Free Markets and Death Squads
The U.S.-backed regime in Haiti
is violently cracking down on worker organizing
by Ricky Baldwin
Dollars and Sense magazine, September/October
0n February 29, a right-wing coup took
control of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and sent President
Jean-Bertrand 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
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
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 Cohn 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."
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.
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 Portau-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
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
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