Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Labor Movement in Haiti: A Personal Reflection

By: James Jordan - HaitiAnalysis

The most impressive strength of the Haitian labor force is its resiliency and resourcefulness. Even before the earthquake, virtually all sources agreed that unemployment in Haiti was somewhere around 70 to 80 per cent, with 80 percent of the people living below the poverty line and some 54 per cent living in abject poverty. But statistics like these do not tell the whole story and in fact may give a false impression about the daily lives of the Haitian people.
Recently I traveled to Haiti as part of a delegation lead by the Latin America Solidarity Coalition, returning to the US just five days before the earthquake on January 12, 2010. We spent most of our time in Port Au Prince, with a three day visit to Jacmel—the two cities most affected by the quake. The impact of poverty, itself the result of massive foreign interference, coups and occupations, was already astounding. The earthquake only served to magnify problems exponentially. It did not erase them and for all its damage, the destruction was an intensifier of an already simmering disaster. Evidence of this can be easily assessed by comparing the damage and loss of life from the Haitian earthquake to the even larger Chilean earthquake of February, 2010. In Chile, the death toll has reached 800 and is still climbing, with heavy blows to the country’s infrastructure. But as bad as its damage has been, the case in Haiti is much more severe, with well over 200,000 confirmed dead and two cities left in shambles. It does not take a great deal of analysis to understand that what killed hundreds of thousands in Haiti was not natural disaster, but the unnatural disaster of extreme poverty and utter neglect to infrastructure development. And that situation is firmly rooted in hundreds of years of exploitation of and interference in Haitian affairs by foreign interests.
Yet, despite all the poverty, one of the first things I noticed was that I actually saw less begging in the streets than I have encountered in travels to other countries with higher per capita incomes. What I did see was a nation of people hustling to get by. I witnessed a nation of people best defined by that Kreyol word “konbit”, which basically means a community work project. Yes, some 70 to 80 per cent of the people are unemployed. Undoubtedly, there are even more jobless in the earthquake’s aftermath. But lest anyone think that means that eight out of ten Haitians are idle, this is not the case at all. A walk down any Haitian street will reveal hundreds and thousands of people lined up on the street selling their wares and services. I bought a drawing by one man who was obviously in need. Certainly he had every reason to beg for a handout to get something to eat. But when he approached me, it was to sell a drawing he made with a ball point pen on a large piece of cardboard. Others offered their services as guides, others ready to shine my shoes. Everywhere, a service or some object was being offered in exchange for some remuneration.
Likewise, throughout Haiti, one sees collective effort. Again, the konbit—people coming together as a community to raise a house or a barn, to cultivate a field, to build a school, to care for the children. This was evident immediately following the earthquake, when around the cities of Port Au Prince and Jacmel, people gathered together to attend to each other’s needs. In fact, this itself is an indictment of the US response to the earthquake, with its prioritization of “security” over the delivery of aid. Taking advantage of the situation, the US military came in with even more troops than were present under the UN occupation. We have all heard the absurd stories of the US military turning away Doctors without Borders airplanes with fully equipped hospitals; flying helicopters overhead telling Haitians not to try and flee to the United States where they would not be welcomed and would be either jailed or turned back; arresting even children in the streets whose crime was looking for desperately needed food. All this was in the name of “security”. However, report after report during the early hours and days after the earthquake showed a picture not of a nation gone crazy with violence, but a nation that, under the worst of circumstances, had immediately and spontaneously organized itself into a great “konbit” of Haitians helping Haitians. The proper response for foreign nations was not using this disaster to justify a new occupation, but rather to step in and augment and support the natural community spirit of the Haitian people.
Thus, when we talk about Haitian labor and the Haitian economy, above all, the first thing to know is that, despite this high unemployment rate, despite the abject poverty, the fact is that Haitians are constantly working. They hustle and they bustle and they come together for the sake of the community. The natural disposition of the Haitian people is one of diligent effort for the common good. The overwhelming poverty and violence one saw before and after the earthquake are conditions imposed by forces that would undermine Haiti’s development not for the common good, but for the interests of mostly foreign power and wealth.
With that in mind, let’s look a little closer at the situation for Haitian workers, the labor movement and the Haitian economy. Most of the research I have done for this piece, including my own visit to Haiti, is based on information from before the earthquake. Nevertheless, as already stated, the earthquake only changed the situation by intensifying it. Below you will find a list of statistics regarding Haitian labor and the Haitian economy.
  • The unemployment rate is 70 to 80%.
  • 80% of the people live under the poverty line, with 54% living in abject poverty.
  • The Haitian minimum wage is equal to about $5 a day.
  • Haiti’s per capita income is $450 per year, a tenth of the $4,045 number in Latin America and the Caribbean and less than the sub-Saharan Africa figure of $736.
  • Sixty-six percent of the labor force is in the agricultural sector, twenty-five percent in services, and nine percent in industry.
  • Employment in the early 80s in the industrial sector included between 80,000 and 100,000 people. It had dropped to 14,000 by 2006 and in 2008 was at 22,000
  • The lowest ten percent of the population consumes 0.7% of the Haitian economy, while the highest ten percent consumes 47.7%
  • Between 200,000 and 350,000 of the nine million people in Haiti have permanent paid work. Most people earn their money through street peddling, temporary jobs and remittances.
  • There are 300,000 children living in the streets in Haiti and some 225,000 working in a situation of slavery. No more than 40% of Haitian children are attending school, and there is a 50 to 60% illiteracy rate among adults. Thus, there is a pool of unskilled labor, but little skilled labor, and little to prepare future workers—conditions that are prime for the development of sweatshop, low wage industries.
A few facts regarding the Haitian economy:
  • The national GDP is $4.5 billion, with $1.5 billion a year coming into Haiti as remittances, plus $400 million in gifts such as clothes and food.
  • Two thirds of Haitian exports are from the apparel sector and constitute nearly a tenth of the GDP, while remittances equal more than one quarter of the GDP.
  • Main agricultural products: coffee, mangoes, sugarcane, rice, corn, sorghum wood
  • Main industries: sugar refining, flour milling, textiles, cement, light assembly based on imported parts
  • Industrial growth rate: -2%
  • Exports: apparel, manufactures, oils, cocoa, mangoes, coffee
  • Natural resources: Bauxite, Gold, Diamonds, probable oil deposits
  • Haiti’s main export partners are the US (72.9%), the Dominican Republic (8.8%) and Canada (3.3%)
  • Haiti’s main import partners are the US (41.2%), Netherlands Antilles (14.9%), China (4.7%) and Brazil (4.4%)
  • Haitian exports equal $491 million; Haitian imports equal $2.09 billion.
  • Until the 80s, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production. In 1987, Haiti produced 75% of its own rice. Today, this has been reversed, with 75% of the rice coming from foreign, mostly US, sources. This is due to IMF imposed restructuring that made deep cuts in Haiti’s agricultural spending and neoliberal trade arrangements that favor US rice imports by cutting tariffs. Added to this is the fact that US rice growers also receive government subsidies, making rice from the US artificially cheaper than Haitian grown rice.
Even before the earthquake, the Haitian economy had become completely dependent on foreign interests, especially the United States, much to the detriment of its labor force and the development of a Haitian infrastructure and Haitian jobs. This dependency has included strategies authored and developed by the US and other governments to split and weaken Haitian popular democracy and labor movements. The reasons for this include the following: to insure a cheap, unskilled labor pool for sweatshop industries; to pursue privatization designed to assure access to labor and natural resource development by foreign corporations; and to take advantage of Haiti’s strategic geo-political location. (Just glance at a map and see where Haiti is located in relation to Cuba and Venezuela.)
Most the Haitian workforce is in the agricultural sector, and most of that is in the form of small, subsistence farming. The LASC delegation to Haiti heard repeated testimonies regarding the abandonment of Haiti’s rural population and agricultural workers. We heard how peasants in the countryside receive no support from the government and, in fact, only see government representatives at the time of elections when candidates are seeking votes. Under the government of Aristide, some modest reforms had begun to help farmers and to provide access to markets. However these were ended with the US/French/Canadian sponsored coup of 2004. In 2006, the Preval administration set up a committee for agricultural reform. But, according to the many farmers and farm workers we listened to, this committee accomplished nothing other than to provide some jobs to friends of the government. There are not decent roads or other means for peasants to get crops to market. Often, the primary means farmers have of bringing their crops to urban centers is to transport them on their own backs or balanced on their heads. By the time they arrive in town, many of the crops are spoiled and those that are not soon will be, forcing the farmers to sell far below the normal market value.
The delegation also heard several accounts about how NGOs have exacerbated agricultural problems. The economy is already flooded with so-called “Miami” rice, mostly brought into the country by one corporation—the American Rice Corporation—and sold for 30 to 50% cheaper than Haitian rice. This situation forces millions of peasants out of work, compelled to seek charity and food aid from NGOs who, in turn, bring in even more foreign produced rice and other foods. Poverty becomes entrenched with the aid of those who claim to alleviate it.
This lack of support for rural communities has caused a mass migration to the cities. Port Au Prince alone has received as many as two million people displaced from rural areas. Many of these, subsequently, join the ranks of the numerous street vendors constituting Haiti’s informal sector. A regular problem for these workers is the many fires set to destroy their kiosks and roadside stands. According to witnesses we heard, these fires are usually started by thugs working either for the government or local, established merchants who want to “clean up the streets” and remove sales competition.
Rural displacement is also caused by rich families claiming ownership of large tracts of land where peasants have been living and working for generations. Those who resist are subject to violence and other forms of repression. (There are ten main families in Haiti who control both national agriculture and industry.) In order to understand the level of rural displacement, it helps to look at Colombia, which has the second largest number of displaced persons in the world—four to five million of a population of 45 million. We have already discussed the 2 million peasants who have moved to Port Au Prince, that in a country with just over 9 million inhabitants.
The second largest source of employment is in the service area. By definition, this area of employment is not a direct beneficiary of infrastructure development and thus does little to advance Haiti’s economic independence. It also is the area of work most likely to employ children, with as many as 225,000 who work in conditions that are best described as slavery.
The situation for industrial workers is particularly grave, especially due to the rampant privatization of formerly public industries. Haitian industry went from employing some 80,000 to 100,000 persons in the 80s to a low of 14,000 in 2006 to 22,000 in 2008.
Let’s examine the reason for the increase in workers between 2006 and the present. This was largely due to the passage of the HOPE act in 2006 along with its continuation, HOPE II, passed in 2008. The HOPE acts are designed to provide duty-free access for textile products to be manufactured via low-wage factories in Haiti from imported materials. While this does provide some job creation, what must be emphasized is that it in no way provides for infrastructure development for Haiti to become more economically autonomous and self-sufficient. The only development is for low-wage factories completely dependent on foreign materials and foreign resources (other than the resource of low wage workers). Laborers work for wages equivalent to $1 to $5 a day. Furthermore, under the HOPE act, while there are provisions made for certain core labor standards, as monitored by the International Labor Organization (ILO), what we heard time and again from Haitian workers is that, “If you talk about unions, you get fired. Unions are still not established in sweatshops.” According to Paul Loulou Chery, General Secretary of the Confederation of Haitian Workers (CTH, by its French initials), Haiti’s largest union center, “We have to tell you that the Hope Act is not the best option, but we have to use the Hope Act to create jobs so some people can get jobs and create unions and social organizations inside the companies. Unfortunately, still with Hope I and Hope II, the owners say that if you get a union, you will lose your jobs.”
But even with an increase in industrial employment, 22,000 workers in 2008 is far less than the 80,000 to 100,000 workers who were employed in the 1980s. What has driven this depletion of industry in Haiti? In a word, privatization. The privatization of the wharf in Site Soley, the poorest section of Port Au Prince, lead to a decrease in the number of workers from 1,800 to 700 workers, and a decrease in the daily wage from 535 gourdes a day to 150, equivalent to a decrease from a little over $13 to a little under $4. Leaders of the organization of those laid off have been repeatedly threatened with violence.
Privatization of the telephone company, Teleco, lead to a series of lay-offs, starting with 2,000 workers laid off in March of 2004 (immediately following the Feb. 29, 2004 coup), followed by 1,500 lay-offs under the Preval government in 2006, followed by the firing of 1,500 workers in January, 2008, followed by the loss of 500 more jobs in January, 2009.
These are just two examples of many. The Hope Acts, I and II, are seen as being a way to bring jobs to Haiti and to help the economy, with a promise of creating some 75,000 new jobs. Again, Chery, of the CTH, told our delegation that, “I am opposed to the aspect of neoliberalism that lays off, but don’t mind when it is bringing jobs to many who need jobs. I don’t mind…if it gives people the opportunity to work and to live. We cannot talk about the rights of labor when they’re not working. Now the minimum wage is 125 gourdes. But if someone is coming who is willing to pay with 100 gourdes a day, then, welcome….The thing that should be the priority for the country is creating wealth. There is no way for Haiti to make it without more jobs. We want more investment that can create more jobs for everyone.”
But even if the Hope Act creates 75,000 new, lower paying jobs, it still does not bring Haiti back up to the level of employment that it had in the 1980s—which was still not adequate. Furthermore, these new jobs and any new wealth being created in Haiti are based on undermining Haiti’s infrastructure and its hopes for real economic wealth and political independence. Most of the pool of the unemployed is based on the failure of Haiti’s own agricultural capabilities and the displacement of rural populations. As such, even under the best circumstances, the jobs created through neoliberal economics and resultant schemes such as the Hope Acts I and II only further serve to entrench poverty and dependency.
The LASC delegation to Haiti met with numerous representatives of rank and file workers, labor advocates and peasant organizations. Repeatedly we heard statements such as this one: “Today there is something new with the unions. Unions are co-opted and it is difficult for workers to trust unions in Haiti now.” Indeed, this has been a slow, painful and deliberate process. Nevertheless, rather than an abandonment of the labor movement, we saw several examples of new organizations of rank and file workers, street vendors, peasants, including the displaced, and service workers. Certainly these groups are already creating the foundation for a potentially revitalized Haitian labor movement.
At the time of the 2004 coup, the CTH and other unions resisted this attack on Haitian democracy and marched in the streets demanding respect for the nation’s sovereignty.  CTHworkers were heavily persecuted, suffering fatalities and arbitrary arrests, many forced into hiding.
The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It was through another of the four core institutes, the International Republican Institute (IRI), that the coup was funded and coordinated, including the creation of the Democratic Convergence, the umbrella organization behind the coup. The Solidarity Center rewarded a small labor advocacy group called Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Struggle) with more than $200,000 in grants, partly before but mostly following the coup. Batay Ouvriye had not resisted the attack on Haiti’s elected government and, indeed, had been calling for Aristide’s resignation in the lead up to the coup. The CTH, the largest Haitian union, was ignored, even though its members were being actively repressed in order to quash resistance and consolidate the overthrow and subsequent occupation.
However, the situation has changed drastically in Haiti, with the CTH now receiving major funding from the Solidarity Center and Batay Ouvriye publicly severing its ties with the Solidarity Center and adopting a strong call for the closure of the NED. In turn, the nature of the CTH has changed greatly. Both its General Secretary Chery and its President, Jacque Belza, are working with Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council—the same council that banned the participation of Haiti’s largest political party, Lavalas, in elections that had been scheduled for February, 2010 (and which have been indefinitely postponed because of the earthquake). Furthermore, Chery is acting as a consultant for the Preval administration.
It is difficult to condemn Chery or the CTH. A case in point is my own experience regarding the CTH and disaster relief. In 2008, the organization I worked for, the Alliance for Global Justice, undertook an effort to raise funds for relief funneled through the CTH for victims of a series of hurricanes and tropical storms that had ransacked the nation. We are proud of the few thousand dollars we raised. However, following the earthquake, the Solidarity Center began an effort to raise relief funds for the CTH and offered to match every individual donation. I don’t know how much they have raised so far. However, in 2008, the Solidarity Center acted as a conduit for one single grant of $250,000 to support the CTH and another Haitian union center.
One can talk about resisting US manipulation of electoral and social processes in other countries all day and all night, and the righteous struggle for autonomy and independence. And one can point out how the Solidarity Center is funded and run not by rank and file union members and locals, but the by the US State Department, via the NED, in partnership with the Centers for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). And we can rail against the lack of transparency of the NED and its component institutes. However, the practical reality is that funding such as this can be a lifeline to a struggling organization such as the CTH. Accepting NED monies and joining in partnerships with the post-coup government can be a tempting alternative to having no resources and being the object of repression. Without doubt, Chery and the CTH have decided that these are things they must do for the organization to survive and to do any work of lasting value.
Chery told us that, “By electing Preval, people hoped Aristide would be brought back. But Preval had another vision—get in power, get rid of the kidnappers, get a minimum of stability, to even work with enemies, coup people….So even if people didn’t agree, at least he guaranteed some stability and some peace, even though it was not what people wanted….This year, 2010, will be very difficult. The exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas is already something very dangerous. Lavalas is divided into so many factions that it doesn’t represent the same force it used to. President Preval…got so many Lavalas leaders to join his party coalition, it weakened even more….The first path is to create jobs, the second is to create political strength.”
For those of us in the delegation who already knew Chery and were familiar with the CTH, we believe that he remains motivated by a desire to make situations better for Haiti’s workers. Many former supporters of Lavalas and labor independence feel like the way of real, meaningful, substantive change is no longer open to the people of Haiti. However, it seems that the way that they see open, and the way they are now traveling, is a neoliberal path designed to entrench dependency and poverty in service to foreign corporations and interests. But rank and file workers feel largely abandoned.
For those of us in the US and Canada, it is difficult to fully appreciate the quandaries and conundrums faced by those on the ground in Haiti. Even before the earthquake, the poverty was already extreme, the economy devastated and the government weak and not in touch with the will of the majority…and now it is so much worse.
Through organizations such as the NED and its core institutes which receive public funding via the State Department and USAID, we see a new kind of tactic emerging. Often in the past, the NED has focused on funding groups and individuals who clearly supported an economic and political agenda authored in Washington, DC and on Wall Street. However, in Haiti we are seeing funding given to many in labor and political movements who have been strong opponents of Empire and neoliberalism. This funding is aimed quite precisely at obstructing and destroying the unity of the mass movement by supporting the creation of splinter movements naturally interested in their own advancement and survival. This is why the Solidarity Center funded Batay Ouvriye at a time they were dampening, rather than building resistance to the coup. And this is why the Solidarity Center is working now with the CTH, with its history of opposing the coup, but now carrying a weight of hopelessness that turns them toward cooperation with the institutions of electoral repression and neoliberal development.
But, today, the situation has been largely reversed, with the CTH rewarded for its cooperation and Batay Ouvriye taking up the role of opposition to neoliberalism, occupation and foreign interference. Batay Ouvriye is clearly a leader in the struggle against the type of development being offered by the Hope Act and has undertaken campaigns on behalf of workers in the Free Trade Zone along the border with the Dominican Republic. It has sought to organize internationalist support among rank and file unionists and solidarity activists in other countries around the world rather than taking NED monies.
The Haitian labor movement is very complicated and oppressed. Especially now, it is difficult to imagine how the movement can be rebuilt and resist being co-opted. It is important to understand how different circumstances can thrusts aspects of Haitian labor into different roles. Today the CTH is tending toward cooperation with the Preval government and the foreign corporations ready to set up shop on the basis of the HOPE Acts. But it is easy to imagine that if a revitalized and united Lavalas were to emerge or, even more, if Pres. Aristide was to return, that the CTH would quickly align with such a popular movement and be, again, on the frontline of resistance to Empire. At this point, though, the CTH has made other decisions.
I have a public record of strong disagreement with Batay Ouvriye’s dismissal of the popular government of Jean Bertrand Aristide and the Lavalas Party. From what I have seen, Aristide and Lavalas, even today, would easily win any fair and open election in Haiti. And despite problems and valid criticisms, real, measurable impacts were being made by the Aristide administration in the fight against poverty and to develop a viable infrastructure. Nevertheless, despite disagreements, I have come to trust that Batay Ouvriye is sincere in its sentiments against neoliberalism and foreign intervention. And, of course, they are Haitian and I am not. They’re position takes place within a national conversation I am not a part of. My position is one of solidarity with the expressed people’s will (the election of Aristide) against the intervention (coup and occupation) carried out by my own country.
This new tactic of funding competing progressive elements is paralleled in the political sphere where groups formerly allied with Lavalas have formed their own split off parties and organizations with the hope that, if Lavalas is banned from the political arena, they can pick up the slack and create a new popular movement. However, through funding from NED core groups and USAID, and with invitations to enter into the realm of government by joining Pres. Preval’s Lespwa political coalition, the unity and power of Lavalas has been fragmented. With the initial candidacy of Preval and the establishment of Lespwa, already elements of Lavalas were siphoned off. Now, some five political parties have emerged from Lavalas, competing with each other, while the bulk of Lavalas continues to support an election boycott until it is allowed to participate. Lawyer and pro-democracy activist Mario Joseph told us how the IRIfunded umbrella group for the 2004 coup, Democratic Convergence, is now part of the same Provisional Electoral Council that the CTH is serving on. He goes on to say that, “Preval and the government, the United States and the United Nations are working to divide Lavalas and the labor movements, using tactics of funding via USAID, the IRI, the NDI to split groups, to disperse them and to weaken unity.” He told us how the IRI funds radio stations such as Radio Galaxy, which carry commentary almost every night from Stanley Lucas, who was IRI’s main contact in Haiti in laying the groundwork for the coup. But we also visited a progressive radio station receiving funding from USAID.
My employer, the Alliance for Global Justice, includes an effort called the Respect for Democracy Campaign, which aims to expose and oppose US interference in foreign elections and calls for the closure of the NED. We were also founding members of a labor and solidarity coalition that supported the Build Unity and Trust among Workers Worldwide resolution which was brought to the AFL-CIO convention in 2005, and defeated via a series of underhanded tactics by AFL-CIO executive leadership. That resolution called for the Solidarity Center to open its books, past, present and future, and it called for a process to begin toward weaning the Solidarity Center from State Department funding in favor of building rank and file support. It is self-evident that this effort was not against the Solidarity Center, but, rather, in favor of its transformation and independence from being a purveyor of US government foreign policies.
As this Respect for Democracy Campaign has developed, we have come to learn how difficult are the choices and how extreme the needs are of many labor movements in other lands. We know that the Solidarity Center often provides crucial funding and support for particular struggles, despite its subservience to the US State Department. Yes, despite its good work, the Solidarity Center is still, ultimately, an agent of the US/Corporate Empire and will remain so until it adopts true transparency and until its foreign affairs are developed and funded by labor itself, directly answerable to its rank and file.
Nevertheless, it is necessary that we, as solidarity activists, not condemn labor organizations that make choices we may not agree with. In the past, I was very condemning of Batay Ouvriye. In hindsight, I realize that this was tinged by a lack of understanding of the situation on the ground and the hard choices confronting organizations. On the other hand, at the time Batay Ouvriye was receiving such aid, they were not at all open about the extent of the funding. Furthermore, they were silent while the Solidarity Center attempted to undermine the academic career of Jeb Sprague, the graduate student who was largely responsible for uncovering the Solidarity Center’s activities before and after the coup. In fact, the Solidarity Center made the unusual move of calling Sprague’s academic advisors in an attempt to discredit him.
Likewise, when we met with the CTH’s Chery, he outright denied taking money from the Solidarity Center, even though there are a number of sources available confirming such grants. It is true we cannot easily understand the pressures and conditions being faced by many movements around the world. But the US Left and popular movements are waging our own struggles for real democracy here at home, and that includes opposition to the NED and US interference in foreign elections. US/Corporate imperialism hurts our own infrastructure development and it hurts our chances for genuine democracy. Therefore, in the name of solidarity, we can and do ask of Batay Ouvriye, the CTH and organizations around the world to at least be open with us when and if such public US funds are being received and to not hide from us how such funds are being used. We do advise against accepting such funds, but we must also be sympathetic with the hard choices being made. In return, we ask for openness, because our own government obscures its interference, and that hurts us as well as the nations being interfered with. Our country is muddled with its own economic crisis and a form of democracy that represents corporate power over and above the needs of its population. US spending to fight wars and to derail popular democracies around the world is a waste of our own resources and keeps US citizens down along with poor and working people across the planet.
For the people of the United States, Canada, France and other countries that have been working so hard to keep Haiti down, what is incumbent on us is to change our own governments and their policies toward Haiti. We must expose and oppose the pernicious roles played by military occupation, electoral interference and the cynical use of our taxes to divide popular movements and labor unions. The best thing we can do for Haitian labor, economy and political independence is to resist our own governments as they seek to turn Haiti into a neoliberal quagmire of cheap labor for foreign corporations and resources stolen and developed for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The land that wouldn't lie: Foreign intervention in Haiti

The Haitian people overthrew slavery, uprooted dictators and foreign military rule, and elected a liberation theologian as president. The west has made them pay for their audacity.

An abbreviated version of this article first appeared as 'The Land that Wouldn't Lie' in the New Statesman, 28 January 2010 

After a couple of weeks of intense media attention, some causes of Haiti's glaring poverty have become familiar: chronic under-investment, disadvantageous terms of trade, deforestation, soil erosion, and so on. What's less well understood is that the fundamental reasons for Haiti's current destitution originate as responses to Haitian strength, rather than as results of alleged Haitian weakness, corruption or incompetence.
            Four such factors have shaped the country's modern history.

First of all – and it remains impossible to overstate the importance of this point – Haiti is the one and only place in the world where colonial slavery was abolished by the slaves themselves, in the face of implacable violence. By the 1770s, an exceptionally brutal plantation economy generated more revenue for Haiti's French colonial masters than did all of Britain's thirteen north-American colonies combined. As the end of the ancien régime approached, notes Eric Williams, for most its inhabitants this ‘pearl of the Caribbean’ had become ‘the worst hell on earth.’ But the 1789 revolution in France deepened a long-standing split between sectors of the colonial elite, and a couple of years after a massive and well-organised slave insurgency erupted in the summer of 1791 its leaders were able to force the Jacobin government to accept immediate and universal emancipation.
            As historians of the revolution that began in 1791 have often pointed out, there is good reason to consider it as the most radically subversive event in the whole of modern history. Independent Haiti was surrounded by slave colonies in the Caribbean, and flanked by slave-owning economies in northern, central and southern America. The three great imperial powers of the day, France, Spain and Britain, sent all the troops at their disposal to try to crush the uprising; incredibly, Haitian armies led by Toussaint L'Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated them one after the other. By late 1803, to the universal astonishment of contemporary observers, Haitian armies had managed to break the chains of colonial slavery at not their weakest but their strongest link.
            Here then lies the first reason for Haiti's exceptional poverty: an extraordinary victory provoked an extraordinary backlash. The war killed a third of Haiti's people and left its cities and plantations in ruins. When it was finally over the imperial powers closed ranks and, appalled by what the French foreign minister called a 'horrible spectacle for all white nations', imposed a blockade designed to isolate and stifle this most troubling 'threat of a good example'. France only re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country’s survival when Haiti agreed, twenty years after winning its independence, to pay its old colonial master colossal amounts of ‘compensation’ for the loss of its slaves and colonial property – an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time.
            With its economy still shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could only begin to repay this debt by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, massive sums from French banks. By the end of the nineteenth century Haiti’s payments to France still consumed around 80% of the national budget. French banks received the last instalment in 1947. This was the single most important factor in establishing Haiti as a systematically indebted country, a condition which in turn served as a pretext for a long and debilitating series of international raids on the Haitian treasury. (It may not require much imagination to guess at the consequences of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s subsequent decision, in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration of Haitian independence in 2004, to ask France to pay some of this money back...).

The second major factor in Haiti's structural destitution stems directly from the first. The slaves who won the war against the French were determined above all to avoid any return to a plantation economy or its industrial equivalent. Over the course of the nineteenth-century large parts of Latin America, as well as much of Europe and Europe's colonies, were ravaged by the process Marx famously dubbed 'primitive accumulation' (the systematic expropriation of peasant farms, and of collectively- or indigenously-owned land and resources), but in Haiti resistance to such trends, nourished by exceptionally resilient forms of communal solidarity, popular culture, and religious affiliation, proved a powerful obstacle to this essential stage in the consolidation of a 'properly functioning' capitalist economy. This resistance in turn solicited powerful counter-measures, including, from 1915-1934, the first and most damaging of an apparently unstoppable series of US military occupations.
            Direct US rule imposed a poverty-enhancing 'structural adjustment' programme avant la lettre. The Americans abolished an irritating clause in the Haiti's constitution that had barred foreigners from owning Haitian property, took over the National Bank, reorganised the economy to ensure more regular payments of foreign debt, imposed forced labour on the peasantry, and expropriated large swathes of land for the benefit of new plantations like those operated by the US-owned Haitian American Sugar Company. Some 50,000 peasants were dispossessed in northern Haiti alone. Most importantly, the Americans transformed Haiti's army into an instrument capable of overcoming popular opposition to these developments. By 1918 peasant resistance gave rise to a full-scale insurgency, led by Charlemagne Péralte; US troops responded with what one worried commander (General Barnett) described as the 'practically indiscriminate killing of natives', 'the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps'. Some 15,000 people died in this first phase of the 'modernisation' of the Haitian economy.
            The next phase of this operation was temporarily contracted out to the noiriste dictator François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, who came to power in 1957 via a rigged election in which he won only a quarter of the votes garnered by his main rival. Four years later Duvalier ripped up the last shreds of the constitution when he arranged for his re-election, winning 1,320,748 votes to zero. Duvalier's determination to gain complete control over the country encountered resistance not only among the rural poor but also among more cosmopolitan sections of the elite. He overcame both problems by supplementing the army he inherited from its US patrons with a more home-grown paramilitary force, the 'Tontons Macoutes.' The paranoid ferocity of Duvalier's regime has long been the stuff of legend; after a dozen young men from Jérémie launched a reckless insurgency in August 1964, for instance, Duvalier's militia publicly slaughtered hundreds of their kin. By the mid-1960s perhaps 80% of Haiti's professionals had fled to safety abroad, and most never returned. Estimates of total number of people killed under Duvalier vary between 30,000 and 50,000 – 'terror has surely never had so bare and ignoble an object', reflected Graham Greene. The CIA itself was impressed with the result, noting that by the 1970s 'most Haitians [were] so completely downtrodden as to be politically inert.'

Complete downtreading was the immediate and necessary precondition for our third factor, international imposition of the neoliberal policies that began to reshape Haiti's economy when in 1971 Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited his father's office as 'president for life'.  Spurred on by the example of post-Allende Chile, these policies aimed to 'open up' Haiti to far-reaching foreign penetration and manipulation. They were designed to turn the country into the sort of place that international investors tend to like: a place where people are prepared to work for starvation wages without making a political fuss, a place where private property and profits receive well-armed protection but where domestic markets, local farmers, state assets and public services do not. Locals soon started to refer to these policies as the 'death plan.'
            The death plan has stifled public spending and forced the privatisation of Haiti's (often highly lucrative) public assets, while accelerating the reorientation of Haiti's economy away from agrarian autonomy and towards urban hyper-exploitation. The case of rice production – the staple food for most of the population – is especially significant. In the mid 1980s, local farmers were still able to produce almost all the rice Haitians consumed, but the last tariffs protecting Haitian farmers were removed in the mid 1990s and the country is now swamped by heavily subsidised American rice that trades at around 70% of the price of its indigenous competition. Domestic production is undercut still more by the vast amounts of additional ‘free’ rice that are dumped on Haiti every year through the ministry of USAID grantees, in particular the Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist and other like-minded churches. In 1985, imports accounted for only 2% of Haitian rice consumption; by 2002 this proportion had soared to 62%. A tiny handful of well-connected families now reap huge profits from importing rice, while thousands of desperate ex-rice farmers and their dependents have joined the ranks of the urban unemployed.
            According to a 2006 IMF study, 55% of Haitian households survive on a daily income equal to 44 American pennies. When the global food crisis hit Haiti in 2008, whole communities were pushed to the brink of starvation.
            Structural adjustment was supposed to compensate for agrarian collapse with increases in the garment and light manufacturing sector. For a little while, the lowest wages in the hemisphere encouraged mainly American companies or contractors to employ around 80,000 people in this sector, while military and paramilitary coercion kept the threat of organised labour safely at bay. By the end of the millennium, however, a combination of international competition and local 'instability' had reduced sweatshop employment to just 20,000 people whose wages, averaging $2/day, had in real terms fallen to less than a quarter of 1980 levels.

The real source of this so-called instability brings us to the fourth and most immediate reason for Haitian poverty. Once again it stems from popular resilience and strength. Bitter experience has forced the Haitian poor to improvise robust ways of defending themselves against their oppressors. Over the course of the 1980s, opposition to the twin forces of Duvalierist oppression and neo-liberal adjustment inspired a powerful and courageous popular mobilisation. This mobilisation was able first to 'uproot' Duvalier and his Macoutes (in 1986) and then, after an army crackdown that killed another thousand people or so, to overcome direct military rule (in 1990). It forced the army's international backers reluctantly to sanction Haiti's first ever round of genuine democratic elections, which in early 1991 brought the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power on an anti-neo-liberal and anti-army agenda.
            Haiti was the only country in Latin America that had the temerity to choose a liberation theologian as its president, and this is a crucial but often neglected aspect of its recent history. The Catholic church had long been a solid pillar of the status quo, and its partial conversion over the 1970s into a well-organised instrument calling for 'the self-emancipation of the oppressed' sent shock waves throughout Latin America. Pentagon officials were quick to realise (as military intelligence officer Captain Lawrence Rockwood later put it) that ‘the most serious threat to US interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organised labour but liberation theology.’ Pope Jean-Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger reached a similar conclusion with respect to their own interests, and the backlash against liberation theology was complemented in the US by the rise of the religious right. In Haiti itself, thirty years ago there were only a tiny handful of small (and often US-funded) evangelical churches preaching political resignation and passive reliance on God's grace; today there are more than 500.
            Aristide's election in 1990 changed the balance of power in Haiti forever. Political violence came to an abrupt and exceptional stop. ‘We have become the subjects of our own history’, Aristide said a couple of years before his election, and ‘we refuse from now on to be the objects of that history.’
            Their refusal remains the key to understanding the course of Haitian politics ever since. Haiti isn't only the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere, it's now also and more importantly the most unequal in terms of its division of wealth and power. A tiny minority lives in paranoid luxury, surrounded by millions of the poorest people on earth. From the perspective of its elite, Haiti's main political problem is very simple: how, once the democratic door has been prised open, might it be possible to preserve such a grotesquely inequitable distribution of property and privilege?
            When Aristide was first elected it was still possible to solve the problem in the usual way – by slamming the door shut. In September 1991, another US-backed military coup cut short Haiti's 'transition to democracy.' Three years of repression decimated the popular movement and left some 4,000 Aristide supporters dead.
            When the US eventually allowed a hamstrung Aristide to return in late 1994, he still managed to transform Haitian politics overnight, by abolishing the army that had deposed him. A central priority for the businessmen and sweatshop owners whose interests were previously protected by the army, understandably, has been to restore or replace it. The need for such restoration became still more acute when Aristide was re-elected in 2000 with an even bigger share of the vote, backed up for the first time by a political organisation, Fanmi Lavalas, that won some 90% of the seats in parliament.
            The subsequent ten years of struggle in Haiti are best understood in terms of this basic alternative: Lavalas or the army. As any number of post-9/11 initiatives confirm, there is no better way of deflecting political questions that might otherwise be 'unprofitably' answered by the will of the majority than by redefining them in terms of crime, security, and stability – terms, in other words, that allow soldiers rather than people to resolve them.
            Ruthless application of this strategy after the Lavalas election victory in 2000 led to another internationally-sponsored coup in early 2004, just in time to squash any untimely celebration of the bicentenary of Haitian independence. Since they could no longer rely on Haiti's own army, in order to overthrow a duly elected government for the second time US troops were obliged to lever Aristide out of Port-au-Prince themselves. In mid-2004 a large UN 'stabilisation' force took over the job of pacifying a resentful population from soldiers sent by the US, France and Canada, and by the end of 2006 another several thousand Aristide supporters were dead. Around 9,000 heavily armed UN troops occupy the country to this day.
            Last year, the president (René Préval) who ostensibly governs this UN protectorate agreed to renew its stabilisation mandate, to persevere with the privatisation of Haiti's remaining public assets, to veto a proposal to increase minimum wages to $5 a day, and to bar Fanmi Lavalas, along with several other political parties, from participating in the next round of legislative elections.

This is the context in which we need to understand the most salient characteristic of the disaster relief effort so far – the decision, taken by US and UN commanders, explicitly to prioritise military and security objectives over civilian-humanitarian ones.
            This inexcusable decision has already caused tens of thousands of preventable deaths. Plane after plane packed with essential emergency supplies was diverted away from the disaster zone, so as to allow for the build-up of a massive and entirely unnecessary US military force. Many thousands of people were left to die in the ruins of lower Port-au-Prince, while international rescue teams concentrated their efforts on a few locations (like the Montana Hotel or the UN headquarters) that were not simply frequented by foreigners but that could also be enclosed within a 'secure perimeter.'
            For exactly the same reason, all through the first week of the disaster desperately needed medical supplies were reserved for field hospitals set up near the US-controlled airport and other 'secure zones': hospitals in 'insecure' Port-au-Prince itself, overwhelmed with dying patients, have had to perform untold numbers of amputations without anaesthetic or medication. Still more 'insecure' neighbourhoods like Carrefour and Léogane – the places closest to the earthquake's epicentre – received no significant aid for at least ten days after disaster struck.
            Unless prevented by renewed popular mobilisation in both Haiti and beyond, the perverse international emphasis on security will continue to distort the reconstruction effort, and with it the configuration of Haitian politics for some time to come. As reconstruction funds accumulate, pressure to expropriate what remains of Haiti's public services and collectively-owned land is sure to be accompanied by pressure to accelerate the growth of Haiti's booming security industry, and perhaps to restore – no doubt in close cooperation with the current occupying power – the army that Aristide managed to demobilise in 1995.
            One thing is already certain: if further militarisation proceeds unchecked then the victims of the January earthquake won't be the only avoidable causalities of 2010.
Peter Hallward teaches philosophy at Middlesex University and is the author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment.

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