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Issue #1893      November 6, 2019

Protests in Haiti show signs of eventually producing change

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Food availability is uncertain for 60 percent of the people. Conditions are bleak, and bleaker still from shortages, rampant political corruption, and not much to show after two years of regular street protests. In the year prior to September, security forces killed 77 people. That month protests accentuated and by October 7 they had killed at least 17 more.

Masses of Haitians are outraged about shortages of oil and oil products – cooking oil, kerosene, and gasoline – and about US interference and their government’s dealings with Venezuela. Their government serves the country’s elite. Now popular outrage is showing signs, tiny ones, of political struggle heading in a new direction, toward fundamental change.

What happens in Haiti usually passes unnoticed in the wider world, or is forgotten. Maybe that’s no accident. After all, Haitians achieved their independence in spectacular fashion, in ways bound to disturb minders of the status quo in any era. Reports of repression and great suffering in Haiti or hints at changing power relationships seem to touch sensitive nerves.

To begin: from 2006 on, Venezuela provided Haitians with inexpensive oil through its Petrocaribe program, a flagship project of the ALBA solidarity alliance founded by Venezuela and Cuba. Such was Venezuela’s generosity that oil shipments continued at a time when Haiti was $2 billion in arrears to Petrocaribe.

Venezuela allowed Haiti a 25-year delay in paying back on 40 percent of Petrocaribe oil revenues. Thus monies were liberated to be assigned to a fund that theoretically would pay for social needs. The fund constituted the most meaningful foreign aid reaching Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, according to a government critic.

In 2017 the Haitian government, acquiescing to US anti-Venezuela sanctions, stopped paying on debt owed Venezuela. The Petrocaribe connection ended. Haiti’s government henceforth would be paying market prices for Venezuelan oil before re-selling it to distributers.

A financial crisis ensued. Haitians at once faced shortages of supplies and services, including oil. Demonstrators called the new budget a “criminal budget.” They condemned the United States for trashing ALBA, hitting at Venezuela, and worsening their troubles.

In 2018 the Moïse government obeyed an order from the International Monetary Fund to cut fuel subsidies. Haitians soon faced skyrocketing fuel prices and protesters filled the streets.

From the beginning, but more so from 2018 on, protesters charged government officials with corruption, in particular stealing from the PetroCaribe fund. Accusations centred on ex-President Michel Martelly and members of his political party. Moïse himself stole $700,000 from the fund. The other thieves took what remained of $4 billion in PetroCaribe monies, according to reports issued by the Haitian Senate.

Increasingly, protesters focused on US efforts to install a corrupt, right-wing government and protect Moïse. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2010, intent upon hurting Petrocaribe and ALBA, pressured Haitian President René Préval to insert entertainer Michel Martelly into second-round presidential voting. Martelly won a fraudulent election and later would name Moïse as his successor.

US manipulation of Haiti shows up at the Organisation of American States (OAS). In January 2019 the corrupt Haitian government hypocritically voted to designate Venezuela’s government as “illegitimate.” No other Caribbean nation joined Haiti.

On September 11, Haiti, alone among Caribbean nations, voted to approve a US- inspired measure subjecting Venezuela to the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, an instrument for cooperative military action and a cold war relic.

“This was treason,” stated academician and political organizer Camille Chalmers, referring to Haiti’s recent vote. “North American imperialism values Haiti for its use in sabotaging regional unity,” he added.

The United States set the stage for the massive demonstrations beginning in early September. The US Navy was blockading Venezuelan ports and oil tankers weren’t moving. In Haiti oil and oil products all but disappeared, and protesters filled the streets.

The US toying with Haiti isn’t new. The Haitian Republic, heir to a slave rebellion, gained independence and pariah status in 1804. First, Haiti endured US trade and diplomatic isolation for half a century, then a brutal US military occupation from 1915-1934, then US connivance with the Duvalier military dictatorship (father and son) from 1957 to 1986, then US-supported paramilitary incursions, and in 2004 a US-arranged coup that removed reformist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Now, foreign powers are again taking steps. In February a few former US soldiers were detained while entering the country with high-calibre arms and high-tech military supplies. And representatives of the United Nations, OAS, the European Union, and the US, Canadian, French, and Brazilian ambassadors, among others, have been meeting as a “Core Group.” In a statement, the Group urged the Haitian government to “foster a conducive investment climate to stimulate the development of productive sectors (sic).”

The Core Group met on October 1 “to determine the country’s destiny and to arrange certain conditions.” Planning along such lines must have taken place prior to the 2004 coup. After all, France and Canada, especially Canada, participated. Those involved must have discussed military occupation. After all, multi-national troops of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (the acronym in French is MINUSTAH) arrived just weeks after the coup. They left in 2017.

Speaking recently to an interviewer, Camille Chalmers accused MINUSTAH of “aggravating problems” and doing nothing “to accompany the people.” He cited “the circulation of guns ... violations against women and children, obstructing popular organization, [and] introducing cholera which caused 30,000 deaths.” MINUSTSAH “maintained an alliance with the most conservative and retrograde sectors. It helped install a president of the extreme right like Martelly.”

Now sectors of Haiti’s resistance movement are looking to the future. The first “Patriotic Forum” took place in Papaye in late August. On hand were “diverse sectors of the working class” and “a broad spectrum of political forces” including “the radical left.” After deliberating for three days, 263 representatives of 62 organisations arrived at a program setting out “the beginnings of structures and plans for common action.”

The Forum established a monitoring committee to implement recommendations for a transitional government. There would be a three-person governing council and a “control agency” (órgano de control) with representatives from each department. Goals include “constitutional change” and “fixing the electoral system.”

Camille Chalmers is encouraged by the size of the demonstrations, the diversity among various social groupings, and “the great presence of youth.” Learning, he says, is taking place on two levels: political consciousness – mainly anti-imperialism – and building capacities. He points to demonstrations targeting the Core Group, “which is the visible arm of imperialism here.”

Chalmers describes the “Charlemagne Peralta Political School” as a space where activists of five left-leaning political groupings are seeking to become a “unified force of the revolutionary left.” Guerrilla leader Charlemagne Péralte was martyred by US soldiers in 1919.

Furthermore, “construction of a socialist project in Haiti is based on ... giving the lie to all the pernicious myths about the country. Imperialism has created kind of a media fence, a quarantine that keeps the peoples of Latin America who struggle for the same causes we do from knowing about what happens in Haiti.”

We are “battling to deconstruct the image created about Haiti and the almost total disregard of its history. [The Haitian Revolution] inspires us as we think about how to attack capitalism, how to create a new society.”

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