Haiti: Street demonstrations against Aristide’s rule by decree

Mass protests against autocratic rule

Haiti has two major claims to fame: firstly, it saw the first successful revolution against slavery, and, secondly, the country is the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

At the Battle of Vertiers, in 1803, the people of Haiti defeated the colonial army of Napoleon. Independence was declared from France on 1 January, the following year. The impact of these events rippled into Latin America. The newly independent country gave generous support to Simón Bolívar, who was fighting for the liberation of South America from Spanish domination.

But Haiti has suffered from long succession of regimes committed to no more than lining their own pockets through corruption and greed. In the 200 years since independence, Haiti has seen 53 leaders, of whom 20 were overthrown and only eight survived a full term of office.

More recently, the American-supported Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and his son Jean-Claud (“Baby Doc”), ran a brutal regime. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected to office in 1990, with popular support. People felt some hope at last that a government could change their lives. Described initially as “a stirring orator who championed the poor and advocated democracy”, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup. However, he was reinstated to power in 1994 with the help of 20,000 US troops. From then on Aristide firmly supported the interests of imperialism.

Despite Aristide’s oratory, little has changed in Haiti. It retains the dubious honour of being the poorest country in the Americas. Life expectancy is down to 50 years, 80% of the population is living below the poverty line, malnutrition is running at 56% and some 53% are illiterate. Haiti’s most serious social problem, the huge gap between rich and poor, which leaves 1% of population owning nearly half the country’s wealth, remains unsolved. The rest of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

With privatisation and the establishment of free trade zones, the country’s infrastructure has all but collapsed, leaving drugs as the only major growth area. It is not surprising that Haiti is also one of the worst countries for trade union rights violations.

The deep social crisis has led to a political struggle. There should have been parliamentary elections in 2003 but they were not held. Instead, as from 12 January, Aristide rules by decree.

Working class needs its own voice

The opposition demands that he steps down and street protests have shaken the capital. The demonstrations, which began last year, have so far claimed the lives of between 25 and 45 people, and look set to continue. The clashes between the demonstrators and the ’chimeres’, the successors to Pap Doc’s infamous ‘Tonton Macoutes’ thugs, will inevitably see more deaths.

The opposition, known as the “Group of 184”, is made up of political parties, civil society, trade unions and business associations. It seems all they have in common is a desire to see the back of Aristide.

A sharper criticism has come from the ‘Batay Ouvriye’ trade union federation, which describes the protest movement as “fundamentally and deeply just”, but adds, “Lavalas [Aristide’s Party] and the bourgeois opposition are two rotten ass cheeks in [the] same torn trousers!”

It is clear that there can be no progress without independent, working class organisations demanding jobs, land and a proper distribution of wealth. A mass workers’ party would struggle for power on a socialist programme. This would split the current opposition along class lines. But support would also need to be won throughout the Caribbean working class.

The issues of economic independence and the development of the economy, which are highlighted in an extreme form in Haiti, are mirrored throughout the Caribbean. They will be made worse by the introduction of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which is planned for 2005.

The crisis in Haiti highlights clearly the need for a socialist solution and the need to fight for a Caribbean and Latin American Federation of Socialist States.

Dave Smith is Director of Communications, National Union of Government and Federated Workers (Trinidad & Tobago), personal capacity

From The Socialist, paper of the the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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January 2004