November 2009  

Drive Out the MINUSTAH! Workers to Power!

Workers march from Port-au-Prince free trade zone factories to parliament August 4 demanding
200 gourde ($5) daily minimum wage.
Photo: François Louis/Le Nouvelliste

Haiti, home of the first successful slave revolution in history, has for most of its independent history been condemned by the workings of the capitalist system to a threadbare existence of grinding poverty. Decades of economic blockade of the black Caribbean republic by the United States and the European colonial powers in the 19th century were followed by repeated occupations by U.S. troops and rule by U.S. puppet dictators in the 20th. Throughout, the impoverished country has been prevented from developing indigenous industry. Today Haitian agriculture has been ruined by the importation of subsidized rice from Louisiana in the name of “free trade.” As the island nation reels under the “natural” disaster of annual hurricanes, any protest is put down by “United Nations” occupation forces acting as mercenaries for U.S. imperialism, which has its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For years, the only images of Haiti have been of sheer desperation: garbage-strewn slums and rickety boats of fleeing refugees. But Haiti does have a working class, notably in garment factories in several “free trade zones,” and in August these workers fought an important battle against starvation wages. In May, both houses of the Haitian parliament voted to raise the legal minimum wage to 200 gourdes (roughly $5) a day, from the previous 70 gourdes ($1.75). Even 200 gourdes is barely one-third of the daily minimum costs for food, shelter, clothing, transportation and education for a family of three, and below the U.N. definition of poverty ($2 per person per day). But leading businessmen declared that paying that miserable sum would drive them into bankruptcy and threatened to shut down half the factories in the country.

Demonstration for 200 gourde minimum wage denounces repression byh MINUSTAH troops, August 2009.
(Photo: anarkismo.net)

Haitian president René Préval took up the bosses’ lament, demanding that legislators repeal their earlier action. As the vote drew near, workers streamed out of plants in the industrial parks  of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to march on parliament. In a peaceful demonstration of hundreds on August 4, protesters complained: “70 gourdes won’t allow us to live decently. We can’t afford to eat on our wages. If we are sick, we can’t go to the hospital. We work from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.” (AlterPresse, 4 August). After a parliamentary committee voted to slash the 200 gourde minimum to 150, thousands of angry workers took to the streets August 5. On August 10, protests turned violent as workers and students responded to police tear gas by stoning official vehicles and the car of the U.S. chargé d’affairs, who sought refuge in a police station besieged by demonstrators. On August 11, after four walkouts in one week, the bosses decreed a lockout at the SONAPI industrial park, whose plants employ 14,000 workers.

Finally, on August 18, the pliant deputies and senators saluted their capitalist masters and slashed the legal minimum to 125 gourdes (a little over $3) a day. It was a bitter defeat for the workers in the first organized class mobilization under the U.N. occupation. In 2008, as the cost of rice and other staples rose by 50 percent, hunger riots that began in the provinces and spread to the capital were put down by the MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) military and police forces with a toll of several dead. But those were largely spontaneous acts of despair by impoverished slum dwellers. In the recent marches workers used their strength to shut down production. Though the outcome was a setback, it was a battle that could lead to more powerful and conscious working-class struggle in the future. The key is revolutionary leadership.

Many workers drew lessons about the country’s rulers. One remarked: “It’s sad to see that the president of the republic chooses to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie rather than ours.” Some showed an awareness of their own power, dismissing the bosses’ threats: “They need us.... If they say their factories will close their doors it’s false.” Demonstrators trampled on the flags of the different countries whose troops make up the MINUSTAH, saying “These are the flags of occupation.” This was also the first time under the occupation that workers have been joined by students, who since the beginning of the year have occupied the National Teachers College and different faculties (ethnology, law and medicine) of Haiti’s State University (UEH). This shows the potential for a broader class struggle against the imperialist occupation and sweatshop exploitation.

Militants seeking to cohere a revolutionary nucleus to lead the struggle for a workers party in Haiti would intervene to deepen the alliance of students and workers, together with poor peasants and slum dwellers who have traditionally provided the bulk of anti-government protests in the poorest country in the hemisphere. Although employed industrial workers are a distinct minority, their leadership is vital because of their economic power and class position. In forging a revolutionary consciousness, it is vital to combat illusions in petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist forces. Préval was elected with the votes of poor people who saw him as a stand-in for former president and populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas (avalanche) political movement. Yet both Aristide and his former protégé been loyal enforcers for the Haitian bourgeoisie and the imperialist overlords.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, now U.N. special envoy to Haiti, glad-handing with imperialist investors at World Bank conference in Port-au-Prince, October 2009. (Photo: Ramón Espinosa/AP)

Today, U.S. rulers continue to dominate the politics of Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic. Many Haitians and Haitian émigrés in the U.S. and Canada saw the election of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, as a promise of a brighter future. Earlier this year, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon appointed former U.S. president Bill Clinton as special U.N. envoy to Haiti. Clinton, as the new colonial gouverneur, would oversee efforts to make Haiti safe for foreign investors. To this end he “gave his stamp of approval” to a World Bank conference in Port-au-Prince that attracted several hundred investors who “showed up to network and discuss possible projects” (New York Times, 5 October), although so far without results. Simultaneously, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was in Santo Domingo, trying to coax Dominican leaders into easing up on Haitian immigrants. Meanwhile, Washington continues to lord it over both countries, economically and militarily.

The struggle for the liberation of the first black republic, whose working masses today toil in conditions of near slavery, must be international in scope. The fight against the “U.N.” occupation must also be waged in countries such as Brazil, Canada and Chile that supply mercenary troops and cops to do the dirty work for Yankee imperialism. Dominican workers should come to the defense of their Haitian class sisters and brothers, some of whom work for the same bosses, in common class struggle. This includes defending the rights of the roughly one million residents of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic who are denied citizenship and persecuted by the racist rulers who create the climate for lynch mob terror. Above all, workers in the U.S. must undertake solidarity action, for the free trade zone factories are owned by or produce for major U.S. companies, and it is Washington that ordered the U.N. occupation.

Neocolonial Occupation Troops Enforce Starvation Wages

The battle over Haiti’s minimum wage has been brewing for a long time. In reality, even if it were raised to 200 gourdes, it would be less in real terms than it was 20 years ago (adjusted for inflation). Everyone agrees that it is impossible to live on such a wage, including President Préval, who asked in a June 17 letter to legislators: “Would 200 gourdes let you live as one should? I say no, if you take into account the price of transportation, housing, school, and so on.” The issue became heated with the passage of the HOPE (Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement) Act by the U.S. Congress in December 2006 and the HOPE II Act two years later. This trade preference provides for duty-free import to the United States of apparel assembled in Haiti from cheap Asian yarns, fabrics and components. But there is a price advantage only if wages in Haiti’s factories stay below Asia’s lowest-wage country, Bangladesh.

Last December, Steven Benoit, a parliamentary deputy from the middle-class suburb Pétion-Ville and former member of President Préval’s Lespwa (Hope) party, took up the issue of the 200 gourde minimum wage. After much travail he managed to push the law through the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, with unanimous or near-unanimous votes in both houses of the legislature. When business leaders loudly objected that they would go bankrupt, Benoit asked to see their tax returns. Lo and behold, the companies had filed phony reports claiming to be losing money five years in a row even as they were investing to expand production. How many jobs had been created with the present low minimum wage, he asked, to no avail. TV spots opposing the higher wage suddenly appeared from unknown and well-financed “associations of the unemployed.” A “Dominican industrialist” declared on television he couldn’t afford to pay Haitian workers $5 a day even as the Dominican government passed a law for a $9 daily minimum wage.

With the hypocrisy of the capitalists and the Préval government exposed, the issue of the minimum wage galvanized opposition in all sectors of Haitian society. Since early 2009, students in several faculties of Haiti’s State University have been mobilized to protest the neglect of public higher education under the “neo-liberal” policies implemented by the government and the policies of university authorities, as well as supporting the demand for a minimum wage of 200 gourdes. After the occupation of the offices of the school of education in late February/early March, students at the faculties of ethnology, law and human sciences joined the struggle. Most recently, students in the school of medicine and pharmacology have repeatedly occupied their faculty, and been expelled by mobilizations of various elite police units – CIMO, SWAT and BIM – with dozens of arrests. A coalition of peasant groups, 4 G Kontre, and peasants in the Artibonite region also supported the demand for 200 gourdes.

On May 1, workers in Batay Ouvriye (Workers Struggle), public sector workers (CTSP), peasants in the Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan (small peasants association), and women’s groups  demonstrating for the minimal demand of a 200 gourde minimum wage were repressed by the CIMO riot police. As protests heated up, the “blue helmet” U.N. “peacekeepers” have come to the rescue of the Préval government as it enforces starvation wages. On June 18, during a funeral march for Father Gérard Jean Juste, a popular priest of the Tit Leglize (“little church”) liberation theology movement, Brazilian MINUSTAH troops opened fire on the crowd of Lavalas supporters, killing a young man from the Delmas slum, Kenel Pascal. The spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Haiti justified repression against the march by denouncing UEH student protesters as casseurs (window smashers) who must not be allowed to “attack private property” (AlterPresse, 18 June). In mid-July, U.N. troops used tear gas against a student demonstration.

Mass arrests by Brazilian MINUSTAH troops, Village de Dieu, Port-au-Prince, February 2008. Military
police use same “counterinsurgency” tactics in poor areas of Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian Trotskyists
demand: drive Brazilian troops out of Haiti and out of the favelas! (Photo: Jean Ristil/HaitiAction.net)

Then on August 5, MINUSTAH troops killed another young man, Ricardo Morette, and wounded a dozen as the “blue helmets” took down barricades of demonstrators protesting the lack of electricity in the town of Lascahobas. Until recently these mercenary troops for U.S. imperialism had concentrated on “pacifying” the 400,000 residents of the slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince. This led to a series of massacres in Cité Soleil, Bel Air and other impoverished areas in 2005 and 2006. As our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil (LQB) have pointed out, Brazilian troops are using the same “counter-insurgency” tactics in Haiti that are employed by military police against residents of the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. This is confirmed by Brazilian journalist Pedro Dantas who reported, “Army sources confirmed that techniques employed in the occupation of the Morro da Providência favela are the ones Brazilian soldiers use in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti” (O Estado de S. Paulo, 15 December 2007).

Some Brazilian leftist groups have politely urged the Brazilian government to withdraw from Haiti, while expressing “full understanding” for the troops faced with the “difficulties” of their mission and dismissing Haitians resisting the MINUSTAH as “organized gangs linked to drug trafficking” (Causa Operária, 22 October 2004). In contrast, the LQB and its trade-union supporters in the Comitê de Luta Classista denounced Brazilian president Lula as Washington’s “sheriff” in Latin America and called on Brazilian workers to “aid the Haitian working people in expelling the invading Brazilian troops.” A motion introduced by the CLC with this call was passed by the Rio teachers union, SEPE, and by the national teachers union, CNTE (see “Drive Brazilian Troops Out of Haiti!” The Internationalist No. 20, January-February 2005). Five years after the U.N. forces began patrolling Haiti, now that Haitian workers and students as well as slum dwellers have confronted the MINUSTAH forces over the minimum wage, it is high time for a class mobilization to throw out these mercenary enforcers of starvation wages.               

Lynching and Persecution of Haitians in the Dominican Republic

While Haitians are rounded up and shot down by imperialist henchmen “at home,” next door in the Dominican Republic right-wing forces have been whipping up racist hysteria the roughly one million residents of Haitian origin, the bulk of whom have been living and working there for most or all of their lives. In 2005, there was a wave of pogroms (ethnic massacres) and the mass expulsion of tens of thousands of Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans (see “Stop Persecution of Haitian Workers in the Dominican Republic!” The Internationalist No. 23, April-May 2006). Since that time, the Internationalist Group has regularly participated in monthly pickets of the Dominican consulate in New York City called by Grassroots Haiti. The IG also helped initiate an emergency demonstration in August 2008 by Dominican, Haitian and U.S. activists demanding an end to the deportations and racist violence against Haitians and opposition to the Dominican nationality law which denies citizenship to children of Haitian origin born in the D.R. (see The Internationalist No. 28, March-April 2009).

Now the anti-Haitian hysteria and racial/ethnic attacks are escalating again. The GARR (Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatriés et Refugiés – Refugee Support Group) has reported a series of murders and expulsions since the start of the year: in January, three Haitians killed by Dominican police and several Haitians killed by machetes near the border; in February, 3,000 Haitian immigrants forced out of their homes in Santiago province and more than a hundred forced to flee for their lives in Higüey, as well as three more Haitians killed by the Dominican police; in March, a Haitian pastor and a Haitian professor at the UASD (Autonomous University of Santo Domingo) murdered; in April, 40 Haitians brutalized by police on a bus as they were being deported. And on May 2, Carlos Nérilus, was decapitated with an axe in broad daylight on a street in Santo Domingo while a crowd applauded. Local leaders then announced they were going to drive all Haitians out of the neighborhood. This horrendous execution led to demonstrations in Haiti, and even the prime minister, Michelle Pierre-Louis issued a mild plea, but Haitian president Préval refused to protest, saying it was up to the Dominican authorities.

The spectre of a repetition of the 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic is ever-present. That slaughter by the dictator Rafael Trujillo was carried out with the complicity of the Haitian government, which profited from supplying thousands of workers for back-breaking labor during the zafra (harvest) on Dominican sugar plantations, and of the United States, which set up this system of virtual slave labor during the 1920s when it militarily occupied both countries on the Caribbean island of Quisqueya (Hispaniola). Today, as well, Dominican sugar production depends on Haitian laborers, some imported with the aid of officials and governments on both sides of the border, and many who have lived year-round in the miserable bateyes (slums) on the edge of the plantations. Construction projects in Santo Domingo also depend heavily on Haitian labor. Yet the rulers assiduously stoke racial/ethnic hatreds even as Haitian elites spend their vacations in the Dominican Republic, send their children to university in Santo Domingo and invest their profits in the D.R.

And despite the international publicity to the grisly decapitation of Carlos Nérilus, the lynchings continue. The most recent case was the murder of three Haitians who were shot to death, dismembered and their bodies burned in ovens used to produce charcoal near the Dominican border town of Jimaní. The victims were part of a logging operation supplying wood to this illegal trade. While environmentalists blame deforestation on desperately poor Haitian peasants, in fact it is the result of an industry run by Dominican-Haitian cartels as extensive as the drug trafficking mafia in this region, according to an investigative report in the Santo Domingo daily Listín Diario (25 October). And whether the crime was committed by Dominican park rangers who profit from the trade, by the murderous military border patrol CESFRONT, or by farmers who have organized manhunts to track down Haitians, the ruling classes of both countries reap the superprofits from this deadly enterprise.

While many of the killings have been carried out by lynch mobs of poor and often dark-skinned Dominicans, the racist capitalists exploit Dominican workers as well. Grupo M runs several garment factories with low-wage Haitian workers in the CODEVI free trade zone at Ouanaminthe just across the river from the Dominican town of Dajabón. The border there is now guarded by the MINUSTAH, which built a metal gate to regulate traffic. The same factory owner has plants in the Dominican Republic which supply the textiles and do finishing work on clothing produced in Haiti for chains including Old Navy, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, VF Corporation, Banana Republic, American Eagle and Wal-Mart. Other major corporations are the American jeans maker Levi-Strauss, with 1,600 workers in two plants in the CODEVI industrial park, and Hanes underwear, which produces its entire line of T-shirts there. Meanwhile, the products of these plants are exported to the U.S. under the CAFTA (Central American-Dominican Free Trade Agreement), while other Haitian plants using textiles imported from Asia are covered by the HOPE Act.

But even though Dominican and Haitian workers are exploited by some of the same bosses, and despite the fact that they are both oppressed by Yankee imperialism (which sends U.S. soldiers to train the CESFRONT border troops and hires MINUSTAH mercenaries to patrol the Haitian side of the border), and although Dominican labor and left groups stage nationwide strikes and work stoppages annually if not more often, united action by Dominican and Haitian workers against their common exploiters and oppressors is almost non-existent. Why?

Worker at factory of Dominican Grupo M producing Levi jeans in CODEVI free trade zone in Ouanaminthe, November 2007. (Photo: No Sweat)

One reason is the dominance of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist politics, as opposed to proletarian internationalism, among leftists on both sides of the border. This is a legacy of Stalinism, which replaced the Leninist program of international socialist revolution with nationalist “popular fronts” seeking (capitalist) “democracy.” Another key factor is the huge difference in living standards. According to a Congressional Research Service report on “The Haitian Economy and the HOPE Act” (October 2008), wage levels in Haitian factories “average as little as one-third of those in the Dominican Republic,” while the gross domestic product per capita of the D.R. is ten times that of Haiti – roughly the difference between the United States and Mexico. Income and wage differences of that magnitude are difficult to overcome on the basis of simple trade-unionism, focusing on the struggle over the price of labor power.

Unity of Haitian and Dominican workers will not be brought about through reformist labor struggles within the framework of capitalism, but only on the basis of a broader class struggle against the imperialist system. The whole history of Haiti over the last century underscores Leon Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution: in the imperialist epoch, even the democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolutions cannot be achieved short of the taking of power by the working class, supported by the peasantry, which proceeds to expropriate the capitalists and extend the revolution internationally. In a country with a numerically weak proletariat such as Haiti, throwing off the imperialist yoke can only come about as part of a struggle spanning borders from the island of Quisqueya to Brazil to the United States. And that requires above all building revolutionary workers parties as part of struggle to reforge the Trotskyist Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution.

With a million Dominican and Haitian immigrants concentrated in New York City, this center of world finance capital will be the crucible for cohering the nucleus of such parties based on proletarian internationalism. Just as youth from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have founded common organizations here in the face of the deadly nationalism that has wracked their homelands, working people from the divided Caribbean island can make common cause in the face of the imperialist would-be masters of the universe who would enslave them all. As a start, the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International seek to unite Haitian and Dominican immigrants in fighting to expel the MINUSTAH occupation troops and police from Haiti and kick U.S. military “advisors” out of the Dominican Republic, and to demand full citizenship rights for Haitians in the D.R. and for all immigrants in the U.S.   

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com