At the end of the 18th century Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then known) was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean, and its then capital, Cap-Français, was one of the world’s richest cities.
When the French Revolution began in 1789 the island had nearly 800 sugar plantations and 3,000 coffee, cotton and indigo plantations, all destined for France under a colonial trade monopoly. Its population of 35,000 whites and 27,000 mulattoes (people of mixed race) controlled the island economy, while 1 million slaves were brought from Africa to work the land.
When Vincent Ogé, a radical mulatto who happened to be in Paris, appeared before the National Assembly in Paris in 1789 and quoted the Declaration of the Rights of Man he had every right to expect slavery to be abolished. Instead the Assembly reinforced the rights of the colonists. The slave revolt of 1791 mobilised around 100,000 fighters who burned the plantations of their enemies and murdered 2,000 colonists before it was crushed.
Haiti’s future leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, did not join that rebellion. As Britain, the US and Spain tried to exploit the situation and take control of the prosperous colony, Saint-Domingue fractured into warring factions. By the time Toussaint became its undisputed leader, Saint-Domingue was in ruins. Toussaint began its reconstruction with single-minded ruthlessness, but was then faced with Napoleon’s determination to reoccupy the colony and reintroduce slavery.
After Toussaint’s death the new republic of Haiti was declared in January 1804. Its new leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, expelled or killed all foreigners and banned foreign property ownership. Thomas Jefferson, the US president and a southern slave-owner, refused to recognise the new republic, as did Britain and, of course, France. Within a year Dessalines declared himself emperor, as did his successor, the ex-cook Henri Christophe.
Recognition from France came in 1823 at the enormous cost of 150 million francs (around $35 billion in today’s money) in reparations to its ex-colonial masters. The loan was not paid off until 1947! The US refused recognition until it abolished slavery in 1863.
By then Haiti’s plantation economy was in decline as the ex-slaves became small peasants and the mulatto population moved into trade in an expanding Port-au-Prince. Presidents and generals followed one another in and out of power but by and large without large scale foreign intervention.
All that changed in 1915. After eight years of instability and social confrontation the US Marines occupied Haiti that year, just as they had occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico and would later occupy Nicaragua. The excuse, as always, was the protection of local US interests but the real purpose was the domination and control of the Caribbean and Latin America. In the three years following the arrival of the Marines in Haiti, segregation was reintroduced and forced labour imposed. Peasant resistance was met with brute force that left thousands dead at American hands. Haiti was now trapped in a poisoned embrace with the US.
Resistance under US occupation was clandestine and heavily repressed. Its main expression in these times was cultural, in the celebration and rediscovery of black culture and religion – Vodun. The black nationalist movement that emerged from it (noirisme) thrust forward new political leaders, among them François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who became president in 1957 and pronounced himself president for life in 1964. The manner of his rule was symbolised by the armed gangs called the Tontons Macoutes who terrorised the local population and silenced all protest.
When he died in 1971 his bloated and corrupt son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier followed him into power. After promising democratisation he too soon turned to state terror. Under Baby Doc, the Haitian economy was thrown open to US interests.
Agricultural products, mainly from the US, flooded the market and peasant farmers were forced to move to Port-au-Prince where the sweatshops of the new US export zones offered starvation wages to the new migrants. Others joined the diaspora to the US and Canada.
In 1986 a rising student movement and protests against repression and the deepening poverty of the masses finally led to the end of the Duvalier dynasty. The new military government simply absorbed the Tontons Macoutes, however, and continued with “Duvalierism without Duvalier”.
But the social movements and popular resistance were now a rising tide. The Macoutes and the military responded with savagery. Early in 1987 hundreds of small farmers were murdered during a protest over land reform. The election of November that year was drowned in blood as the Macoutes opened fire on voters going to the polls.
A year later, Macoutes killed 13 people in a slum church where the local priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was preaching. Aristide belonged to the liberation theology movement, the Ti Legliz as it was called in Haiti. In 1990 he became the presidential candidate for the National Front for Change and Democracy, a coalition of left organisations. The social movements merged into an organisation known as Lavalas – the flood.
The enthusiasm for Aristide was enormous, the optimism produced by his candidacy palpable. He won with 67 percent of the vote and was inaugurated on 6 January 1991. Eight months later he was overthrown by a military coup accompanied by repression, terror and the large-scale murder of Lavalas members. Aristide went into exile as the persecution of Lavalas intensified.
In 1994 Aristide returned with US backing to complete his presidential term. But the movement he had led was largely broken and his attempts at reform were inhibited at every turn. The role of the UN troops that were supposedly there to defend democracy was in fact to control and contain Aristide. When he left the country in 1996 his replacement, René Préval, oversaw corruption on a massive scale and the deepening poverty of the majority of Haiti’s people.
As Charles Arthur wrote in Haiti Briefing in 1996, “To the sound of trumpets, the Lavalas government and the international community talked about jobs, roads, education, $1.2 billion in aid and the Emergency Economic Recovery Program. In short, a massive ‘reconstruction’ programme. Alas, it was all a cruel hoax. Recent trade figures from the US department of commerce confirm that Haiti is still reeling from what must be considered criminal US/UN economic policies.”
Whatever his intentions, it is clear that Aristide was used by the US government to reinforce Haiti’s role as a giant sweatshop. By 1997 Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, was importing three times as much from the US as it was exporting – and much of that was food it had once produced for itself. In a statement a coalition of grassroots organisations declared, “To accept the presence of US/UN troops in Haiti in any form is to continue to mistreat the rights of this country’s people.
In 2000 Aristide was re-elected to the presidency with a substantial majority. He remained an immensely popular figure among Haiti’s poor, who remembered him as the symbol of the most hopeful moment in Haiti’s recent history. But Haiti in 2000 was a very different place. It was a country sinking into deepening poverty while it produced clothing its producers could not afford at wages which could not feed their families.
Lavalas itself had split and was no longer the radical coalition of grassroots organisations it had once been. The Bush government financed the opposition and imposed economic sanctions. The government of Gérard Latortue that followed (2004-6) enjoyed US support, and was the worst and most brutal the country had ever seen.
When Préval took back the presidency in 2006, there was at least some relief that the murderous regime of Latortue had ended. In the 1990s Préval had worked with Aristide, until Lavalas and Aristide formed the Fanmi Lavalas party. Préval formed his own organisation, Lespwa (ironically it means hope). But there have been few reasons for hope under his presidency.
In April 2008 protests and riots over the dramatic rise in the price of basic foods were met with state violence – leaving a number of demonstrators dead. Storms and earthquakes took their toll too, causing $1 billion worth of damage and leaving 800 dead. In June the price of fuel was raised. In October the US Senate passed its Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity Bill, which represented an opportunity for US and Brazilian investors to profit from low Haitian wages. Haiti, it was announced, was now “open for business”.
By early 2009 the impact of the world recession on a desperately poor Haiti was intensifying. Remittances from Haitian emigrants, which represent 25 percent of the national income, were falling dramatically, while the cost of living continued to rise and 75 percent of the population survived on less than $2 a day.
Trade unions and workers’ organisations like Batay Ouvriye began to demonstrate in support of an increase in the minimum wage from $2 (70 gourdes) to $4.75 (200 gourdes). Legislation approving the increase was passed in May, but Préval, pressured by the factory owners, refused to sign it off. Students and workers took to the streets in huge and unprecedented joint demonstrations – which were met with violence from both police and UN troops.
Meanwhile Bill Clinton and Ban Ki-Moon were busy promoting the creation of more export processing zones (EPZs). In these, foreign firms from the US and elsewhere send parts to be sewn together by Haitian workers for re-export to the US – Wrangler and Disney are among their customers.
Why Haiti? Because wages are low enough to compete with the world’s biggest clothing exporter – China. The zones are fenced and guarded, wage levels low and unions often banned or repressed. A working day will typically be 11 hours and the mainly female workforce subject to constant sexual harassment. Drinking water is not supplied and the heat in the plants is intense.
Production never stops
While the slums in which the workers live are often without electricity or clean water, the export zones have their own generators and water supplies. So production never stops. But these goods are not bought by Haitians. Instead they must pay more for their largely imported food. Haitian organisations have pressed for investment in agriculture and environmental protection but they have been ignored. The largely US multinationals enjoy special tax-free status and huge profits from the clothing plants in Haiti. It is they and the IMF who determine where they will invest, not the Haitian people.
The plan for expanding the EPZs in the next two or three years, backed by Bill Clinton, may now be on temporary hold. The likelihood, however, is that the plan will return, now renamed “reconstruction”.
Haiti coverage in this month’s Socialist Review:
Haiti – the making of a catastrophe, by Mike Gonzalez
The taking of Haiti, by John Pilger
Haiti – Repression and Resistance, by Mike Gonzalez
Haiti – who are the real looters?, by Patrick Acureuil and Pepijn Brandon
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