The Caribbean country of Haiti has long been a centre of resistance to imperialism and slavery. It was the first black slave colony to rise up and overthrow its overlords, with a revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture beginning in 1791. The country declared itself an independent republic in 1804.
More recently Haiti has been in the news because of a series of food riots that rocked the country last month. These were triggered by rises of more than 50 percent in the price of imported food staples over the past year.
But there was another political dimension to these protests. Haiti’s former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a US-backed coup in 2004, and the country has been occupied by thousands of United Nations (UN) “peace-keeping” troops ever since.
A new government was elected in 2006, led by Aristide’s former prime minister René Préval. But the US and the UN have prevented any attempts to dismantle the neoliberal economic policies that have been imposed on Haiti since the mid-1980s, with disastrous consequences.
Peter Hallward is the author of Damming The Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, a new book that exposes how the Haitian elite and their foreign allies have conspired to keep down the popular movement of Haiti’s poor that has struggled for decades against exploitation and repression.
He spoke to Socialist Worker about the reasons behind the current unrest – and what the future might hold for one of the world’s forgotten neoliberal occupations.
“The food situation in Haiti is a political disaster, not a fact of nature,” says Peter. “Without damaging interference from abroad, and with genuine investment in local agriculture and the environment, Haiti would be perfectly capable of feeding itself.
“In the early 1980s – before the neoliberal economic plan took over – the country was self-sufficient in rice, the main staple food. In 1985 Haiti imported just 7,000 tonnes of rice from the US. Today that figure stands at around 300,000 tonnes a year.
“The collapse of domestic rice production was the result of a very deliberate policy. Neoliberalism impoverished local food producers and forced them into becoming a rural ‘sub-proletariat’ of agricultural labourers, or else drove them into the growing urban slums and sweatshops.
“This process of people being pushed off the land and into urban slums began in the 1980s. That’s when you see the sweatshops emerging, with workers typically involved in light assembly work producing baseballs, T-shirts, US army uniforms and so on.
“Over the past 30 years wages in Haiti have fallen through the floor. The minimum wage is now about $1.75 a day, just a fifth of what it was in 1980 in real terms. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to earn a wage.
“Only a tiny number of people in Haiti are formally employed – fewer than 1 percent of the workforce. Everyone else lives through subsistence farming, by scrounging around in the informal economy or by surviving off money sent from relatives working abroad.”
But Peter stresses that ordinary people have met this process of impoverishment with resistance. In particular, the Lavalas movement emerged from the country’s slums in the 1980s, partly inspired by Catholic liberation theology.
In 1986 popular protests overthrew the hated dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The army stepped in to take direct control, and tried to suppress the growing mobilisation by killing hundreds of people. But four years later the movement brought Aristide to power. He was a radical priest whose powerful, simple language spoke directly to the experiences of the poor.
Aristide’s movement was pledged to use non-violent methods, but the rulers of Haiti have shown no such qualms, being only too willing to use murderous force to hold down resistance.
“The Haitian ruling class is a very small minority of the population,” says Peter. “But it is very well armed. There are around 220,000 guns in Haiti and the great majority protect wealthy families and their businesses.
“In the past the elite used the army and paramilitaries to keep workers in check and make sure they didn’t unionise.
But that couldn’t stop the protest movement from growing. By the late 1980s direct repression threatened to create a backlash that the elite couldn’t contain any more.”
Ever since then, he adds, the elite’s focus has moved towards accepting a degree of formal democracy while tying the hands of politicians in order to force them into accepting neoliberal economic policies that benefit the rich while keeping the masses in grinding poverty.
This strategy has led to permanent instability in the country. Aristide won the presidency in 1990, but was deposed by the elite in a military coup a year later. He was eventually returned to power in 1994, and shortly thereafter disbanded Haiti’s hated armed forces.
Aristide was re-elected in 2000 with a huge majority. With Lavalas in control of both houses of parliament, and without the army standing in its way, Aristide’s government was finally in a position to push through significant political changes. But his enemies, both in Haiti and abroad, responded with a destabilisation campaign that led to the 2004 coup.
The country has been under UN occupation ever since. It is becoming increasingly dependent on NGOs and other international bodies for survival. Today around 70 percent of Haiti’s revenues come from foreign aid.
“I don’t know of any comparable situation where UN troops police a resentful local population, obliging them to accept a completely illegal and unjustifiable coup,” says Peter.
“They are called ‘peace-keepers’ – but there was no war there! Instead there was a political crime, perpetrated by the very same countries who sent the UN in to police the consequences. The hypocrisy is extraordinary.”
The situation has some parallels elsewhere in the world, adds Peter: “The way popular resistance is contained and overpowered in Haiti is similar to the situation in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli blockade has deprived the elected Hamas government of revenues and made the population dependent on aid.
“Both in Palestine and in Haiti the people have been forced to pay a high price for electing the ‘wrong’ government.”
The UN operation in Haiti is led by Brazilian troops. “Its official acronym is Minustah, but some Haitians have taken to calling the troops ‘touristas’, since they seem to accomplish so little,” says Peter.
‘They drive around the cities in armoured personnel carriers, pointing guns at people who are starving, while doing nothing to address either the political or the economic situation. It’s no wonder that the people who mobilised recently against the intolerable price of food denounced the UN occupation as well.”
So how organised were the recent food riots? And could they form the nucleus of a renewed radical political movement in Haiti?
“I’d characterise the recent protests as a limited and tentative political uprising,” says Peter.
“It’s too early to say where it might lead. Political anger is clearly very genuine and widespread, but there’s a lack of coordinated leadership and direction.
“Aristide’s organisation was suppressed and several key figures remain in exile. Some prominent Lavalas politicians, meanwhile, seem to have turned their back on the popular movement.
“In the absence of clear national leadership, the protests have been organised informally by local groups.
“Most people are desperately poor – according to International Monetary Fund figures in 2006 some 55 percent of households live on $0.44 a day or less. And then prices have almost doubled in just six months.
“People are really up against it, with no prospect of a decent future in sight. Some of the recent demonstrators told reporters ‘We’d rather die facing bullets than die of hunger’.”
Meanwhile the machinations of the elite and their imperial allies continue. “This is something that complicates the picture,” says Peter. “There’s good reason to think that some members of Haiti’s elite are trying to manipulate the popular mobilisation for political change and use it for their own advantage.”
In particular, there is a group of senators linked to a right wing veteran of Haiti’s security forces, Youri Latortue, that wants to restore the army and reverse some of the gains made by the popular movement. It is widely believed they took advantage of the recent unrest in order to force Préval’s prime minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis out of office.
“Latortue and his allies have been trying to undermine Alexis for the last year and a half. These guys have very little popular support – but they have the resources and connections that allow them to cause a certain amount of havoc.
“So during the recent riots, a group of people trashed the Air France building but didn’t ransack a supermarket owned by an ally of Latortue. It was a good way to arouse concerns about anarchy and imminent chaos, but a strange thing to do in the middle of a ‘food riot’.
“They might be trying to provoke the government into making a forceful response. The consequent unrest could clear the way for a strongman to emerge. But it could also set the stage for a very different outcome – the renewal of a disciplined popular movement, and the return of Aristide.
“The neoliberal plan is now discredited beyond repair. But the elite and their foreign backers continue to offer little more than a version of business as usual – grotesque inequalities of wealth, mass unemployment, ridiculously low wages, total destitution in the countryside.
“When popular unrest threatens to boil over, they send in the army or its equivalent. If things keep going this way the question will start to look very simple – starvation or revolution.”
For more information go to » www.haitianalysis.com
Damming The Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward is published by Verso. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848, » www.bookmarks.uk.com.