François Houtart, militant internationalist and friend

15 June by Eric Toussaint

François Houtart passed away at the age of 92 on 6 June 2017, in his bed in the room he had occupied at the Indigenous Peoples’ Foundation in Quito for nearly eight years.

François was known to social movements and revolutionary parties and organisations across the globe. Throughout Latin America, in India, in Sri Lanka, in Vietnam, in several African countries and in Europe, you will find militants who have known François Houtart and hold him in esteem.

I first met François in the 1980s in Managua, in Nicaragua, where he had decided to reside for several months each year with his partner, Geneviève Lemercinier, to provide support to the revolution that had taken place in the country in July 1979. I went there on five or six occasions to contribute to organizing volunteer work brigades with the FGTB |1| movement for Nicaragua, made up of trade unionists and political militants in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua. François was in his sixties and I was around thirty. A generation of difference. François was close to certain Sandinista leaders, in particular the Núñez brothers. He kept his finger on the pulse of Nicaragua’s population, along with Geneviève, by constantly conducting opinion polls. When we returned from the Nicaraguan countryside where the brigade members were working, I regularly visited François to get his views on the situation in the country. Over time, I began writing articles that were more and more critical of the direction the Sandinista leadership was taking. I sent them to him before they were published. He read them attentively and made numerous remarks before they were published in the journal La Gauche and/or in the review Inprecor. The Internet didn’t exist then. I remember the attention François devoted to rereading those articles. His criticism and encouragement helped me persevere in my writing. And I’m certain that many other people who have submitted articles to François can say the same. I knew that my point of view was different from François’s, but I was impatient to submit articles to him because his remarks always improved them. As the revolutionary years in Nicaragua progressed, François listened much more openly to criticism of the political orientation of the Sandinista leadership, although he remained very close to them. I remember a long conversation about the causes of the Sandinistas’ defeat in the 1990 elections. Thanks to the surveys François and Geneviève had conducted, before the elections he realized that the population was very disappointed in the moderate stance that the Sandinista leadership had adopted. He told me that right up to the moment the results were announced they had expected a landslide victory. I wasn’t surprised because I had observed the discrepancy that existed between their discourse and actual practice. I also remember an evening in July 1990 when, going to François’s house some 3 or 4 km away after nightfall on foot with my comrade Paul, we narrowly missed being attacked by a group of Contras who were dismantling a Sandinista barricade that had been erected during the day. In July 1990, five months after the Sandinistas’ defeat in the elections, Managua was covered with barricades the Sandinistas had built to resist the counter-reforms being put in place by the right-wing government. Eleven years after the triumph of the popular insurrection of July 1979 Managua was boiling again. That night could have turned out very badly for Paul and me, and it was a great relief to be calmly talking with François Houtart an hour later.

In the early 1990s, when the CADTM was founded in Belgium and began organizing a major annual conference in which 700 to 1,000 people took part, we systematically invited François Houtart to present summaries of the day’s work. François had a knack for immediately summing up the quintessence of the debates and discussions. That is a very rare quality that deserves recognition.

During that period, François had succeeded, single-handedly, in launching the review Alternatives Sud. I remember very well the energy he put into that enterprise, and we talked about it a great deal.

François was also very active in solidarity with the Cuban people (as he had been with the Vietnamese people and the other peoples of Indochina in the 1960s and 70s). François regularly took part in the committee for lifting the blockade against Cuba that I contributed to leading along with Pierre Galand, Secretary-General of Oxfam Belgium, and alongside Les Amis de Cuba and many others.

François Houtart played a very active role in launching the alter-globalization movement, taking part in or leading the opposition to the Davos summit. Davos is the five-star resort in the Swiss Alps where representatives of major corporations and government leaders meet every year in January. His initiative was to contribute, along with others, to launching the World Social Forum in January 2001 in Porto Alegre. We were both on the International Council of the WSF, which held its first meeting in São Paulo in June 2001. François presented a report on the world situation. From that time, and for nine years, I met François several times a year and we discussed all aspects of the emancipation struggles of peoples around the world.

We became closer during that period of the 2000s. Our opinions often differed, but where fundamentals were concerned we knew we were moving in the same direction. We knew that we could share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. our doubts and verify hypotheses. François was certainly more diplomatically at ease than I.

During our private conversations, I learned that he was a member of the Belgian nobility. He was a baron twice over! He had tried to renounce his titles, but the ordo nobilitatis had refused to allow him to do so! In any case, almost no-one knew that François was was born into nobility, and François himself never advertised the fact in any way. He lived very modestly, in Louvain-la-Neuve, where his main office was located, at the headquarters of the Centre Tricontinental (CETRI), of which he was the founder. To limit the space he took up there, he had a folding bed in his office. When he decided to live in Quito beginning in 2010, he stayed in a room in the Indigenous Peoples’ Foundation which served as his office, library and bedroom. On a few occasions I stayed in the adjacent room, and nothing superfluous, no form of luxury, was in evidence. The room looked more like a monk’s cell than a minimally comfortable studio apartment.

François was from a large family; to my knowledge there were twelve brothers and sisters. A few years ago they celebrated their millennium. Yes indeed! The combined total of their ages came to 1,000 years!

François once told me of his experience of the kidnapping of the Argentine racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio in Batista’s Cuba in 1958 by Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement. He was secretary to the archbishop of Havana at the time. Years later he told this story to Fidel as well when counselling him for the Pope’s first visit to Cuba. In losing François we have lost an eyewitness to many of the emancipation struggles that have taken place over the last sixty years.

My meetings with François usually took place abroad – mostly in Latin America: (Cuba, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and other countries. Sometimes we met in Africa: in 2005 he and I were invited to Algeria by its first President, Ben Bella; we were in Bamako, Mali for the African Social Forum; Dakar and Tunis on the occasion of the World Social Forum. We were also together in India (Mumbai) and Thailand.

In recent years he had withdrawn from diplomatic activities. He expressed criticism of the progressive governments in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. He met Raphael Correa several times to argue the cases of the CONAIE and of Accion ecologica, who were subjected to measures of intimidation. He had also criticized the Ecuadorian government for maintaining the “all for export” economic model. François went to much trouble to keep fully informed of the effects of policies on the people. What were their true living conditions? What were their opinions and criticisms? This made him increasingly critical of the Raphael Correa government and the Venezuelan situation.

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François Houtart (2nd left) at the CADTM conference at the University of Bogota on 24 april 2017

He took an active part in the CADTM Latin America and Caribbean internal meeting in Bogotá between 24 and 27 April of this year, where he presented a critical analysis of the current Ecuadorian experience. He was very interested by the in-depth discussions that took place around the situation in Venezuela. Three former ministers in Chávez governments took part along with three activists critical of Chávez. The article he wrote a week before he died on the situation in Venezuela clearly showed the importance he gave to the CADTM analysis of the effects of the debt on Venezuela and its problems. François took the trouble to go and see for himself what he heard about in the meeting.

François Houtart is well known in Colombia. Whilst teaching at the Université Catholique de Louvain in the 1960s he taught Camilo Torrès, one of the founders of Colombia’s Guevarist guerrillas. During a private conversation we had on 25 April with a FARC commander who in 2016 had signed a peace agreement with the government, François asked directly whether the FARC would become a social-democrat party and if not, how it hoped to avoid it. We must not misunderstand the sense of this question: François supported the peace agreements but he feared that, as in so many cases, the guerrilla movement would be transformed into just another force managing capitalism under a social-democracy facade.
Two days before he died François sent the following messageto me, saying that he hoped to take part in the CADTM Summer School in Namur, Belgium between 30 June and 2 July 2017 :

Dear Eric,

I look forward with great pleasure to taking part, but I cannot yet give a firm answer. On the 27 and 28 of June I’ll be consulting my Doctors on whether I should have a small operation to treat a heart murmur that is making me a little uncomfortable at high altitude. My presence depends on what will be decided. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.

François.

On June 6 2017 François succumbed to heart failure. He will be sorely missed.
It is our hope that François’s invaluable work on the different political processes will be widely disseminated.

Translated by Snake Arbusto, Vicki Briault and Mike Krolikowski


Footnotes

|1| The FGTB (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique) is one of the two main labour federations in Belgium, with over a million members.

Author

Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France. He is the author of Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012 (see here), etc. See his bibliography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89ric_Toussaint He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. Since the 4th April 2015 he is the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt.


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