau had been away from Haiti for almost 30 years, but she was all too familiar with the jealousy and chaos that followed the powerful and successful in Haiti.

Pouponneau grew up in Petion Ville, a small town just southeast of Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. There, she lived with her mother and nine siblings, among them Ertha,  the baby of the family. Their father died when Poupenneau was  12. Ertha was only 3.

AUDIO: At that time, she promised her mother she’d help support the family[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/will-take-care-of-mommy-and-family.mp3]

So when an American nurse at the Port-Au-Prince  hospital offered Pouponneau and seven other nurses the opportunity to work as residents at Oak Forest Hospital in Chicago, Pouponneau jumped at the chance. In 1963, the then-29-year-old  Pouponneau landed in Chicago.

When she got her first check from the hospital, she made good on her promise to the family.

AUDIO: She sent all but twenty dollars back home[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/sent-money-back-home.mp3]

In 1965 she married her fiance from Haiti.  She took a permanent job as a  pediatric nurse at the University of Chicago Hospital in Hyde Park. By 1970 they had two children and bought a home in Pill Hill, a pristine, affluent neighborhood on the city’s south side.

Pouponneau and her husband were living the American dream, making frequent trips to Haiti and continuing to send money to her mother and younger siblings. To her family back home, she was “mommy.”

Return to Haiti

Like the true maternal figure that she had become to her younger siblings, Pouponneau flew to Haiti in April of 1990 for her sister’s presidential inauguration. She attended the inauguration and returned to Chicago somewhat assured that all was well.

However, as the presidential elections which Pascal-Trouillot had been appointed to hold drew closer, the political climate in Haiti became increasingly chaotic. When Pouppeneau was not talking directly to her sister and other siblings,  she relied on the Haiti Observateur, a Haitan-American paper, for  news on her sister’s political endeavors.

AUDIO: She was worried[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/everythings-fine.mp3]

Once again, Poupponeau asked for leave from her job and flew to Haiti in August of 1990. She planned to stay with her sister until the elections were over and power was peacefully transferred to the next president. To the surprise of  Pouppeneau, and many other Haitians, the elections took place on Dec. 16, 1991 with no bloodshed. Ertha Pascal-Trouillot had made history. She had overseen Haiti’s first democratic elections. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic, Roman Catholic Priest had won the election by a landslide.

President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot was to officially pass power to him on Feb.  7, 1991.  For Honorine Pouponneau, this meant that shortly after, her sister would be able to travel back to America with her for a short vacation.  So she stayed in Haiti, awaiting Aristide’s inauguration.

On Jan. 6, 1991, a few weeks after the election and a month before Aristide was to be inaugurated, Pouponneau , President Pascal-Trouillot, and their older sister Marth were all asleep in the president’s Port-Au-Prince home when one of the house maids woke them. The police who were to have been protecting them had mysteriously abandoned their posts.

Armed men kidnapped or arrest Pascal-Trouillot. Pouponneau had no idea who or why, and didn’t find out until later that night, television news reported that the election was illegitimate and Pouponneau’s sister was the one who was saying so.

AUDIO: There had apparently been a coup[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/heard-on-tv-it-was-a-coup.mp3]

Dr. Roger Lafontant, a former loyalist to Haiti’s deposed Duvalier regime, was using Pascal-Trouillot to undermine the election she had worked to hard to ensure, and to seize the presidency for himself.

Fortunately, Lafontant’s coup d’etat lasted only a few hours. The following morning, Pascal-Trouillot was rescued. Lafontant and his men were arrested.

As Pascal-Trouillot would later explain, Lafontant had been dissatisfied with Aristide’s victory.  So he and his men held her at gunpoint, and forced her to make a public radio announcement that she was resigning as Lafontant then declared himself the new president of Haiti.

The trouble had not lifted. Word spread in Haiti that it was not a coup attempt and that Pascal-Trouillot had made a deal to sell the office to Lafontant. Poupenneau believed her sister and thought that the idea that her sister had sold the nation’s highest office was preposterous.

As promised, Poupenneau stayed for the inauguration of Aristide. On inauguration day, Aristide issued a letter to Pascal-Trouillot, which stated that she was under investigation for corruption charges.  Therefore, the letter stated, she could not leave the country.

And back to Chicago

Though worried again about her sister, Pouponneau decided to return to Chicago. She had been in Haiti for more than five months and she had a husband and kids to look after in Chicago.

But the Aristide’s letter turned out to be more than a false alarm.  A few months later, Aristide’s government arrested Pascal-Trouillot on charges of complicity in Lafontant’s failed coup d’etat.

It took diplomacy and a well-timed phone call from President George Bush, Sr. to do the trick.

AUDIO: She recalls the phone call[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Bush-phone-call.mp3]

The intervention of the American president worked. Pascall-Trouillot was released the following day.

Not too long after that, Pascal-Trouillot moved to the United States to live with one of their sisters in New York. Since then she spends her time traveling back and forth between Haiti and New York, she said in a phone conversation from New York. She said she leads a fairly normal, spotlight-free life. Although she continues to be a strong advocate for Haiti, she is not the subject of headline news that she was in the early ’90s.  She is a writer, and recently published an encyclopedia of Haiti’s history.

As for Pouponneau, she is now retired from her job as a nurse at University of Chicago.  She and her husband live as empty nesters in their Pill Hill home. They have an extensive collection of tapes and photos from her sister’s brief career as head of state. In her living room is a large photo of  a very tall and stern Pascal-Trouillot, posing in a white suit, with a Haitian flag sash draped across her shoulder.

Pouponneau chats regularly with her siblings, who are all scattered in different corners of the United States. Sometimes when she is talking to Pascal-Trouillot, they recall the bittersweet episode that was Pascal-Trouillot’s presidency. But mostly they chat about the funny incidents from that time.

And this one time, they chatted with me in between.

AUDIO: Negotiating a phone interview for a student with her sister, the former President of Haiti[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Kate-on-phone.mp3]

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