by Regan Boychuck
It is revealing what puts a bee in some Haiti watchers’ bonnets and what they are able to remain silent about. Largely imagined human rights abuses by the Haitian government between 2000 and 2004 got some all hot under the collar, but when thousands were actually being killed after the February 2004 coup, the cat had their tongues.
One would have hoped the disastrous consequences of so many supposedly progressive groups’ demonization of Haiti’s government before the 2004 coup would have taught the dangers of such perverted priorities. Unfortunately, those lessons are apparently lost on some.
As someone who only began to study Haiti after the 2004 coup my own government was deeply involved in, the Haiti Support Group’s Charles Arthur is someone whose name I’ve only rarely come across.
That’s because Arthur did not think the coup was an especially significant political event and, accordingly, remained more or less quiet as Haitian democracy was brought to an end. In the years since, Arthur’s main intervention has been a shameful and baseless attack on a study published in the Lancet medical journal aiming to quantify to carnage that followed 2004 coup.
Today, it isn’t the counting of the coup’s corpses that has Arthur all hot and bothered, it’s the UN’s promotion of sweatshop labor as a “break-out opportunity” for Haiti “to lift itself toward a future of real economic prospects and genuine hope.” (UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon)
Arthur and others like Port-au-Prince hotelier Richard Morse might not have been particularly bothered by the coup and its bloody aftermath, but their critiques of the sweatshop model of development are nonetheless correct. As the World Bank noted at the peak of Haiti’s sweatshop industry in the mid-1980s, the sweatshops are “largely outside the Haitian economy” and “make no fiscal contribution.” During that first experiment in sweatshop misery in the 1970s and 1980s, poverty in Haiti increased 60 per cent and minimum wages in Haiti have been dramatically eroded in the years since. Sweatshops offered Haiti no hope in the 1970s and they offer no hope of real development today
As TransAfrica founder Randal Robinson recently noted on Democracy Now!, that kind of investment “overwhelmingly favors the interest of those businesses who want to invest in Haiti only because its labor is desperate and very cheap.” Those are the sort of jobs, Robinson adds, that don’t respect the minimum wage or environmental or health standards. “That is not the kind of investment that Haiti needs. It needs capital investment. It needs investment so that it can be self-sufficient. It needs investment so that it can feed itself.”
But as Arthur and Morse rail against these latest sweatshop proposals, they miss the forest for the trees.
The UN’s sweatshop proposal is little more than a distraction compared to the exclusion of Haiti’s majority political movement, Fanmi Lavalas, from senate elections scheduled for April 19th. While Arthur complains the senate is being pressured to reject a proposed increase in Haiti’s minimum wage, he has nothing to say about the undemocratic elections that will soon fill that chamber.
Those concerned with the economic exploitation of Haitians would do well to extend their opposition to the suppression of democracy as planned in the upcoming Senate elections. Anything less only serves to distract the world from the real issue of sham elections that can only result in further confusion and misery for the Haitian people.
Regan Boychuk completed his MA ‘thesis’ on Canada and Haiti at York University in 2005. He lives in Calgary and is involved in the Canada Haiti Action Network.