World capitalism has never forgiven Haiti for being the home to the only fully successful slave revolt nor for becoming the first independent nation of African peoples (1804). At the point of a gun (12 French warships with 200 cannons, to be exact) they forced Haiti to pay today’s equivalent of $23 billion as the price for having liberated themselves. They instituted a boycott of Haiti and then the US invaded and occupied Haiti for decades. This is the reason why Haiti is the poorest nation in Latin America.
Also, partly due to the reparations forced upon Haiti, a repressive regime was instituted that organized outright feudal relations in the rural areas. This included legally binding people to the land and instituting a system of forced labor (corvee) for public works projects like roads. Urban Haiti was dominated by whites (including a German population) and the lighter skinned peoples of mixed ancestry.
Thus the Haitian workers and peasants have faced the double burden of super repression from both world imperialism as well as from their own super reactionary ruling class. Just as they did in the slave revolt, the Haitian masses have responded with heroic wave after wave of struggle.
Duvalier Regimes Give Way to Aristide
During the entire cold war period, Haiti was burdened with the repressive regimes of Papa “Doc” and then “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During these years, the regimes used the “Ton Ton Macoutes” as death squads to murder oppositionists. Despite this, the workers organized unions. In 1991, the masses elected the (inactive) Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. This was not your normal US-style election, with everything controlled from the top down. There was no way Aristide could have won through those methods. The election was only the peak of a wave of mass community mobilizations, marches, rallies, etc. Within a year, he was ousted in a military coup. Not to be denied, the masses put him back in office again from 1994-6. He was once again reelected in 2001 and served in office until 2004, at which time a US-backed coup once again ousted him.
During his terms in office, Aristide raised the minimum wage and instituted social programs such as a literacy campaign. He was accused of all sorts of corruption by the US press – the very same media which totally ignores the corruption and brutality of the opposition to him.
There is, for instance, the example of Ammanuel “Toto” Constant, the founder of Haitian military-linked death squads the FRAPH, who is guilty of many terrorist murders. CIA connected, Constant escaped to the US in 1994 and was granted asylum after threatening to reveal those CIA connections. In 2006 he was arrested in New York for real estate fraud, but his crimes against humanity go unpunished.
Then there is the example of Guy Philippe, former chief of police in Haiti and the man who says his greatest hero in history is Augusto Pinochet, the brutal Chilean dictator. A former army and police officer, Philippe was trained in Ecuador by the US Special Forces. Wanted for his part in various massacres, Philippe fled to the Dominican Republic side of the Haitian border where, assisted by the US Special Forces again, he helped organize different terrorist attacks against Haiti. These included murders of community activists and economic sabotage, for instance against a dam. He is also considered to have been involved in drug running. The US DEA carried out an abortive attempt to arrest him, but it is widely considered that this attempt was planned to fail; Philippe knows too much about the involvement in political murders and crimes by the US as well as by the Haitian capitalist class.
Philippe’s terrorism is based on a clear economic program. He talked about re-establishing the military – the same one that carried out all the terrorism under the Duvaliers. His purpose, he explained is the necessity for security. “You can’t have foreigners invest without security,” he is quoted as saying. As far as the Haitian capitalist class, he says “they have a key role to play in the country.” (http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=guy_philippe).
Neo Liberal “Plan of Death”
When Aristide returned to power in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton’s administration supported his return on condition that he accept neo-liberal policies. These, in a nutshell, amount to privatizing public services, cutting taxes and regulations on corporations, especially foreign corporations, and keeping wages low. Haitian workers called this neo liberal plan the “plan of death.”
In the cases where workers struggled successfully and forced wage increases, the investors fled the country, as for example did Disney company which was manufacturing costumes of Disney characters in Haiti. When their workers demanded that their pay be raised from 27 cents per hour to fifty cents, Disney fled to China.
Repression was necessary to carry out these policies. In 2004, when the new coup was carried out, UN troops were sent to Haiti, allegedly to maintain order and prevent violence. Ever the representatives of the world capitalist class, the UN saw to it that its troops kept the Haitian working class sufficiently repressed. In instances where the Haitian death squads could not carry out the murders, UN troops did so, firing on peaceful protests and killing community activists in their homes.
Special mention should be made of Bill Clinton, special UN envoy to Haiti. As he explained at a press conference, Haiti’s government could create “more jobs by lowering the cost of doing business.” He also sought to reassure potential investors: “Your politcal risk in Haiti is lower than it has ever been in my lifetime.” This is diplomatic speak for “we will keep wages as low as humanly possible and we will imprison or kill anybody who resists.”
As a sidelight to removing the Haitian working class from any political role, the government services were minimized and, in their place, all manner of different Non Government Organizations (NGO’s) were sent into Haiti. Reliant on grant money from governments and private capitalists, most but not all of these NGO in effect buttress the repression and poverty by papering it over with minimal services they offer instead. (It should be stressed that a few of these NGOs actually support the struggle of the Haitian workers.)
Early last year (2009) the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and former US president and UN envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, made a high-profile visit to Haiti. During their visit they stressed the need for international donors to support measures to enlarge the garment assembly sector. Central to their proposal is Haiti’s comparative advantage over other garment assembly countries - its very low wages.
In April, senatorial elections were held in Haiti. When Lavalas candidates were barred from running, the party called for a boycott of the elections. In a sign of the support that party continues to hold, only some 3-10% of voters turned out to vote.
In recent years, the regime in Haiti has followed the policies of the Duvalier years in forcing many tens of thousands of Haitians from the rural areas to the urban areas. There, they settled in jerry-built shacks and huts in the steep hills surrounding cities like Port Aux Prince.
The powerful earthquake that ripped through Haiti was, of course, a natural disaster. However, from the lack of services caused by neo liberal policies and the corruption of a repressive state to the housing pattern on the steep hills, the many tens of thousands of deaths are a direct result of the neo liberal policies.
As for the response of the US regime, it was predictable: The $100 million that Obama promised in US aid compares with the $150 million spent on his inaugural ball, the $150 billion (approximately) that Wall Street spent on executive bonuses in 2009, or the hundreds of millions that a Beverly Hills mansion can cost.
Even this meager sum comes at a cost: At the same time as Obama promised this meager sum, he appointed Bill Clinton and George Bush to head up the Haiti “relief” efforts of the US. Clearly, this “relief” will focus on repression and privatization as well as propaganda, if the record of these two individuals is any indication.
The Haitian working class continues to struggle, though. Already, there are street protests in which people are piling up the corpses and rubble as a way of protesting against the lack of any aid. As for the “looting” – what is to be expected of people who are starving and dying of thirst? Of course they will go into the abandoned stores and take what they need. Expect the US and UN troops to shoot and kill these “looters” if they deem it necessary. Meanwhile, the US has already seized control of Haiti’s principle airport. Already, their priorities are being revealed; the focus is to airlift Americans out and troops in, rather than to bring in food, water and medical supplies. As Jarry Emmanuel of the World Food Program commented on the US priorities at the airport, “Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed.” In the coming days, it will be interesting to see how US forces coordinate with the aid efforts of Venezuela and Cuba. Already, the Heritage Fund, a major rightwing US think tank, has called for one objective in Haiti to be to counter influence of those two countries in Haiti.
In an already-impoverished nation, now largely leveled by the earthquake, the rebuilding effort itself will be a political test. The Heritage Fund has called the earthquake a great “opportunity”. They see it as they saw Hurricane Katrina and the giant Tsunami of 2004 – as an opportunity to further privatize and transform every single social service into a source of money-making. This will be buttressed by the ongoing images of Haiti as being peopled with uncontrollable, wild masses. In the absence of any explanation for why Haiti has been so poor, these images will inevitably foster racist stereotypes in the US. This, in fact, is the intent.
With its traditions of struggle, the Haitian working class is not likely to accept this passively.
For one, the US command is vulnerable as far as control over its own troops, many of whom are black and almost all of whom are working class. A direct appeal from the Haitian workers to these troops to refuse to carry out the repression would have a strong effect. Fraternization between them, the Haitian people and the aid teams from Cuba and Venezuela would further undermine any attempt to use US troops to repress.
Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions have been infamous for collaborating with the US State Department and the CIA. These same unions are now mobilizing for support for Haiti. The question is whether they will be acting on an independent basis or in coordination with the political aims of Corporate America. If the past is any guide, it will be the latter course.
Especially on the East Coast, some of the major US unions have many Haitian members. If these members link up with the rank and file activists, a different course can be achieved. Even if they are unable to force the official union efforts to break with US State Department policy, rank-and-file controlled groups can achieve direct links with workers groups in Haiti. Through these, aid can be sent and longer term connections can be made so that it can be ensured that this disaster in Haiti is not used to further loot and repress the Haitian masses.