Haitian Immigrants Speak Bitterness

Haiti's Misery: Made in the USA

Revolutionary Worker #1239, May 9, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

If you believe the U.S. authorities and the mainstream press, the U.S.-backed coup d'état in February that overthrew Haitian President Aristide will lead to better lives for the Haitian people. And the disastrous state of Haiti's economy is supposedly the result of some innate inability of Haitians to manage their own affairs. Haiti's misfortunes, we are told, persist despite repeated U.S. attempts to "help."

A team of RW stringers decided to investigate the truth by talking to Haitian immigrants in New York City about how U.S. imperialism has affected the lives of people in Haiti. We found that the facts -- and Haitian people -- tell a different story from the official U.S. version. It's a story of incredible poverty and economic collapse caused by imperialist domination, especially by the U.S. (For more news, analysis, and background on events in Haiti, see RW #1231, 1232, and 1234 and online at rwor.org.)

Shortly after the coup earlier this year, we packed our notebooks, pens, tape recorders and a French- English dictionary and headed out to East Flatbush, Brooklyn, now home to many Haitians who fled poverty and repression. Haitians in New York City have been in the streets many times in recent years protesting U.S. intervention and domination of their country, as well as other outrages of this system like the depraved police attack on Abner Louima and the murder of Patrick Dorismond. We had already talked with people at protests against the February coup. Now we hooked up with members of the Haitian Coalition for Justice, the Haitian Information Center, and a Haitian activist we know. The activist translated to and from Kreyol (Haitian Creole), the main language spoken by people in Haiti. Our conversations went back and forth in Kreyol, French, and English. We showed people the RW/OR articles on Haiti and explained we wanted to know what life was like for their friends and family members still in Haiti.

The Destruction of Haiti's Agriculture

Until the mid-1980s, Haiti was an agricultural society in which people raised their own food as well as food for export. We learned how that has changed as capitalist "free trade," "globalization," and "free market economy" have been forced on the Haitian people.

At a crowded barber shop, our activist friend introduced us in Kreyol. We talked for a long time about the lives of the people in Haiti and their history. One man we met there, Henri, told us that pigs once formed the backbone of the peasant economy, especially in the southern part of the country: "My parents raised and sold pigs. When school time came, they could send the kids to school using income from selling pigs. We had food to eat."

But starting in 1979, the U.S. and the U.S.-backed Duvalier regime carried out a program of slaughtering all the pigs in Haiti --in the name of eradicating swine flu. The U.S. sent American pigs that were supposedly "better"--but the pigs from the U.S. were not adapted to the conditions in Haiti and were unable to survive. Henri's parents haven't raised pigs since and have fallen deeper into poverty. They used to eat twice a day; now they eat once a day. No one has work. He and other family members in the U.S. and Canada send money to help the folks back home--that's the only way they survive. His family stretches the money as far as possible. They need 20 cups of rice per week but try to make do on 12-15 cups--and they share with neighbors who have nothing.

As barbers and customers listened and sometimes joined the discussion, Henri explained that fish from the rivers used to be a good source of food for the peasants. But in the mid-1970s, agricultural chemicals imported from the U.S. poisoned the water and killed the fish. In the late 1980s, economic sabotage by the U.S. destroyed cement, bread, cooking oil, and other industries in Haiti.

A state-owned Haitian-U.S. joint venture produced sugar for export as well as domestic consumption and employed over 4,000 people. Henri said: "The Americans destroyed that. The [Haitian] bourgeoisie started importing sugar--they said it would be cheaper. We used to export sugar--now we were importing it." Once the Haitian sugar industry was destroyed, sugar became more expensive than before.

In the late 1990s, Haiti lost 25,000 acres of agricultural land after the U.S. sold Haiti agricultural chemicals that made the crops come up black, shriveled, and inedible and destroyed the land for further agricultural use.

Today, much of the agricultural production in Haiti is tied to U.S. corporations. People are forced to grow mangoes, coffee, and other crops for export while their children go hungry. Patrick, an agricultural expert from Haiti we spoke with, explained, "People have land, but not the means for production.... Farming could sustain a family of three, but give them a chance to do it. They need water, seeds, fertilizer, insecticide.... Instead, we get international food aid and this destroys agriculture."

Patrick said that in 1990 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide asked the U.S. to channel aid through Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture instead of handing out food so the farming sector could be rebuilt. Patrick thought this demand was a major reason for the U.S.-backed 1991 coup that forced Aristide into exile. He said food aid to Haiti following the 1994 U.S. invasion--to reinstall Aristide as president--drove down prices, which forced many more peasants off their land.

Patrick described a trip he took in Haiti in 1992: "I was driving from Baie de Henne to M"le Saint-Nicolas. I had some bread and avocados. Down the road there were people begging for food. You couldn't just give them food from the car, you had to get out and serve them -- because they were too weak to come up to the car themselves." Starving people are often not strong enough to get to the places where food is being given out -- something he saw then and is sure is happening today.

Rice was once a major food crop in Haiti. Under pressure from the U.S., Aristide lowered import tariffs on rice. Haiti was flooded with rice from the U.S., which was cheaper because growers receive government subsidies. This drove Haitian farmers out of rice production and off the land. Haiti is now the fifth largest importer of rice from the U.S.

A Haitian activist told us about a rice farmer from the central department of Artibonite, the "breadbasket" that used to feed the country. This farmer can't make a living by growing rice in Haiti, so he has lived and worked in the U.S. for over 15 years. But every year he goes back to Haiti, plants rice, returns to the U.S. to work, goes back again for the harvest, then returns to the U.S. again-- "to take a political stand." Last year this farmer harvested 150 bushels of rice--but he has been unable to sell the rice. "Haitian peasants don't produce any more," the activist told us.

As a result of the destruction of Haitian agriculture over the last 30+ years, Haiti imports much of its food. So when Haiti's currency (the gourde) fell against the dollar, food prices stayed more or less pegged to the dollar. One Haitian activist told us bread that cost one gourde in 1994 now costs 15 to 20 gourdes. When we asked him what had happened to wages and salaries during that same period, he answered, "What wages? What salaries? There are no jobs any more!"

Disappearing Jobs and Falling Standard of Living

There are some shocking statistics about Haiti. Eighty percent of the people in Haiti are unemployed. Life expectancy is 52 years, and half of the population is under 20. Most people are hungry all the time.

As the agricultural system was being destroyed in the 1980s, U.S. companies began to build manufacturing assembly plants in Haiti. Thousands of former peasants who had been driven off their land were employed for wages on which they could barely survive.

But after the 1991 coup, the U.S. imposed an economic embargo--supposedly to pressure the military regime that had overthrown Aristide and seized power. The embargo caused incredible suffering among the Haitian people. One activist explained that during "the coup years" from 1991 to 1994, the U.S. and other capitalists moved their factories out of Haiti because of the political instability--to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Costa Rica, or other places in Latin America. The industrial parks where the sweatshops were located closed down.

The activist described the sharp economic decline that hit the people of Haiti: "All the different classes suffered. Only the bourgeoisie and people working for the government did better."

In the 1980s, 80,000 people were employed in these sweatshops. By 1994, only 400 jobs were left.As of 2000, some of the sweatshops had come back--but still, only 20,000 people had jobs in these industries. All this left us wondering--with almost no industry or agriculture, how do people in Haiti manage to survive? How do they eat?

"Les Haïtiens Survivent … la Bonne Volonté des Haïtiens Étrangers" (Haitians Survive on the Good Will of Haitians Abroad)

This Haitian saying reflects a bitter reality: The destruction of Haiti's economy through U.S. domination means that remittances (money) sent by friends and family in the U.S. and Canada are the principal -- or often only--means of support for most Haitians. Everyone we talked to said they sent money to Haiti--to family and friends. Haitians here scrimp and save to send remittances--but it is never enough.

Most people in Haiti have incomes of less than $1 per day. One man who described his family as middle-class said he sends $100 every month to help three people--two adults and a child. Before 1994, this could be stretched to feed them for one and a half months. But the sudden fall in the value of the gourde after the 1994 U.S. invasion and the resulting inflation have continued for the past 10 years. Today, the exchange rate is 53 to 57 gourdes to the dollar. Now, that $100 sent to Haiti lasts only two to three weeks for three people eating one good meal a day. And that is for food only; it doesn't cover any other expenses.

The man we talked to said that the people he supports live in a house where there are five adults and eight kids. Three of the adults are employed--one as a teacher, another as a nurse in a private hospital. Neither has been paid for the last five months. The third works as an auto mechanic. When he finds work he gets paid, but work is sporadic and hard to find. The eight people in the household survive on a total of $300 per month in remittances from family in the U.S.--about average for a family of this size.

Without help from Haitians abroad, there would be a famine in Haiti. Those who don't get remittances from abroad get help from those who do. One man we met remembered the situation in his hometown of Basse-en-Bleu in the northeastern part of the country: "Many people relied on your plate to survive." Neighbors would come to his house to eat at least every third day--and that might have been all the food they were getting. Some people, he said, had some coffee and salt in the morning--and that was all the "food" they had for the day.

Haiti has been made into something like a giant prison camp. Many try to escape the desperate conditions on boats headed for the U.S. and other countries in the area. U.S. Coast Guard patrols intercept Haitians at sea and return them to Haiti. The Haitian people are trapped on their island country by the effects of U.S. (and secondarily French) imperialist domination.

"I Will Fight for My People"

We found a lot of confusion among those we talked to about the source of the Haitian people's problems and the real solution. Many people continue to support Aristide; others oppose him. Most are angry at the current U.S. occupation, though some are confused and think (or are deluding themselves) that somehow the U.S. will help them and that something good can come out of the recent events.

People are especially furious at the presence of French troops among the occupying forces. By 1804, the slave armies of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines had driven out the French and declared Haiti an independent republic. Today, as Haitians celebrate their bicentennial, French troops are once again on Haitian soil--for the first time in 200 years! People told us how insulting and humiliating this was.

Many who support Aristide have illusions about bourgeois democracy. But at the same time, what was striking was how politicized people are--how much the dream of liberation is still alive and how deeply the people are searching for answers.

A man in the barbershop told us: "We will resist to liberate our people. I will fight for my people!" He said liberation often requires sacrifice and hardship--and he and many other people are ready to make such sacrifices.

We talked to people about the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist road for liberation in oppressed countries like Haiti-- protracted people's war--and about the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). We told people about the people's war in Nepal, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), where the masses control 80% of the countryside. We found that people were very interested in the RW/OR 's analysis of the developments in Haiti.

Rache Manyòk Nan Revolusyon

After the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, a popular slogan among the Haitian people was "rache manyòk!" Loosely translated from Kreyol, this phrase means "pull up by the roots" or "uproot." Rache manyòk referred to the desire of the people to go beyond getting rid of Duvalier himself and to uproot the whole apparatus he had in place to oppress the Haitian people for the benefit of U.S. imperialism--the army, the Tontons Macoute death squads, and the rich elite.

Eighteen years later, it's painfully clear that the people of Haiti continue to be under the boot of U.S. imperialist domination. They still must overthrow the forces that exploit and oppress them and deeply uproot the system that keeps them utterly powerless and in the depths of poverty. In short, the people of Haiti confront the need to "rache manyòk nan revolusyon"--pull up by the roots through revolution.