The ransom is always paid

The February 17, 2022 mass garment worker protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti won a 54% pay raise.

by Robert Roth, Haiti Action Committee

May 20, The New York Times published a meticulously researched series called “The Ransom”, detailing the devastating impact of the so-called “independence tax” imposed by France in 1825 on the world’s first black republic. As The temperature reported, Haiti became the only place where descendants of slaves were forced to pay compensation to descendants of slave owners. With the first installment to France, Haiti had to shut down its fledgling public school system. As billions of dollars flowed to France and then to American banks like Citicorp multiplied, the Haitian economy disintegrated.

The temperature the series is almost coming 20 years after the administration of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide officially demanded $21.7 billion from France in restitution for funds extorted from Haiti. Aristide’s initiative was a key factor in France’s cooperation and support for the US-orchestrated coup that overthrew his democratically elected government. Mainstream media at the time, including The New York Times and The Washington Posttreated the request as “chimerical” and a publicity stunt, with their reporters writing story after story demonizing the democratically elected Aristide administration, helping to establish the ideological justifications for the 2004 coup.

We do not anticipate the self-criticism of The temperature for his previous reports. Barely. But like Time readers study the new series, they will hopefully demand to learn more about how the United States and France continue to exploit Haiti’s resources, dominate its political life, and support Haiti’s small elite. violent and corrupt party that now rules the country. And they will hopefully demand an accurate account of the powerful Haitian grassroots movement that continues to fight for democracy and true sovereignty.

Take for example the recent uprising of factory workers in Haiti. On February 17, 2022, thousands of Haitian garment workers, their families and supporters, filled the streets of Port-au-Prince demanding an end to starvation wages and horrific working conditions. Workers demanded a wage increase from 500 gourdes per 9-hour workday (about $4.80) to 1,500 gourdes per day (about $14.40). As protests continued throughout the following week, Haitian police fired into the crowd with tear gas canisters and live ammunition, killing a journalist and injuring many other protesters.

Haitian-factory-workers-strike-demand-salary-increase-0222-by-Odelyn-Joseph-AP-1400x935, Haiti: The Ransom is Still Paid, Featured News and Views World News and Views
Factory workers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, chant anti-government slogans during a protest demanding a pay rise. – Photo: Odelyn Joseph, AP

The garment strike came amid double-digit inflation in Haiti, with prices for food, fuel and other basics soaring. To make matters worse, the government of de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry recently announced that it would end fuel subsidies, which would lead to even higher prices. The workers chanted, “You raised the gas but didn’t raise our wages.

The Henry government’s strategy was classic counter-insurgency: exposing protest militancy, unleashing police repression to terrorize protesters, and offering a modest pay rise (to 770 gourdes a day) to quell the uprising. In numerous interviews, workers expressed outrage at the government’s response, pointing out that the cost of travel to and from their factory jobs alone accounted for 40% of their daily wages. Add to that the cost of food and housing and you have a daily struggle to survive.

Who benefits from this illegal labor? Garment factories in Haiti supply T-shirts and other apparel to giants like Target, the Gap, H&H Textiles, Under Armor and Walmart. Check the label on your T-shirt. It can very well be read “Made in Haiti”.

None of this is new. During the dictatorial rule of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in the 1970s and 1980s, garment factories supplying American companies set up shop throughout Port-au-Prince, while the government unleashed campaigns of terror against union organizers and any popular opposition.

In 1991, during Aristide’s first term as president, he was about to raise the minimum wage, when a US-staged coup toppled his government just seven months into of his presidency. In February 2003, during his second administration, Aristide doubled the minimum wage, impacting the more than 20,000 people who worked in Port-au-Prince’s assembly sector. Aristide’s government provided school buses to take the children of these workers to school as well as subsidies for their textbooks and uniforms. In addition, his government launched a campaign to collect unpaid taxes and utility bills from Haiti’s wealthy elite. None of this sat well with Haitian factory owners, who played a key role in the 2004 US-orchestrated coup.

The coup accelerated the implementation of the structural adjustment program imposed by the United States, known in Haiti as the “death plan”.

Haiti still lives with the grim effects of this coup and the foreign occupation that imposed it. The coup accelerated the implementation of the structural adjustment program imposed by the United States, known in Haiti as the “death plan”. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 300,000 Haitians and left millions more under tarps and tents.

Shortly after the earthquake, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited northern Haiti, stating that “Haiti is now open for business,” as she welcomed the inauguration of the Caracol North Industrial Park, now a key center for the garment industry and a target of current worker protests and strikes. State Department cables obtained by Wikileaks revealed that Clinton and the State Department, as well as USAID, were pressuring the Haitian government to block any increase in the minimum wage, arguing that it would harm the development of the export sector. A series of docile and corrupt Haitian regimes, selected and supported by the United States, facilitated this plan, playing their part along the way.

The ongoing battle of Haiti’s garment workers for survival and dignity is part of the broader grassroots movement in Haiti. Workers who are on the streets of Port-au-Prince are returning home at night to communities like Belair, Cité Soleil and Lasalin that have been targeted by Haitian police and paramilitary death squads, who besieged them with massacres, kidnappings and gang rapes aimed at silencing their opposition to the current government.

The garment strike came just days after de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s term of office officially ended on February 7. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have demonstrated for months their opposition to the continuation of this regime, which they rightly describe as illegitimate, a creation of the so-called Core Group (the United States, France, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Canada, EU, UN and OAS) which controls the politics of Haiti.

Many grassroots organizations, including Aristide’s Political organization Fanmi Lavalas – the popular party of Haiti – called for a transitional government to end corruption, stop repression, respect workers’ rights, stabilize the economy and prepare the ground for free and fair elections. Yet the State Department doubled down on its support for the Henry regime and insisted that he oversee new elections. It would simply lead to another stolen election meant to keep the far-right PHTK (Skinhead) party in power.

Border-Patrol-agents-whipping-Haitian-migrants-with-horse-reins-092021-by-Paul-Ratje-AFP-1400x867, Haiti: The ransom is still being paid
These images last September of US Border Patrol agents whipping Haitians were commemorated by racist “challenge coins” handed out by the agents, proudly depicting those same attacks. – Photo: Paul Ratje, AFP

IAmid the disaster that the United States helped foster in Haiti, the Biden administration continues its unconscionable mass deportations of Haitians, with the number now exceeding 25,000 since Biden’s inauguration. Remember those gruesome images of Border Patrol agents whipping Haitian migrants last September? Now comes the news that these images have been commemorated in racist ‘challenge coins’ distributed by Border Patrol agents, proudly depicting these same attacks.

In May alone, the Biden administration loaded 36 planes to deport 4,000 Haitians. They look back to the worst series of kidnappings in Haiti’s history, where paramilitary groups have targeted everyone from market vendors to medical workers and teachers with impunity.

Only fundamental change in Haiti of the type envisioned, articulated and championed by Haiti’s powerful grassroots movement, can reverse all of this. And the US government, as it has so often been, is the biggest obstacle in the way.

The ransom is always paid. And repairs are long overdue.

Robert Roth is an educator and was co-founder of the Haiti Action Committee. He can be reached at [email protected].

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