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Misery & hunger growing in Haiti—along with signs of resistance

Published Feb 1, 2008 11:13 PM

Life in Haiti is growing worse—rapidly. According to online Haitian news service AlterPress (www.alterpresse.org), the prices of basic food items like oil, rice, cornmeal and beans in Port-au-Prince have gone up by 20 to 50 percent since the start of this year. In Jean-Rabel in northwest Haiti, the poorest region of the country, prices have gone up by 70 percent. While food is most affected, prices of shoes, clothes and household items like soap are also rising.

Christmas sales were dismal. Some shopkeepers reported that their sales were only 5 percent of last year’s. Normally filled open-air markets, where a lot of Haitians shop for holiday cheer and presents, were deserted. Haiti’s economy is so weak that worldwide inflation—which has caused mild discomfort with higher prices for fuel and food in the developed economies of North America and Europe—is devastating it.

When the legal minimum wage for a day’s work is $2.02—down from $3.00 in 1970—workers have no savings, no reserves to carry themselves through tough times. The only country in the world with a lower minimum wage is Bangladesh. And this wage only applies to Haitians with a steady job, not to day laborers, farmhands, or street merchants selling charcoal by the handful or other small, necessary items.

Haitians struggle in Dominican Republic

One of the major supports of the Haitian economy is remittances from abroad—not only from the United States and Canada, with their significant Haitian communities, but especially from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

More than a million Haitians, many of them undocumented immigrants, live in the Dominican Republic. Haitians have worked in the Dominican sugar industry, which used to be state-owned but now has been privatized, for more than a century. Wages there are five times higher—the per capita income in Haiti is $485 a year, while in the Dominican Republic it is $2,800.

Their treatment in the Dominican Republic is sometimes harsh. Between 15,000, according to official Dominican sources, and 20,000, according to the Support Group of Refugees and Repatriates (GARR), were expelled from the Dominican Republic last year.

AlterPress carried a story in October 2007 of Dominicans protesting the actions of Cuerpo Especializado de Seguridad Fronteriza (Cesfront), the newly created border guard. Cesfront went into a construction site in Dajabón, across the border from the Haitian city of Ouanaminthe, and brutalized Haitians working there. They also prevented Haitian domestic workers and agricultural workers, who used to cross the border daily, from going to work.

Just outside of Ouanaminthe is a Free Trade Zone (FTZ), where CODEVI (Industrial Development Company) owned by the large Dominican company Grupo M produces jeans for Levi’s with Haitian labor. This FTZ has a long history of labor strife, with the most recent struggles taking place this past summer when Grupo M laid off one third of the 800 workers it had hired. SOKOWA (Union of CODEVI Ouanaminthe Workers) said its members and other workers were fired because of their organizing efforts. This massive layoff came after a one-day strike that was almost universally respected by workers. (Inter Press Service, July 27, 2007)

According to Haïti-Progrès (Jan. 23-29), the Dominican authorities have decided to round up and expel undocumented Haitian immigrants. One truck carrying them capsized, killing one passenger and injuring a number of others. GARR charges that the army is detaining documented immigrants and dark-skinned Dominicans as well, and that they are not allowed to take their property. Certainly they will lose whatever wages they are due.

Protests against U.S. price increases

The U.N. occupation force feels that they have disrupted the armed groups in Cité Soleil, who oppose their rule and support Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the U.S.-deposed president of Haiti. They have finally managed to set up checkpoints and patrol stations throughout the area, though all resistance hasn’t ended. On Jan. 11, protesters in Haiti burned tires in front of Cité Soleil’s mayor’s office to denounce a U.S.-funded $20-million program called a “stabilization initiative.”

The U.N. recently announced that it intends to move a significant force to control the border and cooperate with Cesfront.

Between Christmas and New Year's Day, Fanmi Lavalas—Aristide’s party—organized a major march to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, calling on the minister to impose price controls and set up programs to combat hunger. In Cité Soleil and Belair, two major centers of Fanmi Lavalas support, the government distributed free food in an attempt to undercut the march, which still took place according to Haiti Liberté. (Jan. 9-15)

The government of President René Préval and Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis would have to go against the free-market dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to impose price controls, which is highly unlikely.

On Jan 16, agricultural students took to the streets to demand a future for themselves and their country. They pointed out that Haiti can’t develop its “national productivity”—something that Préval and Alexis have claimed they want—when it relies on the Dominican Republic for almost all the plantains, eggs and chickens sold in Port-au-Prince.

Several women’s groups have also criticized the government for the increase in prices and hunger.

If something doesn’t happen, these protests show signs of growing.