Free Markets and Death Squads

The U.S.-backed regime in Haiti is violently cracking down on worker organizing.

Ricky Baldwin

This article is from the September/October 2004 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2004/0904baldwin.html


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This article is from the September/October 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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On February 29, a right-wing coup took control of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and sent President Jean-Bertrande Aristide into exile. Within two days, the same right-wing troops began attacking Haitian factory workers and sharecroppers at the behest of factory managers and large landowners, according to the grassroots labor federation Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Struggle).

The first assault came in the Codevi Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in the border community of Ouanaminthe. Thirty-four workers at the Dominican-owned sweatshop Grupo M, a subcontractor for Levi Strauss, had been fired for involvement with the union SOKOWA, an affiliate of Batay Ouvriye. The Codevi workers were demonstrating outside the plant on March 2 to demand that the 34 workers be rehired when management made a call, and in rolled troops fresh from overthrowing the elected government.

Armed men beat and handcuffed many of the demonstrators, then forced them-except for the original 34-back to work, sans union. With only about 100,000 permanent full-time jobs in a nation of almost 8 million inhabitants, according to Charles Arthur, director of the U.K.-based Haiti Support Group, being fired is no small matter.

Once the richest colony in the world, Haiti is now universally recognized as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The World Bank puts the poverty rate there at over 75%. The CIA's World Fact Book (2004) reports that "80% live in abject poverty" and three-fourths of the 3.6 million Haitian workforce have no formal jobs. Moreover, most of the formal jobs that do exist are seasonal or part-time, according to local observers.

Neoliberals, in the U.S. government and in Haiti, supported the coup (or the "liberation," as some Haitian business leaders have dubbed it) wholeheartedly. Their support quickly proved to have little to do with freedom, marketwise or otherwise, and everything to do with enforcing the domination of local and international elites.

Free Trade at Gunpoint

Armed attacks like the one at Grupo M were soon repeated elsewhere, says Yannick Etienne, lead organizer with Batay Ouvriye. Large landowners in the Northwest communities of Ma Wouj and Bombardopolis called in troops to battle sharecroppers campaigning for a larger share of their produce. "Rebels," as the forces who overthrew Aristide are commonly called, have also attacked members of the active peasant group Tet Kole, as well as wage-earning farm workers demanding the legal minimum wage.

The "rebel" troops had crossed into Haiti in the vicinity of the Codevi FTZ from the Dominican Republic, where several of their leaders had been in exile, facing charges of mass murder stemming from the first U.S.-backed coup against Aristide in 1991. Among them, Guy Philippe and Gilbert Dragon had been trained by the CIA in Ecuador, and Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Jean-Pierre Baptiste had been leaders in the CIA-organized Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH).

In the three bloody years following the 1991 coup, FRAPH functioned as an umbrella group for right-wing death squads that terrorized Haiti's democratic movement and drove its nascent labor unions underground. FRAPH itself was originally composed of army veterans from the brutal U.S.-supported Duvalier dictatorships that ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986. Then as now, says Etienne, the motivation of U.S. and Haitian armed action has been the same: "cheap labor."

After this year's coup, Haitian business leaders immediately began meeting with coup leaders, calling them "liberators" even as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted they were murderous "thugs." This collaboration between "thugs" and Haitian businessmen is hardly surprising, Arthur notes, because the Haitian elites owe their power to thuggery of another era: the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation. Then, U.S. Marines slaughtered 20,000 resisters, disbanded the Haitian parliament, and rewrote the country's constitution-effectively turning Haiti into a U.S. cheap-labor plantation.

U.S. Senator Mike Dewine (R-Ohio) continued this tradition when he proposed the Haiti Economic Recovery and Opportunity (HERO) Act, S. 489, this spring. The bill, supported by the Haitian business sector and opposed by Haitian labor unions, would essentially extend the existing free trade zones to include the whole of Haiti. (A free trade zone is a designated area where a government, typically in the global South, lifts normal trade barriers such as tariffs, gives tax breaks, suspends environmental, labor, and other regulations, and takes a range of steps to encourage investment by foreign corporations.) The bill, currently in the Senate Finance Committee, encourages foreign direct investment, for example, by awarding garments assembled in Haiti duty-free status for import into the United States.

"The HERO Act will ensure the multinationals' power to profit from the terrible misery of the Haitian people," says Etienne. "It will allow them to obtain cloth[ing] at preferential prices without the slightest concern for workers' rights. They are concerned, rather, with stifling these rights."

No Saviors

Yet, contrary to some expectations, Batay Ouvriye and other worker groups are not agitating to bring President Aristide back this time. When the Clinton administration reluctantly returned Aristide to power in 1994, under intense international pressure, there were strings attached. Aristide was forced to accept neoliberal austerity measures that reversed most of his government's populist reforms. Massive privatization, a suppressed minimum wage, and the establishment of new free trade zones such as the Codevi FTZ were among these requirements. (See Clara James, "Haitian Free Trade Zone," D&S, November/December 2002.)

When Aristide was re-elected in 2000, labor unions began to make a comeback, and in 2003 the government nearly doubled the legal minimum wage. The Haitian minimum in 1994 was 36 gourdes a day, or about $2.40. But by the time it was raised to 70 gourdes in 2003, over the strident objections of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the higher amount was equivalent to only around $1.70, about one-third of the cost of living in Haiti. Many workers had to fight for enforcement of even this abysmally low minimum wage, receiving little help from the Aristide government.

More disturbingly, the Aristide government also began cracking down on emerging workers' organizations. In 2003 riot police beat and shot at garment assembly workers demonstrating at a Port-au-Prince factory belonging to Wilbes & Co., a supplier of Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, Sears, and other discount outlets. When orange pickers unionized the year before at the major liqueur supplier Guacimal, they faced beatings, imprisonment, and death by dismemberment at the hands of Haitian police.

As a consequence, says Etienne, many Haitian workers now see Aristide as a collaborator and are looking elsewhere for salvation, even as their situation quickly worsens. "The forces lining up for power now represent the bosses' interests even more directly," she says. "But we, at Batay Ouvriye, are very clear that neither one has nor had workers' organization on its agenda. Of course, it is we, workers, who have to roll back our shirt sleeves to fight for our rights independently."

Shirt Sleeves Around the World

Batay Ouvriye has been fighting for workers' rights since the mid-1990s in the Port-au-Prince garment district, where workers assemble goods for export under Dickensian conditions. At HAACOSA, for example, a subcontractor for uniform giant Cintas, workers earn well below the minimum wage, have no access to clean water, and work behind locked gates in suffocating heat and filth. Attempts to unionize have been met with beatings or firings, but the workers persist.

A great deal of Batay Ouvriye's work consists of education, including basic literacy classes (adult literacy is about 53%, and much lower among workers) and legal rights training. The group ties into a network of local and international unions and solidarity groups which lend support by pressuring employers and government officials with letters, faxes, e-mails, and phone calls. But the system requires constant vigilance, as at Grupo M.

Grupo M's contract employer, Levi Strauss, has a Code of Conduct that requires respect for union rights among its subcontractors. Thanks to the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s, such codes are common in big corporations, including several in Haiti. Most are difficult to enforce. But the Grupo M plant in the Codevi FTZ had received a startup loan of $20 million from the World Bank, and with the help of international supporters Batay Ouvriye campaigned successfully to make the loan conditional on respect for workers' rights.

So when the troops attacked workers at Grupo M, Batay Ouvriye quickly mobilized an international call for the World Bank and Levi Strauss to intervene. They did, and Grupo M promised to rehire the 34 fired workers. Managers later balked at rehiring them all, although eventually all 34 did return to work.

At the same time, the plant forced workers to accept mysterious "vaccinations" which the workers feared were sterilizations. Their fears may have been justified: the Haitian Doctors' Union reports evidence that the injections contained contraceptives, including several miscarriages and numerous menstrual problems among workers who received the shots. And one worker says a doctor at the local hospital told her that Grupo M was running a "family planning program." When the workers went on strike in protest in June, plant managers brought in armed troops, this time from the Dominican Republic, to strip and question female workers at gunpoint. Workers say the soldiers also beat up a pregnant woman and threw her in a mud puddle.

Two days into the strike, management agreed to negotiate and the strikers agreed to return to work. However, when the workers arrived at the plant the next day, they discovered that management had locked them out. Now Grupo M is threatening to close the plant in the Codevi FTZ. But Haitian workers will not give up, says Yannick Etienne, at Grupo M or elsewhere. "The struggle," she says, "is just beginning."

Ricky Baldwin is a labor and anti-war activist and organizer whose articles have appeared in Dollars & Sense, Z Magazine, Extra!, In These Times, Labor Notes and elsewhere.

To help, contact www.batayouvriye.org or www.haitisupport.gn.apc.org.

Sources: New York Times, February 29, 2004; Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994; The International Centre for Trade Union Rights, International Union Rights 10:2 (June 2003); Haitian Times, October 15, 2003.