Despite Centuries of Oppression, Haitian Workers’ Struggle Continues

By J.N.B., M. W. Thurston

This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue of Socialism Today. We are republishing it in light of the current turmoil and the discussion of possible US intervention. Subscribe here.

After 12 days of striking, garment workers in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince won improved pay on February 21st when the Haitian government announced a minimum wage increase. Haitian workers have faced food shortages, nonexistent infrastructure, and a government focused on growing the wealth of foreign capitalists over the well-being of Haitian people. The garment industry makes up over 80% of Haiti’s exports, mostly to the United States, yet its workers were paid only $5 per day. The garment workers will now be making $7.50 per day with the wage increase, half of the $15 per day the strike demanded but still an improvement for tens of thousands of workers. This strike is just the latest in the long history of Haitians struggling against foreign exploitation to improve their conditions.

The Haitian workers’ movement has its energetic and militant history in the nation’s origin. Colonized by the French Empire, Haiti was bled of its resources to produce and export cane sugar. The island was a slave-trading hub that generated vast wealth. As the French Revolution ran its course in Europe, Haitians achieved independence through a revolution from 1791-1804. Fearing other successful slave revolts, Great Britain essentially ended the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, and the U.S. instituted harsher measures to keep slaves from forming families and communities.

Haiti was still treated as a colony by the U.S. and Europe for much of its existence. The U.S. would intervene to protect its interests in Haiti many times, including a military occupation from 1915-1934 to help the profits of National City Bank (now Citibank)! The latter half of the 20th century was also unforgiving; the Duvalier regime, originally elected in 1957 on appeals to rural Haitian workers, became a dictatorship that ruthlessly suppressed left-wing dissidents. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who ascended to power as a key figure in the pro-democracy movement against Duvalier’s son, was subjected to two coups, first in 1991, and later in 2004 after asking for reparations from France. More recently the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 following his efforts to curtail the Haitian drug trade created a power vacuum that compounded existing problems faced by Haitian workers. 

Haiti’s exploitation remains profitable for the capitalist class. 81.3% of Haiti’s $1.3bn of exports go to the United States, while Haiti serves as a $973m market for American oil, crops, and manufactured goods. Lacking stable state infrastructure, Haiti is forced to rely on western NGOs for disaster relief, often funded by the same capitalists whose exploitation keeps the country poor. 

These conditions produce an environment many Haitians want to escape. Haitian immigrants to the U.S. or Canada are met with border police and the threat of incarceration in Department of Homeland Security camps. Haitian migrants who instead try settling in closer countries like Brazil, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic are met with similar hostility by the host governments. Haitian migrants therefore often take the riskier path through Mexico, hiding atop freight train cars where many are maimed or killed. Still others end up unable to cross the border to the U.S., left with no realistic alternatives.

Despite campaign rhetoric suggesting otherwise, the continuous growth of anti-immigration agencies under the DHS from Bush to Biden implies bipartisan support for continued abuse of refugees and immigrants. The Obama-era detention facilities that were expanded under Trump continue to exist under Biden. Embarrassed by footage of whip-cracking border police on horseback keeping border-crossing Haitians at bay, Biden only got rid of the horses.

As capitalism is an international system, we at ISG, working in solidarity with the Committee for a Workers’ International, recognize the importance of bridging workers’ struggles across borders to build an international opposition to capitalist oppression! Workers across the Western Hemisphere are in a position to support Haitian workers in their struggle to determine their own political and economic future, to defend Haitians from deportation and other attacks on their rights, and to help build the fight against capitalism!

ISG calls for the following:

  • Haitian workers deserve union rights, a living wage, and investments in climate- and quake-resilient housing, education, and health infrastructure! Fight to nationalize domestic industries and cancel all remaining debts to foreign capitalist lenders!
  • Waive vaccine patents so that Haiti and all hyper-exploited countries can easily access COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Organize to defend and extend immigrants’ rights in our own communities, regardless of citizenship or documentation status. Abolish ICE, and close the DHS camps! Let separated families reunite on their own terms.
  • Slash the bloated budgets of the U.S. military, intelligence, and “national security” agencies. No more U.S.-backed coups, no more assassinations, no more imperialist regime change attempts!
  • True self-determination for Haiti and all Caribbean nations, on a socialist basis! Support the struggle to establish democratic workers’ governments in all Caribbean countries and occupied territories so communities throughout the region can democratically determine their own economic development.

Image Credit: 2004 Coup in Haiti, Photo by RNW Media