'We Are Ugly, But We Are Here': Haiti Special Introduction

By Anthony Iles, 1 September 2006
Image: Boulevard 'Dread' Wilmer named in honour of the murdered rapper and community activist

Two years after the bicentenary of its independence, Haiti is paradigmatic of the dramatic new phase of capital accumulation occurring globally. Haiti, the first slave republic and inspiration to the liberation movements of Africa and the Caribbean, is more than just the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Having been exposed to 20 years of neoliberalisation and nearly 500 years of imperialism, Haiti presents both a concentrated vision of the ravages of capitalism upon a population and provides a study of the desperate means available to those who would oppose it.


Haiti is still in transition from the ‘neo-colonial protectorate’ (administered by the UN mission led by Brazilian, Canadian, French and Libyan forces under the moniker MINUSTAH) to a democratically elected government led by the coalition, Fwon Lespwa (Front of Hope), headed by René Préval, elected president on February 7, 2006. Préval is seen by many as the place holder for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the popular politician-priest who rose to power at the head of the coalition of civil society organisations known as Lavalas (The Flood), and who was involuntarily exiled under the ‘diplomatic protection’ of US Marines in 2004.

The story of how Haiti’s exceptional status as the experimental ground for plumbing new depths of poverty and violence arose is a long one, directly related to its pariah status as the first slave republic. In 1825, following Dessalines’ establishment of the republic of Haiti, under the threat of economic isolation (and French gunboats) the Haitian government agreed to pay its former colonial master, France, 150 million francs as compensation for the loss of its slaves and plantations. As Peter Hallward points out, this imperial tribute to its former oppressor was paid by Haitians three time over ‘through the slaves’ initial labour, through compensation for the French loss of this labour, and then in interest (paid to French banks) on the payment of this compensation.’[1] France received the final installment in 1947. Haiti has remained ‘a systematically indebted country’ ever since, in fact, from the perspective of international capital, it has remained in chronic debt ever since the originary moment of its hard won freedom.


In 1915 the US invaded and proceeded to occupy Haiti for over 19 years. The US imposed what Hallward calls an ‘early form of structural adjustment’, reinstating the archaic system of corvée labour, expropriating peasants’ land used to form new larger plantations and permitting foreign ownership of property.[2] The experience of the occupation also gave birth to a newly alert and politicised class in Haiti opposed to foreign interference, racial hierarchy and the imposition of wage labour. Haitians have also remained obstinate about land, 93 percent retaining access to their own property into the 1990s.[3]

The US has been Haiti’s largest donor since 1973. Between 1995 and 1999, the US contributed roughly $884 million in assistance to Haiti. Haiti’s dependence upon foreign aid has been the key to directing and sabotaging the extent of its political progress at home. The US’ policy, directed through its loans, the multitude of NGOs it funds and its influence over the IMF and World Bank, has been to preserve what it sees as Haiti’s key asset, identified in a USAID report as its ‘highly productive, low-cost labor force’. This has entailed maintaining a minimum wage established during the Duvalier era of under $1 a day for as long as possible. Against disapproval from USAID and active resistance by sweatshop owners such as Andy Apaid, Aristide raised this to the still pitiful 36 gourdes (US $2.40) per day in 1995, though this applies to few Haitians. 70 percent of the population are ‘unemployed’ and 85 percent of those ‘employed’ work in the informal sector.4 So, Aristide’s populist pursuit of an apparently slightly less hyper-exploitative minimum wage is singularly irrelevant to most of the Haitian proletariat. In fact the wage is tied to piece work quotas effectively enabling capital to intensify the pace of labour for its hopeful recipients.Because of rising consumer prices ... even after the recent increase, minimum wage workers in Haiti have less buying power now than they did in 1990, before President Aristide’s election. And since Oct. 1, 1980, when dictator Jean-Claude (‘Baby Doc’) Duvalier first set the minimum wage at 13.20 gourdes, the real value of the minimum wage has declined by almost 50%.[5]The Haitian wage is useful to US capitalists for two reasons. Not only does it maintain a pool of cheap, easily available labour close to home, but it sets the bar under which other labour markets in the region must limbo if they wish to compete. Wages in Haiti are lower than in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In other words, Haiti defines the wage floor for the entire Western Hemisphere.[6]The devaluation of the wage, arbitrary violence, and the instability that has accompanied coup attempts and continues under the UN’s ‘protection’, have driven innumerable Haitians to attempt the difficult passage across to the US mainland, or to seek work in the factorie and sweatshops of the Dominican Republic.

The crippling economic hardship faced by Haitian governments has readily been passed on to its people. Under the regime of economic neoliberalisation Haitian and foreign businessmen set up sweatshops taking advantage of sub-contracts from Walt Disney Corporation, Sears, Kmart, Sara Lee Corp., H.H. Cutler Co. for the production of goods to be sold at stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, J.C. Penney, and Kids R Us. ‘Export zones’ in the countryside, particularly along the border of the Dominican Republic, welcomed capital to tax free heaven, whilst peasants unable to realise a price for their produce, left the land.

The profitability of these new enterprises was predicated on docile and compliant workers: In April, 1995, a worker who refused to work on Sunday so that he could go to church was fired. When he returned to pick up his severance pay, the manager called the UN police and reported a burglar on the premises. The UN police arrived and promptly handcuffed the worker. After protests from the other employees, the UN police finally let the worker go. The next day, management began firing, three at a time, four at a time, all those workers who had protested the arrest.[7]In these zones capital, not labour, has rights. Workers are prohibited to strike, unionise or otherwise contest their lot. Polite refusal is often their only option: ...some workers unable to find time to rest either at work or at home resorted to cunning, for example feigning sickness in order to gain 2 or 3 days of paid leave. Here as well, a self-perpetuating conflict develops as some bosses become aware of these practices and refuse to believe any worker who claims to be sick.[8]During the 1980s and 1990s Haiti’s nationalised factories and resources were sold, often to foreign investors and for less than their real value. The new owners shut down production of sugar and flour. Once the world’s largest producer of refined sugar, the country became an importer. On top of this, Haiti, like many Third World countries, has been flooded with cheap (subsidised) rice produced in the US.9 The increased cost of living combined with the lowest wage in the region reduced the average standard of living, except for a rich elite, generally to starvation levels. Between 1978 and 1982 biological warfare arrived in Haiti in the form of swine fever. An outbreak in the US put pressure on the Government of Haiti to exterminate the native creyol pig population and, under a USAID program costing $30 million, replaced it with animals imported from the US. Requiring superior living conditions and more feed, the Haitian peasants quickly nicknamed the new breed ‘prince à quatre pieds,’ (four-footed princes) - luxuries way beyond the means of most ordinary Haitians.[10] The successive attacks on Haitians’ ability to subsist coupled with the introduction of ‘export zones’ in the countryside drove peasants from the land to the expanding slums of Port-au-Prince such as Cité Soleil, La Saline and Bel Air. Cité Soleil, the largest and the poorest, has approximately 300,000 inhabitants.

It is impossible, writing from London, to present an adequate picture of life on a dollar a day in Cité Soleil. Nonetheless, reading between the lines of reports and NGO ‘visions’  we can approximate a picture of how the residents of Haiti’s slums have responded to the occupying forces of MINUSTAH and the interests of local and foreign capital they protect.

In January during the lead up to the 2006 presidential elections for Haiti, sweatshop magnate Andy Apaid and Raymond Boulos, president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, (alleged to have made his fortune selling the cadavers and blood plasma of dead Haitians to the US medical industry), called a general strike in the name of the Group 184, a self-styled cartel of NGOs acting in Haiti’s interests.Driving through Port-au-Prince, we observed that the doors of major businesses such as Texaco, Shell, Scotia Bank, and upscale grocery stores remained shut. However, for the majority of Haiti’s population who slave away to bring home a per-capita income of $200 per year, the day continued as if normal. Workers who toil in the informal economy – street vendors, runners, tap-tap (taxi) operators – lined the streets, unable to skip a day’s work just because the island’s wealthiest said so.[11]The strike was called to put pressure on MINUSTAH forces to ‘clamp down harder on crime and kidnappings’, but in effect only further polarised the two planets: one inhabited by the poor and the other, high up on the hills of Port-au-Prince, occupied by the elite.

Early in the morning of 6 July, more than 350 UN troops stormed Cité Soleil in a military operation. Its target was rapper and community activist Emmanuel ‘Dread’ Wilmer who was killed along with four of his entourage and 12 unarmed civilians.12 His supporters say Wilmer had educated and organised the community in order to defend themselves from right-wing guerilla attacks on residents of Cité Soleil. A similar process was going on in another of Port-au-Prince’s slums in 2005:We, the residents of Bel Air, took over our neighbourhood. We erected barriers at the crossroads to prevent the police and the white military from entering our area. We also set up a special watch to warn the residents of attack from both the official forces and from the paramilitary groups, the reconstituted death squads. This rebellion in Bel Air continued for several months before it was quashed by the United Nations soldiers last December.[13] haiti intro pics2 Image: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Wyclef Jean in Haiti, January 13, 2006, making the Ye'le hand sign that symbolises 'stop the violence' with one hand and 'love & peace' with the other

These self-organised approaches are in stark contrast to those initiated by Wyclef Jean of hip hop band The Fugees. His USAID supported charity ‘Yele Haiti’ celebrated its one year anniversary recently, bringing Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to pose in front of children’s prisons and other sites of interest in Port-au-Prince. Wyclef encourages Haiti’s poor to accept the conditions violently imposed by UN soldiers including an unelected provisional government and the minimum wage of $2 a day.Jean has so much street cred that he has convinced aspiring young slum rappers to compete for the best jingle about such socially conscious topics as cleaning streets or protecting the environment.[14]While Wyclef, exemplary poor-kid-made-good through the music industry, tries to instill liberal values in the downtrodden and absolutely exposed, the Haitian proletariat are busy with the ‘anti-social’ practice of feeding, housing and defending themselves in the adverse conditions imposed by Wyclef’s sponsors, the US state department, MINUSTAH and, indirectly, The World Bank and the IMF. The pragmatism of Haitians in the face of this obscene military-industrial-entertainment complex is attested to by the apt conclusion of Wyclef’s vainglorious triumphal march through Port-au-Prince: Decked out as Haiti’s revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines, complete with a tri-cornered hat, swashbuckler’s boots, glittering sword and ruffled shirt, the former Fugees front man would ride a float in Haiti’s biggest festival, a real lion at his side ... And when Jean left his float at the end of Carnival, hordes of people stormed it, carting off instruments and a laptop. The crowds also tried to let the lion loose.15 [1] Peter Hallward, 'Option Zero in Haiti',

[2] Corvée labour '... a type of annual tax that is payable as labour by the serf or villein for the monarch, vassal, overlord or lord of the manor... The corvée was abolished in France on August 4, 1789. It had been a hated feature of the ancien régime. Today the term is also used for other forms of unpaid mandatory labour.'

[3] 'Since 1793 the abolition of slavery has raised a political, social and economic dilemma which until now has not been equitably resolved: the transition from forced free labour to waged labour.' Franck Laraque 'The Relentless Struggle of the Haitian Masses for Liberty and Survival'

[4] Peace Brigades International - Haiti Bulletin #7 - July 1997

[5] Eric Verhoogen, 'The US in Haiti: How to Get Rich on 11 Cents an Hour -A Report Prepared for The National Labor Committee', January 1996

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Peace Brigades International - Haiti Bulletin #7 - July 1997,

[9] 'Rice coming from the United States costs almost half local rice, and a Haitian egg is 50% more expensive than an imported one', Ibid.

[10] 'The pig's resilience allowed Haitian peasants to raise these pigs with little resources. The peasants characterised their pigs as never getting sick. Creole Pigs served as a type of savings account for the Haitian peasant. They were sold or slaughtered to pay for marriages, medical emergencies, schooling, seeds for crops, or a voodoo ceremony. The resilience and boisterous nature of the pigs, as well as their incorporation into voodoo folklore and the oral history of the Haitian revolution made them a symbol for the independence ... of the Haitian people.'

[11] Leslie Bagg and Aaron Lakoff, 'Haiti's Deadly Class Divide: Class war takes on a new meaning in Cite Soley',

[12] Haiti Information Project (HIP) 'The UN's disconnect with the poor in Haiti', December 25 2005,

[13] 'We Won't Be Peaceful and Let Them Kill Us Any Longer - Interview with Haitian Activist', Rosean Baptiste interviewed by Lyn Duff,

[14] Letta Tayler, 'Wyclef Jean brings hip-hop hope to Haiti',

[15] Ibid.


Anthony Iles <anthony AT> is assistant editor of Mute