Interview with a Haitian activist on the Imperialist Occupation of Haiti
The New York branch of Workers’ Voice interviewed Kiki Makandal, a One Struggle member in New York City and one of the organizers of Batay Ouvriye Solidarity Network. A longstanding Haitian activist living in New York since 1981, Makandal told us about the struggle of his people against imperialism and the occupation of his country.
Workers’ Voice: On June 1, 2013 nine years of military intervention promoted by the UN and supported by many Latin American governments were completed in Haiti. What has been the impact of this intervention on the lives of Haitian workers?
Kiki Makandal: This current U.N.-U.S. proxy occupation of Haiti, using over 8,000 military and 3,500 police from 52 countries and 4 continents, is only a new chapter in the continuing attempt to implement neoliberal reforms in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. To summarize, the impact of this 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 systematic violations of worker rights have been undeterred and even aided at times by state sponsored repression. MINUSTAH tanks, helicopters and troops intervened in 2009 to squash worker protests in demand of an adequate adjustment of the minimum wage. These MINUSTAH troops were the chief enforcers of the “cheap wage” comparative advantage being promoted by imperialism and the Haitian ruling class to attract foreign investment. Throughout these last 28 years of interventions, the nominal daily minimum wage in Haiti has gone from 13.20 gourdes in 1980 (US$ 2.64) to 200 gourdes in 2013 (US$1.61 in 1980 dollars), about half of the 1980 minimum wage, under the Duvalier dictatorship, while rampant inflation continues to eat away at workers incomes.
WV: What is the impact of the intervention in the working class organizations and struggles?
KM: The MINUSTAH presence 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. 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 NGO’s” and these thousands of NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) have not only contributed to the systematic weakening of the Haitian state, but they are also at work 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 and other worker organizations have had to go into hiding during the periods of death squads. And the UN intervention is called in after the death squads have “cleaned up”. But through all this, despite many set-backs, the working class movement has persevered and is poised to make some breakthroughs in leading the popular movement.
WV: 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?
KM: There are an estimated 400,000 Haitian immigrants in the Greater New York area. The continuing flow of immigrants to the U.S. has included a broad range of social strata, with a greater number of poor and socially disadvantaged fleeing Haiti and making it to the U.S., most of them 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) Brooklyn Bridge and surrounded City Hall. This massive protest led to this policy being rescinded by the CDC.
WV: The Obama Administration has deported thousands of Haitians from the U.S. and has not stopped doing so even after the 2010 earthquake. How is the Haitian community resisting these deportations?
KM: Most Haitians in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. to take up this challenge. Even though Haitians are still being unfairly singled out by policies making their asylum claims almost impossible, real change can only come from the struggle for the rights of all immigrants.
WV: Could you talk a little about how the deployment of sweatshops in Haiti began?
KM: The 1970s saw the 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, very poor port facilities…), rampant corruption, and an underlying potential for political upheaval due to decades of intense repression.
WV: What are the main difficulties and challenges in organizing the fight against sweatshops in Haiti and internationally?
KM: 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 worker movements by agencies that promote yellow unions and 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, that can be part of the “backbone” of stable societies where multinationals can prosper and in support of imperialist policies.