Interview: 58 and living in the US since 1981

An Interview with Kiki Makandal, a Member of One Struggle (NY) and the Batay Ouvriye Solidarity Network

By La Voz de los Trabajadores/Workers’ Voice

June 1, 2013 completes nine years of military intervention promoted by the UN and supported by many Latin American governments in Haiti. What has been the impact of this intervention on the lives of Haitian workers?

To understand the impact of the military occupation on the lives of workers in Haiti, one really has to go back to the original push for neoliberal reform in Haiti since the early 1970s, because this most recent intervention and occupation is only the most recent implementation of this policy. By neoliberal reform, we mean the push for “free trade” (reduction of import tariffs, quotas, etc.), privatization of state-run enterprises, reduction of state social programs (such as health and education), currency devaluation and stabilization, promotion of sweatshop assembly manufacturing and agro-industry sectors that support the interests of large multi-nationals—that is to say all the policies that have systematically impoverished workers throughout the “third world” and enriched billionaires and multi-national corporations.


The ’70s saw the original start of the assembly manufacturing sector in Haiti, which was facilitated by extremely low wages, the absence of unions due to the repression of the Duvalier dictatorship, and the huge tax incentives granted to foreign investors. This quickly led to Haiti becoming the top producer of baseballs in the world, a significant producer of electronic goods and various assembled textile products. However, the development of sweatshop assembly manufacturing in Haiti was constrained by conditions inherent to the reactionary dictatorship: a crumbling economy due to a failing agricultural sector and archaic economic structures, very poor infrastructure (no electricity, very poor roads and port facilities, etc.), rampant corruption, and an underlying potential for political upheaval due to decades of intense repression. Indeed, despite the rise in assembly manufacturing, crumbling economic structures fostered political upheaval in Haiti, which led to the 1986 ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier into a golden exile facilitated by US Air Force cargo planes.

The imperial neoliberal “plan” was then to institute some kind of “democratic” figurehead reform that would implement the full range of neoliberal reforms that the preceding dictatorship had been unwilling to take part in, particularly the privatization of state run enterprises. To this end, a new constitution was drafted and Marc Bazin, the “Chicago Boy” World Bank economist was lined up as the candidate of choice in UN monitored presidential elections. However, this plan was foiled by the last minute candidacy of a Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular populist priest, an advocate of liberation theology who had once put out a record entitled “Capitalism is a mortal sin.” Aristide ran away with the election in December 1990, but was overthrown by a US sponsored military coup after less than eight months in office and after attempting to increase the minimum wage. This led to a 3-year impasse since the imperial “neoliberal order” had just embraced the electoral process as its main avenue of reform and renounced military overthrows, at least publicly. These 3 years of military rule in Haiti were used to purge the populist movement by killing more than five thousand of its supporters, wrecking and bankrupting the Haitian state, and setting the stage for a more compliant new regime. Aristide was induced to sign on to neoliberal reform and brought back into office by 24,000 US marines in September 1994. This created the first precedent for UN “humanitarian” military intervention requested by a “constitutional” head of state, in effect forfeiting that state’s sovereignty, and established the MINUAH, first US-UN military occupation of Haiti, which lasted until 2000.

The imperial “plan” was to move ahead with the full agenda of neoliberal reforms, but this did not go so smoothly. The political situation was fraught with contradictions, since the populists had to be constrained by the same reactionary right wing forces that the occupation was supposed to disarm. Needless to say, there was very little disarmament, and an intricate process of power alliances ensued where the populist movement assimilated some of its former foes by policies of “reconciliation” offering them juicy positions in the government. Aristide dissolved the Haitian Army while the imperialists strived to control the newly formed police forces. The populist imperative was to “rebuild” the state under the authority of Aristide, while the imperial “plan” was to divide and conquer, to foster more compliant right-wing political forces that could prevail in new elections.

Throughout this period, populist forces preserved their rule by compromising their social agenda and creating a new “bureaucratic” faction of the bourgeoisie, which quickly earned the moniker of “Gran Manjè” or “Big Eater,” amassing their fortunes through corruption. In 2004, growing popular dissatisfaction and right-wing opposition to Aristide’s second term enabled a small CIA-sponsored military contingent of about two hundred armed mercenaries of ex-army and ex-paramilitary members to march into Haiti from the neighboring Dominican Republic, lay siege to the capital and demand Aristide’s ouster. Once again, US cargo planes carried Aristide into exile. This led to the current iteration of US-UN intervention in Haiti, the MINUSTAH, initiated on June 1, 2004 with the landing of a contingent of troops from Chile. This time, the US was overwhelmed by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and chose to delegate the stewardship of this intervention to aspiring emerging regional powers in Latin America and Brazil, which claimed the military leadership of the UN mission, although the political leadership has always remained with the US embassy.

Right away, a provisional government was set up through “constitutional” manipulations: the Latortue government. His administration was recognized by the United Nations, the United States, Canada and the European Union, while being denied recognition by a few governments, including those of Jamaica and St. Kitts and Nevis, Venezuela and Cuba, as well as the African Union. The same neoliberal agenda was promoted, this time through the ICF (Interim Cooperation Framework), promising hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign investment for the implementation of these policies, and new elections were scheduled in 2006 with an abundance of pro-neoliberal candidates. But once again, René Préval, a last minute populist candidate, former prime minister under Aristide, former president after Aristide, known as “Aristide’s twin brother,” won the election and resumed the policies of compromise, corruption, power grabbing and “stalling” that were the hallmark of the previous populist administrations.

This was the situation until the January 12, 2010 devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti’s crumbling infrastructure, particularly in Port-au-Prince (the capital), and made more than 300,000 victims plus a million and a half internal homeless. Immediately, this moment was seized as a new opportunity to implement “the plan.” The ICRH, (Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti) was formed, promising 11 billion dollars in assistance that was tied to various programs that facilitated neoliberal reform. And new elections were called for. At the insistence of Haiti’s “friends” in the “International Community,” the Haitian general election, originally scheduled for February 2010, was postponed to November 28—in the rubbles of the earthquake, in the midst of a cholera epidemic which had spread through the negligence of UN occupation forces from Nepal, and after hurricane Thomas had inflicted further devastation. This same “International Community” then intervened through the OAS in a recount of election results to push through their favored candidate Michel Martelly, an outright pro-business right-wing candidate. Martelly then won the second round of the elections and at once declared: “Haiti is open for business.”

Since taking office in 2011, Martelly has engaged in the same outright power grabbing of his predecessors, while postponing new elections indefinitely, with the tacit approval of this same “International Community.”

So, this brief historical recap shows us that this current UN-US proxy occupation of Haiti, using troops from 29 different countries from 4 different continents, is only a new chapter in the continuing attempt to implement neoliberal reforms in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It has taken several coup d’états, the murder of thousands by right-wing death squads, several flights of US cargo planes taking away former Haitian presidents, several occupations, a new constitution, an earthquake, a few hurricanes, and many attempts at elections to get to this current state of affairs where the “International Community” is finally “having its way.” But Haiti is still embroiled in turmoil: the popular masses are still threatening social upheaval, the ruling classes are still divided in their power grabbing projects, and the imperialist agenda is still puttering along, not quite able to fully implement its “plan.” It has succeeded in destroying the Haitian national economy; Clinton has even apologized for free trade policies that led to the destruction of rice agriculture in Haiti. But there is still over 70% unemployment (the “Free Trade Zones” and industrial parks that were supposed to employ a massive cheap labor force only employ a few thousand workers), and the economy is a wreck—with the drug trade, contraband, foreign aid, and remittances from expatriates forming the bulk of the GDP.

To summarize, the impact of this continuous series of imperialist interventions and occupations on the working class in Haiti has been disastrous. Constant repression has been deployed against working class movements and their organizations. Successive coups have been followed by intense repression of worker organizations, which have had to rebuild themselves over and over. Generalized impunity for bosses has been prevalent even under populist administrations, where systemic violations of worker rights have been undeterred and even aided at times by state-sponsored repression. MINUSTAH forces even directly intervened in 2009 to squash protests by workers who were demanding an adequate adjustment of the minimum wage. MINUSTAH tanks, helicopters and troops were deployed to block worker protests and mobilizations. In this case, MINUSTAH troops were the chief enforcers of the “cheap wage” comparative advantage being promoted by imperialism and the Haitian ruling classes to attract foreign investment.

Under occupation, Haiti has become the “Republic of NGOs,” and these NGOs have not only contributed to systematically weaken the Haitian state, but are also actively co-opting working class movements.

Throughout these last 28 years of interventions, the nominal daily minimum wage in Haiti has risen from 15 gourdes in 1980 (US $3.00) to 200 gourdes in 2013 (US $4.55), but its real value today is only about half of the 1980 minimum wage (under the Duvalier dictatorship), while rampant inflation continues to eat away at workers’ incomes.

But the US military interventions and occupations in 1915-34, and by proxy in 1994-2000 and 2004 up to the present, have still failed to break the will of the Haitian popular masses to rebel, and the determination of Haitian workers to fight for their rights.

What is the impact of the intervention in the working class organization and struggles?

Most days, walking the streets in Haiti, the presence of MINUSTAH forces seems minimal. For the most part, the troops remain in their barracks. However, their presence serves as both a deterrent to political upheavals and as a backup to the state police forces. As president Martelly stated recently, “The MINUSTAH is my backup.”

The MINUSTAH presence also masks the complicity of state forces engaged in repression of worker protests, the complete impunity of bosses and their private security forces, who can beat up workers without fear of any consequence, and the almost complete absence of worker rights in the Haitian legal system. The Haitian bosses, acting as proxies for multi-national companies, can thus enforce brutal and inhumane working conditions as well as sub-living wages. The MINUSTAH can claim non-involvement because this kind of “instability” does not fall within its mandate, and the repression can remain hidden behind the “UN halo.”

But the MINUSTAH is also a very flexible force. It can rapidly expand, as we saw following the 2010 earthquake when 20,000 US troops were deployed within days to bolster the largely ineffective MINUSTAH. And because troops from so many different countries are involved, it transforms Haiti’s occupation into a flexible international imperialist project that can call on more troops at any time. But by the same token, it also makes international popular opposition to this occupation even more important.

As we saw in 2009, when MINUSTAH troops intervened to squash worker mobilizations and protect imperialist demands to hold down the minimum wage, and as is evident at every election cycle, the MINUSTAH is the guarantor of imperialist interests; it is the enforcement arm of neoliberalism.

Under occupation, Haiti has become the “Republic of NGOs” and these thousands of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) have not only contributed to systematically weaken the Haitian state, but they are also actively co-opting working class and popular movements.

Working class movements have had to persevere through all the cycles of repression, often rebuilding from the ground unions that were busted through illegal firings, or worker organizations that have had to go into hiding during the periods of death squads. And the UN is called in to intervene after the death squads have “cleaned up.” But through all this, despite the many setbacks, the working class movement has persevered and is poised to make some breakthroughs in leading the popular movement.

In the United States, there is a large community of Haitians. Could you talk a little about the history of the formation of this community?

Originally, the émigrés who left Haiti in the sixties, at the start of the Duvalier dictatorship, were mostly intellectuals and professionals or exiled civil servants and their families. They were fleeing political persecution or had lost their social positions. This constituted a major “brain drain” in Haiti, depleting the country of most of its professionals. But over the years, as the Duvalier repression contributed to the further decline of social structures in Haiti, economic and political forces both played a role in forcing a greater and greater number of Haitians to seek a life outside of Haiti, because conditions were generally untenable across many layers and classes of society. Those with more means sought legal immigration—families would often sell off their belongings and send someone to seek a better life in the hope that he or she would then be able to send for or care for those left behind. Depending on your means, you might emigrate to the Dominican Republic to cut sugar cane, or to Nassau in the Bahamas, or you might be able to buy your way onto a “kanntè” (a small overloaded sailboat) trying to make it to the shores of Florida. If you had more money, you might be able to buy a tourist visa, with a fake or real passport, and if you were really lucky, you might have a relative living abroad who could petition for a visa for you. Those who made it to the US formed immigrant communities in cities like New York, Miami and Boston. There are an estimated 400,000 Haitian immigrants in the Greater New York area.

Throughout the years of the Duvalier dictatorship, these communities remained tight knit, with close ties to family members left behind, and most of these early immigrants held on for years to the dream of returning to Haiti when times got better. These immigrants held on to their language and culture, and slowly assimilated into US society. Relatively few opened businesses, and most sought jobs that enabled them with hard work to gradually make their way and get ahead.

After the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, economic conditions for the majority of Haitians did not improve; on the contrary, life became harder. With no hope for any way to earn a living, those who could find a way out continued to emigrate. This continuing flow of immigrants to the US has included a broader range of social strata, with a greater number of poor and socially disadvantaged fleeing Haiti and making it to the US, most of these without legal status.

This created a large sector of the Haitian immigrant community living under the threat of deportation, unable to legalize their status and making the struggle for immigrants’ rights very important to the Haitian community. In the same context, the stigma of AIDS that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) placed on the Haitian community was met with a great deal of resistance. Haitian immigrants were singled out by the CDC to be excluded from donating blood. On April 20, 1990, in one of New York’s largest rallies of that period, over 100,000 protesters marched across (and shook) the Brooklyn Bridge and surrounded City Hall. This massive protest led to this policy being rescinded by the CDC.

The fall of Duvalier also led to greater political divisions becoming apparent, as those who once opposed the dictatorship in large majorities became divided between pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist, populist leaders, and the forces of the people’s camp. Although resistance against the 1991 coup against Aristide united large sectors of the Haitian community, many were disillusioned by the policies of Aristide once he was returned to office by the US-UN occupation. Many who saw Aristide’s government as an opportunity for them go back to Haiti, and some who tried, have now given up on that hope—although large segments of Haitian immigrants still remain Aristide and Fanmi Lavalas (Aristide’s political party) supporters.

The Haitian community is now several generations old, and has become more assimilated into US society. Recent immigrants to the US often see themselves as never going back to live in Haiti, and only hope to see all of their family emigrate with them to the US. Although the Haitian Diaspora retains strong links to Haiti, continuously following news events in Haiti and mobilizing during times of political crises, the dream of going back has died out for most. Remittances by Haitian immigrants add up to several billion dollars a year and make up a substantial part of Haiti’s GDP.

How do Haitians living in the USA see the actual military intervention in Haiti?

While most Haitian immigrants in the US supported Aristide’s return in 1994 under US-UN occupation, most were still aware of the role the US had played in the 1991 coup. Disenchantment with the policies of the ensuing Lavalas administrations, and the fact that this current intervention and occupation was in support of the second coup against Aristide, has led to a more pragmatic attitude toward the current occupation. Many see the hegemony of the US as incontrovertible, a matter of fact that has to be dealt with, for good or bad. Also, some Haitian immigrants are more concerned with political stability and their personal security when they visit Haiti, and see the occupation as providing some level of security and stability, even if limited. Because Haitian immigrants have become more politically divided (for example, Martelly, the current right-wing president, claims one of his largest support bases to be among the Haitian Diaspora), the attitude toward the MINUSTAH occupation has also become more differentiated.

The Obama Administration has deported thousands of Haitians from U.S and has not stopped doing that even after the 2010 earthquake. How is the Haitian community resisting these deportations?

Most Haitians in the US have aligned themselves with the majority of African-Americans in supporting Obama. This has made resistance to the anti-immigrant policies of the Obama administrations more difficult. Also, significant sectors of Haitian immigrants are now assimilated into US society and this has somewhat marginalized the plight of the recent immigrants who find themselves singled out by the continuation of racist policies of previous US administrations. The extension of the temporary asylum program (TPS) and the current propaganda around legislative efforts like the Dream Act are also contributing to hold back mobilizations. Although an estimated 250,000 Haitian immigrants were eligible for TPS, less than a quarter of them applied for it, largely because of the fear of being tracked down by ICE and the uncertainty of a temporary status. Most undocumented immigrants are holding out for a more permanent solution. It is up to the progressive community in the US to take up this challenge. Even though Haitians are still being unfairly singled out by policies that make their asylum claims almost impossible, real change can only come from the struggle for the rights of all immigrants.

What are the main difficulties and challenges in organizing the fight against sweatshops in Haiti and internationally?

The major focus of political organizing in the “Haitian Community” has shifted over the years from opposition to the Duvalier dictatorship, toward organizing in support of populist leaders—whether Aristide, Wyclef Jean or Martelly. The class-based divisions within these tendencies have become more apparent, and the class positions and aspirations of Haitian immigrants clearly have played a key role in defining these political orientations. Even though most Haitian immigrants in the US have been assimilated in to the working class or into the petty bourgeoisie, their class-consciousness does not align them significantly in support of workers movements that exist either in the US or in Haiti. This is partly due to the low level of worker and mass struggles here in the US, and also partly due to the class aspirations of Haitian immigrants vis-à-vis Haitian society. These same immigrants who might be workers here in the US, might see themselves as small business owners or retirees in Haiti. For the most part, they do not see themselves as workers in their hypothetical return to Haiti; they aspire to a higher social position. These class orientations have limited the effectiveness of anti-sweatshop organizing in the “Haitian Community.” It also has debunked the concept of a homogeneous “community,” since in reality, this so-called “community” is significantly divided along class lines and class interests.

This has shifted the focus of organizing against sweatshops and in support of workers’ movements to the broad progressive community, where it still confronts the limits stemming from low levels of mass struggle, the decline of union organizing, and the populist demobilization perpetrated by the Democratic Party, particularly through the fueling of false hopes by the Obama administrations.

As the squeeze from neoliberal structural adjustment policies tightens its grip on working people here in the US and around the world, consciousness is rising that workers’ struggles and the fight against sweatshops are struggles that concern all workers and progressives— they truly are One Struggle. This position, rooted in class-consciousness, is the driving force behind a renewed mobilization to fight against sweatshops. It is a consciousness that goes beyond humanism and unites workers all over the world.

Within that class-based approach, it is important to distinguish between humanist, good-conscience anti-sweatshop organizing aimed at a “kinder, gentler” reform of capitalism, and one that confronts the premise of exploitation and the system of “profit before people” that is at the root of corporate abuse. We must invite those who are instinctively put off by the idea of sweatshops to take on the task of radically changing this system of exploitation, and not merely try to put a hopeless band-aid on a cancer.

In that context, we should strive to focus anti-sweatshop organizing onto the task of supporting autonomous, class-based worker organizations and mobilizations. The traditional trade union leadership here in the US has largely abandoned the fight to end exploitation, and is focused on preserving the privileges of its bureaucracy. The anti-sweatshop movement should seek to ally itself to those in the labor movement who seek to radically transform that movement into one that empowers workers to fight for their rights, including the right to end exploitation. A new autonomous workers movement must be built, based on rank-and-file mobilization and democratic participation, a movement focused not just on the economic demands of workers but on our autonomous political agenda.

The anti-sweatshop movement should also seek to confront the co-optation of workers’ movements by agencies that promote yellow unions and that seek to pacify workers’ struggles by intervening “on their behalf.” Agencies like the State Department, the Department of Labor, the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center funded by the NED (National Endowment for Democracy), and even the World Bank are funding efforts to steer anti-sweatshop organizing toward conformist civil society institutions, which can be part of the “backbone” of stable societies where multi-nationals can prosper, and which are in support of imperialist policies.

An autonomous, class-based approach is the guideline that can help us steer our way through this complex maze, with the clear focus that our efforts need to promote and consolidate our autonomous movement and organizations.

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