avatar
Canadian Imperialism Helps Smash Haiti for Profit


Canadian anti-war activists, anti- imperialists, socialists, anarchists, some social democrats, and even some pro- gressively-minded liberals contributed in various ways to building an impressive mass anti-war movement that helped prevent Canada’s formal entry into the continuing Iraq war that began (again) in March 2003. Within that movement, it was broadly recog- nized that the arguments for the war were pretexts for a grab of economic and political power. Even some war advocates were too embarrassed to sug- gest otherwise, as we had right-wing pundits like Norman Spector in Canada and Thomas Friedman in the US ad- mitting “of course it’s about oil”, and endorsing it nonetheless.

This powerful bloc of the left has not, yet, coalesced in opposition to Canada’s terrible betrayal of Haiti’s troubled democracy through its support for the February 29, 2004 coup d’ëtat. This coup overthrew not only Haiti’s twice-elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but also his entire cabinet and literally thousands of other elected officials. All of these election winners were replaced through a US, France, and Canada-backed “selection” process. So, unlike Iraq, regime change in Haiti replaced a popular and elected government with an unpopular and unelected one, clearly chosen by the imperial powers involved.

Our challenge is to understand why the broad anti-war left has been relatively silent on this issue, and what might be done about it. There are several obvious important factors. The media has been distorting Haiti’s political picture for years. The Canadian media have relied extensively on very right-wing pro-US wire services and sources (Associated Press, NYT, etc.). This has produced an avalanche of State Department- sponsored anti-Aristide pro-coup propaganda, which came to be re- circulated throughout NGO networks as well.

The Haitian communities in Canada and the US were successfully divided, demoralized, and demobilized. So, when violence erupted in January- February 2004, it was not at all clear how the Haitian community itself felt. The left, of course does not simply follow the lead of an expatriate com- munity – the Cuban community in Miami, for example, quite rightly does not set the tone. But when President Aristide was re-instated after the first (1991-94) coup to overthrow him, we were told that he enjoyed overwhelm- ing support both in Haiti and in the diaspora, so when protests against the 2004 coup appeared to be small, many drew the conclusion promoted in the media (and by the US, French, and Canadian governments): Aristide had lost all support. This was wrong, as is obvious now that supporters of the con- stitutionally elected government are being shot, arrested, and terrorized in a horrifying wave of repression – all overseen by Canadian police and CIDA-paid officials working for Hai- ti’s coup government. Nonetheless, it was a factor in demobilizing and con- fusing many on the left who might oth- erwise have raised a voice.

Some attention has been paid to these factors in other analysis of this situation (see www.zmag.org). I would like to introduce a third factor that also seems very important, but has not at- tracted as much attention – the econom- ics of the coup. As someone involved in trying to help build an effective solidarity with Haiti movement – that properly challenges Canada’s policy in this country and exposes what is really happening there – there is one dominant reaction I get from progressives who might otherwise be supportive. They ask, with a skeptical eye, “But what is at stake? There is no oil or other obvious economic prize in Haiti.” In other words, an intervention in impoverished Haiti cannot possibly be imperial in nature, as there is no obvious source of super-profits – oil, natural gas, a canal – to be won. Ulti- mately, goes this thinking, “Haiti just does not matter very much” – a racist view stated openly in a UK Guardian editorial just prior to last year’s coup.

Well, Haiti does matter, as an arti- cle in Monthly Review asserted in its very title last year. And, in this regard, the recent history of Haiti offers us a powerful lesson in contemporary capitalist politics – if we choose to try to learn it. I want to argue here that there is an obvious source of super- profits to be obtained in Haiti, but that it takes a bit of analysis to map out. I begin with a brief examination of the role of the key institutions of neoliberalism in Haiti’s coup, and what plans are now unfolding. After then considering what Canada’s business elite might gain from all of this, I offer a tentative conclusion about what model is in store for Haiti’s future, and how it relates to the rest of the region. Neoliberalism in Haiti

The simplified view of Haiti under President Aristide (as well as his successor, Prëval – 1996-2000), sug- gests that it was Haiti’s polarized poli- tics that led to economic and political unraveling. While this is partly true, it is only intelligible in the context of a quite conscious and planned economic attack, begun around 1996 and then intensified with a full-on economic aid embargo initiated by the US upon George W. Bush’s “election” in 2000, followed in part by Canada. A significant international aid flow (com- ing primarily from the US, Canada, and France) of some $600 million and $700 million (US) in 1995 and 1996 was chopped down to some $330 million in 1998, then under $130 million by 2001 and even less in the following three years leading up to the coup. Significantly, as has been outlined in research by Canadian journalist Anthony Fenton and others, a substan- tial portion of these flows were con- verted into subversion funds destined to Haiti’s political opposition, as well as NGOs, “human rights” groups, wom- en’s groups, and others who were either already, or were willing to become, part of a growing anti-Aristide political opposition – joining Haiti’s sweatshop business elite that always despised Aristide’s left-populist orientation.

It is difficult to underestimate the significance of this financial strangula- tion strategy. It left Haiti’s government with absolutely no room to maneuver, forcing it to try to keep things running on some $300 million (US) per year – the budget of a large Canadian hospital, much less than a large municipality. With a partly corrupted (corrupted by whom?) national police force of some 4,000 members overseeing some 8.3 million people, Haiti was slowly ripening for a coup.

But again, the question remains why. We have some idea of the expla- nation for the US government’s em- bargo on Cuba – it represents at least some sort of model, an alternative po- litical and economic arrangement that has delivered social goods to the mass population – something that US (and Canadian) elites declare to be logically and economically an impossibility. But why was Aristide’s Haiti such a threat?

Several moves by the Haitian gov- ernment under Aristide (during the remainder of his first term in 1994-96) infuriated the US government and created a bipartisan consensus that he and his popular movement threatened US interests in the region. First, Aristide demobilized the Haitian army in 1995, which had been the primary tool of political influence used by the US (through the CIA) for decades. Second, he extended diplomatic recognition to the Cuban government – something that allowed the initiation of a very successful Cuban health care initiative that saw the allocation of over 500 Cuban doctors and nurses to provide primary health care to poor Haitians throughout the country. An obviously outrageous provocation.

Third, and I believe most impor- tantly, President Aristide reversed a previous (perhaps unofficial) commit- ment to proceed with a massive priva- tization program, aimed at moving Haiti’s valuable electricity, telephone, water, airport, port, and several other state-owned enterprises into the hands of the tiny Haitian bourgeoisie (as well as their American and Canadian cor- porate friends). While Aristide had made several compromises to neoliberalism – partly in exchange for his reinstatement – a popular mobili- zation against the privatizations, and parliamentary opposition stiffened his spine and he drew a line in the sand, refusing to proceed. It was at this point on that the aid flows referred to above contracted dramatically.

The details of the political crisis in Haiti that followed have been analysed in some detail, including in the excel- lent weekly journal Haiti Progres, a vehicle of the Parti Populaire Nationale (PPN). This party had been quite a strong critic of President Aristide from the left – challenging each neoliberal compromise made under US pressure just as it challenged each sign of foreign-financed subversion and destabilization. But when business elite push came to paramilitary shove in the January-February 2004 crisis period, the PPN denounced what they recognized as an obvious US (and Canadian) inspired and directed coup process aimed at reinstalling a client regime. Sadly, others on the Haitian “left” (primarily foreign-funded NGOs, but also certain trade unionists and student groups) threw in their lot with a key elite-led opposition group (Group 184) and joined their call for Aristide’s resignation – either not recognizing or not caring about the obvious consequences. Even some Canadian NGOs, with full imperial arrogance, joined this partisan call.

What is important to recognize now is the political and economic result. With Aristide gone, US, Canadian, and French officials worked with Haiti’s business elite to put together a client state that would be willing to take orders properly. By July 2004, a major new structural adjustment plan had been drafted, dubbed the International Cooperation Framework (ICF). Even cursory examination of the ICF reveals much about the character of what is now in place in post-coup Haiti.

Structural Adjustment Intensified A Window of Opportunity?

Haiti had already been through years of World Bank and IMF-guided structural adjustment, with basic goods trade and interest rates significantly liberalized (at no small social cost). In the mid-1990s, certain key commodity prices were liberalized as well, a move by the Aristide government that generated some opposition. But the big prizes – the electricity and telephone sectors, and the key public infrastruc- ture in ports, airports, and water – remained in public hands in spite of ferocious US pressure.

For post-coup Haiti, the World Bank’s ICF, which the Canadian and US governments not only supported but helped to craft, offers no disguise at all for its enthusiasm for the opportunities presented by what it calls Haiti’s “tran- sition” government:

“The transition period and the Transitional Government provide a window of opportunity for im- plementing economic governance reforms with the involvement of civil society stakeholders that may be hard for a future government to undo.”

The kinds of “governance reforms” wanted are also made clear in this same document when it turns to a discussion of the health and education sectors:

“[Haitian] authorities have de- cided to strengthen the partner- ship between the public sector and private providers while strengthening the regulatory capac- ity of the public sector. This en- tails improving transfers to private schools based on transparent criteria and an accountability mechanism, and allowing public health facilities to sign services agreements with private health insurance agencies especially outside the capital city.”

Here we see the first obvious entry points for US and Canadian multina- tionals to cash in on Haiti’s suffering. First of all, it is worth noting that in Haiti, the health and education sectors are already between 80% and 90% pri- vately provided, meaning many Hai- tians have access to neither. This docu- ment is signaling that those health fa- cilities that are publicly operated will be arranging a first-step privatization by contracting-out the management of the facilities – the classic “public-pri- vate partnership” with which Canadian workers and service users are already familiar.

Of course, the real target – the re- maining core of Haiti’s state capacity – is in the contested electricity and tel- ephone sectors, and the ICF has plans for these as well:

“Cleanup and modernization of the management of public enterprises in key sectors – EDH (electricity), Teleco (telephone), AAN (airports), APN (ports), and CAMEP (potable water in urban centers), while strengthening the State’s regulatory role in key sec- tors of the economy such as tel- ecommunications, energy, potable water, ports and airports. The ac- counts of the enterprises weakest in this area will be improved, fi- nancial audits and management consulting and training will be pro- vided to each of these enterprises, and management contracts will be prepared in those cases where private sector participation is deemed appropriate during the transition period.”

Again, just as we have seen in Canada, the sponsors are careful to use gentle euphemisms (“cleanup and mod- ernization”) for what has been a ferociously contested privatization pro- gram. Those familiar with World Bank/ IMF policy prescriptions will understand that “private sector partici- pation” is “deemed appropriate” in pretty much all cases. What is inter- esting is the injunction to prepare man- agement contracts for these sensitive sectors prior to the promised “free and fair” elections – the promised demo- cratic processes through which populations theoretically decide major policy issues such as these.

Haiti as a Model Economy for the Region

When we combine the above evi- dence from the World Bank with the reality on the ground in present-day Haiti – terrifying repression of opposi- tion, the business elite now hiring private armies to provide “security”, possible re-mobilization of the despised Haitian army, and further stage- managed elections – we start to gain a picture of what the imperial powers have in mind for Haiti’s future: noth- ing short of a sweatshop paradise, whereby the price of labour is main- tained at its hemispheric low-point, setting a standard against which other workers of the region will be forced to compete. The recent re-location of production by Canada’s Gildan Activewear (a t-shirt manufacturer) from brutal exploitation conditions in Honduras to the post-coup workers’ nightmare in Haiti is but one sign of this model’s realization. Gildan’s Mon- treal-area facilities are also being shut down in favour of lower-cost south- ern destinations – a direct impact on Canadian workers, increasing unem- ployment, while increasing Gildan’s already healthy profit margins. The only remaining challenge is to squelch Haiti’s rising anti-imperialist opposition – no small task as both Iraq and Afghanistan are demonstrating.

In this light, the universal question – what exploitable resource does Haiti offer that would merit imperial inter- vention – is answered: labour itself, the ultimate commodity. Equally important, we have transformed Haiti’s government from a recalcitrant moderately leftist source of occasional opposition to the neoliberal agenda into a model client that openly and enthusiastically embraces neo- liberalism’s ugliest features – no small accomplishment given the continuing battle for the FTAA and its ugly cousins.

Fortunately, in spite of the media spin and the confusion among many in the anti-war movement and on the left, a solidarity movement is emerging in this country that is challenging our government’s murderous pro-privatiza- tion, pro-coup policy in Haiti. As recent 5-city demonstrations at the end of February (marking the anniversary of the coup) and on May 18 (Haiti’s Flag Day) indicate, more and more activists are waking up to the unpleasant reality that Canada’s foreign policy has already been “deeply integrated” with that of the US. While these signs of resistance are promising and important, we need much more discussion, more visible mobilization, and more connections be- ing made between the fight against the privatization of Canada’s public services and the fight against the pri- vatization of these same systems in poorer countries where the stakes are even higher. Finally, we need to build much stronger cooperation among existing movements working in solidarity with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, and the rest of the hemisphere, since we know that their struggle is also ours. In this context, it is very clear that Haiti does matter – it may very well symbolize contemporary Canadian capitalism.

***

Kevin Skerrett is a trade union researcher and member of the Ottawa Haiti Solidarity Committee/Canada Haiti Action Network.

To join the Canada Haiti Action Network email list, please contact the author at [email protected]

For more information on the coup and Canada’s role, see:

www.canadahaitiaction.ca www.zmag.org www.haitiaction.net

Leave a comment