MARCH 1994 - VOLUME 15 - NUMBER 3
I N T E R V I E W
Rank and File Resistance
An interview with Cajuste Lexiuste and Porcenel Joachim
Cajuste Lexiuste and Porcenel Joachim are the Secretary General and Executive Secretary of one of Haiti's principal labor confederations, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). Before the September 1991 coup d'etat, the CGT had a membership of 25,000, including textile, assembly plant, public transport and agricultural workers. In April 1993, Cajuste Lexiuste and two other CGT leaders were captured by the Haitian military and tortured and severely beaten for several days. After a major international protest that probably saved their lives, the three leaders were released. Both Lexiuste and Joachim are now living in exile in Brooklyn, New York.
Multinational Monitor: How did the role of unions and the rights of workers change under President Aristide?
Cajuste Lexiuste: Aristide's administration opened a space for workers. Aristide was a symbol of democracy, and he was committed to improving the working class situation. For example, when Aristide was running for president, he asked for input from different sectors of the popular and democratic groups; one of the demands from workers was an increase of the minimum salary from 81.25 to about S 1.90 per day. Aristide pushed for this when he was elected.
Porcenel Joachim: In the administrations before Aristide many workers had been laid off without severance pay. As soon as it became clear that Aristide was going to become president, many bosses told workers that they would get their money. It was felt that things were going to change and they were trying to form a better relationship.
Before Aristide, many of the cases brought to court by the workers against the bosses were just lingering and gathering dust. As soon as Aristide became president, or was about to, many of the judges woke up and the cases started moving.
For the first time, when a boss fired a worker, he would have to have the union present when discussing the issue with the worker. Unions could meet openly, with as many members as they wanted to, and workers themselves could speak their mind. Different factions within the unions had access to television, radio and the different media to express their opinion and give their positions on different issues. The immediate result was a revitalizing of workers' attitude, because they could see that someone was talking about their problem.
Before Aristide, one of the common practices was that as soon as the workers started to go on strike or even raise issues, the police were sent for, or the army, and they just came in and cracked heads. That stopped with Aristide.
MM: How bas the political crisis in Haiti affected the labor movement?
Lexiuste: The coup d'etat was a real death blow to that space, that dimension of the political scene that allowed unions to function. That space was closed completely.
Repression is now systematic. Workers and their leaders are severely tortured and beaten; and two people cannot get together for a union meeting.
Since the coup, unions, particularly those that were fighting for real change, have gone underground. An example of the change since the coup is that rather than increase the minimum wage, which was supposed to be in effect by October 1991, bosses have refused to pay even the previous minimum wage of $1.25 per day. Workers have to work more hours, have no mechanisms for grievances, and there are no rights for unions to function legally. Many workers were laid off and many places closed, and the few workers who are working now are working under slave-like conditions.
MM: Why have leaders of your union been particularly targeted for economic and political repression by the military?
Lexiuste: CGT was fighting against the group that was standing in the way of Aristide's reforms. CGT took public positions against the Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ANDP), which is made up of MID (the Party of former Prime Minister Marc Bazin), PANPRA (headed by Serge Giles) and MNP 28 (headed by Dejan Belizaire), all of which together received only 14 percent of the votes in the election.
Marc Bazin used to be an official of the World Bank, and was also the finance minister for Baby Doc [Duvalier]. ANDP was set up to promote the application of structural changes to the Haitian economy, in line with the World Bank plan for Haiti. CGT was fighting this plan.
ANDP told Haitian workers not to ask for a raise and promised that there would be more jobs created under a privatization plan - everybody would make less money, but there would be more work. We were not willing to believe this.
MM: How has the CGT tried to oppose the coup?
Lexiuste: At first, union leaders went into in hiding. As they came out, they started making contacts and organizing groups to come up with a common strategy. The meetings involved issuing press releases and flyers and calling strikes where possible. And they attempted a few demonstrations. This was very difficult work, as you can imagine. We tried to do this not only in Port-au-Prince, but at the national level.
MM: How did the military respond?
Lexiuste: Because CGT is based throughout the country, leaders not only in Port-au-Prince, but throughout the country were arrested and tortured.
Many of CGT's members who have been attacked have had to flee the country and seek asylum, and many have gone into hiding within the country. Many people from the capital have fled to the countryside. And those in the countryside have fled to the capital, where they are not known as well. Every single leader of CGT still in the country has had to go into hiding, which is making the workings of the union very precarious and our economic situation even worse.
Joachim: The practical opposition we face is that as soon as there is any attempt at all to mobilize in an area, repression is severe throughout the area for the following months.
For example, shortly after the arrest of Cajuste, on June 24, 1993, we organized a general strike. The strike had the support of 85 to 90 percent of the population. But the price of repression that the populace paid was tremendous. Retail sellers-people who sell small things such as rice and beans - had the places where they used to sell their goods destroyed, their goods scattered on the ground, and they were beaten. Most of the workers who didn't show up for work were fired. Many of the workers had their houses fired on by the army.
Another group that paid for the strike was the jitney drivers. Many of them were beaten, their equipment damaged, and they were given a lot of tickets the next day. Many jitney drivers affiliated with CGT received more in fines than they could make in a day, and many were fired. So not only did the functioning of the union suffer, it was also very tough economically for both the institution and individuals.
However, CGT's position is still clear. We are still demanding a return to democracy and of President Aristide.
MM: How has the coup affected foreign investment in Haiti?
Joachim: Before the :our, the return on the foreign investment was smaller, the profit was smaller. Sin, c the coup, the margin of profit is higher, because now they don't have to pas' taxes at all, and the salaries are lower.
MM: What are working conditions like in the foreign-owned assembly plants?
Lexiuste: Instead of thinking about profit, we should think about creating jobs. But the current economic reality is exactly the opposite. When factories open in Haiti, they practically have slaves as workers. There are many Factories, but the workers' conditions are sub-human
They bring raw materials for assembly operations. The workers are made to work for so many hours, under conditions where they don't even stop to eat, that many of them wind up in sanitariums with tuberculosis because their health has deteriorated. Health deteriorates from working hard and not eating.
Joachim: The workers' average expenses are 50 gourdes per day, and they make just 15 gourdes a day.
MM: What program would move Haiti out of 'the Per - v Ion, value-added industry niche that it currently has?
Joachim: The minimum salary, education and health projects that Aristide initiated would stimulate the economy by creating more work and better working conditions for the majority of Haitians.
But the IMF [International Monetary Fund I and the World Bank would knock out local production and turn the country into a huge assembly platform.
Lexiuste: The aim of the IMF is to put an end to the development of national resources and open the country to foreign investors. The Fund wants to restructure the economy so that the country is geared towards assembly and exporting to meet the needs of corporations.
Joachim: The CGT is not against foreign investment in Haiti, but workers' rights must be respected. It must he accepted by foreign agencies that it is the right of the Haitian government to develop the country in a way that foreign investors may not agree with, but in a way that would develop Haiti for the betterment of the majority of the population-creating jobs, food and products for the people, so that we can meet our basic needs.
MM: Recently, Haiti's Chamber of Commerce reportedly began drafting demands for the military to step down. Why have they seemingly switched sides?
Joachim: This was just a maneuver from the Chamber of Commerce. The Haitian bourgeoisie is only fighting for it's own interests, and not for those of the rest the country. At first, the Chamber of Commerce supported the coup completely, as they were able to get rid of Aristide and his followers. Now they are getting impatient for the embargo to end - but only on their terms. Gerard Beauhrun, a member of Congress and spokesperson for the Chamber, talks about the military stepping down, but also speaks of a complete amnesty for all kinds of crime, including economic crimes such as tax evasion.
The amount that the Chamber of Commerce owes in taxes is tremendous, and they really don't want to start talking about it That's why it's not surprising that the amnesty project came from the Chamber of Commerce.
MM: Which other sectors are responsible for the coup and the maintenance of the current regime?
Lexiuste: Duvalier supporters are quite strongly represented in the Senate and in the Parliament, and are directly associated with the coup. So even though the army put into effect the coup, the political forces in parliament have tremendous control over what's going on.
You must also understand the coup in the context of the World Bank and the IMF plan for Haiti. The coup d'etat is a tool by which they can impose that plan and suppress the will of local Haitians.
MM: What is the most effective way to end the current regime and return democracy to Haiti?
Lexiuste: It is in the hands of the Haitian people. It took an international trio to bring the coup d'etat - the World Bank and IMF, the United States and local Macoutes forces in Haiti - in order to prevent the changes that would have gone against the interests of outside investors in Haiti.
The coup was not a simple postponement of democracy, but an eradication of the popular sector in Haiti. It is in line with the IMF plan to destroy national production, which is mostly in the countryside, in an effort to create an excess of labor for the assembly industries.
We can't count on the assistance of the U.S. government, or even of the international community. We're counting on the American people, the French people, the Canadian people and especially the workers of those countries to support us and help us make the change. vSince the U.S. government was involved in the coup, one should not expect them to try and find a solution to a situation they created themselves. However, the American people can make their leaders pay a political price high enough that they might change their mind about the coup.
MM: How effective has the embargo been?
Lexiuste: The embargo, again, reflects the same forces at work. The international community has imposed not the embargo that President Aristide asked for, which would be a total embargo that would affect the army, but an embargo that is, in effect, against the Haitian people.
The army is wholly dependent on assistance from the United States for their clothing and weapons. And one of the ways they are making money is by selling drugs. The embargo should be geared at preventing them from selling drugs, denying them weapons, ammunition and clothes, and no gasoline, of course, absolutely.
All of the petroleum being allowed in the country for various reasons - humanitarian, to allow observers to function - all of that is being used by the coup leaders. And the border with the Dominican Republic is a sieve -everybody knows goods flow freely from that country. The embargo cannot be effective unless the Dominican border is closed.
MM: Should the embargo include even humanitarian assistance, including fuel, or would that place an unfair burden on the poor?
Lexiuste: Haiti is a nation where people have always walked on foot. The people don't have cars, so only the wealthy need petroleum. We are asking for every single product to be included in order to affect the functioning of the army and its supporters. We will need determination - a seriousness - to make that embargo succeed.
Joachim: The people [of Haiti I and President Aristide ask for a complete embargo, hut [in February 1994 ] the OAS sent gasoline to Haiti. And on March 1, another shipment of oil reached Haiti. This shows the duplicity of the United States and the international community.
MM: Should the coup leaders be brought to the table with an offer of "power-sharing," as the Clinton administration advocates?
Lexiuste: Aristide was elected by the Haitian people, by more than 67 percent of the population. We think it is immoral for the U.S. administration to ask President Aristide to violate the Haitian constitution by asking him to include in his government not only people who were not elected, but people from the government of Duvalier. Article 291 of the Haitian constitution of 1987 specifically prohibits people who were active during the govern - ment of Duvalier from having any political function for 10 years. So it is both immoral and illegal for the U.S. administration to ask the people to accept killers and people who have stolen from and tortured them.
The American people are a moral people who respect laws. We would like to appeal to U.S. citizens, particularly to U.S. workers, to pressure the U.S. administration to oppose policies and demands that are against the wishes of the Haitian people and that violate the constitution of the country.
Aristide is being pressured to pick a prime minister, but he should only do it from Haiti when he is in power.
In the United States, when people are criminals and thieves, the law is applied to them. In Haiti, we shouldn't expect Haitians to give amnesty to people who are guilty of common crimes, pillaging public funds and killing.