The Hope Act:
Whose hope is it?
Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act
On 16 December 2006, U.S. Congress finally voted the “HOPE” Act into law, to regulate some of the commercial exchange between Haiti and the United States. This law opens the doors for the two countries to be able to realize “free” commercial exchange without any import tariffs or duties, or any obstacle to the free circulation of goods. The goods that the Act refers to are mainly textile products from the maquiladoras (Note: a maquiladora is a factory/assembly plant that imports materials and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly or manufacturing and then re-exports the assembled product, usually back to the originating country).
As part of HOPE, the Haitian government gave up all rights of control over North American products imported into the country, that is, what they are and which ones will be allowed in or not. Nor can the government place any demand on multinational capital, such as control over the prices of goods being sold in the country. Therefore, the Minister of Commerce and Industry has relinquished control over all prices. The government has also agreed to actively pursue the privatization of public services such as the Phone Company, etc…
“HOPE”: A BACKGROUND HISTORY
Since the 70’s, under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship, the bureaucratic bourgeoisie already had the intention of selling Haitian cheap labor within the context of an agreement for the opening of the first Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Haiti. That was in 1972. But, in order to establish the free trade zones as the new type of “development”, in the context of the competition with other dependent countries of the region, it was necessary to “liberate” the Haitian labor force even more. On the one hand, they exterminated the native black pigs (this occurred under Jean-Claude Duvalier), a vital source of livelihood for the small peasants, then they destroy the sugar cane culture (under the CNG – National Governing Council), they even succeeded in eradicating the rice production (since the Bazin government), while the rest of the agricultural production was steadily deteriorating, causing a real migratory hemorrhage and a systematic pauperization that created a vast pool of available cheap labor. On the other hand, the existing corruption and the dictatorial presidency-for-life acted as obstacles to the free circulation of capital. Once this situation was overcome, they try to implement a new law in 2004, the HERO (Haitian Economic Recovery Opportunity) Act. It failed. However, the political situation evolved. Faced with the total incompetence of the ruling classes, and of the reactionary state in particular, the imperialists opted for direct intervention. Today, with the occupation, the situation is much more under their control and the conditions have maximized for the total plunder of the land, henceforth, the “HOPE” Law.
As we can see, “HOPE” is a result, a culmination. It is the historical result of the destruction of the country since Duvalier, through the various governments that succeeded it, until Aristide who was the one who ratified the process of national disintegration when he signed the Monterrey accord in favor of the establishment of eighteen FTZs, and discreetly inaugurated the construction of the first one in 2002. “HOPE” is also the result of the impoverishment and constant devaluation of the labor power, not only thru the starvation wages, not only thru the permanent repression to stop the workers from organizing to defend their interests, including wage increases, but also by allowing the generalization of misery that comes with the general increase in prices, while the government does nothing, and the “gourde” (Haiti’s monetary unit) keeps devaluating to such a point that wages paid in gourdes are worth less and less. This sinister situation went thru different stages until the imperialists, the bourgeoisie, and their reactionary state realized that they could advance in their plans thru the implementation of a law that would allow them to realize enormous benefits thru the exploitation of that cheap labor, in the context of what is cynically called “comparative advantages”.
INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT OF THE ADOPTION OF “HOPE”: RELATIONS WITH THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The first element we must take into account is that “HOPE” comes with a series of other laws. In particular, one that links the Dominican Republic with five other Central American countries (Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Panamá and El Salvador), the CAFTA-DR (Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement) where similar conditions are being developed for the unbridled exploitation of the workers in these countries, without any benefits for their economy in general, except a few crumbs for the bourgeoisie of the maquiladora industry, to encourage them not to invest in any other economic activities and to confine themselves solely to the maquiladoras.
This explains the tremendous interests of the Dominican capitalists in investing in our country. This explains their interest in resolving the Haitian crisis, and their proposition that they themselves can take matters into their own hands and make the necessary rectifications to help move forward this “human conglomerate” (that’s what they call the Haitian society). This explains the presence, for example, of the Grupo M who owns three Sibes plants operating in Haiti while their board of directors is in Dominican Republic. Quite a few more want to establish themselves here also. At this time, they are trying to resolve the quota issue. But, for them, this is not enough. They need more. That’s why we say that the resurgence of “HOPE” is not a casual or isolated incident.
Not only are they paying four times less for labor than they would in their country, but in many cases the representatives of the Haitian bourgeoisie, along with the reactionary state, offer them a guarantee of better profits than in their own country! One particular case comes to mind: in Fort-Liberté a demand was brought before the tribunal (when the Dominican army intervened in the FTZ of Ouanaminthe to physically assault the Haitian workers and a pregnant woman was dragged thru the mud right in front of everybody!) and it was so obvious that the judge had to grant the protesting workers’ demand for reparations and sanctions against the head security of the Grupo M, an ex-colonel of the Dominican army. However, the Justice Minister from Port-au-Prince, on orders from the Minister of Commerce and Industry, sent a letter of reprimand to the judge saying that if he went ahead with the verdict, “it would scare away the investors”!! As can be seen, “HOPE” came to reinforce the advantages that these investors are getting. This is occurring at a time when the overall penetration of Dominican capital is increasing more and more. In fact, they are engaged in a process of annexation of the Northeastern part of the country. And it is in the context of this penetration-annexation that “HOPE” will be implemented.
“HOPE”: TOTAL EXPLOITATION AND MISERY
The logic of the multinationals is the permanent quest for more advantageous conditions for themselves only. Therefore, they always move their operations somewhere else in accordance with the advantages given them (they even use this as a form of pressure); hence, the danger not only to the country’s economy (which is always under this kind of pressure/blackmail), but also to the workers’ livelihood because, as has happened in the past, the only place where the bourgeoisie is going to transfer this pressure is on the workers’ wages; specially in a country like ours, so bankrupt and with so incompetent a government, this is the only way to remain “competitive”. In their own words: “Haiti’s comparative advantage is its cheap labor, which cannot be competed with anywhere else!!” Therefore, as logic would indicate, for such “advantage” to always remain an “advantage”, strong repression must be exerted against the unions and a state of general misery maintained so that, on one hand, there always be workers in the FTZs willing to accept starvation wages and, on the other, in order to remain “competitive” (i.e., as low as possible), the price of the labor power remain cheaper and cheaper. Thus, in the logic of capitalist competitiveness, the poverty of the Haitian people is the bourgeoisie’s advantage, and this is THE MAIN PARAMETER FOR THE APPLICATION AND IMPLEMENTATION OF THE “HOPE” LAW.
The implementation of “HOPE” will provoke a mass exodus to the FTZs where the new plants will be installed. And these new factories will do nothing to decrease the general state of poverty in those regions. They will serve as the basis for the formation of new “shantytowns” with all its consequences (including, the possibility of a resurgence of populism, violence and insecurity). Furthermore, this will also provoke another catastrophe: most of the migrants will come from the countryside, which means a further degradation of agricultural production and an increase in dependency. Already, there exists massive migration to the Dominican Republic. The damage to our economy will be even worse because the exodus will continue unabated. In order to maintain and increase their profits, the factory owners will keep the wages at the lowest possible level. From what the workers produce, only a tiny part will revert back to them, while more and more surplus value will be squeezed out of from them. All this is done, in order to maintain competitiveness so characteristic of the capitalist system where the big capitalists/imperialists always get the upper hand.
Recently, whether in the Brasserie La Couronne, or in the Brasserie Laco, whether in the Northern branch of the Brasserie Nationale, or in Wilbess, every time the workers succeeded in setting a union, the directors of these plants either fired the most militant workers or fired all the workers who joined the union, as happened at the Northern branch of Brasserie Nationale. Leaving the workers without any recourse and with no compensation, even though inspectors from the Ministry of Social Affairs clearly recognized the arbitrary and illegal nature of these revocations.
Added to this, the illegal character of the state’s behavior. Article 137 of the Labor Code recommends an adjustment to the minimum salary every time the cost of living index registers an increase of more than 10%. This article from a repressive Code dating back to the Duvalier period was designed as an attempt to circumscribe any salary adjustment since at that time inflation was not increasing by more than 10% (i.e., if the increase was 7, 8 or even 9%, there was no salary adjustment). Today, despite the fact that prices keep rising and the annual inflation rate increase has reached the 20, 30, 50 or even 100% mark, the state still has not implemented the provisions of that article of the Code. Even though minimum salary has been increased to 70 gourdes, such a measure DID NOT raise it to the level where it should be, if we compare it with the then minimum salary (under Duvalier) of 15 gourdes (then $US 3 dollars) later raised to 28 gourdes (then $US 4 dollars). Today, the minimum salary is equivalent to $US1.96 dollar or 25 cents per hour.
“HOPE”: MILITARY OCCUPATION
“HOPE” will be implemented in the context of an ongoing military occupation. It is very important that we understand this context: in order for the Act to be implemented, given the tension and the constant possibility of a social explosion, due to the suffocating conditions of misery which the population lives in, and the incapacity of the ruling classes and their reactionary state to confront such a situation on their own, the military occupation is seen as their only support. It is all this that they are trying to hide under the demagogy of “creating jobs and development”. There can be no “HOPE” without repressive forces both outside and inside the factories, a repressive apparatus ready to intervene at a moment’s notice.
Poverty and exploitation are fertile ground for RESISTANCE, to which the ruling classes respond with REPRESSION. Today, Haitian police does not have the operational capability to cover the national territory in its entirety, not even the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Hence, the necessity not only to maintain the already operating foreign forces with their tanks and heavy weaponry, but to increase their number and deployment capacity in terms of personnel and equipment should the need arise. In addition, there is the need for a certain level of political administration in order to lead this process and to take decisions and carry out policies and measures acceptable by the “international community”. There again, the total incompetence of the state, with its attendant credibility crisis on the international level, calls for a greater involvement of the foreign forces in the political process and an increasing assumption of the role of a state within a state. “HOPE” brings along the continuation and reinforcement of the country’s military occupation.
It should also be added here that “HOPE” will be implemented on the basis of lies and treachery. Lies to a population who deposited their trust in the recently and popularly elected leaders. A population who is suffocating and suffering under the weight of an intolerable level of poverty and finds itself forced to accept whatever meager relief is being offered in order to survive, and not die of hunger, even though it may be far from satisfying its needs. But we’re also looking at a population who is getting tired and fed up with such conditions, and does not want to continue to live in the misery, desolation and despair imposed upon them by the imperialists, the bourgeoisie and their reactionary state, and will sooner or later rise up in revolt. This is the background to the ever-worsening structural crisis that prompted the presence of the foreign occupation forces. The ruling classes desperately need a repressive army (Brazilians, Argentines, Chileans, etc.) to come to their rescue, doing here what they’ve been doing in their respective countries: carry out repression against the workers and the popular masses. In order to “maintain peace”! The peace of the grave!
“HOPE” is a technical arrangement among bourgeois capitalists. It is a mechanism designed to facilitate commercial exchange between American capitalists and their agents here, that is, their Haitian intermediaries. The Act classifies different types of merchandise in accordance with their respective advantages, fixes the tariffs, establishes norms and regulations for the US Customs agencies as regards the class of merchandise, how and when to approve them (note here that we’re talking about US customs control…). Above all, the Act clearly exposes the servile and mercenary nature of the country’s bourgeoisie and its servants in the government. “HOPE” exposes the anti-national character of the Haitian ruling classes.
Of course, “HOPE” mentions the rights of workers and the clearly established international laws. But, we must be clear on this: there has been absolutely no mechanism put in place to insure that these rights and these labor protection laws are respected or applied. The Labor Code is the only enforcement mechanism that exists at the national level. However, in practice, the Code is being used to handcuff the workers. Even though it leaves the ground free for the bourgeoisie to act at will, they still want more, at the expense of the workers. Add to this, the pro-bourgeois so-called Social Affairs Department, and the bourgeois-controlled Justice Department. The most that could be expected is an occasional adjustment, an occasional totally inadequate wage increase. The general references of “HOPE” to the workers’ rights have no substance whatsoever, even though they could be used in our struggles to mobilize international support and solidarity.
The Haitian bourgeoisie has the sadly infamous reputation of being the worse bourgeoisie in the world, in the very words of the American capitalists: “the most repugnant elite in the world”. To such bourgeoisie, workers’ rights are something they couldn’t care less about! Their very existence, as a class, is based on trampling under foot the workers’ rights. It’s only on the basis of an extreme exploitation of the workers that the bourgeoisie will be able to realize its so-called “comparative advantage”, as was done during the first phase of the maquiladora industry.
The Haitian government doesn’t make the least effort to protect the Haitian workers and to define the mechanisms necessary to implement the vaguely mentioned workers’ rights. “HOPE” doesn’t have any legal appendages regarding the issue of workers’ rights (this would scare away potential investors!!). The Haitian state has never lifted a finger to protect, or demand respect for, the rights of Haitian migrant workers in Dominican Republic, as if this were not the responsibility of the Haitian government while they’re being victimized, even burned alive, without not even a cry of protest, let alone any action, from this shameless government.
BATAY OUVRIYE AND THE WORKERS STRUGGLES
As always, we start from the class interests of the workers, of the working class. These interests are what guided us in our successful struggle for the reintegration of the workers who were fired from their posts in the Ouanaminthe FTZ. It is this same struggle for workers’ rights that forced the textile multinationals to reopen their closed factories in the FTZ. And it is this same struggle that established a precedent, engaging the World Bank, when giving out business loans to open new factories, to attach conditions that link these loans to social responsibility and sustained development.
Only the interests of the workers correspond to the global interests of our nation. Today workers and peasants are engaged in many grassroots struggles to conquer their rights, for example:
-The struggle of the workers at CD Apparel (HANES subcontractor) in Port-au-Prince to obtain adequate compensation for damage caused to their livelihood after HANES abruptly ended the contract and caused the company to close its doors, forcing more than 500 workers out of work. (See the workers web site http://www.ocdap600-haiti.13.fr/)
-The struggle for the minimum wage adjustment to at least 300 gourdes daily (approximately $8.10)
-The struggles of the peasant communities of Janrabèl and Chatlen who decided to take over and democratically run the local school to help their children get a better education, and are currently facing the wrath of the same local authorities who have been deliberately neglecting and abandoning these schools.
-The struggles of peasant associations and women’s groups such as Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan [Small Peasants Union], Sofa [Haitian Women Solidarity], etc... against the implementation of another unequal trade agreement, the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) proposed by the European Union for the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific region (ACP).
-The struggle of Haitian women against domestic and sexual violence, including recent struggles for the arrest and prosecution in Haiti of 108 soldiers from the Sri Lankan component of the UN occupation forces [MINUSTAH] accused of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of minors, including prostitution ( These soldiers were expelled back to Sri Lanka because only the UN can prosecute them).
-The struggle against the recently initiated privatization of state-owned enterprises by the current government.
Today, the general context of the implementation of “HOPE” will lead to the total destruction of our collective identity and requires the continuation of the military occupation. In fact, this Act is part of the neo-liberal global project. We must view it in this context, not from an isolated point of view, even when we concentrate on its specificities. We must confront it in a manner and practice that correspond to the capacity and interests of the working class. In our struggles, in our practice, we are conscious that the correlation of forces, both at the national and international level, is favorable to its imposition on the workers and on the country. However, as we have demonstrated in the Ouanaminthe FTZ, in Cap Haitian, in Chatlen, in Janrabèl, in the Industrial Park in Port-au-Prince, and in other parts of the country, we will be present in the struggles to defend the interests of the working class, and thru them, the true interests of our country. THE STRUGGLE HAS JUST STARTED!
(contributed by Batay Ouvriye, a workers struggle movement in Haiti)