Haiti: A social and economic calamity

February 28, 2008

The following is abridged from an interview with Haiti solidarity activist Roger Annis for the Norwegian left daily newspaper Klassenkampens.

On February 29, 2004, Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by a military intervention from the US, Canada, France and Chile allied with small numbers of foreign-armed and financed Haitian paramilitaries. Aristide was forcibly removed from the country and lives today in exile in South Africa.

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network, a solidarity movement that arose in the months following the coup. He travelled to Haiti last August. Annis lives in Vancouver and works as an aircraft assembler. He is a member of the International Association of Machinists.

@question = On August 5, 2007, you began a two-week visit to Haiti as a part of a human rights fact-finding delegation sponsored by the US-based Fondasyon Mapou and Haiti Priorities Project. Did you meet any trade unionists, and what did you learn from these meetings?

Yes, we had extensive meetings with unions in Haiti. These included the CTH, which is the Haitian union affiliated to the International Confederation of Trade Unions; the APCH (union of bus, truck and taxi drivers); and a small union of health-care providers, the Association des professionnels(elles) de sante d'Hait.

We learned that unions in Haiti are very engaged in struggling for social, economic and political solutions to the country's calamitous situation. They don't limit their activity to the narrow economic interests of their immediate members; their consciousness and historical experience leads them to fight for broader societal concerns.

Because of the conditions of political repression that prevail in Haiti, unions must be careful. There is a legal and political space allowing for trade union activity, but it has limits. There is a ferocious hostility from Haiti's elite and foreign investors to any improvements in wages or conditions of work. This and the disastrous economic situation make the task of organising unions extremely difficult.

@question = Give me your description of the living conditions of the average Haitian.

I can only describe the situation in Haiti today as a social and economic calamity. Half of the children do not attend school. Hunger and disease is widespread. There is no safe drinking water available from a public distribution system. Most Haitian dwellings are in terrible condition. The minimum wage for workers is US$2 per day. But most people do not have that luxury of earning such a salary — unemployment is 70-80%.

If the conditions in the cities are bad, they are much worse in the countryside. That is where the majority of Haitians live. The policies of forced importation of subsidised food from Europe and North America have all but destroyed Haiti's capacity to feed itself. Deforestation of the country is near-total. The country's road network is in terrible disrepair, making road travel in rural areas very difficult.

Haiti has always been the poorest country in the Americas. It is rapidly joining the ranks of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy is 55 years of age. Child mortality is 150 deaths per 1000 children of five years or younger. These figures rank Haiti alongside the poorest countries of Africa, yet its capital city is only a one-hour flight from Miami.

@question = Please tell me about your meetings with Lovinsky Pierre Antoine.

Lovinsky Pierre Antoine is one of the leading activists and spokespeople in Haiti for human rights. He is an activist in the Lavalas political movement of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a founder of the September 30 Foundation, an important human and social rights organisation. [September 30 is the anniversary of the first military coup against Aristide in 1991.] Lovinsky was forced into exile following the coup in 2004. He returned following the February 2006 presidential election.

Lovinsky was acting as a guide and director for our delegation. One week into our visit, shortly after returning from visiting the north of Haiti to the capital city, Port au Prince, he disappeared. He has not been seen nor heard from since.

We travelled across Haiti with Lovinsky. We saw firsthand how widely known and respected he is. He is one of the sharpest critics of the foreign occupation presence in Haiti. His outspokenness has obviously rattled Haiti's elite and their foreign backers.

More recently, the interim coordinator of Lovinsky's September 30 Foundation, Wilson Mesilien, has been receiving death threats and has gone into hiding.

@question = Could you tell me more about the two organisations that sponsored your trip?

Fondayson Mapou and Haiti Priorities Project are two small foundations based in the US that operate development projects in Haiti and organise delegations to the country. They are active in pressuring the US government for a sharp change in its policies towards Haiti, including respecting Haiti's sovereignty and providing better terms of trade and aid.

@question = Could you comment on the role of foreign aid in Haiti?

The Haitian people have many important things to teach other people in the world who are fighting for a society of justice. One of those is the utter failure of the "aid" model from the wealthy countries in delivering any meaningful economic, social or political progress. And I include in this record of failure the so-called "non-governmental" organisation (NGO) model.

Haiti is awash in charities, NGOs and aid agencies. There are an estimated 4000 of them. Yet, the country's poverty and environmental degradation is deepening at a frightening rate. The US, France, Canada and the UN Security Council have had four years to prove that their overthrow of Haiti's elected government would bring improvements, and they have nothing to show for their efforts. Only more misery and repression.

Some NGOs are doing very good and important work in Haiti. An example is Medecins Sans Frontiers. But most aid agencies and NGOs have been complicit in the subversion of Haitian society and democracy. The Haitian government only delivers 20% of the country's social services. The rest is in the hands of foreign interests or their local agencies.

Haiti's needs are overwhelming. The road network needs rebuilding. Reforestation and development of agriculture and fishing must be a top priority. The country could build a thriving tourism industry. Schools, hospitals and other social development programs are urgently needed.

None of this is technically difficult to do. Two things are needed. One, the country needs massive financial and material resources. And two, its sovereignty must be respected.

Every time that Haitians vote, they choose a political movement and program dedicated to social justice and equality. There must be an end to the long, sad history of foreign intervention and coups d'etat.

@question = Please give me your assessment of MINUSTAH's role.

MINUSTAH is the acronym for the United Nations Security Council-sponsored occupation force in Haiti. It numbers 7100 soldiers; 1800 police; and an administrative apparatus of 900 people. Brazil is assigned the lead role of the military force, and Brazilian troops make up the largest number of soldiers.

The creation of MINUSTAH followed the foreign invasion of Haiti in February, 2004 ... [which] was sanctioned by the Security Council. Four years later, MINUSTAH has nothing to show for its presence. It spends more than $600 million per year. But our delegation saw very few development or aid projects taking place, and certainly none on the scale of what Haiti requires.

The only meaningful international assistance to Haiti is coming from Venezuela and Cuba. [Venezuelan] President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's vice-president visited in March of 2007 and extensive agreements between the three countries were signed. Venezuela will build Haiti's first two oil refineries, and Haiti has signed onto the "PetroCaribe" agreement that provides oil at discounted rates. Cuba and Venezuela will provide resources for road repair and health and education services. Cuba will continue its medical mission in Haiti, which numbers 500 personnel and provides vital health services as well as training, in Cuba, of Haitian doctors.

@question = Please compare the human rights situation in Haiti during 2004-06 with today's situation.

Haiti lost its elected government institutions in February, 2004. A regime of human rights violations was imposed on the Haitian people. According to a study published in the September, 2006 issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, there were 4000 deaths at the hands of the Haitian National Police and the United Nations occupation forces in Port au Prince alone in the 22 months following the coup. This gives you some idea of the bloodletting that occurred.

During the same time, Haiti's prison population doubled. It now stands at some 6200.

The political repression eased considerably after the election of Rene Preval as president in February, 2006. That election was deeply flawed, but Preval was the popular choice and his election sent a message to the Haitian elite to back off.

The human rights situation is once again worsening. The prisons are very overcrowded and unhealthy, and the judicial system remains seriously flawed. One example — more than 80% of the people in prison have not been tried, let alone sentenced.

Preval's government has embarked on an ambitious program to privatise what little remains of Haiti's public institutions, including the state telephone and electricity companies, the customs service, and the state employee pension fund.

@question = What message would you like to leave with readers of this interview ?

I would like to leave with a call for solidarity. Haiti is suffering under a foreign-imposed occupation regime. Its constitution and elected institutions were destroyed following an unprecedented international campaign of slander and vilification against Aristide. Ever since a popular uprising in 1986 succeeded in overthrowing the Duvalier family dynasty, the Haitian people have voted for progressive government. But their choice is continually subverted by the big imperialist powers.

Here in Canada, we have just launched an exciting fund appeal in support of several of Haiti's largest trade unions. Initial support for the appeal has been strong, including from the Canadian Labour Congress.

[You can read Annis's reports from Haiti at <www.thac.ca/blog/9>. He can be emailed at <rogerannis@hotmail.com>.

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