The Hell that is Haiti

Nov. 2012 Haitiunion

By MARTY GOODMAN

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti—Oct. 22 was a romantic rendezvous for Bill and Hillary Clinton in Haiti, their one-time honeymoon destination. Hollywood celebs were there too—Sean Penn, Ben Stiller and sweatshop magnate Donna Karan, along with members of the Haitian elite, led by President Michael Martelly, a Washington-backed military coup supporter. “Haiti is open for business and we mean it,” Martelly said to his beaming guests.

The occasion was the opening of a new $300 million sweatshop industrial park in Caracol in northern Haiti, $124 million of it paid for by the U.S. taxpayers. Signing the Caracol agreement on Jan. 11, 2011, were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S.-dominated Inter-American Development Bank, and the Korean textile assembly giant, Sae-A Trading. Officials say the park may employ up to 20,000 workers. The promotional material claimed it was created, “without compromising on labor and environmental standards.” Hillary called it “a new Haiti.” It was all lies.

The AFL-CIO had urged American and international officials to reconsider Sae-A Trading, citing “acts of violence and intimidation” in Guatemala. Homero Fuentes, who monitors factories for American retailers, calls Sae-A “one of the major labor violators.” Sae-A Trading closed shop in Guatemala and moved its operation to Haiti. It will now receive tax breaks and duty-free access to the U. S. market. The company’s export to the U.S. has been estimated at about $900 million.

An initial corporate study claimed that the Caracol area was “devoid” of people. But the week the Caracol deal was signed, Robert Ettienne, an elderly farmer near Caracol, told Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW), “The first week of January tractors moved across all this area and broke down everyone’s fences. Thieves and animals followed, and our crops were gone.” (See the series “Open for Business” at www.Haitigrassrootswatch.org.) Farmers were promised compensation but, so far, haven’t received it.

Some 300 farmers, like Ettienne, lost their land, in what is considered a fertile, ecologically fragile region. The nearby port at Forte Liberté is Haiti’s only UN-designated ecologically “protected” area. An internal government document obtained by HGW cited the “significant adverse environmental impact” of the Caracol project. “The fact of having chosen this site, I’d call it heresy,” said Arnaud Dupuy, head of Haiti’s Audubon Society.

Caracol also has deep historical significance. It is close to Chavert, the site where rebellious peasants of the North, followers of guerrilla leader Charlemagne Peralte, were held by U.S. Marines during the first U.S. occupation. Racist U.S. troops attached hoses to truck exhausts that led to imprisoned Haitians, creating a Nazi-like death chamber.

Hurricane Sandy

Two days after the Oct. 22 Caracol gala, hurricane Sandy ripped through Haiti’s South, smashing through tent cities erected after the January 2010 earthquake. They are still inhabited by 400,000 desperate “internal refugees,” despite $5 billion raised internationally for earthquake relief. Ordinarily, tent cities, concentrated in Port au Prince, are rife with hunger, misery, unsanitary conditions, sexual assaults, and forced evictions backed by armed goons.

At least 54 Haitians died during Sandy, a majority of the 71 killed in the Caribbean. Some 25,000 Haitians are homeless. Rivers of water and mud cascaded down deforested mountains, stripped bare for use as firewood. Coffee and bean production was devastated, raising prices on already costly food staples, the theme of mass protests in October.

Cholera, an easily treated water-borne disease, reappeared in Sandy’s wake. Starting in late 2010, over 7500 Haitians died of cholera and hundreds of thousands were infected. Since 2010, there has been little preparation for new outbreaks or improved sanitation. About 550 died of cholera over the last year. 

Haiti has been called “the NGO republic,” referring to the thousands of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in the country, almost all of which are non-Haitian and get the lion’s share of relief funds. The World Bank estimated 10,000 NGOs before the earthquake. A mere 1% went to the Haitian government. The NGOs, funded mainly by wealthy donors, shape relief efforts. There is no national housing plan nearly three years after the earthquake. International “relief” has delivered only 52.3 percent of the $5.3 billion pledged to Haiti, and, some aid specialists say, there isn’t any plan to make up the difference.

The minimum wage struggle

Big worker mobilizations in 2009 kept the pressure on parliament to adopt a new minimum wage law. Wikileaks documents, published by Haiti Liberté newspaper and The Nation magazine, partially reveal the concerted pressure of the Obama administration on parliament to keep wages low.

The 2009 law contained huge giveaways to the assembly bloodsuckers. The law stipulated that prior to Oct. 1, 2012, all workers except those doing piece work in the assembly industry would receive a minimum wage of about $5 US (200 Haitian gourdes) a day—not per hour. Assembly workers were to receive only about $3 a day (125 gourdes) until October 2011, when it increased to about $3.50 a day (150 gourdes). A 2011 AFL-CIO study concluded that the needs of a typical family of four was an incredible nine times the minimum wage for a 48-hour, six-day work week.

The new Oct. 1, 2012, minimum for assembly workers is about $7 US a day (300 gourdes). But it is being ignored by bosses, Yannick Ettienne, a union organizer for the leftist Batay Ouvriye (BO), told Socialist Action. The bosses imposed nearly impossible production quotas for 300 gourdes, although the law clearly states that workers must receive “at least” 300 gourdes for eight hours.

The Obama administration, the UN, and the U.S.-dominated World Bank envision making Haiti a virtual 21st-century slave state of low-wage workers dominated by the international assembly industry. Since the 1980s, the World Bank’s goal was to make Haiti “the Taiwan of the Caribbean,” a sinkhole of low wage labor, depressing wages for the entire Caribbean and even North America.

Parallel to more assembly development is expanding tourism, whose development will mean little income for the Haitian masses and degrade Haiti’s rich culture. Haiti is “free market” capitalism at its most savage. Most Haitians live on $2 a day or less. Unemployment is more than 60%. The country is ripe for revolution.

At a meeting that this Socialist Action reporter attended of sweatshop workers and North American activists, organized by BO, workers described recent work stoppages and the need for collective action. Workers described how bosses reacted with fury to stoppages over quotas by firing workers or sending them home for days or weeks.

The workers said it is common to cut their lunches short or skip it entirely to meet quotas in order to support their families on their paltry salaries. Some bosses force workers to pay for the company’s miserable food, to be eaten while working. Workers also described their wretched health care, with company doctors suspicious of all their complaints, and even ratting out workers to the bosses. One worker told us that factory owner Charles Baker, a prominent reactionary, made threats against him for questioning policy. The workers appealed for international solidarity.

BO has organized the trade-union SOTA (Sendikat Ouvriye Tekstile ak Abiman, the Union of Textile and Clothing Workers) at six Port au Prince plants out of some 25, mostly in the SONAPI Industrial Park located in the capital, which employs about 12,000 workers. BO has also organized the 3000 CODEVI textile workers in Ouanaminte in the north.

BO seeks to mount an international campaign to force assembly bosses to honor the minimum-wage law. They intend to begin a fight to raise the minimum beyond bare subsistence next year. For more, contact www.Batayouvriye.org)

The UN occupation

Keeping a lid on the explosive mix of vastly unequal wealth is a U.S.-led United Nations military occupation force of some 12,000 troops, illegal by its own hypocritical standards and, according to polls, hated by the Haitian masses. Doing Washington’s dirty work, Brazilian troops form the largest contingent of 18 other participating nations within the United Nation’s Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH). Their participation freed U.S. troops for the Iraq and Afghan wars.

As a creation of imperialism, the United Nations is conducting an illegal occupation even by its own charter. There is no invasion of Haiti or internal strife justifying military force. The Haiti occupation costs $1 billion a year, about $2 million a day, funds that could be used for housing, sanitation, and food.

MINUSTAH troops have engaged in a number of massacres. MINUSTAH fired into supporters of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (2004) and created a free-fire zone in the impoverished Cite Soleil section of Port au Prince in 2005, where up to 80 people were killed. Numerous sexual assaults by MINUSTAH troops have gone unpunished. UN officials continue to stonewall when confronted by the victim’s families and their attorneys. It has refused to create a Standing Claims Commission to hear cases against it, as called for by its own mandate.

After the onset of the cholera epidemic in 2010, two scientific studies and photos proved that UN troops from Nepal dumped raw sewage into a waterway comparable to the U.S. Mississippi River in significance. Strains of cholera active in Nepal have been discovered in Haitian cholera victims. UN official have arrogantly denied responsibility, refusing to respond to a lawsuit filed by the Office of International Lawyers (BAI). Some 8000 people have died in the epidemic, and another 700,000 have fallen ill.

The MINUSH’s “mandate” expired on Oct. 15 but was unanimously renewed on Oct. 12 without a withdrawal date. On Oct. 11, in New York City, a delegation of Haitian activists—Haitian Sen. Moise Jean-Charles; several labor officials, including Fignole St. Cyr, general secretary of the Haitian trade-union confederation CATH; Haiti Liberté journalist Kim Ives; and several U.S. solidarity activists—met with UN officials to demand the immediate withdrawal of MINUSTAH. Incredibly, William Gardner, the occupation’s UN Senior Political Affairs Officer, said he was unaware of the 2011 Haitian Senate vote in favor of the withdrawal of MINUSTAH within one year. Gardner went on to say that MINUSTAH might remain until at least 2015.

In Haiti, anti-MINUSTAH protests have increased, combined with the demand for lower prices and the resignation of President Martelly. Two marches in Cap Haitien in the north numbered in the thousands. On Oct 15, the day the MINUSTAH so-called mandate expired, a modest, but militant protest blocked the driveway of the MINUSTAH base in Port au Prince. The presence of North American activists may have prevented acts of MINUSTAH brutality. One MINUSTAH soldier was heard to have said to another, “There’s 40 cameras and Ipads.” Socialists demand, “U.S./UN out of Haiti now, and stay out!

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Mario Joseph: ‘Worse than Gaza’

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti—Attorney Mario Joseph, of the Office of International Lawyers (BAI), has received death threats over the phone in reaction to lawsuits and letters that he and his organization have filed. The situation prompted Amnesty International to issue an “Urgent Acton” bulletin on Oct. 4. On Sept. 28, the chief prosecutor of Port au Prince, Jean Renal Senatus, revealed on the radio that he had been given orders by the Justice Ministry to arrest 36 political dissidents, including Joseph and two other attorneys, Newton St.-Juste and Andre Michel. Fortunately, the prosecutor refused the order, but the charges were never explained.

The AI alert cited Joseph’s and the BAI’s role in pursuing justice for victims of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, back in Haiti since 2011. In addition, AI cited Joseph’s complaints registered with the UN over its role in the spread of the cholera epidemic and forced evictions of people in tent camps. As head of the BAI, Joseph addressed the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights last July. To that list should be added Joseph’s defense of the rights of sweatshop workers,  represented by Batay Ouvriye.

In an interview with Socialist Action, Joseph reacted with a laugh to the title of Barack Obama’s autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope.” He said, “It’s a waste to vote for Obama. Obama never came to Haiti. If I were American I would not vote for Obama. I’m very clear on that. Obama would be a Republican in Haiti, no different than Bush.” Mario traveled with a Palestine-solidarity delegation to Gaza not long ago and said that in his judgment, the living conditions in Haiti are worse than Gaza. — M.G.

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 Under the heel of U.S. imperialism 

U.S. policy toward Haiti has remained unchanged since Haiti’s slave revolution proclaimed independence from French slave masters in 1803. The slave-owning U.S. did not recognize Haiti until 1862. The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, creating a Haitian army trained in repression. In 1994, Bill Clinton agreed to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first elected president in decades (1990), deposed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1991. Aristide supporters asked for a U.S./UN occupation, betraying Haiti’s constitution. Haiti became a model for multi-national “humanitarian intervention,” which always benefits imperialism, not the masses.

In 2004, George W. Bush led a UN force in support of a second CIA coup against Aristide. In January 2010, Obama dispatched 20,000 U.S.-led UN troops, using the earthquake as a cover. In contrast, Fidel Castro answered Obama’s occupation by proclaiming, “We send doctors, not troops!”

Photo: Batay Ouvriye union organizer speaks to a crowd of assembly workers in Haiti. By Marty Goodman / Socialist Action