Haiti: A century of occupation, oppression and resistance

The situation for Haitian workers and peasants has gone from grim to dire. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that thousands of Haitians are fleeing their homeland in unseaworthy, rickety boats.

Spokesperson Melissa Fleming says: “Although no firm statistics exist, it is estimated that hundreds of deaths occur yearly as a result.” (U.N. News Centre, July 13) Haitian refugees are reported to be drowning in waters off the Bahamas and Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard says it has intercepted 652 fleeing Haitians and sent them back.

Poor Haitians are again talking of “Clorox hunger” because of the burning sensation in their stomachs caused by lack of food.

More than 400,000 Haitians still live under tents and tarps because their homes were destroyed in the world’s most devastating earthquake in January 2010. The pressure on these tent dwellers has been great. Wealthy people with political connections are trying to charge them rent on very spurious grounds. Money is demanded for the use of property the rich claim is theirs, while services like sanitation, water and electricity are being withdrawn.

Thishas led many tent dwellers to return to their destroyed or damaged homes. Others move in with family outside the quake zone. A few have been able to build something more permanent. Some nongovernmental organizations have put up temporary plywood shelters.

Numerous demonstrations and protests have opposed attacks on the camps and demanded essential services ever since the camps were set up.

In Pétionville, an affluent suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince, there is a poor neighborhood called Jalousie. It was built up on the side of a ravine in the late 1930s. Some of its houses have fallen down, endangering the nearby homes of wealthy Haitians. So the government of President Michael Martelly has decided to bulldoze homes in Jalousie “to protect the environment” for the rich.

On July 12, some 2,000 people marched from Jalousie through the city, waving the green-leafed tree branches associated with popular opposition and chanting: “Martelly hasn’t built any houses! He doesn’t have the right to tear them down!” They ended their march in front of the National Palace, which is still in ruins from the earthquake.

Holding demonstrations and protests has grown riskier in the past few months. Oxygène David and Charles Dukens, leaders of the Movement of Liberty and Equality for the Fraternity of Haitians, a very active and militant movement that participated in the Jalousie march, were arrested and imprisoned on June 19. Now political prisoners, they are being held without charges. The police are threatening that other activists might face similar treatment if they bother the government.

U.S. occupations met by resistance

July 28 is the 97th anniversary of the first U.S. military occupation of Haiti, which lasted until 1934. There have been three others — in 1994, 2004 and 2010.

During World War I, Washington claimed its first invasion was to protect U.S. interests in the Caribbean, such as the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Haiti was going through political upheavals at the time. The agricultural potential of Haiti was also a major enticement for U.S. imperialism. The occupation forces made sure that whatever economic development took place in Haiti, it primarily benefited the U.S. economy,

A largely peasant guerrilla army called the “cacos” resisted the occupiers. It was under the leadership of Charlemagne Péralte, who was betrayed and then assassinated by U.S. Marines in 1919. Intense popular pressure in Haiti and the arrival of the Great Depression pushed the U.S. to withdraw its troops in 1934, but they left behind an army and an economy firmly tied to Wall Street’s interests.

The state structure — the army, courts and police — left by the U.S. occupation allowed François Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude, to rule for 29 years, from 1957 to 1986. During this period, the U.S. tightened its control of Haiti’s economy to the detriment of the Haitian people.

The brutal Duvalier regimes were met with a stubborn, tenacious and increasingly effective resistance that pushed Jean-Claude Duvalier to flee on a U.S. Air Force jet to France in 1986. In the four years after the “dechoukaj” [uprooting] that rid Haiti of the Duvaliers — but not Duvalierism – there were many coups by various factions and continuing, growing protests.

An overwhelming majority of the people elected the progressive priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, president in 1990.

A military coup overthrew Aristide in 1991, eight months after he took office. After thousands of deaths and much brutality, the U.S. Army escorted him back to Haiti in 1994. Shortly before Aristide left office in February 1996, he dissolved the Haitian army.

Aristide began a second term in 2001. Former Haitian soldiers, with U.S. financial and organizational support, soon started to carry out guerrilla attacks along the Dominican border and in Port-au-Prince. Even after a full-scale insurgency began in Gonaïves in February 2004, Aristide hung on to power. U.S. Special Forces then staged a coup-kidnapping, putting Aristide and his family on a U.S. Air Force jet and delivering them to the Central African Republic.

The next month, a joint U.S., French and Canadian force invaded Haiti to “stabilize” the situation and set up an interim government. Hundreds of Aristide supporters were massacred. A few months later, a military force — Minustah, the U.N. Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti — took over from the U.S. and its allies and still remains. This occupying force had to be propped up when its headquarters was destroyed and many of its leaders were killed in the earthquake.

Minustah acted like the occupation forces it replaced. The U.N.’s poor sanitation systems spread cholera, which some of its soldiers brought to Haiti. The country hadn’t previously had a case in more than a century. Within two years, cholera killed more than 8,000 Haitians and sickened hundreds of thousands.

Because there is no army, it has been harder for the U.S. to organize a military coup. One of Martelly’s main election planks was to restore the army. Ex-military officers seized old barracks, but there was so much popular resistance that Haiti’s national police had to evict them.

Minustah is backed up by the U.S., whose imperialist motives for maintaining such a tight grip on Haiti are fairly clear. The underlying economic rationale is becoming more and more apparent.

At the end of May, Newmont Mining, a U.S. company with worldwide operations in gold mining, announced it had signed contracts with Haiti to exploit at least $20 billion of gold deposits lying under one-third of the country’s northern region. On May 30, Haiti Grassroots Watch clarified that the vast bulk of the profits will flow north and all the skilled jobs will go to non-Haitians. In a related matter, rumors of significant oil deposits are floating around the French press.

Moreover, cheap labor hasn’t been forgotten. With substantial financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and using donations that had been intended to supply and repair housing in the earthquake zone, 3,000 new, small, tract houses have been built in Caracol, where an industrial park is underway. This is far from the earthquake zone in northeast Haiti.

Sae-A Trading, a South Korean firm that produces clothing for Walmart, Target, the Gap and other big retailers, will operate large garment factories there. This corporation has a history of repressing labor unions. Sae-A will be allowed to pay Haitian workers $3.75 a day — even though the minimum daily wage in Haiti is $5 — because it is producing garments for export. The company knows that Haitians will take the jobs because they must work to survive.

This new industrial park was the site of the Chabert Post sisal plantation during the first U.S. occupation of Haiti. Run by U.S. Marines, a Haitian newspaper referred to the operation as “organized slavery.” Laurent Dubois, author of “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History,” says that the Marines’ prison camp there was infamous for its brutal treatment of captured rebels. The U.S. troops also buried Haitian liberation fighter, Péralte, wrapped in a Haitian flag, in concrete in an unmarked grave there.

The Haitian masses will continue to protest imperialist exploitation and occupation. They will carry on their proud history of resistance to intervention by the U.S. and its allies, in keeping with the legacy of their hero, Charlemagne Péralte.

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