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This was the final round of elections for a third of the Senate in Haiti. I woke up with a start as several UN helicopters zoomed to and from downtown from uphill. Given this week’s events, I feared the worst. As it turns out, it was nothing.
I went out this morning around 9:30, when some church services like the brand-new Spanish-language “United Pentecostal Church of Latin America” were just getting out. I walked 12 minutes to the site of a polling place and I didn’t see anyone. I couldn’t even see where the polling place was. I knew it had to be there because of the police truck where 2 officers stood guard and 2 others rested in the cab.
On my way back I perused the neighborhood market, quieter than usual for Sundays after church. Even compared to this past January when I was last in Haiti, the global financial crisis is particularly noticeable for the timachann, the street merchants. Some have stopped chèche lavi (literally, “looking for life” – making a living) in the neighborhood. On my street, one family has packed up and left for a bidonvil (shantytown) far away in the Pòtoprens metro area. The stands where I usually get cans of juice or tomato paste are always almost completely empty. One didn’t even have a dime bag of bread to sell.
The streets were almost completely blanch – empty, very little traffic. The National Police issued a curfew against motorcycles in effect until a half hour ago, in an effort to bring security to the electoral process. Most everyone I know simply stayed home. If they went out at all, it was to their local market or to church. I called a friend who is a high-ranking member of the government. He was the only one I spoke with (more than 30!) who voted today. When he voted, around 12:30, his was the fifth ballot of several hundred eligible voters for his neighborhood of some 20,000 people. True, it was a kilometer or more to the polls, which is a long way in crowded Pòtoprens.
I went down to his polling place, on Channmas (French: Champs-de-Mars), the national plaza containing the National Palace and most of the central government bureaucracies. I took Lalue – the normally very busy thoroughfare connecting downtown to the suburb of Petyonvil. As I crossed the street not a single car was in sight. Channmas itself was emptier than I had ever remembered seeing it. There were a couple of places where small crowds huddled.
Thinking a crowd would be the polling place, I went to one. As I arrived, the crowd of 20 or so men cheered. Apparently Brazil had just scored a goal. It was a soccer match. Hungry, I went to a timachann selling a lukewarm plate of rice. Today was not good business for her. I asked her what the score was: Brazil 3, Italy 0. I asked where the polling place was. She laughed and said she didn’t know. I retorted, but you know it’s election day, right? She said a variant of what many friends I’ve known since 2003 or earlier said: “these elections don’t concern me.” To some, they didn’t vote because their party was excluded. Others said "elections do nothing for us pep la (poor majority)." Still others said that they had to work to make a living.
As it turned out, the polling place was some 30 meters away, across from the UN truck (incidentally staffed by the victorious Brazilians). I sat in the plaza for almost an hour – until just before polls closed at 4, and the only people I saw coming or going were the police officers standing guard. And this was the polling place for several precincts, not just my friend’s.
According to friends who were here for the first round of elections on April 19, it was the same, except for road blocks and all traffic being stopped. Fanmi Lavalas, the party of deposed president Aristide, was excluded from the first round in April, so they continued to be excluded in today’s runoff elections.
It’s now 5:45 and the clouds are beginning to cover Pòtoprens while the sun still shines over the bay. The first rumblings of thunder from the east, from beyond the mountains, are just now barely audible. Today is the first day in almost two weeks that it hasn’t rained (it just did, at 6:40, for a short time). A couple of days ago, the UN troops (MINUSTAH) gave a press conference about the upcoming elections, promising that they would be secure and devoid of violence. The only thing that worried the UN was the weather.
Why is the UN so interested in these elections, especially since it seems clear that many people here aren’t?
At this same press conference, the MINUSTAH spokesperson was questioned by several journalists about their increasing aggression against the Haitian population. On Thursday, UN troops roughed up a partisan of deposed president Aristide at a funeral and following demonstration for Father Jean-Juste, a leader within Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party. This triggered a reaction from the crowd, and according to the spokesperson, MINUSTAH fired seven shots in the air. At least nine were audible in footage by Tele Ginen. One person died at the protest, found lying in a large pool of blood. The UN denied it was by their bullets (they ignored the question of whether they were metal or rubber), suggesting he died from someone throwing a rock. To date, if there has been an autopsy, the results have not been published.
For the better part of the month of June, college students have been staging almost daily protests, that began with a localized concern about taking away labs and shortening classes in the State University of Haiti’s School of Medicine but have broadened to support the movement to raise Haiti’s minimum wage. At many of these protests the UN has responded by firing teargas. It has been the cause of concern for many neighboring residents and doctors at the State Hospital, adjacent to the School of Medicine where many canisters of teargas have been shot.
The UN evaded all questions about the severity of the response, instead asking journalists a rhetorical question if they didn’t have a duty to respond when public property was destroyed. In a case last Wednesday, the only provocation was a tire was burned on a street corner and a burned-out minivan was blocking traffic in front of campus.
Right or wrong, many Haitian people are increasingly fed up with the UN occupation, which according to many sources spent $600 million last year. For the first time since I’ve been coming here since 2002, I have begun to hear people to tell me to f*** off and go home. Other blan (foreigner / white people) are noticing the same.
Many people are speculating about the timing of the UN’s escalation of violence. Some have theorized that it represents the UN’s putting in place a new order, a new stage in the country’s development. On Wednesday, the day before the UN allegedly shot the Lavalas member, Haitian president René Préval officially announced his objection to the law raising Haiti’s minimum wage from 70 goud ($1.75) to 200 goud ($5). The day before this, former U.S. President Bill Clinton officially accepted his post as UN Special Emissary, in which he promised to bring together a range of donors, including the private sector, to bring jobs to Haiti. In his presentation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Clinton cited the Collier Report more and in greater detail than a plan ostensibly coming from the Haitian government.
The Collier Report – and ostensibly the Haitian government’s strategic plan – argue that Haiti’s future lies in low-wage manufacturing work, exploiting Haiti’s dual “comparative advantage” of proximity to the U.S. and very low wages. Granted a unique opportunity in the HOPE Act, a nine-year tax relief that according to industry sources is $1.50 per pair of pants, Haiti needs to act quickly to privatize two of the remaining four public utilities (the port and electricity) to capitalize on this momentum and create jobs, says the Collier report (and according to Clinton, who said he read both, the Haitian government’s plan). Of two dozen grassroots activists who are actively engaged in civic life and debate world events such as Iran’s elections and Israel’s settlement policy, none have heard of the Collier Report or its author, Oxford economist Paul Collier (and all I’ve heard from since Bill Clinton’s speech haven’t heard about the government’s plan either).
The manufacturing lobby, just granted a unique opportunity not given any other country in this $1.50 customs exemption, have made it their top priority to stop the passage of the minimum wage law while refusing to testify and submit to Parliament’s questioning until the previous weekend, more than a month after the Senate unanimously passed the minimum wage legislation. Some workers believe that industrialists are afraid to be asked about their bookkeeping practices, among others. Several workers complained that while their taxes were taken out of biweekly pay, the Haitian social security office didn’t even have a file for them. The industry lobby threatens that the 200 goud minimum wage will be the cause of 15,000 jobs lost. One of the eight primary industrialist families, presidential candidate Charles-Henri Baker, allegedly sent a pink slip to 300 workers, saying they would be fired the day that the 200 goud minimum wage law is put in effect.
Research with several factory workers reveals that the average quota for pants is 500 per day and average wage is 100 goud ($2.50) per day in Pòtoprens factories, which is 20 Haitian cents per pair of pants per person. Since the average size of factory lines is 25, this is 5 goud, or 12.5 cents for ALL Haitian laborers on a pair of pants. Consequently, doubling the minimum wage would be 10 goud, or a quarter per pair of pants. This extra 12-and-a-half cents pales in comparison to the $1.50, to say nothing of the final retail cost. According to union sources, in the Wanament Free Trade Zone, the average quota for t-shirts is 3000 per day per ‘module.’ Average wage is 150 goud, or 5 Haitian cents per person per t-shirt. Again 25 people per module and this figure is 1.25 goud (three and an eighth cents) for all Haitian labor.
Article 137 of Haiti’s Labor Code obliges the Haitian government to augment the minimum wage to keep up with inflation if it’s greater than 10% in any given fiscal year (Oct 1-Sept 30). The last time the minimum wage was increased was in 2003. Given the global food crisis felt acutely in Haiti last April, it is long overdue, and 200 goud is actually lower than it should be to keep pace with inflation and the devaluation of the goud.
This conflict, the UN’s increasing use of the trigger, and the debate in Parliament are likely to continue with increased intensity when Parliament will reconsider the act in light of the President’s objections next Tuesday. This conflict is but one manifestation of a larger global system that is reeling from an economic crisis and shifting following the new U.S. administration. Speaking of the UN and their attacks against both the students and Lavalas, I was told of a proverb, bat two fò, chen pap rele. If you beat a dog too hard, it won’t bark anymore (because it is dead).
MARK SCHULLER is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. He has co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009) and co-edited Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction (2008) among other reports and articles about Haiti, development, and globalization. He is in Haiti for the summer.