Haiti celebrated the 200th anniversary of its independence on January 1, 2004. As the US ambassador to Haiti said last month, Haitian independence is 'an event which still resounds today as a symbol of victory over oppression.' This is undoubtedly true. The ambassador went on to say that 'it is regrettable to note the deplorable state of human rights in Haiti'. What the good ambassador failed to mention however, was the role that the US government, particularly his office, has played in in the development of this deplorable state of human rights in Haiti.
The history of Haiti is a long history of colonial struggle against imperialism. By the end of the 17th century the island had been carved into two colonies - Saint Domingue, now Haiti, in the West, which was a French colony, and Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic in the East, which at the time had been a Spanish colony.
Saint Domingue became an extremely profitable colony during the 17th and 18th centuries. The native population had been decimated during the European conquest of the 17th century, and Saint Domingue became highly profitable due to the plantations and the slave trade. By 1790, escaped slaves and freed blacks had become well organized and began to offer resistance to their colonial masters. Heroically, under the leadership of such heroes like Toussaint L'Overture, these revolutionaries defeated the colonial armies of France, Spain and Britain, and on January 1, 1804, Haiti became the first independent black nation, and the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery.
Obviously, the European imperialist states, and the US saw this new country as a direct threat to their system, and were concerned about the reaction the slaves in their own countries and other colonies would have to this independent black country. They therefore attempted to do everything in their power to undermine the small island nation.
France sent troops over in 1825 and demanded 150 million francs in compensation for 'lost property'. Haiti could offer no real resistance and was forced to pay - in fact they could not pay up front and were crippled with debt. US President Thomas Jefferson imposed sanctions which would remain in place until 1862. For the remainder of the 19th century, Haiti would be a besieged state, and was repeatedly invaded by European powers throughout the century.
The Growing Dominance of the US
By the turn of the 20th Century, particularly after the American-Spanish war of 1898, the US had become the dominant imperialist power in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although Haiti was formally an independent country, it was in reality a US satellite. Haiti's bourgeois had come onto the scene of history too late, and was incapable of developing the country along classical bourgeois lines and could not compete with the major imperialist powers - namely Britain, France and the US.
The US recognized its dominance in Latin America as crucial in its strategy for world domination of markets and trade. The US invaded the island in 1915 and ruled the country with a brutal military dictatorship for 19 years. The US propped up a puppet regime and ruthlessly controlled Haiti's resources in much the same way as in Cuba. Haitian peasants were used as forced labour to build roads from the sugar mills and plantations to the ports.
By 1934, the Haitian opposition to the US occupation had become a mass movement and the US was forced to withdraw its military forces - although they left behind a large portion of Haitian civilians who had been trained by the US army, allowing US corporations to ruthlessly dominate the country.
The Cold War
In 1957, Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier came to power on a populist programme based on black power rhetoric. Railing against the predominantly lighter skinned ruling class he was able to establish a vicious military dictatorship. As President, in a similar fashion to Batista in Cuba, he was able to protect the interests of US imperialism and keep the local population under control by using terror tactics. Duvalier even established the 'Tonton Macoutes', a ragtag secret police outfit, which actually functioned as his plain-clothed proto-fascist gang of thugs, used to intimidate and murder political opponents. He clearly demonstrated the rotten nature of the nascent bourgeois in the colonial and ex-colonial countries. The bourgeois in these countries were entirely dependent on investments and bribe money from the imperialist powers, and were incapable of solving the most basic tasks of the bourgeois and national revolutions exploding all throughout the colonial world at that time.
Duvalier proved to be a useful ally for the US. He championed US corporations and, after the Cuban Revolution, he served as a solid 'anti-communist', and anti-Castro ally. After the US lost their interests in Cuba, Haiti's sugar and other resources became even more important in the region.
Haitians themselves though weren't getting anything out of the deal. Wages were of course kept extremely low in order to attract US corporations and investments, and Haitians, particularly those fleeing political persecution and state violence were refused entry to the US. In fact, the US maintained a policy of forced repatriation for Haitian refugees, which was a virtual death sentence.
By the 1980s, a mass movement known as 'Lavalas' (which means a wave or flood of cleansing in Haitian Creole) had arisen. By now, Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier was in power. He was forced to flee in 1986. Of course it was a US military aircraft that picked him up and took him to France (perhaps the US was still enforcing its policy of not allowing any political refugees from Haiti into the country).
In 1990 a priest influenced by 'liberation theology', Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in a landslide victory based on his programme of major social reforms. Although no longer a priest at the time of his victory, he was extremely popular with the population for his political speeches at the pulpit and his 'special' relationships, which were supposed to be direct lines of communication with both God and 'his' people. For a time Aristide enjoyed some moderate success. He cracked down on the drug trade to the extent that street drug trafficking dropped, he brought the looting of the treasury and corruption in general under control and cut the state bureaucracy left over from the dictatorship by 20%. It may not have been a genuine socialist programme, but it was enough to provoke a coup after just seven months.
Shortly after the coup some 38,000 Haitians sought asylum in the US. The US even relaxed its old immigration policy for Haitians - they allowed less than 5% of these asylum seekers to enter the country.
A Shift in US Foreign Policy
By the time Bill Clinton had ascended to the presidency of the US, there had been a marked shift in the foreign policy of the imperialist powers. During the Cold War, the Western powers would take any allies they could get, but they generally found it easier to control countries and their rulers if they were under a military dictatorship. But by the end of the 1980s, this position was proving untenable. Many former allies, such as Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega had begun to develop minds of their own. They began causing problems for the Western Powers and proved to be a bit of a financial drain. Given the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the apparent triumph of 'democracy', and the illusions people both at home and abroad had in this, along with the fact that many former dictator-allies of imperialism such as Suharto would eventually be overthrown, the US and its allies could not very well continue to support and prop up brutal dictatorships. As a result the US for a time seemed to move to a position of supporting fragile 'democracies', which would give them the breathing room and finishing shine on their policies they needed in order to continue their imperialist adventures.
For this reason the Clinton adminstration launched 'Operation Restore Democracy' in 1994, which was in reality another US invasion of Haiti. We were told this was a 'humanitarian' intervention to re-establish democracy. But the US was in a bit of an awkward position. They had always been hostile to Aristide, and while he was really the only person they could count on, they also knew they couldn't necessarily count on him forever. So while they publicly sent the troops in to restore Aristide's presidency the CIA was at the same time supporting paramilitary outfits that had been used against the population during the years after the coup.
During this US occupation, the workers' and peasants organizations were repressed and the former coup leaders and members of the old Duvalier regime were funded and aided.
The US returned Aristide to power on the condition that he drop his rhetoric, his planned reforms, and that he come in line with US interests and accept IMF and World Bank policies and conditions.
Aristide of course, being a reformist, and a weak one at that, accepted the conditions of the deal and sold out Haiti and the workers and peasants ('his' people) to the interests of US imperialism.
Aristide finished the remaining two years of his term and then stepped aside, in what was Haiti's first peaceful transfer of power. In 200 years, 21 of Haiti's leaders have been overthrown and only 8 have lasted a full term in office.
In 2000, much to the horror of US imperialism, Arisitide ran again in the presidential elections on a programme that called for rural clinics, literacy campaigns, improved public works and land reform. The people of Haiti looked to Aristide and his government as a way out of the crushing poverty in the country. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haitians have a life expectancy of just 53 years, and the country has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate outside of Africa. An estimated 80% of the country is living below the poverty line. Due to these conditions, and his promises to solve some of these problems, he won the election again in a landslide. The US government completely turned on him, eventually putting an embargo on aid, mainly because the US's own chosen successors had been defeated by Aristide's 'Fanmi Lavalas'. Aristide responded with criticisms of the US's 'neo-liberalism' etc ... which couldn't have won him many friends in Washington.
Aristide has not done much by way of implementing his programme. In fact he has done the very opposite. He travels around with his own armed thugs and champions the low wage, non-unionized export processing zones along the border with the Dominican Republic. These are centres of extremely exploitive work for Haitians.
Under the Bush administration we have again seen a shift in US foreign policy. Given the mounting contradictions in the world economy, and the resulting ferocious struggle for markets between the imperialist powers, US imperialism will not stand for a renegade leader in a country anywhere in the world, let alone in its own backyard. In desperation the US will do anything now to rein these countries and their leaders in - whether it be through overt military action as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, or covert operations designed to bring about coup d'états as in the case of Venezuela and now Haiti.
Since his coming to power in 2000, Aristide has faced a severely aggressive opposition, which has now culminated in several strikes, demonstrations, and street clashes. Since September 2003, 47 people have died and more than 100 have been injured in clashes between the opposition and government supporters. The opposition is centred around the Association of Haiti's Industries (ADIH), the Chamber of Commerce and of Industry in Haiti (CCIH), as well as the US funded Democratic Convergence. These organizations called for a general strike and demonstrations against the government for December 3 and 4 of 2003. In a situation where one can see some similarities with Venezuela, the opposition was expecting thousands to go on strike and demonstrate. In reality the general strike was an absolute failure, with only a few large stores, gas stations, and banks actually shutting down. The counter demonstration was approximately twice as large as the so-called general strike.
This is all that has really been reported in the Western Media. The only thing they report is that there is some sort of 'democratic' movement building up to oust a hated dictator. But there is much more going on than the mouthpieces of imperialism would ever like to admit. For example, Washington has redeployed troops and given a massive military aid package to the Dominican Republic. This is correctly interpreted in Haiti as preparation for a new US military intervention. It is not guaranteed that this will come about, but depending on events US imperialism may feel it necessary to invade.
The media claims that the government is violently repressing the opposition (which is true), but this is a little bit one-sided. Store owners who were a part of the opposition attacked others store owners who didn't shut down their businesses for the general strike in early December. The National Popular Party, a 'radical' leftish grouping who had previously been quite critical of Aristide, has come to his defence and is warning Haitians against the '(Tonton) macouto-bourgeois coalition', adding that 'a number of organizations have involved themselves with Macoute politicians and Dominican soldiers so as to make little fires burn until (President) Bush has a road to send in US marines to come humiliate the Haitian people. It is a big plot by former Haitian army officers mixed with Macoutes and opportunist (Democratic) Convergence politicians, with the support of certain reactionary media, so they can return to power' (quoted from the Haiti Progres, No. 39, December 11-17). As these quotes show, the so-called Democratic Convergence doesn't really seem to be so democratic.
Throughout the entire campaign of the opposition there have been attacks on Haitian media outlets and police stations by masked commandos, who are apparently coming over from the Dominican Republic. Likewise, the government has recently been attacking opposition media outlets. Kidnappings and political murders are on the rise from both sides. The government was forced to initiate tighter controls on demonstrations. Police have attacked anti-government guerilla and commando bases. The situation is quickly getting out of control, just the type of situation the US is looking for in order to have an excuse to invade or commence a coup.
With oil prices rising over the past few years along with a general slide in the value of Haitian currency, we have witnessed the classic tactics of disruption. Last year saw a transport strike, which was coupled with a shutdown of schools, banks and large businesses. Several reactionary unions such as the CTH, COH and SOS transport, called on the opposition and bourgeois to 'show solidarity with the Haitian syndical movement by closing their commercial, industrial and service enterprises'. Only one transport union, The Federation of Haitian Public Transporters (FTHP) did not support the strike call of early last year. They opted to meet with the Commerce Minister and work out fixed rates for various transport routes. Along with these tactics the US now never fails to mention that Haiti is a major staging post for Columbian drug smugglers, and the Western media constantly calls him the 'Mugabe of the Caribbean' in an attempt to ready the home population for another military invasion.
In the last period, new combative and independent trade unions have been organized. In one such case, workers at an orange tree plantation owned by the French liqueur company, Marnier-Lapostolle, successfully struggled for improved pay and conditions. This is the beginning of a new direction in the class struggle on the part of the Haitian workers, and shows the way forward. Another such group is Batay Ouvriye, which has begun organizing independent unions. The Haitian masses should not trust either side of the bourgeois, neither Aristide nor the Opposition. Haiti's first union movement developed in the 1940s and 1950s, but was eradicated by Duvalier family's reign. The working class in Haiti and its organizations have been decimated not only by the dictatorship, but also by sanctions imposed by the imperialists under the guise of the UN. According to the International Centre for Trade Union Rights, in a country of 8 million people, there are still only approximately 100,000 regular, paid jobs.
Fuel prices have doubled over the past eight years, and in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere that means a lot. Over the past several years the Haitian government has nearly drained its treasury subsidizing fuel prices. At one point the treasury only had $50 million US left to work with. Fuel distributors and gas companies have been hoarding gasoline and developing the black market causing chaos. The National Association of Petroleum Product Distributors has laid all the blame on the government, when in reality they were hording fuel. This outfit, which is comprised of such multinationals such as Shell, and Exxon have made millions on selling gasoline in Haiti, and want to keep it that way. The rise in fuel prices has caused the price of food to rise. The government is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The government desperately needs foreign aid and investment. In fact $500 million US has been allotted to the country, but in order to receive it the government must drop its fuel subsidies. If the government does that, they will have a massive revolt on their hands, as most people would not be able to afford the cost of fuel. The government also needs to declare a moratorium on the nearly $5 million US monthly payments it has to make on debts to the US.
Forty percent of the Haitian population is under 18 years of age. Students have been hit very hard during the crisis. As a result they are at the forefront of the mass movement, which has picked up now that parliament has been disbanded. One student was quoted in the media as saying 'we have no future, we are not afraid'.
It is not yet clear what the outcome of the situation in Haiti will be. Aristide could be overthrown by the opposition, and/or the US may very well invade, or he could remain in power for a time. The US is currently supporting the idea of a conference of Bishops that had the idea of suspending parliament and replacing it with a small committee representing all sides of the conflict. This will also show now way out and will give the US and its interests a foot hold on state power. The crisis seems to be coming to a head. Either way there will be no solution to the problems facing the island nation along bourgeois or reformist lines. The example of the recent events in Venezuela could help point a way forward, if only for a while. As in Venezuela, opposition demonstrations and strikes calling for a return to 'democracy' actually represent the forces of imperialism and dictatorship, and have been met with even larger demonstrations of workers and government supporters. What is needed though, is an independent mass workers organization that could truly show the way forward, pushing for a genuine socialist revolution. The workers and peasants in Haiti cannot trust or rely on the government or the opposition, but rather only on themselves.
The struggle of the poor workers, peasants, and students in Haiti is obviously justified, but they must be careful not have any illusions in the so-called 'democratic opposition', or 'Democratic Convergence', which will only return them to an even more brutal Duvalier type dictatorship, which would in fact be run by many of these same hated figures against whom Haitians have already overthrown. At the same time Haitians can have no illusions in Aristide, who has fallen from grace as a populist reformer and is now himself a corrupt dictator. The workers and peasants of Haiti can only rely on themselves to solve the problems they face. They must move forward and take power, institute a socialist programme beginning with the nationalization under workers' control of all major industries and production centres, as the only means to bring the country out of its crushing poverty and destitution, and link up in a voluntary federation of socialists states in the Caribbean and Latin America. It is the only way forward.