Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Today we met with Paul Philome of the Batay Ouvriye, which translates as "Worker's Battle," a radical left coalition that coordinates workers, artisans, peasants and community organizations. Their biggest presence is in the north of the country, particularly in Cap-Haitian, where they organize workers in the free trade zone factories, most of which make apparel and things like baseballs.

Paul began by describing the difficulties the BO is facing with mobilizations. Their April 15th mobilization was blocked by the police, despite the fact that the Haitian Constitution specifically states that workers need only warn police of an upcoming demonstration, not ask permission. Finally the demonstration occurred on April 22nd, but the turn out was significantly smaller because of the change of dates. Their planned May Day actions in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian have also been blocked, though the BO plans to go ahead with them regardless. When asking for more details Paul warned us against attending either of these as there are likely going to be confrontations with the authorities.

At that point we asked if we could film, but Paul declined, telling us that the authorities periodically clamp down on the BO and that images and interviews have been used against them. The government has blamed the BO and its leadership for vandalism and unrest and Paul stressed the importance of caution. We agreed not to film and took notes instead.

Paul then described his basic ideology of consciousness raising, advancing the workers' struggle, and accusing the Haitian government of being the lackeys of the employing class. He stated that the working class in Haiti has come to an impasse, where their misery is not only allowed but actually enforced to keep wages low and working conditions poor to maximize profits. As a result the authorities have an active stake in repressing the labor movement and have used paramilitary forces to repress workers. According to Paul this requires a radical reorganization of society to break down the walls that imprison the working class and to bring about a revolution, to "sever the umbilical cord" that connects the state to the people. The only question, for Paul, was "is there enough political consciousness to restructure society?" He believes that there is, particularly with the current unrest which forces workers to "remove the wool from their eyes."

He then went on to describe the legal obligation, within the Haitian Constitution, to raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. This promise has never been kept. The only adjustment to the minimum wage was over five years ago and was only a 5% increase despite 10% increase to the cost living. He said that inflation has now reached 100% or more. Given the dire situation, and lack of help from the state, the struggle has moved into the streets and the consciousness of the people has been raised to a point where radical change is possible.

When discussing similarities between the IWW's philosophy and that of the BO we recognized that neither of our organizations takes an official position in electoral politics. Paul told us that the BO will have relationships with some politicians who are part of their organization, when it can help the struggle, but will not support candidates. He then told a story of one of the BO's supporters who ran for senate because he believed that he could take the workers "fight" there, but was shot and left for dead by assassins and was forced to flee the country. He has since returned to Haiti and serves as the BO's attorney. Paul also mentioned that he himself had been shot in the leg, but differentiated between the authorities "shooting to deter" and "shooting to kill." He was only "shot to deter."

According to Paul the minimum wage is about $1.75 per day, which is supposed to cover transportation, gas (which in Haiti is about $5 per gallon), and meals. This leads to workers needing to take a shot of cheap, home made liquor at lunch, in place of a meal, to give them enough energy to get through the rest of the day. This has led to "le vie de clorox," or the life of bleach, which refers both to starvation pains and a means of suicide. One of his friends, Manu, had killed himself by drinking a bottle of bleach.

He believed that the wage worker has direct contact with capitalism, not the peasant or the artisan, and therefore it is the wage worker who must lead the revolution.

Paul had done extensive research on the IWW's website ( and had several questions for us. The first question that he asked was "why are you here?" We explained that our International Solidarity Commission had made contact with the CTH who invited us to Haiti in order to document the effects of neoliberalism. We also told him that is was our goal to help coordinate support, both material and in the form of solidarity, to help the struggle of Haitian workers, and finally in order that we might learn from the Haitian situation how to further our own struggles. He asked us three further questions about the IWW's philosophy, structure, and tactics which we decided to go into greater detail on in a later meeting.

While driving us back to St. Joseph's he told us how Venezuela donated asphalt to Haiti for the construction of roads (a much needed and missing part of the country's infrastructure as indicated by our trip to the Central Plateau) but that the government of Preval turned around and sold the asphalt to the Dominican Republic for their own profit. Also that the gas that Chavez gives is sold for profit as well.

Paul also invited us to a conference on organizing in Latin America which is being held by a group called ELAC ( which stands for Encuentro Latino Americano y Caribeno de Trabajadores. It's being held in Minas Gerais, Brazil on July 7th and 8th.


Wadner Pierre said...

Did you know BO has $350k in program funds from US State Dept, $100k in program funds from NED, and now a new program funds from CIDA grantee. CTH and other grassroots labor gets no funds from these groups.

stu neatby said...

I question much of the claims made by BO. They have thouroughly discredited themselves due to their support for the 2004 coup d'etat, and there appears to be little evidence that they have much in the way of a defined membership. It is telling that the representative you met invited you to an international labour conference in Brazil; few truly popular grassroots organizations in Haiti have the resources to have any staff, or travel budget, let alone the ability to cover their basic expenses. The CTH, for example, has up until recently survived for years without any paid staff. As Wadner notes, the fact that BO appears to have an ongoing budget for travel indicates that they continue to receive international aid funding from the same actors that continue to fund the elite organizations throughout the country that directly profit from, for example, the obscenely low minimum wage.

Jan said...

I am only a Batay Ouvriye supporter, not a member, but it seems to me that the debate around what role BO is playing in workers struggles in Haiti with respect to funding it has accepted from the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center has become sidetracked.
BO has openly acknowledged receiving such funds and has openly stated that it will accept funds from any source as long as this does not jeopardize its political line and practices. It would make sense then, even if one does not agree with this position on principle, to at least look at the factual record to see whether or not the funds that BO has received have in any way influenced BO to deviate from its political line and its practices. The record is quite clear on that matter. No one can come up with any evidence to that effect. BO has remained the most combative workers movement in Haiti and is staunchly engaged in struggles on many fronts, including in the countryside, in the free trade zones, and in sweatshop factories. And when it comes down to how those funds were used, the record again is quite clear: those funds were entirely used to further the workers struggle against exploitation, under one of the harshest conditions of struggle in the Americas, in the poorest country in the Americas. It is then BO's contention that if those funds were intended to thwart workers struggles in any way, it did not work.
One may still however disagree quite strongly with BO's decision to accept such funding. This was not a decision without adverse consequences, as evidenced the many ignorant and mostly provocative attacks against BO. Nor was such a decision taken lightly and without consideration to the various contradictions inherent in such a practice. One can still debate this decision, but it was however, to the best of my knowledge, one that came from a democratic debate within BO and one which was not unanimous nor taken lightly or rushed. There was a heated debate on both sides, but after voting on this, a firm decision was taken to accept the funds. We, on the left, should look at the facts, and judge the practice based on those facts, not just in a pragmatic manner, and not just fall for provocative attacks made up of fabricated facts, but in a principled manner based on the relationship between theory and practice.
There were attempts made to discredit BO, by some left organizations, based on moralist petty bourgeois positions, not even being analytical of the political pratice, on the ground in Haiti, of the originators of these provocations. To fall for such acts of provocations clearly shows their limited capacity to understand the complexity of struggle in a social formation such as Haiti.
But I think that there are a number of other contradictions that need to be weighed when it comes to this question. The practice of accepting such funds has historically been shown to have corrosive effects internally on organizations engaged in struggle. It's almost like eating poisoned food and feeling confident that one's body defenses are strong enough to overcome the poison. I do think that in this case, BO was quite aware of this contradiction and has taken steps to deal with this internally, starting with the process of internal debate and devising adequate safeguards.
In this regard, BO's contention is that we need to utilize the internal contradictions within the various dominant structures to our best advantage. There are cases where BO has refused considerable funding because it was tied to specific clauses that infringed on the autonomy of a workers movement. However, as long as these limitations can be avoided, and as long as its political line and practice are not compromised, BO has stated that it will continue to accept funds from any source. With regards to the $350,000 mentioned, we should however point out that, although it would have been welcomed and BO would have certainly put it to good use, there were no such funds granted to BO, the $350,000 is an outright distortion.
It is also quite gratuitous to criticize BO from the comfort of one's armchair without taking into consideration the tremendous hardships encountered in the course of waging class struggle in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Anyone who is actually engaged in this struggle and is aware of the enormous gap between what little means we have access to and the daily, tactical and strategic needs, (resulting in real limits to what struggles can be waged because of lack of means, causing you to retreat sometimes when you should be on the offensive…), would bring a different perspective to this debate. You have to experience real hunger and real struggle before you can understand everything you need to do to find food. That is precisely why, internationally, when BO is dealing with other movements in similarly oppressed countries, this issue is often seen quite differently, from a standpoint of proletarian internationalism, autonomous and independent from any petit bourgeois or bourgeois morals
I would however make an important distinction. There are those who have taken a populist partisan stand around this issue of funding and who have engaged in uninformed gratuitous attacks against a workers movement by accusing BO, without any evidence, of being sold out, corrupt and on the take. These attacks have mostly come from ardent Aristide supporters and are wholly based on their populist backing of Aristide, while at the same time being blind to the anti-national, anti-popular practices of Arisitde.
Although debating dogmatic partisans along these lines is most often quite a futile endeavor, it is still important to debunk the theoretical basis of their arguments. The fact that Aristide was elected by a majority vote [first time], or even the fact that he still has popularity today (even if his popularity is nowhere near 1990 levels), does not make the support for Aristide synonymous with the support for the interests of the popular masses in Haiti. If that were the case, then one could argue that Reagan, Clinton, or for that matter Hitler at one point, were defenders of the interests of the popular masses.
The only basis for the support or non-support for Aristide, from the standpoint of the left, should be whether or not Aristide's political positions and practices are indeed in support or counter to the real life interests of the popular masses. And from that standpoint, the record is quite clear: from Aristide's 1991 "marriage with the Haitian Army", to his 1994 "I love you" to the Haitian bourgeoisie, to the various corruption scandals that characterized Aristide's administrations (rice, sugar, cement, pyramid schemes of cooperative banks…) that led the Haitian people to name officials in Arisitide's administrations "Gran Manjè" (Big Eaters), to his sell out policies of structural adjustment (privatization, devaluation, free trade zone concessions, elimination of trade protection for national production, cutbacks in social spending…), to his policies of intimidation and repression of combative popular movements (like the killing and jailing without charge of Gaucimal organizers), the burning down of assembly places and organizer's homes by pro-Aristide goons (which resulted in the popular appellation of these goons as "Chimè" [fanatics, goons…]), to his maniacal power grabbing which led the majority of the Haitian left to denounce him as a dictator in the making… Only fanatics and the uninformed can still argue that Aristide represents anything that corresponds to the real interests of the Haitian popular masses.
However, these fanatics and some on the left who have been taken in by populism, still make this argument: "the popularly elected president…" And in defense of their president, they argue that BO took money from the CIA to support Aristide's overthrow. This is a baseless lie. BO has always stood in defense of real popular interests and criticized Aristide's policies as they evolved more and more to be sell out policies that caved in to the structural adjustment edicts of imperialism. And BO criticized the repressive pro-bourgeois policies of his government and Aristide's failure to uphold any of the legal rights of worker organizations, as well as the complete impunity granted to bosses under his administrations. But BO has always criticized imperialism and the Haitian ruling classes even more than it has criticized Aristide. Even when Aristide's Machiavellian power grabbing led to rising bourgeois opposition to his administration, BO still denounced both Aristide and the Haitian right wing bourgeois coalition that emerged to oppose him, the 184 Group, as "2 sides of a rotten pair of pants". When threatened by an invading force of roughly 200 CIA funded mercenaries from the DR, Aristide was the first to call for imperialist intervention, in his own support. BO denounced both the CIA invasion and Aristide's call for foreign intervention. And when the intervention came and removed Aristide, BO steadfastly denounced this intervention as well as all previous interventions.
To argue that BO should have supported Aristide because he fell out of favor with the imperialists and was removed by the intervention is to completely disregard the real interests of the Haitian popular masses. Supporting Aristide, just because he fell out of favor, has nothing to do with anti-imperialist struggle. The real anti-imperialist struggle is the struggle of the popular masses against their class enemies, not the struggle of a fallen corrupt proto-dictator to regain power on the backs of these same popular masses.
In the actual politics of popular struggle, on the ground, BO is one of the staunchest opponents of this current occupation, and denounces the occupation in all the protests and public meetings it holds. In fact, this year, protest marches held by BO around May Day and to protest the rising cost of living, to demand a fair adjustment of the minimum wage and a real employment program have all been heavily repressed and barricaded by heavily armed MINUSTHA troops. Those on the left who truly want to stand in support of the real interests of the popular masses should understand these facts and not let themselves be taken in by populist propaganda and provocators in defense of corrupt politics of patronage.

Anonymous said...

Jan is sorely mistaken. The AFL-CIO top officials have acknowledge the 350k from the State Dept and the 100k from the NED. BO acknowledge 100k of this after being pressed by its own supporters. Narconews has an updated article that gives more depth on the labor situation. And what exactly do you mean by "populist propaganda and provocators in defense of corrupt politics of patronage."? Is BO's accepting foreign imperialist money and attacking a popularly elected government not a politics of patronage and propaganda?